Our View: Accountability is key for cops, officials alike

This week’s issue of The Times contains a detailed package of stories relating to what are referred to by police agencies as “extra-duty details,” the hiring out of individual officers to provide security for private businesses, or for public events operated by non-profit agencies.

The basic thesis of these stories is that the Houma Police Department, which has a history of problems relating to the details its officers’ work, needs to improve, particularly in the area of accountability.

A number of elements that come to light in these stories are disturbing on several levels.

The first is the refusal by officers to finish out a detail at the Rougarou Festival last year, for which each was paid $25 per hour with a minimum of four hours.

After working the parade portion of the festival, about two to two-and-one half hours tops, the officers hired for the detail requested their checks for the four hours. A request that they remain for the full four hours was refused, compromising the safety of one officer who remained working in the midst of 5,000 or more people – some of whom were drinking – was denied. The checks for the officers were disbursed at that point.

Records obtained by The Times indicate that two officers properly and accurately recorded their time worked. As many as eight others did not, and the records they signed clearly show the times 5:30-9:30 p.m. as the hours worked, even though this was a blatant falsehood.

Chief Dana Coleman, who was not chief at that time, has suggested this was done only to expedite record-keeping relating to the $2 per hour each officer kicks back to the parish to cover the cost of off-duty detail tracking.

Coleman – who was not involved in the situation at all when it occurred – needs to recognize that any record signed by a police officer must be accurate to a fault. If forms used suborn the filing of false records, then the forms need to be changed. Truthful statements by police officers are the bulwark of our criminal justice system. Officers testify under oath in court every day. False statements on a time sheet don’t work well under cross-examination in a criminal trial.

Duplantis, who was chief at the time, is not without fault. No officers or superiors who may have abetted them – perhaps even advised them – were disciplined. In an interview, Duplantis said this was because he was hamstrung by litigation brought by Sgt. Kyle Faulk, in which Faulk eventually prevailed.

We don’t find that acceptable either.

The Houma Police Department is entering a new era, under a new chief and, after elections, with a new parish president calling the shots.

As consultant reports we have written about in the past clearly indicate, problems within the HPD when Duplantis took over were legion. Many of those problems have been abated under Duplantis’ watch.

But more work remains to be done by Coleman as he takes the reins. The Rougarou Festival episode from last year evinces problems with attitude within the department that clearly still need addressing.

For one thing, the practice of not using written contracts to memorialize the agreements between the police department and those wishing to privately hire its presence and authority is unsound at best and reckless at worst. The practice of private entities directly paying officers – used by all local police agencies with the exception of the Lafourche Parish Sheriff’s Office – is also ill-advised, as some of the best national experts we were able to consult for our story makes clear.

HPD’s response that business owners don’t want to sign contracts is unacceptable, and clearly a case of the tail wagging the dog. Businesses that hire security from private companies are required to sign contracts that say what the rules are. A public police agency should require nothing less.

Overall, we hope that our package of stories will illuminate the need for reflection by whoever becomes Terrebonne’s new parish president on what changes may need to be considered in how the HPD functions.

And we wish Chief Coleman the very best of fortune as he sets out to make necessary changes.