If the Oct. 24 primary was an indication, voters in St. John the Baptist Parish haven’t quite figured out what to make of Sheriff Mike Tregre’s trying first term in office.
A major in the Sheriff’s Office before he beat out longtime Sheriff Wayne Jones four years ago, Tregre fell 53 votes short of re-election in a four-candidate field last month. The narrow shortfall has left him mired in what has become a bitter, sometimes personal runoff.
His opponent, Michael Hoover, is a former Sheriff’s Office captain who resigned this summer to run against the man who demoted him to sergeant in a shake-up of the department after Tregre took over in 2012.
The challenger has launched biting attacks on Tregre over rising crime rates, department spending and Tregre’s handling of a scandal that forced him to overhaul his narcotics unit, among other flashpoints.
On the flip side, Tregre accuses Hoover of abandoning his fellow officers by stepping down, and of exploiting the killings of two deputies in 2012 for political gain in a flier that Hoover sent out under the heading, “These aren’t the headlines we grew up with ...”
Hoover — who took 43 percent of the primary vote, about 900 votes behind Tregre — says he was just laying out the facts.
The political honeymoon for Tregre was almost nonexistent. Within two months of his swearing-in, two of his deputies, Jeremy Triche and Brandon Nielsen, were slain in an ambush. Less than a month later, Hurricane Isaac punished St. John, spreading floodwaters across large swaths of the parish.
Last year, another deputy, Nolan Anderson, was gunned down, this time by fellow officers during a domestic dispute, in a shooting deemed justifiable.
Tregre’s office faced new criticism this year over his handling of conflicting allegations by narcotics deputies about the bloodying of a suspect during a search last year. Another deputy was recently arrested and accused of committing perjury on the witness stand.
Tregre, 49, of LaPlace, describes his first term as a trial by fire that he has emerged from with a department on the upswing. He grades himself out as a B-minus for his first term.
“I’ve had things happen that some sheriffs have never had happen in their entire existence. We didn’t lose any lives (in Isaac). I’m going to take credit to a point,” he said.
“I’ve seen real good days, and I’ve seen real bad days. I think my experiences dealing with Isaac and the officers (deaths) ... God just gives you what you can handle, and he’s definitely given me a lot. I’m still here. I think the citizens know I’m here to work.”
Tregre cites a push to better train and equip his staff of about 260, using new equipment that includes an armored vehicle and crime cameras deployed across the parish — some of it funded by a sales tax increase that voters approved two years ago to generate a little more than $2 million a year.
Hoover, 50, of Garyville, touts a lengthy career working under three St. John sheriffs, beginning as a patrol officer in 1990. He argues that Tregre too often makes excuses for failing to deliver on campaign pledges four years ago that included opening a sheriff’s substation on the West Bank and staffing up to 20 deputies for each platoon.
An annual budget shortfall has led Tregre to borrow millions against future tax revenue to cover the department’s $23 million budget each year, drawing more criticism from Hoover.
The challenger said his first order of business, if he wins, will be to pore over the department’s books and weed out excessive spending.
The borrowing now stands at $3 million this year, said Jeffrey Clement, the office’s chief civil deputy. Despite Hoover’s criticism, Clement said, the fund shortfall started under Jones, and the department has been clawing its way back, following a hit from hurricane-related expenses, with a plan to end the borrowing cycle in a few years.
In the meantime, crime rates have risen. Major crimes in the parish rose by 9 percent in the first half of 2015, according to department figures. There were no murders over that span, though at least four killings have occurred in the parish since July 1.
Tregre said he’s been focused on violent crimes, which in most categories have seen a decline.
He also acknowledges that his rearranging of the force — of which Hoover’s demotion was a part — ruffled feathers inside the agency, though he says he’s given his deputies more input. “When I became sheriff, this department was way too top-heavy. You had more chiefs than Indians, too many chiefs,” Tregre said.
Hoover argues that the shake-up showed wayward leadership and that the department has become insular under Tregre.
“The Sheriff’s Office is under the assumption that we can do everything ourselves, and that’s not true. We need to work with the civic groups, the business groups, the church groups, bring that relationship back in,” he said. “People need to feel safe and comfortable to trust an individual and an organization in order to invest in it.”
Tregre described the West Bank substation and a hike in patrol manpower as goals that have been slowed by Isaac and the deputy shootings, but also by financial reality and recruiting challenges.
The target of reaching 20-deputy platoons has yet to materialize. On Friday, the patrol platoons numbered 13 officers, including supervisors.
“I’d love to have that,” Tregre said of more manpower, noting that he’s given deputies an 8 percent raise. “When you see officers being killed just for being in uniform right now, there’s nobody jumping out of airplanes to be a police officer.”
Hoover’s resignation this year is a particularly sore spot for Tregre. The sheriff says Hoover “abandoned his officers,” an allegation of betrayal that has led to heated exchanges between the two camps in fliers, letters to voters and on Facebook.
Hoover, who helped coordinate the parish Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, developed a junior deputy program that he criticizes Tregre for failing to implement. But Tregre said he was forced to shelve the plan only because he lost a DARE officer — namely, Hoover.
“He says he’s going to implement all these partnerships, child programs, youth programs. Nothing prevented him from doing that when he was working for me,” Tregre said.
More bitterness has erupted over a Hoover flier that Tregre took as a suggestion that he somehow was at fault for the deputy killings. In response, Hoover scoffed at the idea he was belittling the sacrifice of fallen officers.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.