Lafayette seeks new police chief amid staffing challenges

LPD interim Chief Paul Trourd and Sgt. Kristi Strong
LPD interim Chief Paul Trouard, who says he will seek the permanent post amid a nationwide search, and the department's recruiter, Sgt. Kristi Strong Photo by Robin May

Lafayette’s next police chief, whoever that may be, will take over a short-staffed department. 

Lafayette is currently in search of its eighth police chief since 2020, after Judith Estorge stepped down in May. Personnel disruptions and stagnant pay have hampered the Lafayette Police Department’s recruitment, former and current police officials say. And there is optimism that the job opening at chief is an opportunity to improve LPD and make it more attractive to men and women seeking careers in law enforcement. 

Today the department, budgeted for 309 positions, remains short about 30 officers. A new crop of applicants is nearing the end of the hiring process, which will shore up some vacancies within the next month. 

A 2020 decision by the LPD to leave vacant for nearly a year the dedicated recruiter’s position is at least part of the reason the department is still playing catch-up four years later. The department went without a permanent recruiter until April 2021, when the former recruiter, Sgt. Kristi Strong, returned to the job full-time. 

That lapse proved to be a critical mistake in the mind of ex-Lafayette Police Chief Toby Aguillard, who was fired by former Mayor-President Josh Guiillory in early 2020. It was as if someone had hit a pause button on the momentum, says Aguillard, noting that the department, which is now seeking its eighth police chief in four years, hasn’t been fully staffed since 2019.

“All of it got shut down,” Aguillard says. “And most importantly, we stopped getting the amount of recruits to the Lafayette PD, which almost immediately put them down by dozens of officers.” 

Aguillard said efforts were focused on Black recruits from Grambling and Southern universities, women officers and Spanish-speaking officers. “All those things is what we had this recruiter focused on, so that not only are we getting good qualified candidates, but we’re also making our department more diverse, reflecting the community it serves,” he says. 

After Strong was transferred out of the position in the spring of 2020, three colleagues did the piecemeal work of recruiting while juggling their own demanding workloads, she says. For her part, Strong agrees that the lost time contributed to the shortage of officers, which has hovered at about 8-10 percent over the past few years, but she also points to the challenges departments across the country faced amid social justice protests and the Covid pandemic. 

“This had a profound impact on the number of individuals seeking employment with us. … [J]ob fairs and college events were canceled as well as our ride-along program, for public safety reasons,” Strong says. 

Since returning to the job in 2021, Strong has also had to navigate a near record number of retirements, which she says are now tapering off, just as the department aggressively steps up its hiring efforts. The pay raise pushed by the Guillory administration and passed by the City Council late last year, boosting starting pay to $45,000 ($52,200 a year later when state supplemental kicks in), has certainly helped. 

Strong says she has focused her efforts on actively recruiting females and minorities, and has doubled the number of Spanish-speaking officers in the patrol division. Minorities and females make up more than half of the class starting the field training program next week. She also is putting together a strategy to bring in more Peace Officer Standards and Training-certified officers, those who can immediately move into LPD’s advanced training because they have successfully completed 496 hours of basic training and passed the statewide exam. Five of the 12 recruits in the current class came to the LPD POST-certified, moving over from other agencies — confirmation, says Strong, that the pay boost is helping. “The pay increase made us more competitive with surrounding agencies,” she says. 

And, since the beginning of the year, Strong (who has one officer assisting her part-time) has had a new tool at her disposal, an online platform with a text line and QR code to market the agency nationally and communicate with applicants more efficiently. She has 238 candidates queued for PD jobs, including clerks and other non-law enforcement positions, a volume that far surpasses the recruiting pool they could collect from job fairs and older recruiting tactics. 

Strong doesn’t think the LPD’s challenges have been much different than most other agencies its size, despite the leadership turnover and police controversies that arose during the Guillory administration.

LPD recruiter Sgt. Kristi Strong
Sgt. Kristi Strong doesn’t think LPD’s hiring challenges have been much different than other police departments its size, despite the leadership turnover and controversies during the Guillory administration. Photo by Robin May

“It turns out that they realize that things really still are good here compared to a lot [of other departments],” Strong says.

Strong also doesn’t see the labor shortage factoring into the police chief search. The Boulet administration has launched a national search; the last one under Guillory attracted only three candidates, two internal, and no one from out of state. Lafayette is hiring its eighth chief in only five years. 

“While any potential chief candidate should be concerned about our staffing needs, they are probably aware of the national police officer shortage,” Strong says. 

As has happened in the past, Aguillard is anticipating potential candidates may ask him about the lay of the land as they decide whether to apply. He says his response will be that LCG’s leadership has “turned a corner, and I think we’re on the right track.”

But, Aguillard maintains, there is still room for improvement. For one, he says the chief’s salary, $135,000, needs to increase. Efforts by the Guillory administration to boost it were shot down by the City Council

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Both Aguillard and Lafayette City Marshal Reggie Thomas are hoping the deputy chief position will be permanent again. The Guillory administration did away with the deputy chief position, then Thomas’ job under Aguillard, in early 2020. With the deputy chief position officially eliminated, the current interim chief, Capt. Paul Trouard, served as assistant to the chief for very short time before taking over the department last month.

That structure puts the deputy chief in charge of the department’s “day-to-day” operations, says Thomas, while the chief can play the role of a police “ambassador” — able to coordinate with other organizations and connect with the community. 

“If you don’t have the deputy chief, then that falls all on the chief. And I think it’s overwhelming,” Thomas says.

If an outside chief is chosen, both men would also like to see that person have the option of bringing in their own top brass to the department, which Louisiana Civil Service rules currently prevent. 

“There are police chiefs’ jobs available all over the country, so why come to a place where, for example, a new chief can’t bring in his own administration, at least one or two individuals who can help him lead the department,” Aguillard says. “I mean, it’s just unheard of in today’s day and age for a department the size of Lafayette PD to not give the chief that ability. I think [it’s] one of the main reasons why we don’t get applicants from out of state.”