Now that New Iberia's voters have approved a new sales tax to pay for a police department, the focus turns to questions about personnel, oversight and how the department will operate. The city of 30,000 hasn't had a police department in more than a decade.
In particular, there are concerns over who exactly will work in the proposed 71-officer force. The Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office, which holds a $6.3 million contract to conduct law enforcement in the city this fiscal year, will lay off some deputies once the contract expires in June, said Sheriff’s Office spokesman Wendell Rayborn.
That means Sheriff Louis Ackal and his administrators will dictate the makeup of a large portion of the available workforce, and District 2 Councilman Marlon Lewis wonders if it will include officers who have had tense relations with people in his largely African-American district. Lewis said his constituents are also concerned the new force might include officers with unclean records from the last iteration of the New Iberia Police Department, which the city disbanded in 2004.
“There are good officers in that department,” Lewis said, referring to the Sheriff’s Office. “We want those guys, and I’m sure Mr. Ackal wants those guys. We don’t want the leftovers, man.”
Ackal last year was acquitted of federal civil-rights charges, even though 10 of his deputies pleaded guilty to such charges and testified that Ackal encouraged them to abuse prisoners and suspects.
Rayborn said decisions about layoffs, including how many of the 50 or so deputies will soon be looking for work, may not come until the Sheriff’s Office compiles its annual budget next spring.
Saturday's 63 percent ‘yes’ vote is a major victory for Mayor Freddie DeCourt, who had pushed hard for the half-cent sales tax since taking office in January. The measure stirred opposition from those who didn’t want a new tax, especially since an existing sales tax already provides revenue for public safety.
DeCourt now has until June 30, when the Sheriff’s Office contract expires, to establish the force or extend the contract if the final touches aren’t done in time. The existing tax, which brings in about $6.4 million annually, can be used for a variety of purposes in addition to public safety, but at present almost all of it goes to the Sheriff’s Office. After the current contract expires, the city will have paid a total of $67.3 million under a series of contracts that have escalated in value since Ackal’s tenure began in 2008.
The new tax is strictly for police and fire. DeCourt wants to combine both revenue streams to cover an annual police operating budget of $7.8 million, and to borrow $1.6 million for startup costs.
DeCourt repeatedly promised in an Oct. 4 town hall meeting the new officers must subscribe to “community policing” philosophies, a buzz term that refers to proactive strategies and close relations with residents.
“I know we need a bike patrol. I know we need people to walk a beat. I know they need to take those sunglasses off and they need to have the name tag on,” the mayor told the crowd at the West End Community Center.
DeCourt said he’s working with a hiring committee, although he did not say who is on it, and in an Oct. 9 interview said he will establish a written hiring protocol.
DeCourt has also pledged to create a grievance committee that will hear complaints from residents and, presumably, advise city officials. But the grievance committee at this point is little more than broad concept. The committee’s scope, authority and structure all need to be worked out. Lewis and District 4 City Councilwoman Deidre Ledbetter said they want a six-member committee, with each council member making single appointments.
The Rev. James Broussard, the Philadelphia Life Center pastor who founded the PUSH interfaith citizen activist group, said he hopes his group will be represented on the committee.
“We want to be a part of that committee, knowing the operations of the committee, knowing who will be on the committee,” Broussard said.
Also uncertain is how the city will spend more than half a million dollars annually that will be available for city infrastructure once the city stops paying the Sheriff's Office, assuming the City Council follows DeCourt’s budget proposal. The proposal shows $350,000 annually for roads and drainage, $150,000 for city building maintenance and $64,000 for parks and recreation, but it does not suggest specific programs or projects.
“We have a little bit more flexibility to where we can do those other projects we have been trying to, like patch roads and fix drainage,” said District 6 Councilman Dustin Suire. “We really haven’t been doing much because the funds weren’t there. It was all for the sheriff’s department.”
He added: “There is no really set plan.”
That’s not to say there are no concrete plans for the new revenue. DeCourt’s police department budget calls for 28 officers, eight sergeants, four lieutenants and two captains, along with a chief, assistant chief and a major. DeCourt also wants a cadre of narcotics and juvenile detectives, as well as traffic cops and a canine unit.
Lewis, while concerned about the makeup of the force, said he’s excited at the city’s opportunity to “create a state-of-the-art police department unlike any other in the state.”
“I want police officers that are going to encourage my youth to want to be a police officer,” Lewis said. “Whether he’s black or white, he shines in our community as law enforcement agent that people say, 'You know what, I want to be a law enforcement agent.' Kids aren’t saying that in our community.”