In what they said will be their last public debate before the Nov. 21 election, Lafayette Parish sheriff candidates Mark Garber and Chad Leger on Monday touched on hot-button issues such as illegal immigration and jail security.
More than 200 people packed into the South Louisiana Community College auditorium, where a crowd mostly of Garber’s and Leger’s supporters spilled into the aisles and often responded to their respective candidate with enthusiastic applause.
The crowd gave a collective murmur when the issue of whether Lafayette is a “sanctuary city” was brought up — the first time the candidates, both Republicans, have faced off on the issue that’s created a clear divide between the two campaigns.
The issue came up when Leger’s campaign piggybacked on a report from the Center for Immigration Studies, which labeled Lafayette Parish as a “sanctuary” for illegal immigrants. The group based its information on federal information that the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office quit honoring federal requests to detain suspected illegal immigrants beyond their sentences, which the Sheriff’s Office confirmed as its policy in September 2014.
Garber reduced the issue to “fear-mongering,” saying he would be glad to comply with federal detainer requests if U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement pledges to support the Sheriff’s Office should a wrongful imprisonment lawsuit arise.
“Have our back on liability. That’s all that needs to happen here,” Garber said.
Garber also said he opposes a court decision that struck down a state law requiring immigrants to drive with proof of their legal status.
Leger countered that the issue is indeed a problem, especially in Scott, where he alleged undocumented immigrants populate the Ile Des Cannes apartment complex and are often involved in hit-and-run crashes that destroy property.
“We are a sanctuary city. We do have a problem,” Leger said. He further alleged the Sheriff’s Office does not notify ICE when a suspected undocumented immigrant is 48 hours from release — a claim the Sheriff’s Office has disputed.
The candidates also were asked about ongoing lawsuits filed against the agency over the parish jail, alleging unsafe conditions and understaffing that has led to instances of brutality in the jail among both inmates and deputies.
As Leger has said throughout the campaign, he reiterated Monday that reallocating employees in the department would be a priority should he take office, and that effort would alleviate safety concerns from inside the jail while better using budgeted funds.
Garber threw a jab at the Clayton Burgess law firm, which is involved in a handful of lawsuits filed in the past month and which employs a Sheriff’s Office whistleblower using inside information, saying the firm has been “lobbing grenades” at the agency.
“I know how to combat that,” said Garber, citing his law and prosecutorial experience. “I think there’s gonna be some tough times ahead for those people,” he added.
When asked whether they support a civilian oversight committee to look into allegations of police brutality, both said they would rather improve relationships with the community through active engagement rather than trying to justify the need for such a committee, which could breed animosity between law enforcement and the public.
In a series of rapid-fire questions, in which the candidates were allowed to answer only yes or no, both candidates indicated the Sheriff’s Office needs a new jail and both indicated they are opposed to suggesting new taxes to fund one.
Garber took 46 percent of the vote in the Oct. 24 primary to Leger’s 39 percent.
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825.