Interim Lafayette Police Chief Reginald Thomas will remain a placeholder until a “qualified” chief is hired. That was the result of the Lafayette Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board’s vote Wednesday at the end of a sometimes-trudging, frequently contentious, four-hour meeting.
Down one member following the recent, abrupt resignation of member Craig Forsyth, a UL sociology professor, board members Tommy Hays, Guy Lebreton, Chairman Jason Boudreaux and Ralph Peters voted unanimously to maintain the current qualifications for police chief: a bachelor’s degree and at least 10 years experience in law enforcement. The board simultaneously voted to abandon a motion approved last month that would have required that bachelor’s degree to be in criminal justice or a related field after Peters, who offered the motion in April, realized it would have eliminated five candidates who have already applied to take the chief test. But Peters said it would be “a slap in the face” to candidates who worked to obtain bachelor’s degrees if the board then voted to change the qualifications requirements and allow candidates without that level of education to take the test.
The Advertiser previously reported that seven Lafayette Police officers, five of them white, would have been qualified to test for chief under Peters’ more restrictive qualifications. Mayor-President Joel Robideaux had proposed a three-tier system for qualifying for chief that allowed exceptions to the four-year college degree in exchange for 25 years experience in law enforcement, qualifications that would have allowed Thomas to apply for the job. As The Advertiser has reported, nearly 60 LPD officers — 43 white men, 11 black men, two white women and one black woman — would have qualified to apply under Robideaux’s three-tier system. But it was Thomas, appointed to the interim role in February, who was clearly Robideaux’s favored candidate, and Robideaux’s favored candidate clearly wanted the job.
“I’m very disappointed that [the board] didn’t do anything with what the mayor put out,” Thomas said after the meeting. “Today is a disappointing day, but like I said I’m focused on taking care of Lafayette and this community and, being focused on that, I’ll get back to work and do what I’m supposed to do and do my job.”
Public comment at the meeting included a recommendation from Bob Lawrence of the Office of State Examiner for Fire and Police Civil Service that the board adopt the three-tier system proposed by Robideaux.
“Have an even playing field for people who have education and experience,” Lawrence told the board. “What we’re proposing is getting a larger pool of applicants to the appointing authority.”
Virtually everyone who addressed the board during the public comment portion spoke in favor of the board adopting Robideaux’s three-tier system and giving Thomas a shot at becoming chief — save for one: former Bossier City police officer Sammy Wyatt, who lives outside Baton Rouge and is working on a Ph.D at LSU. Wyatt argued vigorously for the bachelor’s degree requirement, presumably because he plans to apply for the Lafayette police job, although he left the meeting before it ended. Others who followed him to speak before the board questioned Wyatt’s motivation, some going so far as to accuse him of being an interloper.
In a surprise move, board member Guy Lebreton, a lieutenant with Lafayette Police, announced at the end of the meeting during the roll call that he would not seek the job of police chief. There had been much speculation within the community, especially within the black community that supported Thomas’ ascendancy to the job, that Lebreton wanted to maintain the bachelor’s degree requirement — and even voted last month to make the qualifications more restrictive than they are currently — because he wanted to apply for the job himself. He said as much not long after then-Chief Jim Craft announced plans to retire, according to his own testimony. But Lebreton’s change of heart appeared to have come during the meeting: Early in the meeting during public comment, Lebreton was asked if he planned to seek the chief job and he said he hadn’t decided yet, eliciting an incredulous guffaw from some in the audience.
Lebreton was a lightning rod in the meeting, at least an hour of which was consumed by procedural bickering over whether the board could hear, investigate and/or vote on a complaint filed by the local NAACP accusing Lebreton of engaging in political activities. The complaint stemmed from a now since-removed Facebook post by Lebreton of a video that many interpreted to suggest that Democrats and/or blacks and/or women are lazy. He prefaced the video with the status update, “How can any fine Republican not share this?” But ultimately the board voted that the complaint had no merit, much to the chagrin of the civil rights activists in assembly, and the meeting slogged on.
The meeting was punctuated by clashes between Marja Broussard, the local NAACP representative who filed the complaint against Lebreton, and board Chairman Boudreaux, who at least twice warned Broussard that she would be ejected from the meeting if she didn’t refrain from speaking out of turn. Boudreaux also issued the same warning to other members of the contingent of roughly 20 civil rights activists who attended the meeting.
In fact, race was an inescapable component of a meeting that felt at times combative between the four white men on the board and the gathering of black activists who see the board’s insistence on maintaining the bachelor’s degree requirement for police chief as a means of denying a qualified black candidate (Thomas) the opportunity to become Lafayette’s first black police chief. Thomas didn’t go that far himself, but he did note that when he served on the board roughly a decade ago it better reflected Lafayette.
“What’s the difference between the board now and the board I served on? Diversity,” Thomas said during his public commentary. “We had a female and an African-American. We made good decisions and didn’t argue and stuff. When you have white males over 40 years old all thinking the same thing, you have issues. What I’m saying is diversity is important, and in the future whether I’m chief or not I’ll be working hard to bring diversity. This board should not look like it looks. Lafayette is 31 percent African-American and 50 percent female.”
Andres Landor, a former Lafayette police officer and outspoken critic of both the board and of the regime of recently retired Chief Craft, approached the board at the end of the meeting for one final public comment. Leaning into the microphone, Landers told the panel it was obvious who they did not want as chief.