Sheriff readies for 6th term, touts lower crime, police complex as legacy

As Greg Champagne prepares to be sworn in to his sixth consecutive term as St. Charles Parish Sheriff on June 21, he has no plans to call it quits anytime soon — even if, interestingly, he didn’t aspire to take that role as a young man at all.

While many dream at a young age of one day becoming the sheriff of a town, Champagne was not among them, at least not initially. Once a prosecutor who earned his way into the position of assistant district attorney, he began hearing some input from those around him imploring him to consider running for sheriff of St. Charles Parish — then-Sheriff Johnny Marino had announced his impending retirement as his 12 year run was winding down.

“My first reaction was ‘eh, I don’t know,’” Champagne said. “I always thought I’d be a judge or run for DA … I liked doing what I was doing, and (those goals) in line with being an attorney or prosecutor. I certainly liked working with law enforcement. But I didn’t really care for the politics of the office of sheriff. My experience here had been, as it was everywhere in those days, sheriff’s elections were really nasty political races. Bloodbaths, 10 to 15 people running, name calling … that turned me off.”

But Champagne gave it more thought, particularly after some prodding from Judge Mary Ann Lemmon, who he said was the first to really “put the bug in (his) ear.”  He spoke to his wife,    whose support helped him cement his decision.

He faced challenging odds his first election. Four men were in the race, including Vic Bradley, who had lost a very close vote against Marino in the previous  sheriff’s election. Champagne was also 38 and nobody as young had been elected to become a public official in St. Charles Parish at the time.

But Champagne made history that year. He was elected in the first primary, garnering 57 percent of the vote. Not only had he become St. Charles Parish’s youngest ever elected official, but he also achieved what was then thought near impossible — he won without a runoff.

He took office in 1996. In 1999, he ran for a second term and was unopposed, another historical outlier.

“Capt. Pat Yoes is a big history buff, and he told me then, ‘we cannot find another sheriff’s race that was unopposed.’ We couldn’t find one without a runoff.”

It’s no longer an outlier. Champagne was elected in the next election with 81 percent of the vote. The next time, it was 83 percent. And in the last two elections, nobody has challenged him as he again ran without opposition.

“I’m extremely grateful of the people of the parish,” he said. “If you didn’t have widespread support, you wouldn’t be winning elections or being unopposed. I’ve worked hard for them, and they’ve returned it.”

He credits his staff for much of his success.

“The bottom line is it comes down to our quality workforce of men and women,” Champagne said. “My responsibility is to provide the men and women who work for me with the tools and training and motivation to do a good job. I think we’ve done that.”

When Champagne took office, one of his primary objectives initially was to have a new prison built to provide more housing space. He recalled a jail space on the third floor of the courthouse that could hold just 110 inmates. That put police in a tough spot — and gave criminals a chance to game the system.

“It was full,” Champagne said. “Deputies had to decide how serious the crime was, and if it was a misdemeanor, they got a summons to appear in court. You couldn’t even take them to jail. There was only enough space to keep probably the worst, more violent-type criminals awaiting their trial.

“The message was out there that, hey, they knew what they could do and not even go to jail for it. So the first thing we do is build a jail.”

In 2001, five years after Champagne took office, the new correctional center opened and it had a sudden impact on the area’s crime rate.

“These petty thieves chronic that committed crimes over and over and knew they could stay out of jail found out it was no longer the case. The crime rate fell like a rock,” Champagne said.

Adding office space for his agency was another item on his agenda that he was able to check off. And the final stage of what he calls “the trilogy” was completed in 2011: the Sheriff’s Office’s education and training center.

Champagne said that the center was a project he would have liked to have launched long before, but the other projects took immediate precedence. But to hear the Sheriff speak about it, it is clear that it just might be the addition most near and dear to his heart.

“We really emphasize training everywhere. That was really my big thing from the start,” Champagne said. “We have one of 24 police certified academies in the state, right here in little St. Charles Parish.

“Police officers in this day in age have to know how to deal with the mentally ill on the streets. First aid, safe driving, legal courses …. What other occupation do you have to get up in morning and put on a bulletproof vest to stay alive during day, or to physically go and take people against their will and bring them to jail?”

He is also proud that none of the three buildings were funded on tax hikes. He feels the new buildings can serve as something of a physical legacy after Champagne’s crime-fighting days are over.

The greater legacy though, he hopes, is the crime rates that have declined during his time as sheriff.

“The proof is in the pudding,” Champagne said. “Look at our statistics … our crime rate stands up pretty well. We just had the lowest month since I’ve been in office, according to UCR, in May.”

The biggest difference, he said, since his early days in office has been the role of technology in combating crime. Social media and surveillance cameras are among the biggest weapons the police force can utilize these days, a stark contrast to Champagne’s first term—he notes that when he initially took office, he didn’t even have an e-mail address.

He said that other agencies shy away from using social media to report criminal suspicion and activity and says that’s a mistake.

“Sometimes people don’t believe crime is down, because we didn’t have this before,” Champagne said. “If there were a number of car burglars in Bayou Gauche the night before, they didn’t hear about it. So it seems like there’s more crime, but really there’s not. But the good news is, we tell people about it and people are alert. We’ve caught so many people through Facebook.”

Though becoming sheriff wasn’t his initial goal, he’s certainly taken a shine to the role: Champagne is set to be installed as the president of the National Sheriff’s Association this month and already serves as president of the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association.

He also doesn’t see himself slowing down anytime soon.

“As long as I feel I can continue, as long as my health is good, I plan to keep going. Right now, I plan to run for re-election in 2019.  I’m in my best physical condition since I’ve been in office. I weigh less now than the day I took office.

“58 is not that old,” he added with a smile. “When I turn 61, hey, there are plenty of sheriffs a lot older than that.”

 

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