Clay Higgins rose to political power by telling a story about personal redemption, but his former boss, the sheriff of St. Landry Parish, now claims he would have never given him a second chance in law enforcement if he’d known what really happened before Higgins resigned from the police force in Opelousas.
In this expansive essay, we consider Higgins’s past, his record as a police officer, the persona he contrived for the cameras, and the truth about his self-proclaimed redemption. We also consider complicated and peculiar history and the struggle for civil rights in the parish that he once patrolled.
Ultimately, this is about answering one fundamental question. We know how he got elected. What is less certain is whether someone with his record should have ever been given the job that made him famous and a platform to speak on behalf of a law enforcement agency in the Deep South.
In late February of 2016, before he decided to run for Congress, Clay Higgins was still holding out hope that he could land his own reality television show. He’d spent the better part of the past year exchanging emails and phone calls with people from Hollywood. He’d inked a deal with a talent scout, hired an agent, and enlisted the help of a local lawyer and a CPA.
Together, they settled on a working title for the show, “American Justice with Clay Higgins,” despite the fact that “American Justice” was already the name of another television show. He was told it wasn’t a problem.
Glen Clay Higgins, then 53, had suddenly become famous, thanks entirely due to a series of Crime Stoppers segments he’d taped for KATC-TV.
Higgins, who was given the role of Public Information Officer in October of 2014 after the department’s previous spokesperson was cited for reckless operation of a vehicle, played a gruff, no-nonsense, law and order-type who spoke with an intense baritone, reminiscent of Joe Friday except with a crisply starched uniform, not a suit and tie.
His videos quickly went viral. Within the span of only a year, they’d racked up more than 60 million views. The Washington Post called him the “Cajun John Wayne,” even though Higgins isn’t actually Cajun. Higgins, the Post claimed, was “America’s most irresistibly intimidating cop.”
Today, Captain Higgins, as he still prefers to be called (he held the rank of Captain for only seven months, from August 2015 through February 2016), is now Congressman Higgins, a far-right Republican firebrand running for his third consecutive term in Louisiana’s Third Congressional District.
During his four tumultuous years in office, Higgins has become a deeply divisive figure, even in his own largely conservative home base. He’s known to be volatile and occasionally threatening with constituents who criticize him on social media, often responding in the small hours of the morning and sounding more like a bored and belligerent alcoholic than someone who wears the word “honorable” before his name.
Last year, when Higgins appeared as a guest on Chris Cuomo’s primetime cable news show, he arrived on the set clutching a six-pack of Yuengling beer—not as a political statement (Yuengling’s billionaire CEO is a supporter of President Trump) but presumably because he wanted to drink it on air with Cuomo (who politely asked they wait until after the show wrapped for the night). When Louisiana journalist Jeremy Alford spent the day with Higgins at his home a couple of years ago, the congressman didn’t wait for the cameras to stop rolling; he guzzled beer—then, it was Budweiser—the entire time. And a year before that, Higgins posted a late-night video endorsement on Facebook of a local candidate in which Higgins appeared to be slurring his words. By the next day, the video had been quietly deleted. No doubt Higgins imagines his penchant for an ice-cold American domestic lager is a way for him to demonstrate how he’s just a regular, down home Louisiana boy, a self-proclaimed member of the “common class,” but it’s difficult not to wonder whether there’s a connection between his erratic behavior and his blood alcohol level.
Years ago, shortly before he resigned from the police force in Opelousas, Higgins had been under investigation for, among other things, pulling into a convenience store in his squad car and purchasing a case of beer while in uniform; a witness thought it was worth reporting when Higgins set the beer atop his car while fumbling for his keys. He would subsequently claim that it was this investigation—and not the far more serious one involving his attempt to cover up his assault of an unarmed Black man—an innocent bystander—that had convinced him to turn in his badge, an explanation that his former boss, the police chief, considers to be yet another example of Higgins’s dishonesty.
As a congressman, Higgins has used the imprimatur of his office to court the support of anti-government, militia groups like the Three Percenters and the Oath Keepers, which traffic in fringe conspiracy theories about the so-called New World Order and promote the adolescent notion of “sovereign citizenship,” a concept that traces its origins back to anti-semitism and racism.
Suffice it to say, his positions on NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem and efforts to remove public monuments to white supremacists are exactly what you’d imagine them to be.
The Southern Poverty Law Center includes Higgins in its list of the nine members of Congress who “traffic in hate and extremism.” He’s second on the list, directly under Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz. Higgins, however, has the distinction of being the only member of Congress to ever film a campaign commercial at Auschwitz, a stunt the Anne Frank Center called a “global disgrace.” The organization’s full name is the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, and they also recommended the congressman either “get sensitivity training or get a new job”—and that was after he issued an apology.
“When you watch Congressman Higgins’ disgraceful infomercial, you hear him use all sorts of euphemisms for those murdered at Auschwitz by the Nazis,” the center’s Executive Director, Steven Goldstein, pointed out in a press statement. “He never refers specifically to the mass murder of Jewish people at Auschwitz, nor uses the words Holocaust or Shoah. And the logo at the end indicates he is using the video as a campaign video for his reelection to Congress. This is disgusting beyond description.”
That’s right: Clay Higgins flew to Poland, visited Auschwitz, and recorded a video of his visit, which included a scene of him inside of the camp’s gas chambers during which he offered the following baffling commentary about the need for an invincible American military: “The cyanide pellets activated when they hit oxygen. After about 20 minutes everyone was dead, and then slave labor would go into the room and drag the bodies of those poor souls out and bring them and incinerate them in these ovens. This is why homeland security must be squared away, why our military must be invincible.”
He then edited it down to five minutes, added music and his campaign’s graphics, and somehow he still neglected to ever use the words “Jews, Jewish, or Holocaust.”
While he has been willing to entertain conspiracy theories, he’s been less than receptive toward science and medicine. His hyperbolic and indignant response, framed as a defense of the Constitution, to Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards’s decision to issue a stay-home order in the early days of the novel Coronavirus pandemic was out of sync with his fellow Republicans, including President Trump, who had praised Edwards for his cooperative leadership. It was also untethered from the facts and the science. Among other things, Higgins argued that face masks were ineffective in preventing the spread of the virus because they didn’t suppress one’s sense of smell.
“Can you smell through that mask?” he asked a CNN reporter in late May. It was a rhetorical question. “Then you’re not stopping any sort of virus,” Higgins thundered. “It’s part of the dehumanization of the children of God. You’re participating in it by wearing a mask.”
Julie Dermansky of Desmog recently published a thorough (and thoroughly terrifying) account of the ways in which an especially pernicious brand of science denialism has festered in Louisiana in response, as it were, to the global pandemic. Her story, titled “As Pandemic Toll Rises, Science Deniers in Louisiana Shun Masks, Comparing Health Measures to Nazi Germany,” includes a series of photographs of the troglodytes gathered in Baton Rouge for a “Save America Rally” on the Fourth of July.
Three days prior, according to reporter Jake Sherman, Higgins and Rep. Mike Johnson (R- LA04) walked onto the House floor without masks. That very day, July 1st, Acadiana “smashed coronavirus records” for both daily cases and hospitalizations.
More recently, in the aftermath of the social unrest sparked by the killing of George Floyd on May 25th, Higgins’s record as a police officer has become the subject of renewed scrutiny. Bryn Stole of The Advocate recently reported on Higgins’s decision to hire John Chautin, a former colleague from his days with the Opelousas City Police Department who was found to have “covered for” Higgins during a 2007 investigation into allegations that Higgins had used “unnecessary force” against an unarmed Black man named Andre “Red” Richard (In Acadiana, Richard is pronounced Ree-shard).
“Higgins’s record as a law enforcement officer was glossed over, with the rise of his YouTube videos,” his Democratic opponent Rob Anderson tells the Bayou Brief. “And yet his office has hired Jerod Prunty, who was arrested for pandering in a prostitution sweep, and John Chautin, who was part of the cover-up in Opelousas that was the beginning of Higgins’s less than-illustrious career.”
Four years ago, after exclusively obtaining a trove of public records pertaining to Higgins’s work with the St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Department, I worked with investigative reporter Zack Kopplin on an expose, “Uniform Misconduct: The Rise and Possible Fall of the ‘Cajun John Wayne’ GOP Congressional Candidate Clay Higgins,” for Salon, a national publication for which I had also been an occasional contributor. I also forwarded the records to my colleagues at The Independent, the Acadiana-based news weekly, and they also broke a series of reports about Higgins based on those documents and their own shoe-leather investigation. (At the time, I asked that my name not be used as a source). Additionally, The Independent also was the first outlet to report about the 2007 investigation in Opelousas.
This account is based on an extensive review of news archives, historical documents, and on these records, some of which I publicly released nearly two years ago via Twitter and others that have still yet to be published in full. (While those documents are indeed public records, the failure of the record custodian in redacting personal information about several individuals pose ethical concerns).
Next page: The Scoundrel.