Surrounded by family, friends and colleagues, St. Charles Parish Sheriff Greg Champagne held up a photograph taken as he was first sworn into office in 1996. Among those in the shot was his daughter, Rochelle, then just 12 years old.
Twenty-four years later, she had the honor of swearing in her father for his seventh consecutive term, doing so at a special ceremony last week at the parish’s police headquarters. Champagne is now the longest serving sheriff in the parish’s history, surpassing former sheriffs Lewis Ory and Leon Vial Sr., each of whom served approximately 23 years in the position.
“You’ll notice I look a little different. My hair’s not quite as thick, not quite as black, and of course, I’m a little bit older … I look back at that picture and I realize how scary a time it was, going into the unknown,” Champagne said.
It was the fourth time the longtime sheriff has been unopposed in his bid for reelection, including for each of his past three terms. There’s been two constants over the years, he says – the responsibility of sheriff has always been a 24-hour job and has always been to “keep criminals out of the lives of honest citizens.”
“It’s always a challenge,” Champagne mused. “When you come in and start thinking you can kick back and enjoy, something happens. We’re in the business where anything can happen at any time, and there’s never a dull moment … the public wouldn’t return me to office if they’re not confident we are doing the right things.”
The Sheriff’s Office employed 240 people the day he took office, a number that has grown to nearly 400. Its once small jail has been expanded, a highly regarded training academy and home base have been established and technological advances have changed the game completely.
On that last point, Champagne marveled a bit.
“It’s amazing. We had little to no computer activity when I first started, mostly for the finance department,” Champagne said. “Now we’ve got microwaves shooting stuff back and forth between offices. The change in technology has been unbelievable … with social media, it’s even more intense now. That can be good and can also be bad. But at the start, they had just come out with e-mail addresses.”
It was a different time, and those texts and instant messenger apps could have come in handy. Today, the Sheriff’s Office has its divisions unified at its Luling headquarters, but in 1996 those were spread around the parish.
“Our detective bureau was practically in Kenner,” Champagne said. “You never saw anybody.”
That changed in 2011, as the family of the late Judge Edward Dufresne set aside seven acres of the land he had dedicated to the parish for the purpose of a headquarters. The main headquarters was built in 2011 and a training center was added alongside of it, again through help of the Dufresne family.
The construction of the Nelson Coleman Correctional Center was key as well.
“The big issue at the time (of Champagne’s first term) was the jail. We had one (at the courthouse) that could hold about 110 prisoners. As it was, we were having to release people … you come on duty in the evening and the question was ‘do we have enough beds to arrest people?’ We needed to do more summons,” Champagne recalled.
Champagne worked out a deal with St. Charles Parish near the end of his first term where he took ownership of the jail, which would be built upon 10 acres of undeveloped land. He said it made a notable impact off the bat.
“Crime numbers fell once we opened the jail, because it wasn’t a revolving door,” Champagne said. “
After a brief tick upward, the numbers began falling again, and in each of the past two years the lowest marks in Champagne’s tenure were recorded despite a growing population. He credits a strong partnership with the parish’s district attorney, Joel Chaisson, as a major part of that.
Other changes came in the form of different training methods and areas. There’s been additional focus on deescalation and crisis intervention. And Champagne is especially pleased with the results from a leadership training program that promotes each officer and employee taking ownership of their respective roles.
“Prior to this, that kind of training was thought to be just for captains, majors … this is for everyone,” Champagne said. “I feel it helps to avoid the kind of negativity … some officers deal with so much negativity each day and tend to get jaded. This helps steer away from that kind of thinking.”
He admits “it’s frustrating now for everyone” when it comes to the negative focus of media coverage upon law enforcement seen nationally in the wake of the George Floyd incident.
“We feel frustrated because we had nothing to do with what this criminal in a uniform did up in Minneapolis (to Floyd),” Champagne said. “We didn’t cause it and we don’t do things like that. You see the bashing of police on social media … it’s frustrating. We try to do the right thing every day.”
That can lead to heightened tensions for an officer responding to a call.
“My concern is … this is a tough business,” Champagne said. “There’s a reason why we have dogs and handcuffs and tasers, because you never know. In times like these, you tend to worry, because is there someone out there with some degree of mental illness who is so stressed out, because of coronavirus, these allegations police are bad and beating up people … we don’t believe we do that here. But it’s tough for a deputy to have to deal with those worries because people are so stirred up.”
Within St. Charles Parish, though, he notes the support has been overwhelmingly positive and he’s thankful.
“It means a whole lot. And that’s been the case here,” Champagne said. “We’ve had large support. I think most people want the same things…safe streets, to be left alone, and not have a criminal interfere with your life. I think here … large cities have challenges we don’t have, where councilmen or mayors dictate move by move what a law enforcement agency does without knowing anything about law enforcement. In St. Charles Parish, I’m elected. I answer to the people, and I handle police to keep you safe.”
And though Champagne is now the record-holder for length of a term, he hopes to keep doing this job for a long time to come.
“As long as my health is good and the public wants me to stay, I’ll stay. When they want me to go, I’ll go,” he said. “I’m still excited about it