Sorrento police chief fighting efforts to oust him

Sorrento Police Chief Earl Theriot Jr. claims fellow town officials want to put an end to his department and push him out of office. But he says he’s not giving up without a fight.

His agency’s future became more tenuous after the town’s insurer announced last week it would withdraw coverage for the police department Nov. 19 due to a failure to meet unspecified “underwriting requirements.”

The move, which would expose officers and the town to legal liability, has led to discussions that the town might abolish the small police force and allow Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley to take over police protection.

Theriot, who ran unopposed in April and won a fourth, four-year term that does not expire until June 30, 2017, said he would not put his officers on the streets without insurance coverage and is seeking bids for a new insurer. His department plans to present them to the Town Council on Nov. 5.

“I’m not going to just bow to those people,” Theriot said of the moves to shut down his department and turn over law enforcement functions to the parish sheriff. “I was chosen by the people, and I am going to fight for them.”

Theriot said newly elected Mayor Mike Lambert made it clear when he ran for office that he wanted to let the Sheriff’s Office take over law enforcement because the mayor “thinks that the sheriff can come in and do it at a cheaper price than we can.”

In a letter to Sorrento residents Tuesday, Wiley wrote that his office would cover any short-term gap after Nov. 19 and would talk to town officials about longer term service.

But Wiley also wrote that he would not provide law enforcement services to the town unless his office could do it alone.

Lambert has said letting the Sheriff’s Office take over police protection is an option that has to be considered in light of the insurance concerns. He said it will be up to the chief to find another insurance provider and that he will review any offers the police chief is able to find.

Lambert said Theriot knows his stance on contracting with the Sheriff’s Office.

“I was hoping he would cooperate and work with us on that, but he’s not,” Lambert said, “and I will look at every option that we have, to have cost-effective, competent police protection.”

Both men said they met Wednesday and plan to keep meeting on the issue.

Lambert said the politics of his and new council members’ efforts to improve the town’s operations have been tough, claiming that he and at least two new council members have been the subject of police officer harassment and surveillance since the campaign.

Lambert said officers were seen conspicuously recording him while he knocked on doors during the campaign. Later, after he took office, officers followed his car several times and parked and watched him and other council members while they looked at a town ditch, he said.

Lambert said he has not raised that issue with the chief but has informed Wiley.

“That’s, you know, that’s life in Sorrento, I guess,” Lambert said.

In recent interviews, Theriot fought back against embarrassing revelations about his department involving lawsuits and an officer repeatedly driving at high speeds, maintaining the disclosures were overstated and lacked context.

A report emerged recently showing Officer James Lavone Bell exceeded 75 mph in his patrol car 720 times in a roughly two-month period earlier this year.

Theriot pointed out that officers speed in the course of their duty. He said tracking devices in patrol cars records speeds every minute, adding that one police chase or drive to a scene lasting five to 10 minutes could record five to 10 instances of speeds greater than 75 mph, he said.

“You got people fighting, you ain’t going to do 20 mph to get there,” Theriot said. “In this line of business, you will speed.”

He acknowledged that Bell, who got in an accident in his patrol car and was caught by the tracking device speeding in East Baton Rouge Parish near his home, did inappropriately drive at high speed and was reprimanded.

Bell, who has been with the department almost 10 months, testified in court last month that he did not tune his radar gun, a standard procedure to ensure the gun is accurate. District Attorney Ricky Babin said possibly hundreds of speeding tickets will now have to be dismissed.

Theriot pointed out that his starting officers are much lower paid than in neighboring Sheriff’s Offices so his department has turnover and officers who come to Sorrento to be trained.

But, in the past three years, he said, he has given up $75,000 to $85,000 annually to shore up town finances and keep the town running at the expense of police training

The apparent tug-of-war over the future of the department and the town’s elected chief is complicated by the overlapping powers, duties and protections set out under state law for the elected mayor and chief.

For example, the mayor and Town Council will have to sign off on any new insurer.

John Gallagher, staff attorney for the Louisiana Municipal Association, said state law makes elected police chiefs independent in the day-to-day management of their departments.

But state law does not give elected chiefs the power to sign contracts.

“Really, it’s up to the mayor,” Gallagher said.

On the other hand, any move to push out Theriot and abolish his department could mean the chief would sit on the town payroll for the remainder of his term, unless Theriot chooses to resign.

Lambert said the town spends $41,200 annually on Theriot’s salary and insurance. He also receives another $5,000 per year in state supplemental pay.

The Town Council sets Theriot’s budget, but Gallagher said that under state statute and the State Constitution, elected officials cannot have their salaries lowered in their term.

Also, Sorrento does not have a home rule charter but falls under the Lawrason Act, which calls for an elected chief of police.

Meg Casper, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Secretary of State, said legislation would have to be passed to amend the act and remove the elected position of police chief in Sorrento.

Some villages and towns have gotten that type of legislation passed before, allowing them in some cases to create an appointed chief and in others to abolish their departments and elected chiefs and instead contract with other law enforcement agencies.

Even if such legislation were passed, a chief of police “can’t be removed as a sitting elected official, so nothing would take effect until the current chief’s elected term has expired,” Casper said in an email.

Theriot is very much aware of that factor in any effort to do away with him and his department.

“For next four years, if I don’t resign, there is nothing they can do,” Theriot said. “By law, they just got to eat that salary, bottom line.”

Lambert said he and Wiley have not discussed how much Wiley would charge the town to provide police service long-term.

The town spent just less than $450,0000 to run Theriot’s department of five officers and two clerks in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2012, according to the most recent audit. The department was the largest single expense category for that year.

Editor’s note: This story was modified on Oct. 28, 2013, to correct an attribution. It was Mike Lambert, not Earl Theriot, who said police were recording him as he was campaigning and following his car after his election as mayor.