Leger leads sheriff’s race, Garber gaining

by Christiaan Mader and Leslie Turk

Two days after separate polls point to a likely runoff between the Scott police chief and attorney Mark Garber, the four men hoping to replace Mike Neustrom tried to distinguish their candidacies before a crowd of several hundred.

From left: Chargois, Garber, Leger and Rogers

On the heels of two polls showing Scott Police Chief Chad Leger with a comfortable lead over his three opponents and the election only two months away, the four Republican men vying to replace Sheriff Mike Neustrom came together for a forum sponsored by the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s office and held at its public safety complex on Willow Street.

Before getting to the forum, though, about those polls. Two recently released polls, one by the Leger campaign and the other by the Garber camp, show Leger with a double-digit lead over his closest competitor, Garber. Garber supplied both his April and mid-August polls to The Independent, and Leger sent the results of his August poll in a press release format to The Independent.

The Leger poll, conducted by Virginia-based Public Opinion Strategies, shows that 38 percent of likely voters would vote for him and 21 percent for Garber. Garber’s internal August poll has Leger with 32 percent and Garber with 22.

Putting a positive spin on the results, what the Garber camp immediately latched onto is Garber’s double-digit jump from 10 percent in April, compared with Leger’s 6 percent increase (according to the Garber April v. August poll), insisting Leger spent a lot of money, more than $100,000, for that increase.

“It’s about a 10 to 1 ratio [of spending],” says Garber, who showed The Independent confirmed media buys by the Leger campaign. The Garber campaign says it spent about $25,000 in early April on TV and radio, before the first poll was taken, and only $12,000 on those two mediums since. Garber has long stressed that his strategy is to blitz later in the campaign cycle. “We’re pleased with our progress for having spent so little,” the candidate says.

In the August poll, Rick Chargois registered at 4 percent while John Rogers came in at 3 percent.

Two days after the polls were first released to The Daily Advertiser, the candidates met up again in the sheriff-sponsored forum moderated by Pearson Cross, head of the political science department at UL Lafayette and an Independent contributor. The event, attended by about 400, was more clinical and deliberate in tone and inquisition than previous forums.

Each candidate was brought out separately, the other three sequestered in some back room to avoid any cross-contamination of ideas or responses. Call it twisted, but we pictured them in solitary confinement, perhaps a sweaty hot box with a only pot to piss in and the deepest fathoms of their mind to ponder. In a post-forum phone call, candidate Rogers dispels our fantasy. Somewhere in the nouveau Bauhaus bowels of the Lafayette Parish Public Safety Complex, according to Rogers, there was a room with four sheriff candidates in it, standing awkwardly in silence for well on 10 minutes, until he broke the ice.

If the goal was to produce authenticity of response and distinct individuation among the candidates, we’re not sure it worked. While the candidates don’t exactly run together, their public differences are largely tonal rather than substantive, leaving the voting population to divine their intentions based on litanies of personal accomplishment and platitudes of community togetherness, serving the public, improving law enforcement and building on Neustrom’s foundation of diversion policies. To the extent that Neustrom’s ego is materially less important than the continuance of data-driven and root-cause corrections, this is a good thing. Unless the candidates were sharing notes (highly unlikely given the apparent frostiness of their relationships) and if we accept what they say at face value, Neustrom’s innovations will stand and be built upon.

The Independent discussed Neustrom's legacy and policies in our Enlightened Enforcement series, Part 1.

Garber says he’ll expand them to the greater Acadiana Region. Leger says he’ll evaluate the programs “top to bottom.” Chargois says he wants to find a balance between incarceration and diversion. Rogers says he wants to streamline the programs to promote fiscal responsibility. Bottom line here is that they all, at least for now, say diversion is a good thing, categorically. The devil, of course, will be in the details of those policy permutations.

It’s difficult to say if these are plays for endorsement from a popular sheriff or a genuine embrace of those polices. Only time will tell if Neustrom will deign to enter such a fray and anoint the true defender of the diversionary faith, but for the meantime he’s stayed out of it. Maybe it’s just a sign of the times, and candidates are hip to the zeitgeist or trends or tea leaf patterns of contemporary law enforcement, but they all seem to agree that diversion, the Juvenile Assessment Center, Alternative Sentencing and Transitional Work Programs are all good things. They wear their commitment to those policies like American flag pins on post-911 lapels. It’s worth noting that, to a man, the candidates have staked claim to fronds in the diversionary umbrella. Leger boasts of his commitment to JAC, and his work on its foundational committee, Chargois doubles down on mental illness outreach citing the mental health first responder program implemented by the sheriff’s office around San Antonio in Bexar County, Texas. Garber sees the programs as sound and ready for export. Rogers is quick to point out in our conversation that he has differentiated himself, as far as he can given he doesn’t know what the others said. He rejects the “business” approach embraced by candidates Garber and Leger, insisting that a sheriff’s department shouldn’t accede to that culture in its approach to law enforcement.

“We’re not a business,” he says. “We’re a public service agency that has business components.”

Rogers has harped consistently about victim advocacy. In a meeting with the Independent editorial staff, he stressed the need for law enforcement to expand its support of outreach to those victimized by crime, insisting that facet is as essential to the crime cycle as a lack of resources, joblessness or mental illness. While we have no doubt the other candidates would support “victim advocacy” at least in nominal terms, Rogers deserves credit for making it a brightly colored plank in his platform. For reference, he mentioned the Bexar County sheriff’s victim advocacy program as a model for outreach implementation in that same meeting. San Antonio came up a lot in the forum, too, another bandwagon that each candidate could jump onto not knowing others had done the same. Once again, in principle, this is a good thing: a room full of law enforcers looking to a more compassionate and comprehensive correctional future. But only Rogers took any nuts-and-bolts issue with the proposition that the LPSO should mimic or, in part, introduce Bexar County-style policies into the department. On the matter of mental health, another issue the candidates blindly agreed upon, Rogers pointed out that San Antonio’s solution, a state of the art mental health facility (he didn’t expressly mention the “first responder” program brought up by Chargois), was desirable but extraordinarily expensive. Sensible integration of those types of policies, he argued, would require thorough financial analysis.

All of this points to those affected by diversion polices, covered in Enligthened Enforcement, Part 2.

Curiously, the starkest measure of difference that emerged was on the matter of recruitment. With a narrow shortfall of just over a million dollars in the most recent LPSO annual report, there’s not much room for new hires or higher salaries at current revenue levels and allocations. Still, both Chargois and Leger insisted in their remarks that the current staffing levels at LPSO are inadequate to accommodate the distribution of personnel resources in the department. Leger notes in his transitional plan released via his website that inadequate staffing is “dangerous to both the public and to law enforcement officers.” Garber seemed to think things were peachy keen, instead opting to propose that the department needed to do more with what it already had. Rogers weighed in over the phone, reiterating that his program consolidation proposal would attempt to free up dollars where necessary to produce the appropriate personnel in terms both quantitative and qualitative. Sheriff Neustrom himself declined to comment on the particular claims made by any of the candidates but remarked that any opinion regarding the appropriate staffing ratios for law enforcement is entirely subjective, and that any attempt to divine a magic number of cops to citizens is not based in fact.

“I make no apologies for what we’ve done. It’s a complex agency,” Neustrom says. “The things that have not been done properly have been fixed. Whether we have five officers or 10 officers or 20 officers, no one has ever come up with any fool proof ratio. It depends a lot on the individual and the setting; the facility in the context of jail or the community in the context of patrol. That argument has been debunked a long time ago, and that’s been based on someone’s opinion and not hard data. It’s not based on some study. It’s a general statement about what someone would like to have. We have a lot of good things going. We’re going to continuing providing those services to the community. It’s up to them [the candidates] to show how they’re going to make it better.”

What all this really says about the current state of staffing at the LPSO is not really clear. But what is clear is that it’s a wedge issue both Chargois and Leger have chosen to stand on. To be sure, there are substantial differences among the candidates, much of which you can find in Part 3 of our Enlightened Enforcement series covering the Sheriff’s race. No doubt as we get closer to election day gloves will come off and true colors will bleed in the ensuing combat. For now, at least, it's not easy pickins.

For our take on the candidates, take a gander at Enlightened Enforcement, Part 3.

Some stray quotations and observations ...
There were many law enforcement officers in the room, all of whom still wore black sashes on their badges as a sign of grief for the lost colleagues.

The Lafayette Public Safety Complex is pretty nice as far as correctional campuses go. The facilities are clean, the wood mulch in the gardens red and uniform, the buildings spartan but somehow inviting in an Eastern-Bloc elementary school kind of way. If we had to go to jail anywhere, we'd apply early decision to the LPSC.

Regarding the state of community relations in Lafayette Parish, against the backdrop of unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore ...
Garber: “I think we’re sitting pretty good.” He went on to say he didn’t expect any riots, but if there were he’d “be the first out there with riot gear to put a stop to it.”
Chargois: “Crime is up in our community, people. We need to do something about it!”

**Pearson Cross: [Paraphrasing here] What personal qualities and capabilities would make you a great sheriff?
**Rogers: “Is there a time limit?”

On the utility of diversion policies ...
Chargois: “We’re not doing a good job of keeping people out of jail. Jail is a very expensive thing.”

Leger claimed that the LPSO is the lowest paid law enforcement agency in Lafayette Parish, and vowed to “look at current allocations” to create more competitive salaries.

On his management style ...
Rogers: “I’m not going to be the sheriff who sits in his office, bangs his chest and says ‘I’m the top dog.’ If that’s what you’re looking for, I’m not your candidate.”

Interested in hearing from the candidates? The Kiwanis Club of Lafayette will host a forum on Sept. 15 at the Petroleum Club at noon.