Walter Pierce

RE: Chief Importance Reginald Thomas probably would have made a terrific top cop, but we’ll never know.

by Walter Pierce

It’s time Lafayette had a black police chief, if for no other reason than we’ve never had one before. White men, all of them. Our sheriffs and mayors, too. Black folks have historically been about a quarter of Lafayette’s population, yet their access to civic power has been nil.

If you’re white in Lafayette and have never passed through Truman, Washington Heights, Azalea Park or any of the other majority-black, economically stressed neighborhoods on our city’s north side and you don’t recognize that Lafayette has race issues, you’re part of the problem. That’s not to say you’re racist, but naiveté and myopia form a bias of their own.

You could shout across the chasm separating white and black Lafayette and hear a baleful echo when the Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board held a hearing in mid-May on whether to change the qualifications for chief of police.

The board, four white men (natch), was weighing whether to accept a recommendation from Mayor-President Joel Robideaux that the qualifications for police chief be tiered, allowing an applicant without a bachelor’s degree but with a mix of some higher education and law enforcement experience to test for the position. Lafayette’s current qualifications mandate a bachelor’s degree.

The board balked at Robideaux’s recommendation, keeping in place the degree requirement but backing off a motion to raise the threshold and require a degree in criminal justice, business management or a related field.

(Full disclosure: The editorial board at this newspaper discussed calling for even tougher qualifications for police chief than now exist, but couldn’t arrive at a consensus, and Robideaux declined to meet with us to discuss the matter.)

The qualifications the board chose to keep in place make someone with a bachelor’s degree in, say, art history and 10 years experience pushing a pencil in a police office more “qualified” than a candidate with decades of experience, a supervisory rank and the respect of peers in the department — someone like Reginald Thomas, the police captain Robideaux appointed as interim chief who, after the civil service board’s decision, is merely keeping the seat warm for that art history major.

Thomas doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree, but he does have an associate degree in criminal justice, 25 years with the department including 10 as a supervisor, and he’s a graduate of the FBI National Academy. He’s also black, has the backing of the police union and the mayor, and he wants the job.

Within the audience backing Thomas at that public meeting were about 20 members of Lafayette’s black community, several with ties to the local NAACP. An unmistakable sense of grievance generations in the making hung in the room as they sparred with the board during public discussion. But the lilywhite Civil Service Board, which made it clear long before the final vote that it would nix Robideaux’s recommendation, was merely a sounding board for that grievance. This meeting was about more than a black police chief, although even Thomas, gracious in defeat, was compelled to point out the board’s melanin-deficient complexion.

His supporters came to this meeting on streets named after white supremacists in a city that erected at the height of Jim Crow a monument to a slave-owning Confederate general — a city that this spring saw white privilege rally to beat back an effort to move that monument out of a place of public exaltation. They live in a state that unbelievably still has as official holidays (Revised Statute 1:55) Robert E. Lee Day on Jan. 19 — the day before MLK Day — and Confederate Memorial Day, which, if you’re reading this after June 3, you unfortunately missed.

Their grievance is earned and it’s real.

Appointing a black police chief may only be a salve, but it’s an overdue dressing on a wound that has never healed.