French Settlement may change the way its police chief is selected, prompting criticism from the head of village law enforcement.
Residents of the Livingston Parish municipality now elect a chief to four-year terms. On Monday, the Board of Aldermen will consider putting a proposition on the Nov. 21 ballot that will ask voters if they would prefer the mayor appoint a chief who must be confirmed by the aldermen.
Alderwoman Teresa Miller, who proposed the ordinance to call for an election, said the change would allow French Settlement, population 1,112, to look outside the village for candidates. Currently, the police chief, who oversees three officers, must reside within municipal limits.
“Our village is rather small. … This would allow a wider area to pull in candidates,” Miller said.
“(Village limits extend) only 1,000 feet off the highway, off Highway 16, so if you live 1,001 feet away, you can’t run,” Mayor Toni Guitrau said.
The mayor and alderwoman explicitly noted that the proposed change is not a reflection on current chief Harry Brignac, who has held the job since 1984. But the chief disagrees.
“They say it’s not against me, but it is when you’re trying to take my livelihood away. … It’s personal,” Brignac said.
If the position becomes an appointment, “they’re not gonna pick me, I guarantee that,” he said.
Brignac said he suspects village administrators already have a preferred chief waiting in the wings. He believes they want a chief who will be subservient to the mayor and aldermen.
“They cannot control me,” Brignac said.
When asked for the specific ways village administrators might try to change the department, Brignac declined to discuss details.
He did say that, generally, municipal leaders might tell appointed chiefs where to patrol or try to set ticket quotas. He also pointed to the recent case in Springfield, where a mayor and police chief were court-ordered to resign after an officer complained of a ticket-fixing scheme, an incident Brignac blamed on the mayor’s control over the police.
The executive director of the Louisiana Association of Chiefs of Police also supports the election rather than appointment of chiefs.
Those elected to office “cannot be messed with” by municipal leaders, Fabian Blache said. Appointed chiefs can be controlled by a mayor or city council, which can spell trouble for the community if the leaders in those positions don’t have law enforcement experience.
The election of police chiefs is unique to Louisiana, and Blache could think of no other state that allows the practice. In Louisiana, about 200 police chiefs are elected, and 100 appointed, he said. Though there are exceptions, larger municipalities tend to appoint their top brass, while smaller communities are more likely to call public elections.
Blache said it is rare for municipalities to change from one system to the other. But it isn’t without precedent. In 2009, Duson switched over to appointments after voters elected a string of alleged criminals to the position.
However, that is not the case in French Settlement.
“It’s not being done because of the current police chief,” Guitrau said.
Should the matter make the ballot, and should electors vote for appointment, Brignac will be allowed to serve out his term, which ends in Dec. 31, 2016, and he could still be appointed, Miller said.
Furthermore, the mayor and board also will be up for election, so if those holding office now are voted out, they won’t be involved in any potential future appointments.
Miller said she brought the issue before the board at the request of residents, and both she and Guitrau said they had not yet decided whether they would vote for election or appointment.
“I don’t care which way it goes,” the mayor said. “We’re just trying to satisfy the people.”
Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.