Update: 12:58PM CT 01/05/2020— Mayor Hall’s office confirmed that Officer Farrell Gaspard has, in fact, been named Acting Police Chief.
Less than 24 hours after a spokesman for Alexandria, Louisiana Mayor Jeff Hall revealed to KALB, the regional affiliate for both CBS and NBC, that Chief of Police Jerrod King had been placed on “administrative leave” for “personnel reasons,” a group of Alexandria residents quickly launched an aggressive and sophisticated campaign in support of the beleaguered chief. King has led the department for the past 21 months. The Mayor’s Office has not announced who is leading the department in King’s absence; however, there are unofficial reports that Officer Farrell Gaspard was selected.
Thus far, in a span of only six hours, more than 600 people have joined a Facebook page, AEX4King, which encourages members to “share with us your stories, concerns and information regarding the current situation” and to “show your support” for the chief by promoting the page and posting its branding online (AEX is the three-letter code for the city’s airport).
The administrator of the page is Courtney Fall, daughter of Kay Michiels, the former Chief of Staff for the City of Alexandria who finished second to Hall in the 2018 mayor’s race. “I was initially hesitant because I know some people may think I must have a political agenda,” said Fall, who works in the medical supply industry, “But this honestly has nothing to do with sour grapes over the 2018 campaign. This is because Chief King has done a phenomenal job.”
Based on the response, others clearly agree.
Brad and Sheranda Smith of Light It Up, a local billboard company that owns and maintains at least four of the area’s digital billboards, volunteered to use a design from the AEX4King page on one of the company’s most prominent signs near a highly-trafficked stretch of Jackson Street Extension.
A person familiar with the situation claimed that Chief King was required to turn over his vehicle, keys, and cell phone. Another person with direct knowledge told the Bayou Brief that King was also instructed in writing that he was prohibited from communicating with anyone currently working for the Alexandria Police Department.
During the past year, Mayor Hall has struggled to address a dramatic exodus of officers, many of whom left the department after qualifying for retirement. According to its most recent report, the APD has 26 vacancies, or, put another way, there are currently 140 officers in the 166 officer police force. In 2018 and 2019, a total of 40 officers either retired, took another job, or were terminated, and all told, when you do not include officers who retired or were fired, since 2012, a total of 43 officers left voluntarily; 23 (or 58%) of whom took another job in law enforcement.
To be sure, law enforcement agencies across the country are facing similar challenges. According to a 2019 survey conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum, 63% of police departments have experienced a decline in recruitment, a problem that threatens to only worsen in the next two years as 15.5% of officers are expected to retire.
According to police union representatives, there is a straightforward reason the APD has had difficulty filling job vacancies: Low pay. The starting salary for an officer in Alexandria is $34,000 a year. By comparison, Lafayette recently approved increasing the base salary it offers to rookie officers from $34,000 to $40,000 a year. In early November, the Lafayette police union called attention to the situation in Alexandria by posting a link to their recruitment website on the APD’s Facebook page, later issuing a statement urging Alexandria officials to increase police pay.
Shortly after taking office, Mayor Hall announced a sweeping, across-the-board 2% pay raise for all city employees, but because police compensation is negotiated and contracted through its union, any changes to their pay structure need to be included in their contract with the city, which is set to expire in 2021. Notably, Mayor Hall expressed his willingness to amend the current contract in order to provide for the pay raise, but union leadership is concerned that it may weaken their bargaining position next year, when the entire contract is set to be renegotiated.
Despite these challenges, King has enjoyed widespread approval for his leadership of the embattled department and, until his suspension was announced on Friday, had an unblemished record in his 23 years with the APD.
Prior to joining the Alexandria Police Department in 1997, Jerrod King spent six years working as a military policeman and investigator for the United States Army. Four years ago, he received a Master in Criminal Justice from the University of Cincinnati, finishing at the top of his class. Today, in addition to his job with the APD, King also serves as an adjunct professor of criminal justice at Louisiana College and Upper Iowa University.
In 2003, King received national attention and praise for heroism after 25-year-old Anthony Molette ambushed police officers who were attempting to serve him with a warrant at his home on Wise Street in an area of Alexandria known as the Sonia Quarters.
Molette had planned the attack, fatally wounding two APD officers, David Ezernack and Jay Carruth, only seconds after they arrived. King, who was 29 at the time, was one of six officers on the assignment. Immediately after Ezernack was shot, King left his position of cover and ran directly into active fire, in an attempt to move his fellow officer out of danger.
“I laid down next to David (Ezernack) because I could hear the rounds cracking by me,” King recalled to a reporter with Police Magazine nine months later. “I could feel the dirt hit me. He was targeting me and David because I think we were the only ones he could clearly see. I laid down next to David, and the firing stopped for a second.” At that point, King and another officer, Joey Simms, were able to move Ezernack into safety. Five hours later, Ezernack, who had been shot in the throat, passed away at a local hospital. Molette was killed during an ensuing 45-minute long shootout with the police.
Although Mayor Hall’s office has refused to provide any details about why Chief King was suspended, multiple sources with direct knowledge of the decision tell the Bayou Brief that it was ostensibly related to a lengthy, largely positive, and publicly available message King had posted on his personal Facebook page on New Years Eve, which was alleged to be in violation of a newly-enacted social media policy.
According to a series of online posts by Celeta McCall and her 36-year-old son Tavares Swafford, both long-time residents of Deville, Louisiana, a small community about 20 minutes outside of Alexandria, the criticism of Hall is driven by members of a “shadow government” who are angry with the new mayor for terminating lucrative contracts. The mother-son duo aggressively campaigned in support of Hall on a short-lived radio show.
Aside from vague generalities about the city’s budget, neither McCall nor Swafford have provided any documentation or details to back up their assertions, which amount to a conspiracy theory. Swafford falsely claimed that “a lot of money” was behind the campaign in support of King (in fact, no money has been spent at all) and that King was confirmed as police chief months earlier than he should have been in order to prevent Hall from having the opportunity to hire someone else (in fact, King was officially confirmed in accordance with the timeframe that had been established six months prior).
In his December “State of the Community” address, Hall specifically praised staffers who had been hired under the Roy administration and agreed to remain in their positions after he took office. “We were blessed to inherit an operation that was really doing good all the time,” Hall said. “We wanted to make sure that we continued to provide the basic services of water, electricity, fire and police protection, licensing and permitting, and (to ensure) all those things went on without any interruption. And I’m grateful for that. I’m pleased many veteran staff members stayed on board and helped us with the transition and with the new administration moving forward. Their experiences and leadership have been critical and a critical part of our success in being able to have a smooth transition. I believe this mix of new and veteran city leaders has worked well for the City of Alexandria.”
While Mayor Hall, along with Chief of Staff Susan Broussard, may have justified King’s suspension by asserting a violation of the mayor’s policy on social media, there seems to be a widespread belief among King’s supporters that both Hall and Broussard have been looking for any reason, however flimsy it may be, to remove King.
Some believe that King’s suspension may be related to rumors that he refused to hire a candidate Mayor Hall apparently had recommended or over Hall’s decision to reject the promotion of a veteran officer to Deputy Chief.
During a televised city council committee meeting in late November, King spoke directly about ensuring the APD hires only those who meet the department’s qualification standards. “We will not lower our standards,” King said. “The cost to the city, the liability, (and) the cost to the citizens (are) too great to lower our standards and hire anybody that doesn’t meet the stringent requirements to be an officer today. The job is too important.” Mayor Hall, who was seated only a few feet away, was visibly uncomfortable and avoided making eye contact or even acknowledging the police chief once during King’s nearly 20 minute-long presentation (beginning at the 31-minute mark). The two men were seen briefly speaking with one another after the meeting concluded.
Late Friday, the Bayou Brief filed a public records request with the City of Alexandria, asking for, among other things, a copy of the social media policy, which another person described as containing an ambiguous and broadly-worded provision that could be used to discipline any city employee who posts work-related content online.
In the 2006 case Garcetti v. Ceballos, the United States Supreme Court, in a split decision, ruled that public employees are not provided First Amendment protections if their speech is related to the exercise of their job duties. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, ruled that “the First Amendment does not prohibit managerial discipline based on an employee’s expressions made pursuant to official responsibilities.” However, discipline is only warranted, Kennedy writes, when the speech at issue interferes with the ability to do what is “necessary for their employers to operate efficiently and effectively.”
Importantly, at the time Garcetti was decided, social media was still in its infancy, and the Court’s opinion therefore didn’t provide any guidance for how government bodies should distinguish between public and private speech on social media or whether a personal Facebook page should be considered private, protected speech under the law, nor did it differentiate between employees who are considered public figures or those whose job necessitates they be provided wide latitude in their communications.
King was first hired by former Mayor Jacques Roy to replace outgoing Police Chief Loren Lampert, who now leads the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, in May of 2018, following a lengthy selection process. Six months later, at the conclusion of a routine “working test period,” King was officially confirmed.
“I have seen not one scintilla of evidence that doesn’t confirm to me that Chief Jerrod King is the guy for this job, without question,” Mayor Roy said at the time. Mayor-elect Jeff Hall, who had met with Chief King privately and was included, along with members of his transition team, in discussions with city officials and the selection committee that had recommended King.
Only days before taking office, when Hall was specifically asked if he approved of the proceeding with King’s confirmation, he voiced no objection.
“Chief King is everywhere,” said Courtney Fall. “He’s at every neighborhood meeting, school functions, late night call-outs. He deserves our support.”