WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER: Parish leaders meet for roundtable discussion on fairness & equality

Published 12:05 am Wednesday, July 1, 2020

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LAPLACE — When it comes to making sure St. John the Baptist Parish residents are treated fairly, our leaders are all in this together.

Parish President Jaclyn Hotard, Sheriff Mike Tregre and District Attorney Bridget A. Dinvaut recently accepted an invitation to a L’OBSERVATEUR round table meeting to reflect on what St. John Parish is doing well and discuss what more can be done.

St. John Sheriff’s Office

Trust in law enforcement is difficult to build and easy to lose, according to Sheriff Mike Tregre. It’s important to ask the right questions during the hiring process to know if a candidate can handle the immense responsibility that comes with the badge.

“They could sound good, look good, write well, but what’s in their mind? What’s in their heart?” Tregre said. “If you’re a candidate for me, I’m going to ask you, when was the last time you showed someone compassion? What is integrity? What is teamwork? When’s the last time you did something positive for the community?”

Tregre has been sheriff for eight years, and he’s always seen a need for cultural and sensitivity training. By participating in the Racial Intelligence Training and Engagement (RITE) program, St. John officers are learning to adapt and adjust when dealing with people who are different than them.

Training has been a major investment, and it will be streamlined with the completion of the Lloyd B. Johnson Training Center currently under construction on Cambridge Drive. Rather than flying officers across the country for training, instructors will come to St. John and contribute to the local economy.

More training reform is likely to follow, as Tregre reported the Louisiana House of Representatives recently approved a resolution 99-0 to establish a task force to make recommendations about policing.

Tregre said he and his officers watched the infamous George Floyd video with a heavy heart and immediately said, “That’s not us.” To ensure such a heinous act doesn’t occur in St. John Parish, Tregre is inviting citizens to sit on hiring boards and disciplinary boards.

“Should an officer have to use a taser or physical force, it’s all reviewed to see if it was necessary and appropriate,” Tregre said. “I’m tracking it, the department is tracking it, and I’m transparent with the community.”

Tregre challenges the community to take a ride with an officer or enroll in the Citizen’s Academy to get an inside look at how SJSO operates.

There is always room for improvement. There were almost 10 attempted suicides in St. John, some successful, within a single week stretch. Officers implemented de-escalation techniques and administered Narcan to save lives from overdose, but Tregre feels there should be a better process to connect individuals in crisis with the resources they need.

“Right now, law enforcement agencies are the ‘treatment centers’ until the coroner can do an examination and find a place to house them. That has to be fixed,” he said.

District Attorney’s Office

There’s a reason why Lady Justice is blind as she balances the scales of truth and impartiality, according to District Attorney Bridget A. Dinvaut.

“We don’t prosecute people. We prosecute crimes,” Dinvaut said. “We look at the crime, not who the person is, where they come from, their color, race or creed.”

To keep the process equal and fair for all, the community must remember everyone accused of a crime is innocent until proven guilty.

Even in cases where people have offended, it is beneficial to reinvest in the community and empower people to make better choices. Dinvaut is always looking for opportunities for rehabilitation. One example is Opportunity Now, a program that brings change through second chances for non-violent, first-time offenders. More than 100 have graduated from the program since 2015, and only three have re-offended.

Community members also have access to the addiction recovery and behavioral health resources offered in the parish. Resources are vital, Dinvaut said, since problems not addressed can manifest in bad conduct.

“We are a community family. Yes, we have to hold people accountable, and they will be held accountable,” Dinvaut said. “However, when there’s an opportunity to do something different, especially where you can make a positive impact on somebody’s life, you have to take that chance.”

It’s also important to engage the young people in the parish who aren’t in the criminal justice system. The St. John P.R.O.U.D. program is a crime prevention initiative that exposes young people to workforce opportunities in the parish and sets them on a path to success.

Dinvaut said the people of St. John Parish have a lot to be proud of. Recent events such as the parish-wide graduation celebration and the Juneteenth march have shown that people want to come together for good; they just need an opportunity and a way to facilitate large-scale events.

“St. John Parish has a great history,” Dinvaut said. “We have economic opportunities that we can build upon, and that needs to be a focus.”

With discussions happening in the community and across the country, Dinvaut said malice lies not in differing opinions, but in a refusal to engage in productive conversations. There is still much work to be done to facilitate fairness and equality.

“How do you legislate the heart of a person? The fact that you have to make a law to treat somebody equally says that something is wrong,” Dinvaut said.

She said the change must come from within, and people can step into another’s shoes by treating everyone with love, understanding and respect.

Dinvaut was recently appointed to the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Criminal Justice, where she will have a seat at the table in discussing fairness in the legal system.

St. John Parish Administration

Parish President Jaclyn Hotard’s interaction with the public is a little different than the sheriff and district attorney’s involvement with the criminal justice system. However, she has a responsibility to make sure members of her administration and the community are treated with respect in all interactions.

Hotard has been an active participant in recent gatherings for equality in St. John Parish, and she has already started conversations about inclusion and fair treatment in internal processes. Sometimes good people have bad behaviors, and it is important to Hotard to educate parish employees on how jokes involving religion, race or sexual orientation are harmful.

“I want my staff and employees to understand how I expect people to be treated internally so they understand their interactions with the public are the same way,” Hotard said.

When forming a transition team to help select parish leadership positions, Hotard included community members of all ages to represent both the East and West banks of St. John.

“Diversity and inclusion is important because you see things from your perspective,” Hotard said. “If you only surround yourself with people who are just like you, then you are only seeing one perspective.”

Hotard is proud of the diversity in leadership in St. John Parish because it sends a positive message to the community. Children growing up in the parish can look to their elected officials and see that they don’t have to fit into a specific category to be successful.

Engaging with the youth is especially important to Hotard. One of her goals is to form a Youth Advisory Council to bring young people to the table.

“They are going to take care of us in the future. I look at it from a mother’s perspective with a 22-year-old who just graduated college – is there real opportunity here, or will she have to leave?” Hotard said, citing lack of transitional housing as one of the roadblocks to keeping young adults in the parish.

“We have to make small steps toward the solution,” she said.

With the COVID-19 pandemic pulling many local families into troubled waters, St. John Parish has partnered with local agencies to provide food and energy assistance in a time of need.

Hotard would also like to increase the reach of community health clinics and the Behavioral Health Center while fighting to end the stigma of mental health conditions. She wants to continue having important conversations, even when they are uncomfortable, to work toward unity in the community.

“We need have an open mind and an honest conversation about who we are, where we’ve been, how we’ve treated people in the recent past. Sometimes you have to embrace the pain of the past to move forward,” Hotard said.