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.

Playing cop worked up to a point for Nat Bankston, who managed to pull over another driver Monday night, authorities said, by using flashing lights and a siren.

The 67-year-old former East Baton Rouge registrar of voters, wearing clothing marked “FBI,” carried identification cards from the East and West Baton Rouge parishes Sheriff’s offices. But when a legitimate Livingston Parish deputy arrived on the scene, Bankston soon found himself booked into jail — where he remained as of Friday afternoon — after the deputy confirmed he was not a commissioned officer, according to a Livingston Parish affidavit. The driver Bankston detained was let go.

Bankston’s collection of law enforcement IDs included an honorary commission from the West Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office and a retired commission from the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office, where Bankston served as a volunteer reserve deputy until 2008, according to those agencies.

While sheriffs make clear that honorary commissions are merely tokens, Bankston’s arrest highlights the peculiar role these keepsakes can play in law enforcement. Police agencies say they’re a tradition akin to mayors granting “keys to the city,” but critics wonder whether they’re relics of a good-old-boy culture and prone to misuse.

Commission cards are IDs officers must carry that generally show a picture, name and other information demonstrating an officer’s certification. Honorary commissions are similar cards with symbolic value, often given by law enforcement agencies to civilian friends or supporters, with disclaimers printed on them stating the cards don’t confer arrest powers.

“The risks of abuse outweigh the potential goodwill that’s built,” said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a watchdog group based in New Orleans. He called honorary commissions “get out of jail free” cards and said the practice of handing them out “is a potential public safety disaster waiting to happen.”

Goyeneche said if law enforcement officers want to honor civilians, they should issue plaques or certificates, not small cards that by their very size imply they’re to be kept in a wallet, possibly for wriggling out of traffic stops.

“You’d be naive not to think that it wouldn’t be used in that capacity,” he said.

But West Baton Rouge Sheriff Mike Cazes, who gave Bankston an honorary commission on June 4, defended the ritual.

“I’ve had maybe four or five to abuse it in hopes of getting out of trouble,” he said. “Most of them I never hear from again. It’s just an honor for them to have. Every sheriff does the same thing.”

Cazes added, “I gave it to (Bankston) because I’ve been knowing him all my life. ... He asked me for one, and as a friend, I gave him one.”

Efforts to reach Bankston’s family were unsuccessful Thursday and Friday.

The West Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office has issued about 200 honorary commissions during Cazes’ 12-year tenure, he said.

About 61 people have been given the cards since 2010 by East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid Gautreaux, his spokesman Casey Rayborn Hicks said, citing available data. Bankston didn’t have an honorary commission from that agency.

“To me it just feels like — how can I describe it — acknowledging we support the Sheriff’s Office,” said Clay Young, a local business owner and podcast host. To him, being given an honorary commission by Gautreaux about a year ago was a sign of respect, he said.

“It doesn’t hold any real authority, and I don’t even keep it with me,” he added.

Paul Arrigo, president and CEO of Visit Baton Rouge, the metropolitan area’s official tourism agency, said he doesn’t know if he carries his East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office honorary commission.

“The sheriff recognized me in a positive way, and I thought it was great,” he said.

Though a police report said Bankston had an ID from the Department of Justice, neither the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Louisiana — which does not issue such cards — nor the state’s Attorney General’s Office — which does — issued honorary commissions to Bankston, representatives said.

The Baton Rouge Police Department does not give out honorary commissions, said spokesman Lt. Jonathan Dunnam.

Goyeneche said the practice might benefit sheriffs, who are elected officials and are “trying to appease some of their constituents.”

Hicks, of the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office, said the department hasn’t received complaints of the cards being exploited, but would handle any abuses appropriately, possibly by revoking the IDs.

Bankston faces up to two years in jail for his felony count of impersonating a peace officer, said 21st Judicial District Attorney Scott Perrilloux. The former registrar was also accused of possession of a Schedule IV controlled dangerous substance after a deputy found a bottle of tranquilizers prescribed to someone else. Judge Jeff Johnson of the 21st Judicial District set a bond of $35,000, according to jail records.

Cazes said he rescinded Bankston’s honorary commission after learning about Monday’s arrest.

Advocate staff writer Terry L. Jones contributed to this report. Follow Maya Lau on Twitter, @mayalau.