[StBernard] Honorary law enforcement credentials can be invitation to abuse

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Sun Mar 29 12:11:59 EDT 2009

Honorary law enforcement credentials can be invitation to abuse
by Laura Maggi and Chris Kirkham, The Times-Picayune
Saturday March 28, 2009, 9:17 PM
Law enforcement agencies in St. Bernard Parish and New Orleans dole out the
greatest number of honorary credentials for favored friends, records show,
with other departments in the metropolitan area eschewing the longtime

All told, more than 500 people hold the special commissions, with St.
Bernard Parish issuing the most.

The ranks include plenty of familiar names, from rocker Lenny Kravitz -- who
holds a New Orleans police badge -- to action-movie star Steven Segal, who
has a St. Bernard badge.

The badges have come under fire from watchdogs and good-government groups
who see them as perks, vulnerable to abuse, given to the powerful. The
controversies -- the most recent when Algiers assessor and honorary
sheriff's deputy Tom Arnold flashed blue lights as he crossed the Causeway
bridge -- have caused some law enforcement agencies to get out of the
badge-granting business.

Orleans Parish Civil Sheriff Paul Valteau, who issued Arnold's badge,
recently joined their ranks. After it emerged that Arnold had used his blue
lights on the highway, apparently in violation of the law, Valteau revoked
the roughly 20 commissions he issued after Hurricane Katrina.

The New Orleans Police Department and Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff's
Office have not revoked any of the honorary badges they issued, and they
insist the commissions confer no special power.

Thirty-eight people hold honorary commissions bestowed by Criminal Sheriff
Marlin Gusman, while the NOPD gave out 72 of the cards between Jan. 1, 2006,
and early April 2008, records show.

The St. Bernard Parish Sheriff's Office beats all other local law
enforcement agencies, with 437 people holding its credentials.

The list includes parish leaders such as Councilman Kenny Henderson and
public schools Superintendent Doris Voitier, as well as prominent
businessmen and many retired deputies.

Actor Segal, who also has served as a reserve deputy with the Jefferson
Parish Sheriff's Office, was given the honorary badge after St. Bernard
Sheriff Jack Stephens met him through Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee.
Segal delivered supplies to St. Bernard after Katrina.

Stephens said his office uses the commissions to "affiliate the department
with people who represent us well," adding that the large number of card
holders results from his application of that policy during his 25-year

Many of the credentials were granted after Hurricane Katrina, Stephens said,
when the number of full-time deputies was down.

Honorary deputies get a card and a badge, but Stephens said "they in no way
imply a person can act in an enforcement capacity." Honorees must be
recommended by someone in the department.

"I can't remember the last time we had a report or complaint from someone,
but the potential is always there to abuse it, no doubt about that," he
said. "It would happen the same way if a regular deputy tried to abuse their

Emergency access

Henderson, the parish councilman and an employee of Murphy Oil Co., said he
got the badge to get into the parish during emergencies.

"That's the only time I've ever used it -- during Katrina and after
Katrina," said Henderson, who said he has had the commission for about six

The Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office does not give commissions, according
to spokesman Col. John Fortunato.

The St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office also does not issue honorary badges,
but eight people who do not work for the department hold sheriff's
identification cards, Sheriff Jack Strain said. The card holders are
civilians he calls upon for advice and to gauge community sentiment, Strain
said. He declined to identify them.

The cards are similar to those carried by deputies for identification
purposes, but they state on the back that they do not confer any police
powers, Strain said. Card holders may enter Sheriff's Office facilities
without being challenged, he said.

The Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff's Office gives out laminated cards and
honorary badges to people who further the agency's goals of improving public
safety, rehabilitating inmates or helping crime victims, Gusman said in a
written statement. The credentials, with expiration dates, are clearly
marked "honorary."

NOPD Superintendent Warren Riley said he gives laminated commissions to
citizens who are particularly helpful and generous to the department. The
cards declare recipients to be a "honorary officer," "honorary deputy chief"
or "honorary captain" with "non-commissioned" in red ink.

"That is a small way for us to say thank you for their support," Riley said.
"It is simply no different than when Delta Airlines gives out wings to its

Some abuses reported

But Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said
he sees a difference. Though the credential is supposed to be honorary, he
said, some recipients might use it to gain an advantage -- for instance, in
a traffic stop.

"Why would you give someone an ID that you could put in your wallet?" he
asked. "Some people are going to use that card to get out of trouble."

None of the agency heads in New Orleans or St. Bernard who give credentials
said they had heard of any attempt to misuse them.

Other law enforcement agencies in the area previously ran into sporadic
problems, officials said. Gretna Police Chief Arthur Lawson and Westwego
Chief Dwayne Munch both discontinued honorary commissions for their
departments years ago, after they were abused.

Earlier this month, a St. Tammany Parish man discovered the limits of an
honorary badge when he flashed the credential during a traffic stop. The
badge, issued by the Mandeville Police Department, did not win the man any
points with the sheriff's deputy, Mandeville Police Capt. Ron Ruple said.

Ruple would not identify the man, who was credentialed as a police chaplain,
but said the badge expired last year. The deputy confiscated the commission,
wrote the man a ticket and returned the badge to Mandeville police, he said.

In the past, it was not uncommon for Mandeville police to hand out honorary
badges to civilians, though Ruple said he does not know how many people
received them or how many are still valid. Ruple said he has not given out
any badges since being named chief this year and that he does not plan to
issue any.

"If you truly want that commission, you can become a reserve officer," Ruple
said. "You can put on that uniform and come out here and serve the

Causeway Police Chief Nick Congemi said he does not support honorary
credentials, either in his current post or when he was head of the Kenner
Police Department. "What would you use it for if it is not expected that you
can use it to gain something?" he asked.

Different interpretations

Honorary commissions have periodically sparked controversy in the New
Orleans area, most recently when an off-duty police officer allegedly
spotted Arnold flashing his LED emergency lights on the Causeway.

Two years ago, another Valteau-issued commission caused a stir when City
Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell was stopped driving as fast as 100 mph on
Interstate 10 while flashing blue lights on her city vehicle.

Like Arnold, who said he was unaware the badge was an honorary one,
Hedge-Morrell seemed to believe her commission conferred special rights. She
provided the badge as an explanation for her use of emergency lights, which
are restricted by state law to use by on-duty police officers.

Lea Young, a spokeswoman for Valteau's office, said the two recent
embarrassments obscure a long history of no problems with the program. One
recipient, a hospital administrator whom Young declined to identify, told
her he used the card to get back into the city after Hurricane Gustav in
order to help his facility reopen.

"This is not just giving out candies to your friends," she said.

The lists provided by the agencies that still dole them out include local
celebrities, politicians, citizen activists and contributors to political

The NOPD's honorary commission holders include trumpeter and New Orleans
Library Board Chairman Irvin Mayfield, real estate developer Roger Ogden and
Metropolitan Crime Commission board member Joseph Maselli, as well as his
two sons. Rock star Kravitz got in right before his longtime friend trash
hauler Sidney Torres IV.

Torres' father, a lawyer, has his own commission, but his was bestowed by
the St. Bernard Sheriff's Office.

Several members of the Landrieu political family have received Orleans
Parish criminal sheriff commissions, although they have expired, as have
those of musicians Irma Thomas and Aaron Neville. Political consultant Bill
Broadhurst's commission is still valid, as is the badge belonging to
musician Art Neville.

Staff writers Allen Powell II and Jeff Adelson contributed to this report.

Laura Maggi can be reached at lmaggi at timespicayune.com or 504.826.3316.

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