Webre applauds passage of Lafourche Parish jail tax

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Fun for All: Construction projects offer locals variety of choices from sports parks to pavilions
January 27, 2015
Infant deaths decreasing
January 27, 2015

The people of Lafourche Parish agreed to two things most don’t like.

An added tax.


And an added tax for prisoners.

But Lafourche Parish Sheriff Craig Webre called the passage of the two-tenths of a percent sales tax for the construction and operations of a state-of-the-art jail his department’s most significant accomplishment in 2014.

“I often tell people there’s only one thing that voters and citizens despise more than paying taxes, and that’s inmates, so when you are going to the voters asking them to do two things they don’t like to do, one to pay taxes and two to pay taxes to support the inmate population, that’s like moving a bolder up a mountain,” Webre said. “But nevertheless we have a legal and a moral responsibility to provide a safe and secure and constitutional jail for Lafourche Parish and that jail directly impacts the safety and security of the people who live here.”


The public approved the tax May 3 by a 16 percent margin. Construction of the 600-bed jail is expected to cost around $30 million, according to Webre.

The sheriff said the new jail is necessary because the current one, with a capacity for 244 inmates, is not only overcrowded, but it is decades old as it was built in 1968 and expanded in 1977. It has been battling space issues since 1995.

Webre said the parish needs to house about 100 extra inmates, on average, per day, costing the department money to ship inmates to jails across the state.


“For many years it has been the weakest link in the criminal justice system,” the sheriff said. “It is one of the most rewarding accomplishments in this office in the nearly 24 years I have had the honor of serving as sheriff, and it’s a testament to the trust the men and women of the sheriff’s office have earned by day in and day out doing a yeomen’s job embracing the honor of public service and taking their responsibility seriously and being accountable to the public in every way we should be accountable financially, professionally, technically.”

After the passage of the tax, Webre established an external advisory committee, inviting representatives from every sector of the criminal justice system such as the courts, the district attorney, the indigent defender, probation and parole, local law enforcement and all of the stakeholders in the jail including parish government, the library board, ACLU, NAACP, faith-based community, school system, chamber of commerce and the local bar association. The committee has met several times since the passage of the tax to discuss the proper steps to take in the construction of the jail.

According to Webre, the group identified four or five potential jail sites – all in a two-mile radius of the current jail, suggested the hiring of consultant James Rowenhorst and put together a Request For Qualifications for planning the facility.


“There were 20 or 22 submissions. We narrowed the list down to thee. The top three we have submitted RFP’s, Request For Proposals,” the sheriff explained.

Last Wednesday, the committee heard presentations from the three proposals. Webre said he hopes a decision will be made by the beginning of February. From there, it’s all about putting pencil to paper and designing the jail. Webre expects that process to take six to 12 months.

“We’re going to hopefully get it done sooner rather than later, but haste makes waste. We’re not going to rush the process for the sake of expediency because this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for us to be able to build a jail that will meet the needs of the parish and fulfill the goals of rehabilitation and safe and secure incarceration,” Webre said. “Once the design is complete, we can break ground and we can start pouring concrete which is really what we all want to get done as soon as possible.”


Webre expects the jail to be ready for occupancy in 2017.

Promotions trickling up

After spending nearly 35 years with the Lafourche Parish Sheriff’s Office and more than a decade as Webre’s right hand man, Chief Deputy Bud Dill retired six months ago.


Because of the stability of the sheriff’s office Webre prides itself on, he promoted from within rather than seek a replacement from outside of the department.

Thirty-one-year Lafourche Parish Sheriff’s Office employee Todd Diaz was promoted from major and head of the criminal division to chief deputy, and Jeremy Granier was promoted to fill Diaz’s old role.

“I want the security of people who have gone through hurricanes and oil spills and Mardi Gras and things that we view on a day to day basis,” Webre said. “… We have some new people in leadership positions which is always a good opportunity to get a different perspective, to get different ideas, to try new things. That’s been a major transition for the last six months.”


Diaz worked his way up from deputy all the way to the highest non-elected position within the sheriff’s office – a career pinnacle for the 49-year-old who called himself a nose-to-the-grindstone kind of guy and not a politician.

“This is how I’m going to close out my career which is a big achievement, a big goal,” Diaz said. “There’s only one step higher, and that’s the sheriff, and you have to run for sheriff. It’s an elected position, of course, which I don’t aspire to do. I’m happy at this level and this is where I’m going to hopefully retire with the best wishes of the sheriff if I do a good job, so I really appreciated his support and trust in me to do the job.”

Communications Center


As technology changes, so does policing.

And after spending more than a half-century in dilapidated buildings out of radio frequency necessity, the influx of communication technology allowed the sheriff’s office to move from three small buildings strategically located throughout the elongated parish to 60,000-square-foot structure two years ago.

The old Coca-Cola Plant – purchased with a lion’s share of the help from a Homeland Security matching grant – is the new home of dispatching for the Lafourche Parish Sheriff’s Office, the Lockport and Golden Meadow Police departments, nine volunteer fire districts and, soon, the Greater Lafourche Port Commission.


“We have moved from having what I would say is if not the worst, one of the worst communications centers in the state to one of the best in the country,” Webre said.

About 20 employees work at the Communications Center – fewer than were previously needed before technology caught up with the times.

“Everything going on was manually written. These logs would just go on for days and days and days. Technology has stepped up to make it much more accountable, much more efficient,” Webre explained.


Embracing technology

Just about every aspect of policing has taken advantage of technological advancements under Webre’s watch.

Most notably, the Law Enforcement Database (LED) allows provides instantaneous information at officers’ fingertips that previously would have taken minutes to receive and jot down from dispatchers.


“When you stop a car for speeding, while we still have dispatchers and we still from time to time may need to keep an eye on the suspect in some situations, but regardless of that the deputy now with the laptop in his vehicle has the ability to run that license plate, find out the criminal history of this person, whether they’re supposed to be driving or whether they have any active warrants. That can all be done from the patrol unit whereas it used to be where you basically called in the license plate, the suspect’s information and you just kind of hung out there until they got it back to you,” the sheriff explained.

Webre said technological advances have removed the manual labor in sifting through fingerprints to find matches and has resulted in more arrests and convictions in the last two years than in the previous 200.

“In the old days, we had 100 million cards, and you would only do that in a very serious crime like a rape or a homicide and unless you had a name of a suspect,” the sheriff said, “Yeah, you could immediately go to the prints and say, ‘Yeah, this him or not her or him or not her,’ but if you just had prints without any idea who the perpetrator was, you had to start narrowing it down manually with magnifying glasses. It would be two or three weeks or two or three months sometimes [to find a match]. Now, in a matter of 30 seconds, you get a potential match on fingerprints.”


Checkpoints

Because more people lose their life or are seriously injured from impaired and unrestrained car crashes than any other crime in Lafourche Parish, Webre has continued implementing the department’s weekly seat belt checkpoints and monthly DWI checkpoints.

“It’s a good opportunity for positive officer-community interaction, because the general public appreciates that,” Webre said. “The people who pay their insurance, the people who wear their seatbelts, the people who don’t drink and drive, don’t text and drive, don’t have suspended licenses, they want to know that you are making sure the guy sitting in the car ahead of them and the car behind them is also living up to their obligations. We get a lot of compliments and a lot of positive public response to that.”


Since the inception of the award six years ago, Lafourche Parish has been honored consecutively by the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission for making the most DWI arrests of all parishes with populations between 50,000 and 100,000.

At the same time, Lafourche has seen its safety belt use numbers increase. The number of alcohol-related crashes decreased in 2014 despite there being more fatal crashes. Webre said his department must now turn its attention to distracted driving, such as texting while driving.

“We live in a society today where there are many, many more people driving, and there are many more distractions as well as impairments, so whether you take a pistol and shoot someone or you take a 2,000-pound automobile and go head on and crash them because you’re texting and drinking and either or both, you still have taken a life and created a huge loss to the family and that’s our role to preserve life and property,” Webre said.


The days of the current Lafourche Parish jail with an inmate capacity of 244 are numbered. Sheriff Craig Webre expects the new jail with an inmate capacity of 600 to be ready in 2017.

 

FILE PHOTO