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THIN BLUE LOGIC

by Christiaan Mader

Sheriff candidate Chad Leger’s campaign rhetoric about the department being understaffed is more scare tactic than sound reasoning.

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Photo by Robin May

Sheriff candidate Chad Leger’s campaign rhetoric about the department being understaffed is more scare tactic than sound reasoning.

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It’s becoming more and more obvious that a Chad Leger-run sheriff’s office would likely not be a simple continuation of Sheriff Mike Neustrom’s legacy of progressive law enforcement. While, for the most part, Leger has sung a similar song of praise for Neustrom’s catalog of diversion policies as his three competitors, he’s begun to more openly stand on a conviction that Lafayette is under-served by current staff and patrol levels within the department, starkly implying that the city is imperiled for it. Scare tactics are not uncommon in any election, but they take on a different immediacy when the implication is one of life and death. Without more cops, the appeal goes, Lafayette is in danger of deteriorating further into a state of criminal war. That’s a troubling proposition indeed. But perhaps more troubling is that Leger seems to have arrived at this conclusion without much to back it up.

Through his transitional plan, and in the growing certitude of his commentary in forums, Leger has harped that Lafayette Parish is under-served, on a per capita basis, by current staffing levels in patrol, narcotics, investigation and corrections. It’s a tale as old as time when it comes to law enforcement electoral platforms: Got more crime? Get more cops.

In a Daily Advertiser report, Leger reacted to Neustrom’s endorsement of candidate Mark Garber — Rick Chargois and John Rogers are also vying for the office — by openly welcoming it as a dividing line.

“I’m pleased that there is now a crystal-clear choice between a candidate who believes programs for offenders are the most important thing, and one who believes strong law enforcement fundamentals are the most important thing,” Leger told the Advertiser. “I’m confident that the vast majority of Lafayette Parish voters agree with me on this critical point.”

At face value these things are not mutually exclusive. You can be both tough on crime and believe in the data-driven progress Neustrom has made. But you can bet your last prison cigarette that, when push comes to shove, an emphasis on establishing “security” and “law enforcement fundamentals” will come at the expense of social adjustment for criminals when budget realities set in. If you believe in Neustrom’s policies and the good they’ve done, that should be troubling. If you don’t, well, it would seem Leger’s your man. He’s creating a straw man argument comparison between Garber and himself here, and one that appeals to voters’ visceral fear of criminal violence.

“There’s some national numbers that, per capita, according to the IACP [International Association of Chiefs of Police], that the approximate guide to use is one commissioned officer per 500 capita,” Leger told The Independent after a Sept. 15 Kiwanis Club-sponsored forum at the Petroleum Club. “So that’s a general consensus. But on Dec. 1, 1988, when I started in the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office, we had 11 people per patrol shift. Here we are September of 2015, and there’s still 11 people per patrol shift. Our population has increased tremendously since 2005 after Katrina and Rita. The biggest problem is that we have 11 dedicated positions. They’re running five to seven deputies per shift. They’re not even full capacity on that note. So we have to get that done first to better serve the people of Lafayette.”

Leger’s rubric is an oft-cited “One cop per 500 people” recommendation that he attributes to the IACP, though which most likely comes from a commonly repeated misinterpretation of a finding by President Lyndon Johnson’s 1967 Commission on Law Enforcement. At the time, LBJ’s task force made note of an average ratio of 1.5 full time police officers per 1,000 people in the U.S. at large, which was then mistakenly used by generations of politicos to measure the decline of law and order in a supposed crime-ridden American landscape. President Johnson’s task force was in the business of profiling police departments across the fruited plain, and made no prescriptive recommendation concerning the averages it divined. In short, the number is completely out of context, misappropriated, out of date and thoroughly debunked by a variety of law enforcement analysis agencies.

There is a logic to Leger’s back-ofthe-napkin assessment. If LPSO had 11 deputies per patrol shift working a parish population of roughly 163,000 in 1988, and even if we have at times just over half that number patrolling our current metro horde of 230,000 — which Leger contends — then we’re most certainly not adequately staffed, the reasoning goes. Were that the case, you would have expected a balloon in crime to coincide with a ballooning population, indicating an unmanageable workload for patrol and investigation. A report by the Daily Advertiser earlier this year noted that the crime rate has remained stable since 2005 (year zero for Rita and Katrina migration), despite a population growth of almost 35,000 people in that time frame.

Maj. Art Lebreton, LPSO’s chief deputy, calmly deflects the general perception that enforcement levels have remained stagnant in Neustrom’s administration. While patrol shifts have held at 11 allocated positions despite a booming metro population, he says that characterization doesn’t account for additional STAR and POP units established in the past 15 years. The two units combined contribute 22 enforcement deputies to LPSO’s manpower. These units are not counted to the 11-man patrol shifts, because they operate in special capacities. The STAR team, or Sheriff’s Team for Advanced Response, operates as LPSO’s counterpart to LPD’s crime suppression unit. The POP unit, or Problem Oriented Policing, responds to quality-of-life calls. Lebreton argues orienting additional forces as specialized units rather than placing them into general patrol allows the enforcement division to more appropriately allocate its resources to the demands of a particular call.

“We measure it [patrol levels] by the geographical area that we’re responsible for patrolling, the volume of calls, and our response time getting to them. When we look at all of those factors, our response times, particularly to emergencies, are more than adequate,” Lebreton says.

Lebreton admits that the LPSO has struggled to maintain budget-allocated patrol levels but notes that current emergency response times hover just under seven minutes from the time the call is received, a number that’s remained stable throughout Neustrom’s tenure and is well below the reported national average of nine minutes. To boot, LPSO’s enforcement division has more than 250 certified deputies who don’t serve daily as patrol officers but can be called into duty in the case of a major incident. Consider that the unincorporated area LPSO patrols was last reported to contain roughly 72,000 people, that’s a minimum of one uniformed officer per 288 capita. But that’s playing a numbers game law enforcement analysts say is irresponsible in judging a police agency’s ability to serve a given population.

Mark Garber
Photo by Robin May

“Ratios, such as officers-per-thousand population, are totally inappropriate as a basis for staffing decisions,” says a report by the IACP — Leger’s purported source for the magic “500 to 1” ratio. “Accordingly, they have no place in the IACP methodology. Defining patrol staffing allocation and deployment requirements is a complex endeavor which requires consideration of an extensive series of factors and a sizeable body of reliable, current data.”

The Office of Community Oriented Policing at the U.S. Department of Justice provides a similar caution in a column published in a 2012 issue of Dispatch, the office’s periodical: “The per-capita approach requires determining an optimum number of officers per person, then calculating the number of officers needed for the total population. Advantages of this method include its simplicity and ease of interpretation. Disadvantages include its failure to address how officers spend their time, the quality of their efforts, and community conditions, needs and expectations. Given these disadvantages and others, experts strongly advise against using population rates for determining police-staffing needs.”

In its 2014 annual report, the LPSO showed a budget shortfall of $1.3 million. Seventy-five percent of its near $60 million in expenditures went to employee salary and benefits. Marinate on that for a minute and consider how much wiggle room we have to attempt any change in staffing. Couple that with recent reported budget woes that have LPSO teetering over a safety-net loan till the end of the year, and you’re faced with the reality that a candidate’s tone of enforcement is important.

Fiduciary constraints will tighten the campaign promises of whoever is ultimately elected sheriff, so as they continue to speak out of either ends of their mouths we will have to listen to whichever side of their lips talk louder. No candidate will have the funds to do everything he wants to do. So as we come closer to election day, we have to make our choice on the basis of what the candidates’ priorities are. For Garber, Leger’s presumptive principal competition, it would seem to be a commitment to Neustrom’s policies. For Leger, it’s a commitment to street level policing, statistically precarious as that may be.

For us in the great unwashed, let’s hope they’re doing their homework.

Send an email to Christiaan Mader at [email protected]