Stuck in the Middle with You

September 21, 2015

It’s election time again and the Sheriff races in SoLa have the potential to change the current trend where the general public is developing serious mistrust in their law enforcement. The entire region surrounding Lafayette is at a turning point and the direction they turn greatly depends on the outcome of the Sheriff’s election in four neighboring parishes.  Acadia Parish, Lafayette Parish, Vermilion Parish and New Iberia Parish.

Public awareness of police brutality (or worse) is at a fever pitch on a national scale after the riots of Ferguson and then compounded with the deaths of Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, and Freddie Gray. The result of this awareness has put every officer under the microscope of a critical public eye. The message is clear, our communities will not tolerate any abuse by an officer. Everyone is on high alert, especially the cops who are being targeted unjustly.

The parishes of and around Lafayette are not immune to this syndrome. In fact, as I type this chapter, there is a protest happening in front of the Lafayette Police Station regarding the shooting of Trevin Lewis who, witnesses say, was running for his life when an LPD officer shot him in the back. The LPD then asked the neighbor to show them her private security video and upon watching it, they immediately confiscated that recording. So far, the LPD is refusing to share it with the public and so… there’s a protest happening in front of the police station as I type this.

A few miles away to the east, in New Iberia Parish, the community is still reeling over the Victor White case. Victor was a young black man who, according to the New Iberia Sheriff’s Office, committed suicide in 2014. They say that Victor shot himself while sitting handcuffed in the back seat of a Sheriff cruiser inside their parking lot. They claim Victor shot himself in the chest while he was under arrest and had been already been searched for weapons. Twice.  For some un-explainable reason, none of the cameras around the Sheriff’s Office were functioning that tragic night.

A few miles in the other direction, to the west of Lafayette, is Acadia Parish. They are currently trying to come to grips over the shooting death of Melvin LeBlanc, a black man with mental illness who was acting irrationally one night, a year ago. Four units showed up on the scene and all of them turned off their dash cams before putting on their Kevlar vests and busting down the door. Evidence proves that fourteen shots were fired that night and none of them were fired by Melvin LeBlanc. Although, the officers involved made statements to the contrary, they said LeBlanc shot first. The fatal bullet was fired execution style into the back of Melvin Leblanc’s head. The Crowley police chief is currently being sued over the incident and everyone is watching the case very closely.

Another police shooting lawsuit, this one in Lafayette, is presently in appeal regarding the shooting death of Quamaine Mason. Mason, a young black man, was getting ready to graduate with a masters in criminal justice. He had just applied for a position with the Lafayette Police Department and carried a legally exposed weapon because he was training to be a police officer. Three days after he applied for a job with the LPD, he had an argument with his girlfriend over a puppy. The police were called and even though Quamaine immediately raised his hands on their command, one of the officers released his K9 inside the first 4 seconds of the confrontation. Quamaine instinctively lowered his arm to protect himself from the dog. The officer took his movement as a threat and killed Quamaine by shooting him in the chest. And then he continued to shoot six more times into Quamaines back while he lay there bleeding out. After the funeral, Quamaine Mason's mother received a letter addressed to her dead son. It was a letter of congratulations, Quamaine had been accepted to train as a Louisiana State Trooper.  He should be patrolling the highways of Louisiana today, instead, he was shot dead by someone he thought was his brother in blue.

All of these current scenarios in the Acadiana region have brought back painful memories of the Ken Bacque shooting. He was shot dead by an officer in the Scott Police Department who claimed that Bacque was threatening him with a knife, although, all witnesses dispute that fact. The public was never satisfied in the justice that was served (or not) in that case.

And today, right now, as the protesters at the Lafayette police station shout their disapproval and wave their angry signs, their neighboring parishes are also at a breaking point. There is a real risk of public unrest and the Sheriff’s elections are the perfect opportunity to turn this trend around and secure the public’s trust in law enforcement.

The Sheriff is the most powerful person in every parish and when you put all of the Sheriffs of Louisiana together, that makes the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association the most powerful lobbying group in the state. Even they are feeling a vacuum of power after the GOP refused to back Buddy Caldwell in his third bid for the Attorney General seat.  The Sheriff Association needs a sure thing at the AG’s desk before they can make any deals with the Governor’s office. Therefore, the LSA isn’t backing any of the Governor candidates, instead they are only backing the campaign of the Attorney General, their Good Ol Boy, Buddy Caldwell.

As the Sheriff’s Association adjusts and maneuvers within this power grab landscape, it is the outcome of the upcoming Sheriff elections that will solidify the trajectory of Louisiana law enforcement for years to come, perhaps even for decades, making this seasons Sheriff’s elections the most important choice on the ballot.

In Acadia Parish, Keith Latiola, K. P. Gibson, and Brian Richard are all vying to succeed Sheriff Wayne Melancon who is retiring. Latiola is currently the Chief Deputy of the sheriff’s office with 35 years of experience. Richard has been in and out of Law Enforcement. Gibson….hmmmm. Gibson is currently the Police Chief in Crowley and being sued for the execution style shooting death of Melvin LeBlanc. Chief Gibson is also being sued by Clay LeJeune after Crowley officers made the choice to break down his door and then hit him their stun guns because LeJeune’s daughter was outside calling for their dog. The officers believed it was the cries of a child in distress and so they chose to break down the door in aggressive fashion. I’m sorry but, I just gotta say… you’d have to be an idiot to want Gibson behind the Sheriff’s desk considering the current atmosphere of public distrust.

In New Iberia, Sheriff Louis Ackal is seeking a third term while being challenged by Roberta Boudreaux. Boudreaux has 25 years of law enforcement experience which includes managing 100 deputies while implementing cost saving measures that saved New Iberia millions of dollars. The incumbent, Louis Ackal, is bidding for re-election amidst suspicions around the Victor White case, the man who supposedly shot himself while handcuffed inside a Sheriff cruiser when the cameras were offline.  Additionally, according to a lawsuit filed by Ackal’s former jail warden, Wesley Hayes, Ackal fired Hayes for blowing the whistle on a culture of abusive officers working in the jail. Then, just recently, a surveillance video from inside the jail was released showing three of Ackal’s deputies while they indiscriminately grabbed an inmate, threw him to the floor, released their dogs and then beat him with clubs. While during the whole time, the inmate was defenselessly lying face down and spread eagle on the concrete. I’m sorry but, I just gotta say… you’d have to be an idiot to keep Louis Ackal behind the Sheriff’s desk considering the current atmosphere of public distrust.

In Vermilion Parish, Sheriff Couvillon is running for his fourth term in office while being challenged by Toby Walker. Walker is running on a platform where he promises to bring integrity to the Vermilion Parish Sheriff’s Office through example and transparency. He has over 15 years of experience including 12 years as a Sergeant. He is also a K9 specialist who has worked with numerous agencies that include the FBI and DEA. Walker is not someone who will jump to conclusions, instead, he wants to hear all sides with an open mind and move forward from there. That is not the case with the sitting Sheriff, Mike Couvillon. Couvillon is a vindictive iron-fisted Sheriff who is currently being charged with an ethics violation. The writing on the wall says that several additional ethic complaints against him are on the horizon. Couvillon also has to worry about the possibility of an indictment for malfeasance after he falsified legal court documents in an act of retaliation. Now let this sink in, Mike Couvillon was the Treasurer of the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association until he was charged with the ethics violation. After Couvillon was charged, the Sheriff’s Association chose to promote him to 2nd Vice President. What kind of hornet’s nest is this?  I’m NOT sorry this time… I just gotta say…. you’d have to be an idiot to keep Sheriff Mike Couvillon behind the Sheriff's desk considering the current atmosphere of public distrust.

There are four parishes inside this pressure cooker right now and it’s the Sheriff election in Lafayette Parish that will make the most impact regarding the future trends of law enforcement accountability. Mostly because Lafayette is the geographical center in this hornet’s nest with Clowns to the left of them and Jokers on the right… here I am, stuck in the middle with you.

Everyone is sad to see the Sheriff of Lafayette, Mike Neustrom, retire. Under his direction, the Lafayette Sheriff’s office has broken the mold by setting national standards with his innovative diversion programs. He has been showered with support from all levels of law enforcement, but most importantly, Sheriff Neustrom has the public’s trust.

The next Sheriff of Lafayette can continue to build upon the successes of Sheriff Mike Nuestrom or they could shift to new priorities that will undermine the present satisfaction inside the LPSO. The voters of Lafayette Parish have four candidates to choose from on October, 24. They are Rick Chargois, John P Rogers, Chad Leger and Mark Garber.

Rick Chargois is a retired Louisiana Trooper who wants to create a cyber crime unit inside the LPSO that will focus primarily on child pornography. He’s not against the idea of body cameras on his deputies, however, he thinks they can do better with a 360 Go-Pro camera mounted on the roof of the units. Wow. That’s an awesome idea. In fact, Chargois’ has outlined several inspiring goals that he has in mind for the LPSO and there is one that really jumps out at me. As Sheriff, Rick Chargois plans to “break the barrier between law enforcement and the people of Lafayette by promoting community involvement.”

John P Rogers is currently working as a Litigation Specialist for Risk Management inside the Lafayette Sheriff’s office. He has 15 years of experience at the LPSO holding many responsibilities while he obtained his law degree. Rogers wants to be clear that he is NOT a politician. He says when he is Sheriff, he will bring all stake holders to the table to present his ideas and he has an open mind for receiving constructive criticism. Rogers also believes that transparency is critical and says he will be “working hand-in-hand with our citizens and community leaders. I will promote training, education, professional respect and equality.”

Chad Leger is currently the police chief for the town of Scott where he implemented body cams in 2013.  He was the Chief of Police when Ken Bacque was shot and killed by his top officer. Even though the State Police and Harson's DA office refused to indict the officer who killed Ken Bacque, a civil jury was unanimous in their decision that the shooting was an excessive use of lethal force. Leger has 26 years of law enforcement experience that includes 14 years served at the LPSO.  Leger has the advantage of knowing most of the neighboring police chiefs on a first name basis because of his tenure serving as President of the Louisiana Association of Chiefs of Police. As Sheriff, Leger plans to conduct a complete inspection and take control of every aspect of business inside the Sheriff’s Office. Including a “top-to-bottom” performance review of each employee. He feels the LPSO is understaffed to a dangerous level and says he’ll make it a priority to recruit new hires and fill that void.

Mark Garber is an attorney in Lafayette with a broad background of local and federal law enforcement experience. He worked as a street cop while getting his law degree and then he moved on to work with the Airforce OSI and Secret Service. After receiving the bronze star, Garber then worked for six years as a prosecuting Assistant District Attorney inside the 15th JDC. Garber has a “work smarter, not harder” approach to managing the Sheriff’s office. He says the LPSO can be more productive with what they already have and instead of hiring more officers, Garber would rather invest in the technology to enhance communication that will lead to shorter response times and a safer environment for his deputies. Garber believes that body cameras will reduce crime overall, however, he would like to see protocol put in place that will allow the LPSO to avoid compromising the privacy rights of the citizens and the expensive litigation that could come with it. As Sheriff, Garber wants to bring a positive message to the community and work together with them to keep Lafayette happy and safe.

In my experience, you can never really gain a clear perspective of a candidate’s character until you speak to them in person. It’s hard to believe since I’m 2200 miles away, but the outcome of the Lafayette Sheriff election will directly affect the quality of my life and, so, I called up each of the candidates to get a gage on what they are really about.

While speaking to the candidates, I asked each of them the same question regarding the tension that is currently being felt between communities and their police officers.

·What are your feelings regarding the risk of a local Ferguson type event?

John Rogers had no hesitation in his answer. He believes that a relationship of trust between officers and the citizens is the crucial element that will thwart any risk of a Lafayette style Ferguson. Rogers wants to put more emphasis on the importance of education, family and church into the community.

Rick Chargois says that Law Enforcement must be pro-active instead of re-active to the current climate of public dissatisfaction and the violence in their neighborhoods. Chargois has years of experience in covert investigation and would like to have “ears and eyes on the ground” to remain one step ahead of any trends. He was more worried about stopping the heroin market coming from Florida than he was about a potential public unrest. Rick Chargois impressed me as a straight shooter, he’ll tell ya like it is.

Chad Leger… hmmmmm. Leger told me he was insulted by the Ferguson question. He just isn’t concerned with the current state of public distrust in cops. Leger was very defensive, almost hostile during our entire conversation and I couldn’t figure out where that was coming from. He didn’t recognize my name, so, that wasn’t it. He came close to accusing me of being a liar about contacting his campaign office and then he ordered me… no kidding, he ORDERED me to leave a message the next time I call. When I said I wasn’t going to ask him the usual boring questions, Leger replied, “Are you saying my responses are boring?!” When I told him I thought he was running an aggressive campaign he demanded that I give him an example. So, I told him that, in my opinion, it was a very aggressive move when he published his transition plan before anyone could qualify to run. After that, I think I could hear steam coming out of his ears and… hey, it’s just a question. What I see as aggressive might be what you want to call confident. There is no reason to get your panties in a wad, dude. However, Leger's confrontational style led me to wonder if the rumors are true. For years there have been rumors that Chad Leger abuses anabolic steroids and is prone to sporadic road rage… honking the horn, flipping the bird, being impatient and confrontational. During the first five minutes of our conversation I experienced his impatience as well as his confrontational side so I decided to take a risk and ask the question:

Is it true that you abuse anabolic steroids?

There was at least three seconds of complete silence from his end of the phone until… Chad Leger almost busted out laughing. He explained those rumors have been around forever, it has always been important to him that he remain in top physical condition and he has strong family genes. He just can’t help but grow muscles. Then he dared his detractors who spread that rumor to bring over a polygraph test and he will be more than happy to comply. And that was the only time during our conversation that Leger seemed to relax a little bit.

Getting Mark Garber on the phone took a lot more work than talking to anyone else, thanks to Ricky Verrett. I sent emails, voicemails, instant messages and texts… just asking for Mark Garber to call me at his convenience and I received nothing. Nada. Thanks, Ricky.

Finally, Garber got the message and called me up a couple days ago and it didn’t take long for us to clear the air. Me and Ricky have issues, he doesn’t like me very much and I really don’t like him. But he’s not running for office and it isn’t fair to let my dislike of Ricky taint my own perceptions of what Garber is really about. When we finally got Ricky Verrett out of the way, me and Mark Garber had a very productive conversation.

During our conversation, I gave Mark Garber the same opportunity that I gave Leger and asked if he’d squash a rumor for me. There are all kinds of rumors about why Mark Garber resigned from the 15th JDC in 2014. Myself, I’ve been told two completely different explanations so, I asked Mark to clear up the rumors. What really happened? Why did you resign?

The truth? Mark Garber’s private legal practice needed his attention. He tried to hang in there but the Fontenot trial kept getting delayed. Finally, Garber had to let his private office manager go and take care of business, himself. Unfortunately, this was during a time when Mike Harson’s re-election campaign for District Attorney was going down the toilet. Mark Garber, who is always looking ahead, was afraid his resignation might be seen like … “the rats are jumping ship” on Harson. In effort to avoid any spotlights, (who wants to be labeled as a rat?) Mark Garber left the 15th JDC very quietly. Apparently too quietly and that’s why there are half a dozen rumors out there.

Like Chargois, Mark Garber would rather be pro-active than reactive in all scenarios affecting the Sheriff Office. However, in regards to a Ferguson event, Garber says he will concentrate on preventing the escalation of public suspicion by identifying problem officers in advance of a tragedy. All deputies everywhere are required to act with conduct that is becoming of an officer. Mark Garber says he will deliver a culture inside the LPSO that will raise the bar of honor and duty in a way that Lafayette will be proud of.

Garber believes that law enforcement can keep themselves safe, no matter how hostile the situation, and still be polite. He sure turned Ricky Verrett around, and I thank him for that.

In only four weeks time, the good people of Acadia, Vermilion, New Iberia and Lafayette Parish's will hit the polls and cast their vote for Sheriff. The outcome of these elections truly will define the future of Cajun authenticity.

These words of wisdom are so very true:

Sheriff Mike Neustrom of Lafayette Parish, 2015

“I think we have one of the top communities in the country and I feel a strong sense of responsibility to keep it that way for the next generation. If we keep it safe and friendly, we'll continue to have a great place to live."

Read the next chapter: 'Disturbing' by clicking here.