On Tuesday, Louisiana's registered voters in several dozen towns and villages with a few thousand or fewer residents, along with those in a handful or larger cities, will elect police chiefs. Actually, only about half will have this chance, as around half of these contests have just a single candidate.
French Settlement's police chief stepped down from his elected position on Wednesday, a day after his arrest on counts of malfeasance in office.
Which is one more than some places have. The community of Lucky — unluckily — had no one file for the office. Calvin was predestined for the same. Citizens of Noble also face this ignoble prospect. And Palmetto was bugged by the same indifference.
These municipalities are shaped by Louisiana’s Lawrason Act from 1898. It implemented a procedure to recognize new municipalities, replacing the previous need to pass a special legislative act for each one.
The act reflected public distrust, prevalent in that era, of centralized government power, particularly in the South. It mandated that municipalities have several executives, but required that voters elect only two: a mayor and police chief (called a marshal in a few jurisdictions). The act also authorizes a referendum process that lets citizens empower the mayor to appoint the police chief.
An elected chief has a lot of autonomy. The mayor and aldermen craft a budget for police and may make final decisions on hiring and firing police personnel, but the chief administers all other aspects of operating a law enforcement agency.
Any citizen who qualifies as an elector and resident may run, regardless of law enforcement background. But even if voters elect an experienced lawman, that person earns the job not from demonstrated ability but by receiving the most votes. Running a good campaign and/or having the personality to leverage family relations and friendships into votes brings victory and delivers a job with a badge and full-time salary. These skills have little to do with providing superior law enforcement.
Worse, the fragmented executive authority this arrangement produces can lead to friction with other elected leaders that hampers service delivery. And, worst of all, with accountability imposed only once every four years and for reasons that may have more to do with popularity than performance, temptation for corrupt behavior increases. Since last spring, half a dozen Louisiana elected chiefs have been arrested for a variety of alleged crimes.
That includes French Settlement’s Chief Harry Brignac, the poster child for what can go wrong with having an elected chief. Last year, citizens complained when his wife drove a village police car in a parade, contrary to state law and city orders. Some weeks later, she fled officers in a vehicle, which led to no-contest pleas for DWI and driving with a suspended license.
Undaunted, at her husband’s request last month, she drove the police car again. When pulled over with her license suspended, she was booked again, and Brignac was arrested for malfeasance in office for having her operate the vehicle.
That marked the second time in three months he stood accused of that offense. Earlier, he had faced allegations that he used town funds for a personal purchase. He maintains his innocence and chalked up the turmoil to the town’s mayor and alderman wanting to force his resignation. He resigned on Wednesday.
Almost all elected Louisiana police chiefs appear to perform their duties honestly. But the appointment of chiefs permits greater vetting and scrutiny from other elected officials, promotes less conflict within the executive branch, and, especially in smaller municipalities, invites more cost-efficient governance.
The Louisiana Legislature should change statutes to preclude, except for the largest municipalities, the option to elect police chiefs.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University-Shreveport. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics at www.between-lines.com and writes about Louisiana legislation at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate or email firstname.lastname@example.org. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.