The Sheriff’s Office in St. John the Baptist Parish implemented a quota system in 2012 aimed at boosting the number of felony drug busts by ordering narcotics deputies to make “a minimum of six felony narcotics arrests per month,” among other benchmarks, according to an internal office memo.
The directive, spelled out on Sheriff’s Office letterhead, appears to violate a 2008 state law that banned arrest quotas at local law enforcement agencies in Louisiana.
The memo sheds new light on a troubled narcotics squad that Sheriff Mike Tregre overhauled this year, and it could further complicate the prosecution of scores of drug cases handled by the deputies who were subject to the quotas.
Just how long the system remained in effect, or whether it still does, is uncertain. Tregre, who won re-election last month, did not respond to phone or text messages this week. An assistant said he was out of town until Friday.
State law prohibits local police and sheriffs’ agencies from creating, “formally or informally, a plan to evaluate, promote, compensate or discipline a law enforcement officer on the basis of the officer making a predetermined or specified number of any type or combination of types of arrests,” or even to “suggest” it as a requirement of the job.
Leigh Ann Rood, a public defender in St. John, said an attorney for Tregre’s office turned over the memo in response to a subpoena for the personnel files of two former narcotics detectives who were accused of beating a drug suspect last year in Edgard.
“Are you kidding me?” Rood said of her reaction to the document. “If this was happening in 2012, is it still happening? And why has the state never told us about it? It’s clearly illegal, what they’re doing.”
Police quotas frequently have sparked controversy and recently drew a national spotlight with a U.S. Justice Department report on the Ferguson, Missouri, Police Department. The report found that many Ferguson cops saw their fellow residents less as citizens to protect than as “potential offenders and sources of revenue.”
Locally, a former Gretna police officer last week filed a whistleblower lawsuit accusing the Police Department there of requiring officers to write three tickets per day and make at least one arrest every two days. Gretna Deputy Police Chief Anthony Christiana denied the allegation, saying the department “does not have a quota system and has never had a quota system.”
According to a story last year in The News Star, of Monroe, the police chief of tiny Eros in Jackson Parish said he resigned because he objected to a ticket quota directive from the mayor, with a financial bonus for writing more than 10 tickets per month.
Joe McPherson, a former state senator from Rapides Parish who sponsored the law banning police quotas, said he did so because “it looked like the entire state was becoming one big speed trap” because of how important ticket revenue had become for some local agencies.
The St. John Sheriff’s Office memo, dated Oct. 2, 2012, and authored by a top Tregre deputy, Maj. Walter Chappel, was addressed to “All Narcotics Personnel Effective Immediately.” In it, Chappel lays out the demands on drug squad deputies under the heading “Goals and Objectives for the remainder of 2012.”
Chappel, who commanded the squad, wrote that each narcotics deputy was required to write “a minimum of two search warrants per month” and that paraphernalia arrests did not count toward the monthly six-arrest goal.
The memo also said each detective “is responsible for documenting a minimum of two new informants per month.” And it set an overall goal of 60 undercover cases at year’s end.
“The only exception that would exclude you from the requirements listed above is if you are scheduled to work in an undercover capacity in another jurisdiction,” the memo stated.
Chappel’s memo suggested a concern about a lack of productivity among the five deputies in the narcotics squad.
“There will be no more shifting of responsibility of arrest and report writing. ‘If you dig it up, you write it! It’s your case!’ ” the memo states. “No one should be sitting in the Narcotics Office, idle. … The street is where cases are made.”
The quotas themselves add up to trouble, said Tulane law professor Pam Metzger, a criminal law ethics expert.
With five detectives, meeting those benchmarks would mean 10 search warrants per month, or 120 a year for the narcotics squad, as well as 120 new confidential informants each year. In a parish with just 15,000 households, according to census data, about 16 of every 1,000 households each year would either be the target of a drug search warrant or home to a freshly turned informant.
At that rate, it would not be long before anyone who talked to a cop would be looked at crossways in the small community, Metzger said.
“It’s clearly in violation of state law, but it’s also in violation of prudent police practice,” Metzger said.
“Given what we know about how unreliable informants can be and how many people plead guilty, particularly in low-level drug offenses, you’re creating an unconscionable risk that people are pleading guilty or being convicted of crimes they never committed.”
Metzger called the minimums spelled out in the memo “the kind of hyper-aggressive, quota-driven policing” that overburdens prosecutors with dubious cases.
Making matters worse for St. John prosecutors is the memo itself, which Metzger said was, by nature, exculpatory evidence that must be disclosed to criminal defendants.
“If I was a defense lawyer and I had a narcotics case, this would be an incredibly important piece of evidence,” Metzger said.
Wayne Jones, the former longtime St. John sheriff whom Tregre unseated four years ago, said he never instituted drug arrest quotas for deputies.
“If they’re lackluster and you feel you have to force them to make cases, they shouldn’t be in narcotics anyway,” Jones said. “That could lead into making arrests that perhaps shouldn’t be made or perhaps are unlawful, or the cases are not strong enough to be prosecuted by the district attorney.”
St. John District Attorney Bridget Dinvaut declined to comment on the memo or its possible impact on pending or past drug prosecutions.
Rood, the defense attorney, said quota pressures may help explain why deputies in St. John Parish drug cases so often claim to have seen narcotics in plain sight.
“In so many cases, everything ‘is in plain view.’ That’s how (deputies) get (legal justification to go) into the car,” Rood said. “I’m not saying they’re angels, clearly, but my clients are not that dumb, not all of them. They know better than to leave a joint sitting in the center console.”
The directive threatens to further trouble drug prosecutions in the parish, even beyond the fallout from an episode of infighting last year among deputies in the narcotics squad over a home search in Edgard that left a cocaine suspect bloodied.
In that case, narcotics deputies turned on one other, and at least one of them lied. An internal affairs report recommended that two deputies, Hardy Schexnayder and Travis Thomas, be fired for pinning an alleged beating of drug suspect Darnell Randle on another narcotics deputy, Justin Bordelon.
Sheriff’s Office Capt. C.J. Destor concluded that Schexnayder and Thomas had turned on Bordelon out of envy over his stellar arrest figures.
Destor wrote that Bordelon had “made” 247 drug cases over his four-plus years on the force, or about 4.75 cases per month since he started in 2009. Thomas had made fewer than half that many cases over the same period, according to the report. Schexnayder, a supervisor who had returned to the department and the narcotics squad in 2012 after five years in Texas, was making fewer than three drug cases per month, according to Destor’s report.
Destor wrote that “a motive for this bitter attack against Detective Justin Bordelon could be construed as jealousy and a joint conspiracy to have (Bordelon) charged with brutality, along with the possibility of termination.”
Randle filed a federal civil rights lawsuit, claiming Schexnayder and Thomas pummeled him while he was handcuffed and that Tregre’s office also was to blame.
The two deputies denied ever beating Randle, and, on Tuesday, a jury refused to buy Randle’s story, clearing Schexnayder and Thomas of wrongdoing after a two-day trial. U.S. District Judge Lance Africk had earlier removed Tregre, Bordelon and other deputies from the case.
In the lead-up to his runoff election victory over Michael Hoover, a former colleague at the Sheriff’s Office, Tregre last month described troubles in the narcotics unit as stemming from “personal differences that turned into a professional situation” among the detectives.
“They just couldn’t seem to get along,” Tregre said. “I’m not going to sugarcoat it: They did cause problems for some of these cases. Not all of them.”
Tregre transferred most of the narcotics squad in March and brought in new deputies, more than a year after the internal probe, but he didn’t fire anyone.
Bordelon left the Sheriff’s Office after he was suspended in May over his arrest in Jefferson Parish for allegedly hitting his daughter in the face with an open hand and placing her in a body hold by applying pressure to her arms.
Thomas resigned in April, shortly after he was reassigned to jail security. He has since filed a defamation lawsuit against Tregre’s office because of Destor’s report.
Tregre demoted Schexnayder and assigned him to watch the door of the sleepy Edgard courthouse.
The taint from the incident has defense lawyers in dozens of St. John Parish drug cases crying foul and pressing to introduce evidence of lying drug cops.
In a hearing scheduled Friday in Edgard, attorneys for 15 criminal defendants are expected to raise Chappel’s memo on the quotas as another example of why District Judge J. Sterling Snowdy should allow them to exploit the drug squad scandal in their defenses.
Dinvaut’s office is opposing those attempts.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.