The office that incoming Iberia Parish Sheriff Tommy Romero moves into this week is far different from the one his predecessor inherited.
In 2008, the cost of using the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office to police the city of New Iberia — and the number of deputies on the city streets under the intergovernmental agreement — had already become an issue, one that would continue to fester for the next decade. The New Iberia Police Department had been disbanded four years earlier, leading to the first of many issues of excessive force claimed against the IPSO, when deputies used tear gas to clear a crowd from Hopkins Street during an independent street party held on the last night of the annual Sugar Cane Festival. At the time, Sheriff Sid Hebert said the deputies warned the crowd and that there were no injuries — claims many in the largely African-American crowd disputed.
Surprisingly, that was not a low point in the relationship between the IPSO and the community it served. Over the next decade and a half, violence against the black community, both on the street and in the parish jail, would come to hover over the IPSO like a thick dark blanket of soot. Lawsuits would be filed, investigations would be conducted and eventually nearly a dozen IPSO deputies and officers would be indicted and tried for civil rights violations — including Iberia Parish Sheriff Louis Ackal, who would be acquitted while nine others were convicted and sentenced to federal prison.
The issues in Iberia Parish did not start with Ackal. And they will not end with him. Which is why Romero will have his hands full in the coming weeks. Aside from earning and keeping the trust of the community, other challenges are waiting as the swearing in of the next chief law enforcement officer for the parish approaches this Wednesday.
Attempts to contact Ackal for comments on his legacy for this story were unsuccessful.
A different time
When Ackal was sworn in as sheriff in 2008, the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office had operating revenues of about $20 million, with more than $3 million of that coming from an intergovernmental agreement to provide law enforcement in the city of New Iberia. That number would double before that agreement ended in 2018.
As of the last audit, the IPSO now has revenues of about $14 million, with a much more limited mission. The New Iberia Police Department has taken over responsibility for law enforcement within the municipality, which on some days accounted for more than 70 percent of the calls for service IPSO received.
As a result of the loss of income from the contract with the city of New Iberia, the staffing at IPSO has dropped, although the scope of its patrolling and call responsibilities has also shrunk. But other financial issues are also on the horizon, largely self-inflicted monetary woes.
The price of justice
The federal investigation into the IPSO, which led to the trial of Ackal and the leadership of his Narcotics Division and IMPACT unit, as well as several other deputies, opened the floodgates for civil actions. According to the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association, the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Law Enforcement Program paid out more than $3.8 million in legal fees and damages in civil suits between Jan. 1, 2018 and March 1, 2019, $325,000 of that to settle the civil lawsuit the mother of Victor White III’s child filed against the IPSO.
White’s death in 2014 was a flash point for many of the other legal actions against the IPSO. It led to protests, national news coverage and more interest from investigators of the IPSO’s inner workings.
White was arrested for possession of narcotics late March 2, 2014, as deputies responded to a reported fight in the 300 block of South Lewis Street in New Iberia. When deputies tried to remove him from a patrol vehicle for booking in the Iberia Parish Jail, he resisted the deputies, according to a Louisiana State Police investigative report.
According to the report, at some point during the scuffle White, still handcuffed, fatally shot himself with a .25-caliber pistol he had concealed during his initial frisking and search. The IPSO immediately called in LSP to handle the investigation, which concluded that the gunshot wound was self-inflicted, even though White was shot in the chest while his hands were cuffed behind his back. An early report from the LSP public information officer had stated White III had been shot in the back, further complicating the investigation.
The IPSO has refused to release how much has been paid out in settlements altogether. But the IPSO was dropped from the LSLEP insurance plan and had to seek another insurer with much higher deductibles and premiums. That change led to a “cattle call” of settlement seekers last year, where a slew of cases were settled for far less than a court may have awarded because litigants were told that there was soon not going to be any money available.
There were some initiatives from the Ackal years that were applauded at the time. The Iberia Parish Jail got some much needed attention early on, although more repairs are now needed — with a price tag that the parish government can ill afford right now.
Another positive effort was to bring a “saturation approach” to law enforcement, hiring dozens of additional deputies to build up the presence on the streets. He also pushed to create a Narcotics Division and hire more detectives to lower the workload, making it possible to make progress on cases that were backlogged when he took office.
Ackal also put a community relations team together. That, unfortunately, fell by the wayside. And the other additions — especially the Narcotics Division and a special IMPACT unit designed to “clean up the streets” and reduce crime — later became part of the IPSO’s downfall as stories of brutality from the street level all the way through the senior leadership of the IPSO and parish jail became rampant.
Ackal and his former chief deputy, Lt. Col. Gerald Savoy, would eventually be charged in federal court with conspiracy against rights and deprivation of rights under color of law in connection with the beatings of five inmates at the Iberia Parish Jail. Savoy and Capt. Mark Frederick also faced charges of deprivation of civil rights for allegedly assaulting another man at the Iberia Parish Jail in September 2011.
Savoy and nine other IPSO officers would plead guilty to various federal charges, hoping to reduce their sentences in exchange for their testimony. Ackal was eventually acquitted on all four counts brought against him.
Financial issues aside, overcoming the stain of that prosecution — and rebuilding trust with the citizens of the parish — will be the biggest task Romero will face as he assumes control of the IPSO in three days.