Race emerged as an issue at a St. Tammany Parish sheriff’s race forum as challengers took shots at long-term incumbent Jack Strain for incidents that involved employees sharing racist jokes via email and a racial slur used by Chuck Hughes, a lawyer whose firm represents the department.
Slidell Police Chief Randy Smith said he would have fired Hughes over his comments, made in a conversation with a private client. He asked Strain how much money Hughes was paid by the Sheriff’s Office in 2014 and how many minorities are on the payroll.
Smith pegged it at 2 percent. Strain, who couldn’t provide either number, pointed to a strong record of hiring and promoting women.
The forum, sponsored by Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, drew just over 200 people and was the first post-qualifying candidate forum in the Oct. 24 election.
The challengers in the Oct. 24, Smith, retired Customs Agent Scott Illing, and retired Naval officer Jennifer Werther, all said that they would not tolerate racial slurs from employees. Strain said that the online remarks were made by deputies on private time and private equipment and said it would overbearing and heavy handed to punish them.
He defended his tenure, saying the STPSO has not had a single civil rights violation.
But the most pointed criticism concerning race came from an audience member. Nanine McCool, a former candidate for judge, took Strain himself to task for comments he made during the investigation of a 2006 multiple homicide.
In a televised interview, Strain fretted that the north shore was seeing an influx of criminals from New Orleans, where he said they were coddled.
“I don’t get into calling people names and all that fact, but if you’re gonna walk the streets of St. Tammany Parish with dreadlocks and Chee Wee hairstyles, then you can expect to be getting a visit from a sheriff’s deputy,’’ he said in the interview.
McCool asked if it would be reasonable for someone who wore their hair in such fashions to be concerned about that they would be harassed.
Strain said that his remarks have been taken out of context, that he was being interviewed about quadruple homicide and was describing the suspects.
Smith, who said that he was working for the Sheriff’s Office at that time, said he didn’t condone the language but defended law enforcement’s need to put out descriptions.
McCool said that she had seen the tape and it had been accurately quoted, word for word.
“Then I agree with you,’’ Smith said.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter at @spagonesadvocat.