The final sheriff’s forum on Nov. 9 was sort of like a wedding — albeit one sponsored by the Acadiana Press Club. The audience in attendance split the aisle of South Louisiana Community College’s Devalcourt Auditorium along party lines, and the two on stage were relieved for the whole thing to finally be over. Most folks in the room knew who they supported going in, and the candidates’ umpteen forums to date have left little to be revealed in the last inquisition.
Perhaps the only real surprise at this point is the degree to which the two men agree. A portion of rapid fire, yes or no questions demonstrated as much, with not an iota of difference registered in a single answer, though the candidates seemed less than pleased by the exercise.
To be sure, they have their differences, and that much has been well documented this fall. But much of what could really be contrasted between the two of them in that last forum was aesthetic and temperamental. Garber, wide-legged in stance and ever boastful of his record, continued his tendency to talk over heads. He’s not quite aloof or elitist, but his ready access to legal jargon and a rapid fire speech pattern can leave willing ears in a wake of racing ideas.
Leger, on the other hand, was more deliberate and folksy — the tradition of a lawman from a place known as the Boudin Capital of the World. Of all the forums I attended, his command of boilerplate police wisdom was at its most clear. If you’re inclined to believe that law enforcement is all swagger, Leger had a convincing cadence.
The debate, a generous label, was prosaic. The two combatants seemed calmer and cozier than ever before, a malaise no doubt fostered by repetition. They laughed together. Conspired to decline a question together. They hi-fived. You could readily be convinced that, as opponents, the rallies of animosity bandied between them on the trail were orchestrations of their campaigns.
But something that got lost in the good humor and warm carrying forth between them was that both men willfully assert that Lafayette law enforcement does not have a race problem. They rolled out the typical meaningless exhortations of the need to “build community trust” or “work together,” the sort of overplayed campaign tunes that vacate substance altogether.
We've heard all that before. It’s disappointing that the remaining candidates for Lafayette’s top law enforcement position insist that a warm hug and an open door will mend the shambles of trust between black folks and police officers. But it’s near infuriating that they seem to dismiss it as a problem altogether, implying that Lafayette just doesn’t have that sort of thing going on.
Meanwhile, we are reminded of the death of Quamaine Mason, whose 2011 killing by a Lafayette Police Department cop has re-entered the news sphere with an appeals court ruling that the officer exonerated for shooting him seven times — twice while Mason was wounded on the ground — is not immune from civil suit. Sure, that’s a victory for Mason’s family, but does little to repair the existential problem.
We are reminded of the 2014 death of Victor White while handcuffed in the back of a patrol car in New Iberia — a confusing and mystifying tragedy for which black leaders held vigil in a “Week of Action” in October.
We are reminded that just last week Chief Jim Craft gave weak testimony to the Lafayette City-Parish Council regarding the September 2015 shooting of a fleeing Tevin Lewis, gunned in the back because an officer saw a firearm hanging from his person.
We are reminded that on-the-scene witnesses in that case claim to have been held without charge for interrogation.
We are reminded that, this year, an LPD officer who was recorded in 2011 and 2012 spewing racist garbage toward his fellow officers and passersby received a 30-day suspension — the punitive equivalent of a bar of soap in the mouth.
What both Leger and Garber seem to not realize is that local law enforcement has a perception problem in the black community. Garber’s technology and Leger’s self-aggrandized bullishness toward criminals won’t change that. Maybe that was a couple of Republicans playing to a room of mostly white and mostly decided voters, but it was shocking to have the question dismissed summarily.
You can point out that some of what I reference is dated, that some of it is out of parish, and that none of it directly involves the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office. But that avoids a problem central to the relationship between the community and law enforcement agencies in general. A history of aggressive behavior has cast a pallor of fear and anger at every NAACP press conference I’ve been to. Not a single such gathering goes by that someone doesn’t declare a genuine fear of law enforcement in Lafayette Parish. Even if that fear is exaggerated — and I contend that it’s not — more than good Christian stewardship and community building is required to address it.
The authority and influence imbued in the office of sheriff can contribute to positive change. The first step would be to acknowledge the problem loudly and with the same vigor the candidates use to threaten criminals from the stump.
Perhaps, as Garber claimed, our problems are not Baltimore’s. Protests have been modest, riots non-extant, but I can’t say I agree with the peachy assessments provided. I can assure you that Ferguson wasn’t built in a day, and the current trajectory of the relationship between black folks in Lafayette and the local law enforcement is not the right one. It would be encouraging for that to be a view shared from the top.