I rarely speak out publicly against our council. In fact, this may be the first time, but just as I am expected to present and defend my annual budget, I now feel compelled to defend my hiring recommendations. I believe citizens should know how their elected officials conduct our business, how and why votes are cast. The Mayor, the council, and the Police Chief will not always agree, but each should explain the rationale for decisions and votes. Because COVID-19 has greatly influenced how we communicate with the public, much that goes on at council meetings is unknown.
Given the time we live in and the challenges we face, many who were silent and passive before, are now forced to speak up, and what we are hearing is that we need more rational thought, more critical thinking and solutions that are more practical.
A couple of weeks ago, our city council with a 3-2 vote, failed to support my recommendation to hire a specific officer to fill a vacant position with the Arnaudville Police Department. The public needs to understand, that as an elected Chief, Louisiana’s Lawrason Act governs Arnaudville – an act put in place in 1898 that defines the separate powers and responsibilities of the mayor, the town council, and the Chief of Police. The Lawrason Act directives have been tested over the years, resulting in many legal challenges or attorney general opinions. But, in essence, the Chief can hire, fire, and discipline his officers/employees, but only with the approval of the council. I have interpreted some of their votes as a deliberate act to defy or patronize me or my office. Nevertheless, I look forward to the council’s probing questions, but not to their undermining and second-guessing my recommendations when they are based on bold assumptions, gossip and chit-chat on social media. I guess I’m “old school”. I hire based on the demonstration of a core set of skills and capacity.
It should be rare for a council to oppose recommendations from its Chief, especially when there is no one on the council that has first-hand knowledge or experience in law enforcement, no one who can speak with the depth of knowledge about the hiring process and the scrutiny that goes into matching skills and professional training with the specific needs of Arnaudville Police Department. With that said, it is my view that the council was wrong, misguided and biased in their decision, and here is why.
Two years ago, this candidate while working for another police department, received praise from his community, his peers and local media for assisting an African American family of six down on its luck. His personal involvement as a white man and an officer proved his character, and served as a fine example of “community” policing; certainly racism was not indicated! Then, a couple of months ago, with no mal intent, he foolishly shared a meme meant to be a humorous commentary for what is going on in our society. While I don’t condone most social media memes portraying sensitive and divisive issues, I do realize that sharing or “liking” does not necessarily indicate your own bias or define your character. The candidate and I discussed the issue and he assured me that he had learned a lesson and that it would not happen again. He further explained that he would no longer use his Facebook page to post items. As many people do, he created another Facebook account to avoid any controversy and to protect his privacy. This should not be an indictment, or a valid reason to assume some sinister motivation. I, myself have two accounts; my wife has three accounts in two names, even some council members may have more than one account.
We are living in very politically charged times. We are seeing radical expressions of bias, hate, and divisiveness from all sides, influencing decision makers, business owners and industry leaders. In order to force agendas we see boycotts, bullying, shaming, and political pressure. Social media, fake news, and peaceful and violent protests propel these agendas, leaving many confused and vulnerable to unjustified scrutiny. The pressure is on businesses, industries, non-profits, school boards, churches, city mayors, and councils to either buckle under the force, or face disruption, destruction or bankruptcy.
BUT, there is one place where bias cannot take hold – our police departments. This is where skills and competency must outweigh personal beliefs and politics. This is the place where politicians (including our council) should not impede the Chief from developing and maintaining a proper police force and culture of equity, fairness and impartiality. One only need to look at the news to see where politicizing police departments has led. When council members decide the competency of a police officer based on anything other than his/her professional performance, police departments will mirror society with its divisiveness, prejudice and hate, in favor of standing against those societal flaws.
Clinging to unfounded assertions and taking political cover for expediency is not the way of real leadership. In my opinion, there are two reasons for not allowing me to hire a qualified officer – 1) there is a preconceived notion that you will be targeted by the fear mongering social media pile-on, which might brand the council as condoning racism, or 2) you don’t like this individual because he may not share your personal political views. Neither reason even considers the candidate’s competency, skills, experience or knowledge.
The majority of police officers are conservative in their approach to law and order, and many have military backgrounds. They conform well to structure, rules, and professional protocols. They are generally outwardly loyal to the flag, their country and the rule of law. But, frankly, I DON’T CARE what their politics are, who they vote for, who they love, or what their preferred lifestyle is. I only care about them treating everyone with equal fairness and respect as they perform their duties. I believe that the overwhelming majority of citizens agree with this.
It takes me approximately 2 months to narrow my search to 2 or 3 candidates from a pool of as many as 25. When I find the best available candidate, (who has passed a psychological exam, physical and drug testing), I invest in them from the moment they start work – through field training, counseling, peer review, and even send them to the Police Academy, if needed. I get input from my employees before hiring, and council members who care to sit in on an interview are welcome. New officers are on a 6 month probation period during which time they are monitored, trained, and informally evaluated. Even with this, I had a council member indicate he might change his no vote if the council was allowed to determine later down the road if he could stay. IT IS NOT THE JOB OF THE COUNCIL TO EVALUATE POLICE OFFICERS. Louisiana's Lawrason Act strictly prohibits direct interference into the police department, as any council member must know.
You may be told that some council members met with me prior to the vote. I appreciated the gesture, and the two who voted in favor of the candidate were actually present during an interview with him. The two who voted against him, met only with me with (I believe) a predetermined intention to vote “no”. The third council member voting “no” went along with the other no voters, never met the candidate, and never gave me the courtesy of a conversation on why I was recommending that candidate. Votes were cast without the benefit of a full discussion. Even the positive input from a Black officer, who would be working with this candidate, was summarily dismissed. If any employee – black or white had expressed concerns over the hiring of the candidate, I would not have recommended the approval in the first place.
At the end of all this, I pose a simple question: Should I continue to recommend hiring people who demonstrate through their actions, compassion and unbiased attention to the public they serve, who have the required level of competency, temperament and aptitude; and who come with excellent references from former employers? Or, should I crouch in fear of ridicule, and judge fitness and competency based on surface-level assumptions dictated by today’s social media “likes” and memes and/or rely on gossip and other people’s prejudice? Should I have each candidate I recommend prostrate themselves before the members of the Council and, while beating their breast exclaim in a loud voice “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault, I beg the Council to forgive me of my current and past sins and faux pas’” ?
I prefer to operate in the tradition of sound judgement and rational thought; not on a rapid response to unfounded charges or the momentary standards and criteria of the mob.
I ask for your support, your voices, your dutiful involvement, as I intend on bringing this candidate back up as a recommendation for hiring at the next Council meeting and request for a third time their approval to hire this candidate. Should they still deny the approval I would demand, as should you, the public a valid reason behind the denial.