The candidates vying to replace incumbent Sheriff Louis Ackal have echoed common themes in their months of campaigning: Deputies need better training to instill and improve relationships with the communities they serve, and the current sheriff has failed in that regard.

It’s a criticism that has put Ackal on the defensive as he campaigns to keep his seat. In the meantime, challengers David “Spike” Boudoin, Roberta Boudreaux, Bobby Jackson and Joe LeBlanc — all of whom are former Sheriff’s Office employees under previous administrations — aim to take it.

Ackal insists he’s improved the department in his two terms, but his tenure has been plagued in recent years with documented instances of deputy misconduct.

“I’ve not been ashamed,” Ackal said in an interview earlier this month. “If I’m doing wrong, I’ll tell you I’m doing wrong. I’ve arrested officers in the past. I’ve turned them over to the FBI for civil rights violations.”

One of those men included a former deputy, Cody Laperouse, whom a federal judge in July sentenced to one day in jail for assaulting a handcuffed man during the 2013 Sugar Cane Festival. When a video of the incident surfaced on YouTube, Ackal fired Laperouse and requested the FBI’s intervention.

But more serious incidents have since come to light, prompting ongoing federal investigations.

Federal authorities this year subpoenaed a 2012 video showing an Iberia Parish corrections officer using a police dog to attack a prone inmate, while the federal investigation into the case of Victor White III — who died in 2014 from a gunshot wound while handcuffed in the back seat of a deputy’s car — remains open.

In addition to White, five people have died in the sheriff’s custody since Ackal took office in 2008.

One of those men was Michael Jones, who a district judge ruled died when former warden Wesley Hayes used excessive force when he sat on the man. Adding to Ackal’s plight, Hayes has since filed a whistleblower suit against his former boss alleging he was fired for complaining about inmate beatings.

Ackal insists the man quit on his own accord.

“That hurt,” Ackal said. “That’s not how I am. That’s not how I do those things.”

Ackal began his career at the Sheriff’s Office and later retired as a captain from State Police before going to work for the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association, the state Attorney General’s Office and as a public safety assistant to Gov. Mike Foster.

He bowed out of Foster’s second term, instead “living the dream” in a Northwest Colorado mountain town until he said he felt called to return to New Iberia law enforcement.

“On my visits home, I was being told so many things from people — how bad things had gotten,” Ackal said.

When he took office in 2008, Ackal took the local media on a tour of the jail to showcase the run-down facilities he said he’s since improved.

Built in 1990, the jail never had a permanent funding source, forcing parish officials to find operating money from wherever they could as they struggled to maintain it. In 1996, the parish reached an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to settle a lawsuit alleging prisoner abuse in the jail. The settlement allowed the DOJ to monitor the jail for the next six months.

One candidate, Boudreaux — a former 18-year Sheriff’s Office employee who later worked as a warrant officer in Vermilion Parish — last served as warden before leaving her post when Ackal came to the helm.

Boudreaux fell short of accepting full responsibility for the jail’s conditions when she left, suggesting jail deficiencies are problematic with most law enforcement agencies.

“It was my job to address them when they were brought to my attention. I did the best that I could do. I don’t want to necessarily admit to all fault,” Boudreaux said.

Ackal since made reforms to the jail: relaunching the jail’s 40-acre farm, turning over management of the work-release program to a private company to save money, cracking down on contraband and making laborers out of some inmates who maintain the department’s vehicles and those of other local governments.

More stringent rules implemented by Ackal require inmates to get haircuts and remain clean-shaven. He relegates unruly inmates to pink bedding and uniforms.

Ackal also said he takes pride in changes he’s made, including training deputies to investigate cyber and sex crimes while keeping up with offenders, adding a polygraph and crime-scene investigation division, solving all but one of eight cold-case murders open when he took office and implementing the use of body cameras for the force.

Ackal has struggled to properly handle mentally ill inmates. At least two of the inmates who died in his custody suffered from psychological issues, and he maintains his employees are ill-equipped to properly deal with them — a problem split between the Sheriff’s Office and the parish government that provides its medical services.

There are no nurses on staff with the capacity to treat individuals suffering from psychological problems in a time of crisis, according to information obtained from the Iberia Parish government, which pays for medical services at the jail through its agreement with the Sheriff’s Office.

Through a private health care company based in Atlanta, the city employs four full-time licensed practical nurses to work at the jail and one full-time registered nurse, but they’re trained in physical medicine. The one psychiatrist on staff works two hours a week managing prescriptions for inmates taking medications for mental ailments, but other than that, no one on-site is equipped to provide mental care.

Boudreaux further suggested it’s a statewide issue that should be taken up with the Department of Health and Hospitals.

She also pointed to the Sheriff’s Office’s relationship with parish government, which she said could also use improvement. Two candidates are in the race this year to take former Sheriff and outgoing Parish President Romo Romero’s seat.

“Right now, it’s splintered. We need to be a more cohesive group,” Boudreaux said.

Parish government in 2004 made an agreement to fold the New Iberia Police Department into the Sheriff’s Office, leaving the agency used to policing rural areas responsible for handling inner-city issues.

Another candidate, Boudoin — who worked for the Sheriff’s Office for 22 years before moving to the 16th Judicial District Attorney’s Office — said the merger led to his decision to leave.

“The same night the judge put his John Henry on the contract, I was out the door,” Boudoin said. “I just knew it was going to take more training that they weren’t prepared for.”

The need for more training for deputies is something on which the four candidates vying to replace Ackal agree.

LeBlanc — a former deputy and U.S. Customs drug enforcement officer who now works as an electrician — is running his sixth campaign for sheriff. He suggested training the officers to deal better with the community when they encounter residents on a call. He said this training is vital to improving the sheriff’s operations overall.

“You can’t have a backbone when one half of them are good officers and the other half have attitude,” LeBlanc said.

Jackson, a U.S. Army veteran who now works as a private investigator and conducts background checks for U.S. Customs and Immigration, agreed, adding that he wants to see more deputies who are from the parish.

Jackson said he wants to offer incentives to officers to not only join the department but to stay, which he said would help improve the workforce. He also said proper training is “the key” to maintaining positive relationships within the community.

Boudoin has run his campaign on a promise to bring values, morals and ethical standards to the department so that “respect from the community will come back,” and thereby boosting deputies’ morale.

Regardless of each candidate’s intentions, the next administration will still operate in a declining economic environment that’s seen a double-digit drop in sales tax collections this year, including a 17.4 percent dip in May. Parish officials estimate a 10 percent drop in collections will continue at least through the end of next year as the decrease in oil prices adversely affects Louisiana’s oil economy.

It’s a problem made worse by the yearslong trend of business closures in the parish with Ackal saying it’s contributed to a decreased budget each year he’s been in office. Right now, the budget is $22 million to employ about 300 people and oversee about 500 inmates.

“It’s depressed here,” Ackal said.

Barring major strides to improve the parish’s economic vitality, the next elected sheriff will be expected to do more — provide more training, recruit more, confront shortcomings in mental health care — with fewer financial means to do so.

Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825.