Lafayette City-Parish Council members fumed Wednesday about what they see as the council’s exclusion from critical discussions affecting the Lafayette Police Department, which falls under council oversight.
For one thing, the police union has been talking behind the scenes with Sheriff Mark Garber about his intention to put a new sales tax on the December ballot. For another, the Lafayette Parish School Board has met with Garber and all municipal police chiefs in the parish, including Lafayette Police Chief Toby Aguillard, about a new initiative to place police officers in every school.
The frustrations expressed by council members Jay Castille and Bruce Conque at a Wednesday council committee meeting follow a Facebook post on June 11 by the Police Association of Lafayette calling out a “critical shortage of manpower.” The union added that the “crime trend will continue upward until we address this issue.”
The attrition is occurring despite the department’s addition of 10 officers, which was intended to staff a new downtown police precinct. But the new precinct, which the police chief described as a pet project, is being put off to accommodate the demand for more school officers.
“If I wouldn’t be down a number of officers, we would have the manpower to do both, but we simply don’t,” Aguillard said in an interview Wednesday. “We all see there is a sense of urgency to go ahead and get an officer in every school.”
The Lafayette Police Department currently has 262 officers on roster, or 18 shy of the budgeted amount, according to figures provided to the council’s police liaison committee meeting Wednesday. Aguillard told the committee the department had lost several officers recently to other agencies, including the Sheriff’s Office. He said afterward there have been 14 resignations this year, and another half a dozen retirements.
Castille said after the meeting the union is exaggerating the urgency of the shortage to garner support for Garber’s sales tax initiative.
“If you go through the history of this government, the shortage they are talking about of 18 officers, that’s pretty much a normal turnover. Every year it’s the same thing,” Castille said. “(Garber) is using the union as a tool to get his sales tax approved.”
Conque said the union and Sheriff’s Office are negotiating some type of split in the proceeds, although the Sheriff’s Office hasn’t formally proposed anything yet.
Sheriff’s Office spokesman John Mowell said in an email the proposed ballot language is still being finalized. He did not respond to multiple queries about any potential split of revenues with the police department.
David Stanley, a member of the union’s executive board who attended the committee meeting, declined to comment.
Garber is to discuss his tax proposal at the June 19 council meeting, the first time he will address the entire council on the subject, apart from one-on-one interactions. City-Parish President Joel Robideaux said in an email he hasn't discussed the tax proposal with Garber yet, but they will do so soon.
Conque said he’s heard from the union that a split of tax proceeds could occur through an intergovernmental agreement between Lafayette city-parish government and the Sheriff’s Office. That may not pass legal muster, Conque said, and in any case would be unwise for the city-parish.
Any dedicated tax revenue for Lafayette Police should be its own measure, separate from the Sheriff’s Office, Conque said.
“I’m not questioning Mark Garber’s integrity at all, but if he’s not sheriff in four years and there’s nothing committed as a dedicated sales tax, the next sheriff could say I don’t want to do it,” Conque said. “It’s that simple. It’s his tax, it’s not ours.”
The School Board, meanwhile, on Wednesday night unanimously approved an agreement with the Sheriff’s Office and all municipal police departments to create the new School Resource Officer Program, which board President Erick Knezek said will increase the number of police personnel in schools from 26 to more than 66.
The Sheriff’s Office will lead the new program, with support from the municipal departments. The distribution of sheriff’s deputies and city police officers at each school was not clear.
Castille and Conque accused the School Board of freezing the council out of those discussions, as the council ultimately will be asked to sign off on any plan involving the police department.
“To catch us on the back end like this, tonight they are introducing the contract, I just think is bull,” Castille said.
But Knezek, the board president, said he’s engaged directly with every police chief, as well as Garber. The Lafayette Police Department has committed nine additional school officers, Knezek said, although he’s concerned about the department’s ability to do so, given the recent publicity about personnel shortages.
Knezek also said police chiefs, not the School Board, are responsible for conveying such commitments to their city councils.