Lafayette’s police chief told a council committee on Wednesday that his decision to withdraw from a multi-agency drug task force stemmed from a number of reasons, including the task force’s unwillingness to try different investigative techniques and his opinion that it "adds a layer of bureaucracy that tends to get in the way."
Chief Toby Aguillard met with members of the Police-Council Liaison committee after news broke last week that he decided to withdraw from the Lafayette Parish Metro Narcotics Task Force.
Committee member Bruce Conque, who represents District 6, said they felt "blindsided by this."
Conque, along with committee members Kenneth Boudreaux, District 4, and Jay Castille, District 2, stressed to the chief the importance of communicating such major changes to the council before they make the news.
Aguillard said he discussed it with the mayor on "several occasions," but he expected to have time to iron out the details with Sheriff Mark Garber before it became public.
"I did not come to you guys because, frankly, I didn’t anticipate this being in the news right away. And I thought I had time and for that, I apologize to all of you," Aguillard said.
Lafayette Police has 10 officers in the task force and the sheriff has 8 deputies.
Although Aguillard’s decision to withdraw from Metro Narcotics does not need council approval, council members say they should have gotten a heads-up.
Aguillard defended his decision. He said police departments, both locally and around the country, routinely cooperate on investigations without issue. And he said main reason he decided to withdraw is to focus on city enforcement and community policing, as well as to help address "shortage in manpower" in the department.
He said the costs to participate in task force also have increased throughout the years.
Under former Sheriff Mike Neustrom, the police department was relieved of a financial obligation that amounted to about $35,000 a year, Aguillard said. Under Garber’s administration, Aguillard said the cost increased to around $130,000 and included a second insurance policy for the officers involved.
He also said he wanted to investigate drug crimes in a different way, but the task force disagreed — even though one police department-led drug investigation led to the largest cocaine bust in Lafayette’s history.
Aguillard added that he wanted the task force to be involved in homicide investigations in drug overdose deaths, but he said the task force — "mainly the sheriff" — shot down the idea.
So he had to make a decision to allow the contract to expire before the new fiscal year.
Conque questioned whether these disagreements — which come just after disagreements on how to implement a parish-wide school resource-officer program — indicate a rift in "the relationships that exist or don’t exist between the PD and LPSO."
"It just happened this way," Aguillard said.
He said he expects to continue to have a positive working relationship with Garber — he said they expect to make an annual tradition of riding motorcycles together during Mardi Gras — but that Garber is "going to come around to acknowledging that I have a point of view as well, and that it’s legitimate."
"I have a different vision for where I think we need to be going for these types of investigations. If the sheriff and PD are working something that requires us to cross jurisdictional lines, we will need to have an agreement. It’s as simple as that," said Aguillard.
He also says making the split will allow him to have more officers on the street.
"I have a shortage in manpower and my metro narcotics captain is telling me things like on average the metro street team spends 50% of their time outside of the city limits. Meanwhile, I’m here at this building, pulling people from detectives in order to maintain the amount of patrol officers that I need on the street," he said.
The chief’s objective towards better community policing is something one councilman believes is helping improve the relationship between police and residents in his district.
"The majority of what’s going on or what the pd deals with is in the Northside of Lafayette in many cases, the person on person type activity. And I have seen significant changes over the last couple of years," said Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux.
Boudreaux said an ordinance created the task force, and he urged Aguillard to ask the council to repeal it should the department’s withdrawal remain permanent.
"It just doesn’t simply make any sense anymore to have my officers, Lafayette Police Officers, working outside of the city limits," said Aguillard.
We reached out to the sheriff’s office for comment on the disagreement about how to handle certain cases, such as overdose deaths.
They say the primary role of Metro Narcotics is to investigate drug trafficking and none of the deputies assigned to the task force are certified to investigate homicides.
"While it is critically important for subject matter experts, such as narcotics agents, to assist and offer a certified lead investigator knowledge and support, it is the lead investigator’s responsibility to direct the investigation, prepare search or arrest warrants as needed, and ensure evidence is collected properly, documented, and submitted to the appropriate evidence holding agent for security, continuity, chain of custody, and testing, if required," Sheriff Mark Garber said in a letter to Aguillard about the future of Metro in May 2017.
They also added, the sheriff’s office will decide if they want to continue the Metro Crime Scene Unit with Lafayette Police depending on "changes made to the task force by the police."
According to the same above letter from Sheriff Garber in 2017, "it was entrusted with [Aguillard] and Asst. Chief Thomas to obtain Mayor-President Robideaux’s signature on the [Metro Task Force Agreement] and return it… as it appears we are currently operating without a completed agreement."
The chief says the split will take effect October 31 and will use the meantime to sort out details with the sheriff.
Aguillard expects the withdrawal to be final in time for the new fiscal year that begins Nov. 1.