Reporting police misdeeds no easy task

Last week, word was already filtering around Terrebonne Parish that a veteran deputy had been cited by a Louisiana State Police trooper for driving while intoxicated. The deputy, Lt. Tara Whitney, resigned a few days later, ending what had been an acclaimed career in the department’s juvenile division.

Whitney’s resignation marked the third time in as many months that talented members of Sheriff Jerry Larpenter’s team quit because of legal entanglements.

Maj. Darryl Stewart and Capt. Dawn Foret both were charged by federal authorities in connection with record-keeping that saw each claim more money than they were entitled to through taxpayer funded programs designed to beef up enforcement. In Stewart’s case, it was extra duty to see that more drug suspects were taken down. In the case of Foret, the target was underage drinking.

We cannot fault federal authorities for finally taking action on an investigation that had languished for four years, although the length of time raises questions about how wisely resources were used. It is hoped that U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite, who is known for a zero-tolerance approach regarding public corruption, will also be able to devote attention to clearing local streets of the violence that has plagued them. Houma in particular is awash with illegal guns, illegal drugs and the loss of life that results in both. He has already promised to give help to violence prevention programs and we look forward to seeing how he will ultimately respond

The case of Tara Whitney is different, having occurred while she was off-duty. That she blew a .26 on the breathalyzer would likely have resulted in restrictions on her ability to drive, which would have made for problems on the job. In that regard, her decision to quit was likely well chosen. We wish her luck in her attempts to reclaim life and career.

Out staff got not joy from reporting on any of these situations. All three of these officers are well known to reporters in this area. Dawn Foret in particular, who worked at a local newspaper while still in high school, has long enjoyed good relations with local media representatives, has always been responsive, and has a reputation for being a dedicated detective. Darryl Stewart has testified in some of the most important drug cases in this parish, and has given unwavering dedication. Tara Whitney has also earned a reputation for effective work with youngsters who are both victims and perpetrators.

Some readers have questioned whether the focus we have placed on these cases is fair, and asked why we seemed to be singling out law enforcement officers. Out answer is simple.

Yes, law enforcement officers must, unfortunately, be subject to scrutiny above and beyond that afforded other people. It is important to let people know that the justice system functions even when the targets are those who are a part of it.

In the case of Tara Whitney, we shared with readers details of her arrest that included her blood alcohol count and the fact that she received a summons and was not jailed pending a bond.

Our investigation showed that this was not an isolated incident. In Terrebonne Parish 19 people have been released with summonses instead of being booked, although the number is still a statistical rarity. Our intention was not to take a stand one way or another on whether the trooper who arrested Whitney used proper discretion. We saw no indication that the discretion was improperly used.

But the ultimate arbiters of this are the people who read the newspaper and its online edition, Facilitating the free flow of ideas and opinions among a free people is what we do when we are doing our job at its best. We take seriously the role of being the transparent lens through which all readers may view what is going on in the world around them, and how local officials they elect and in whom they place trust are performing.

We wish we lived in a world where ostensibly good police officers did not get tripped up by petty misdeeds. And we wish to recognize that their missteps do not erase their prior dedication, or the fact that in many cases they once were heroes.