SLU Police Department riddled with low morale

Southeastern Louisiana University’s Police Department is riddled with morale problems due to inadequate resources, cronyism, a lack of diversity and an internal affairs process that some officers say the former chief used to bully and punish certain employees, according to a report commissioned by the university.

The report, done in anticipation of a search for a new police chief, made 37 recommendations for improving conditions at the department. Most will not be implemented until after the search is completed, SLU officials said.

The department’s former chief, Mike Prescott, who resigned in lieu of termination over accusations of payroll fraud in July 2012 and is suing the University of Louisiana system for discrimination, is one of 34 applicants for his old job.

Interviews for the position are underway, said Erin Cowser, SLU’s executive director for public and governmental affairs. She said she could not confirm whether the applicant pool had been narrowed or which applicants remain under consideration.

The report finding that the SLU Police Department is underfunded, understaffed and plagued with morale problems was prepared by security consultant Willie Bell Jr., of Higher Education Security Consulting in Sanford, N.C.

Bell reviewed the department’s resources and operations for SLU, completing his report in October. It was released in response to a recent public records request filed by The Advocate.

The department’s officers — forced to buy their own weapons and ammunition, wear outdated body armor and hand-me-down uniforms, and perform civilian functions despite losing officer positions to budget cuts — reported feeling disrespected and unsupported, Bell said.

Bell noted the department’s sworn officers were “overwhelmingly white males” despite a student population that is roughly two-thirds female and more than a quarter nonwhite. Of the 23 sworn officers on the force at the time, none were black, and the department’s lone female sergeant had just resigned, Bell said.

More than a year after Prescott’s departure, the department remained divided into factions of those who supported and those who didn’t support the former chief, Bell wrote.

“Although the chief is gone, the factions and the feelings remain,” Bell wrote in his Oct. 28 final report.

Interviews with department employees revealed many officers viewed the hiring and promotion process as being “riddled with cronyism” and “solely at the chief’s discretion,” Bell said in the report.

Some employees described the internal affairs process as a tool that Prescott used against certain employees to “harass, intimidate, and punish them, and prevent them from being promoted or receiving salary increases,” Bell wrote.

Prescott’s attorney and father-in-law, Hugh Exnicios, disputed the claims Friday, saying there was no crony system and no way Prescott could have used the internal affairs process to bully his subordinates.

“He is only able to make a recommendation to the sergeant, who is an investigator in the department, to determine whether or not an investigation should be conducted,” Exnicios said.

Exnicios also disputed the claim that Prescott was a divisive leader.

“What we have here is a split of opinion about Prescott because there are three officers with grudges against him,” Exnicios said.

One of the officers, Angela Jones, is the subject of Prescott’s discrimination lawsuit against the University of Louisiana System Board of Supervisors, which oversees SLU.

Prescott claims that Jones, a black, nonsworn officer fired from the department in April, conspired with Vice President for Student Affairs Marvin Yates, who is also black, to create a racially hostile work environment and force Prescott into early retirement.

Yates’ office is charged with overseeing the University Police Department.

According to Prescott’s lawsuit, Jones was disgruntled about having been passed over for a promotion from parking guard to Police Officer 1A in favor of a white male, who Prescott said was more qualified for the position.

In January 2012, Jones filed a grievance with Yates, who told Prescott to give the job to Jones, the fourth-best qualified applicant, because “you don’t want a black female mad at you,” Prescott’s suit states.

Jones received the promotion over Prescott’s objections.

Jones later “went to Yates and falsely accused Prescott of payroll fraud,” leading in part to a university investigation and Prescott’s forced resignation on July 17, 2012, Prescott’s lawsuit states.

Prescott’s suit seeks his reinstatement, with back pay and benefits, as well as damages.

A second lawsuit Exnicios filed against the Board of Supervisors on behalf of Sgt. Kevin Knudsen, Jones’ immediate supervisor prior to her termination, also claims Jones and Yates created a “hostile and racially polarized work environment.”

Records show Jones received several “poor performance” evaluations from Knudsen following her promotion and that her repeated requests to be moved out from under his supervision due to his alleged harassment were denied.

She was fired April 2, six weeks after Knudsen filed his lawsuit.

Bell wrote that the problems in the department “likely will not be resolved until a new chief is on board and management decisions, including all aspects of personnel management, are perceived as being fair and equitable.”

The report’s recommendations, most of which are couched in terms of what steps the new chief should take, have not been relayed to the search committee, said Cowser, the university spokeswoman.

“The report isn’t germane to the search,” Cowser said. “The goal of the search committee is to select the individual with the best qualifications as a director of police.”

Cowser said the university administration already was aware of several issues identified in the report and has implemented some of the recommendations dealing with “equipment upgrades and supplies acquisitions that have safety implications.”

“Other recommendations which address operational aspects of the department are more appropriately addressed by the new director, once on board,” she said.

Faimon A. Roberts III contributed to this report. Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter @HeidiRKinchen.