Recent arrest of former registrar of voters puts ‘honorary commissions’ in spotlight _lowres

Advocate staff photo by TERRY JONES -- Pictured is Nathaniel Bankston's honorary deputy sheriff commission from West Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office.

Louisiana’s unlikeliest deputy sheriff ever has to be the great comedian Mort Sahl.

No, Sahl did not hurtle around the bayous in a squad car. He didn’t live here, and even if he had, he couldn’t have collared any wrongdoers, because his commission was purely honorary. He was issued a badge because his brother-in-law at the time was Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee.

But you don’t have to marry the sheriff’s sister to get an honorary badge in Louisiana. There must be thousands of them nestling in wallets from one end of the state to the other. They mean no more than the stars kids pin on themselves when playing Wild West games, and are supposed to be just a token of appreciation for friends of the local sheriff. They are, in most hands, harmless, and Deputy Sahl no doubt regarded his as a joke.

But, inevitably, every now and then some jackass will flash his toy badge in order to throw his weight around. The latest to do so is former Baton Rouge Registrar of Voters Nat Bankston, who wound up in jail on a charge of impersonating a police officer. Bankston was not even in East Baton Rouge or West Baton Rouge parishes, where his “credentials” were issued, when he pulled over another driver last week. It was a Livingston Parish deputy who arrived on the scene and arrested him.

This was no spur-of-the-moment stunt on Bankston’s part, for he was well equipped to play cop. He had fitted his car with flashing lights and a siren, had “FBI” stamped on his clothes and carried bogus credentials in the form of an honorary deputy’s commission from West Baton Rouge and a long-expired reserve deputy’s badge from East Baton Rouge.

Bankston held his honorary commission because he is an old friend of West Baton Rouge Sheriff Mike Cazes and just asked for one. He presumably intended to impersonate a police officer from the start, and this is unlikely to have been the first time he harassed another driver.

Cazes, who has been sheriff for 12 years, has handed out 200 honorary commissions. “I’ve had maybe four or five abuse it in hopes of getting out of trouble,” he said, which he evidently thought showed that there was nothing to worry about. In fact, if only a handful of the sheriff’s friends are flashing their badges to avoid, say, a speeding ticket, that is reason enough to get rid of them. You can bet that many holders of honorary commissions figure they have authority to flout the law, even if they don’t go so far as Bankston and purport to enforce it.

The badges, styled “Official Commission,” emblazoned “Sheriff’s Office,” and including a photograph of the pretend deputy, are virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. They do bear a disclaimer to the effect that they confer no arrest powers, but nobody is going to read the fine print when pulled over on the highway, or even demand proof of authority.

Cazes revoked Bankston’s after the arrest, but sees no reason to stop issuing honorary commissions. “Every other sheriff does it,” he said.

Not all of them, in fact. Jefferson Parish, for instance, has quit doling them out, a spokesman for Lee’s successor, Newell Normand, said when reporters surveyed sheriffs’ offices in 2009 after Algiers Assessor Tom Arnold was spotted weaving at high speed through Causeway traffic. Arnold said at the time he didn’t know the blue lights he had affixed to his car were illegal or that his deputy’s commission, from then-Orleans Parish Sheriff Paul Valteau, was only honorary.

As if Arnold had not already made himself look dumb enough, Valteau then produced a letter he had sent to all honorary commission holders two years earlier warning that the badge should never be used to “suggest you are a law enforcement officer.” Arnold wound up pleading guilty to speeding and improper uses of emergency lights.

Valteau had sent out his reminder because another holder of an honorary commission, then New Orleans City Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, evidently felt it entitled her to drive at up to 100 mph on I-10 and the hard shoulder. She yelled, “Do you know who I am?” at a state trooper who pulled her over, which is practically asking for a ticket, but somehow she never got one.

Such scenes will be repeated unless the sheriffs find some other way to flatter friendly voters. It’s for sure that “we don’t need no stinkin’ badges.”

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.