OPELOUSAS — Improved public education and expanded municipal recreational facilities were among the ideas floated Monday night at an Opelousas Police Department community unity program.
Also touched on during the gathering at Bellevue Baptist Church were law enforcement issues such as racial diversity, cultural sensitivity, training and investigating complaints by the public.
Dustin Miller, a state representative whose district cuts through most of St. Landry Parish, criticized the school district for its number of failing schools, especially those in Opelousas.
“What’s going to happen to those kids? Our (Opelousas) schools except for one are failing our kids. Opelousas High had a 55 percent graduation rate this year,” Miller said.
He said there are also too many school-age children wandering the streets of Opelousas and not going to school. The problem is compounded, he said, since there is no district-sponsored program that addresses student truancy.
Linda Guillory, who spoke from the audience and said she taught at the district’s alternative school program for expelled students, said those students were treated like prisoners, forced to hold their hands behind their backs as they marched to lunch in another building.
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As for recreational facilities in Opelousas, Miller described them as marginal. He said the summer baseball program has barely 200 participants and there is no swimming pool open at South City Park due to funding issues.
Opelousas Mayor Reggie Tatum said he has been working for the past few months with state and federal officials to obtain funding for improvements to the city’s recreational programs.
Police Capt. Martin McClendon said police officers want to devise proactive strategies in dealing with law enforcement.
“We’re not in denial. We want to come up with solutions that will help us become a unified community and say to the world that nothing like what has happened elsewhere is going to happen here,” McClendon said.
Police Chief Donald Thompson and Sheriff Bobby Guidroz told the audience their employees undergo annual intensive cultural diversity training. He said the cultural diversity courses are the first thing deputies undergo after they are hired.
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The sheriff added that his officers also undergo rigid annual evaluations. Since he became sheriff five years ago, Guidroz said, he has fired nine deputies.
Both Guidroz and Thompson said their department policies require the use of body cameras by all employees who respond to complaints.
Thompson said the police department uses an internal investigation process when an officer has acted in a way that has been alleged an unsatisfactory.
“If we can determine whether a complaint that is made is criminal in nature, then that officer will be prosecuted,” the police chief said.
Thompson described what he said is a gap between the community and the police. Thompson, however, did not provide specifics about the nature of that difference.
Guidroz said he always speaks with individuals who come to his office with questions or complaints, although those meetings might take several days to initiate.
Alex Owens, who also spoke at the meeting, questioned Guidroz on that matter. “You’ve got to go through about 10 of y’all to do that,” Owens said.