JEANERETTE — Police Chief Marvin Grogan’s arrest and subsequent resignation this month have prompted diverse opinions on how to proceed in operating the city’s Police Department, which holds a poor reputation in the community it serves and struggles to maintain a full and qualified force.
The questions swirling in the community since Grogan’s May 22 arrest in connection with a Lafayette strip club raid run the gamut.
How can the city retain more officers? Could the Police Department legally operate without a chief and under the supervision of the Jeanerette City Marshal’s Office? Does the city of about 5,500 need its own police department at all?
Tia Simmons, who serves parallel roles as alderwoman at-large and mayor pro tem, said both residents and law enforcement have been throwing out ideas on how to proceed after Grogan’s resignation. But, she said, a clear picture has not yet emerged — free from opinion or bias — as to what’s lacking in the department.
“I would rather do an interview with a (potential) chief of police knowing what we want,” Simmons said.
The city’s Board of Aldermen began the official discussion at a special meeting on Friday, when the body voted to advertise for the chief’s permanent replacement and appointed Assistant Police Chief Gloria Lombard to the position on an interim basis.
Alderman Kenneth Kern recommended abolishing the Police Department altogether. But Alderman Butch Bourgeois disagreed, citing New Iberia’s dissolution of its city’s police department in favor of putting the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office in charge of law enforcement for that city.
“And look at the problems New Iberia is having,” Bourgeois said.
Since New Iberia’s police department was dissolved in a special election, the Sheriff’s Office was put under federal investigation following several high-profile incidents, including the alleged handcuffed suicide of Victor White III in the back of a deputy’s car and numerous use-of-force complaints.
The Ascension Parish community of Sorrento recently took the same route. The town of about 1,500 voted last year to abolish its police department amid scandals and numerous lawsuits that caused the department to lose insurance coverage because of an excessive number of claims. The dissolution became official this month, with the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office assuming the primary law enforcement role.
But Jeanerette is neither of those places, with a decreasing population that is far fewer than New Iberia’s nearly 31,000 but that is more than three times as large as Sorrento’s.
“We’re small, but we’ve got a lot of heart,” Jeanerette Mayor Aprill Foulcard said Thursday at City Hall.
An array of issues
Jeanerette has seen increased economic struggles since the closures of a Fruit of the Loom plant that employed more than 2,000 people for nearly 30 years and a sugar mill that employed up to 130 people during cane season. The Fruit of the Loom plant closed in 2011 after about a decade of steady layoffs.
The population has been on a steady decline since, with its current population of about 5,500 measuring 500 fewer than in 2000 and a thousand fewer than in 1990. The per capita income in 2013 was about $14,600, according to U.S. census data. That compares to about $21,000 in New Iberia and about $28,000 in Lafayette.
Violent crime isn’t common here — both residents and law enforcement generally can’t recall any homicide occurring before a man was arrested in 2010 on second-degree murder.
However, more than 34 percent of Jeanerette’s population lives below the poverty level. As far as crime, thefts and occasional drug arrests are the norm.
The city’s $770,700 allocation for the Police Department lists 23 positions. But Lombard said some remain unfilled — an issue she attributes to a nationwide difficulty in recruiting police officers.
“I know we’re not the only ones having the problem,” Lombard said in an interview on Friday.
Yet as Grogan did in an interview with The Advocate in April, Lombard declined to list the number of her current employees, instead disclosing only that the force is “shorthanded” but operating normally with employees working overtime.
A succession of incidents involving the Police Department over the last year, though, has some questioning the real issue that needs to be addressed is not so much retaining employees as it is hiring staff that is qualified and effective.
Grogan, who’s served as chief for three years and who’s been an officer with the department for about 19, was arrested May 22 on a count of malfeasance in office and three counts of compounding a felony.
The chief had been moonlighting as a security officer at Lipstick Gentlemen’s Club for at least a decade when an eight-month, multiagency investigation led by the Lafayette Metro Narcotics Task Force culminated in the arrest of the club’s owner and 15 of his female employees on counts ranging from obscenity and prostitution to drug distribution and exotic dancing without a permit.
The courts will ultimately determine if Grogan’s failure to act on the illegal activity authorities say was happening at the club was intentional. But his arrest was not the first this year for a Police Department employee.
Jeanerette police Officer John Brown was arrested in February on accusations he falsified arrest reports during his previous employment as a deputy with the St. Martin Parish Sheriff’s Office. Brown also shot a man in November while working patrol for Jeanerette, claiming the man stabbed him during an arrest on attempted home invasion.
It was unclear on Friday whether Brown still works for the department.
A second officer involved in Brown’s officer-involved shooting, 22-year-old Juandre Gilliam, died in April during a high-speed pursuit that ended when he lost control of his police car and crashed into a culvert.
Although Gilliam served a brief stint in the U.S. Army before bowing out of his commitment, he only graduated from the police academy in March after working as a Jeanerette police officer since August 2013.
“We’ve got to change the way we go about hiring in the city,” Jeanerette City Marshal Fernest “Pacman” Martin said in an interview on Friday.
Martin’s agency was floated by the Board of Aldermen on Friday as a solution to the Police Department’s troubles, with Alderman Charles Williams recommending the City Marshal’s Office oversee the Police Department until a permanent replacement as chief takes office.
City marshals generally apprehend fugitives and serve subpoenas, but Jeanerette’s Marshal’s Office takes a more active law enforcement role. Martin’s deputies conduct regular speed patrols on U.S. 90 in unincorporated portions of the parish outside of Jeanerette — an operation provoking public perceptions that the area’s become a speed trap.
Martin suggested Jeanerette could be sufficiently protected under his agency’s guidance alone.
“I think we can save the city a lot of money,” he said.
Meanwhile, the city’s given itself until June 30 to appoint Grogan’s replacement. The city operates under a charter written in the 1800s that gives it authority to appoint, rather than elect, a police chief.
In the sole public comment made at Friday’s meeting, former LeMaire Memorial Airport Commissioner Carol Bourgeois Jr. spoke out in support of relying more on the Marshal’s Office.
“I don’t want to use the word ‘consolidate,’ but I think we have an opportunity here to get some continuity going in an area that’s been very, very dear to many of us,” Bourgeois said.
City Attorney Frank Barber agreed to research the legality of such a measure but recommended looking into a possible consulting agreement between Martin’s agency and the Police Department.
“It will take some creative solutions,” Barber said.
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or call her at (337) 534-0825.