Stephens speaks at Chamber lunch

Feb 22nd, 2012 | By | Category: News

Sheriff Jack Stephens took the microphone in front of an expectant audience gathered for the St. Bernard Chamber of Commerce lunch on Wednesday, February 15, bidding a final farewell to the community he’s served as sheriff for 28 years, the second longest tenure in the history of St. Bernard Parish.

“I feel like the most liberated politician in the world,” he said, beaming at members of the community. “I’m still holding office but I’m not seeking reelection.”

Sheriff Stephens was elected to his post in 1983, just as St. Bernard was changing from a predominantly rural area to a suburb of New Orleans and facing all the challenges of spillover urban crime. The first signs of increased crime came in the form of huge bales of marijuana found littered over the parish, but the community didn’t feel the true impact of drug trafficking until cocaine started trickling into the parish and, with it, a rate of juvenile crime so high that the new sheriff was forced to dramatically overhaul the St. Bernard’s Sheriff Department. Stephens explained that a new type of crime called for a new type of law enforcement officer, and he pushed the parish for a new revenue source that would adequately fund the training, equipment, and detention facilities he so desperately needed to build a new juvenile detention facility and stop the revolving door that simply spit juvenile offenders back onto the streets.

Stephens insisted that he wouldn’t have sought reelection in 1991 had he been unable to build the state-of-the-art detention center, which is still serving St. Bernard’s Parish today. He calls this triumph the first milestone in his long career. Then, after winning his bid for a second-term, he immediately set about trying to gather enough funds to pay his well-trained deputies competitive salaries, in order to keep them from leaving for other law enforcement agencies.

Increased salaries for the deputies called for increased revenues, but there were many against giving SBPSO more funds. The revenue increase was struck down in what Stephens described as his second career milestone. Though the rejection of his new proposal had taken the wind out of his sails, hope was renewed when the business community encouraged Stephens to keep trying and offered their help if he’d open his books to them and let them prove that he was managing his department with a regularity and efficiency that warranted the additional revenue he sought. After an editorial board meeting at the Times-Picayune and a carefully worded explanation to the community, Stephens finally got his revenue increase.

He pointed to other singular achievements, like the fact that there hasn’t been a murder in St. Bernard’s in the last 38 months and that, during his entire tenure, there hasn’t been a single sustained civil rights complaint leveled against his deputies. He’s especially proud of the courage and skill of his deputies, a group he describes as the “best trained, best equipped law enforcement agency in Southeastern Louisiana,” a distinction, moreover, they earned during Katrina when they did their best to safeguard an area that was essentially underwater. At first, Stephens said, he couldn’t understand why they’d flocked back, but he eventually realized that they all had a stake in St. Bernard because they felt that they all deserved a little credit for making the Parish what it is today.

“No one ever thanks you,” Stephens said, his usually gregarious voice dropping to an uncharacteristically somber register, “for bringing their son or daughter back home with a D.U.I. or drug charge. That’s why you got to make sure you’re doing a good job.” When asked by a reporter after he announced his retirement what his favorite day as Sheriff of St. Bernard Parish was, Stephens said he was initially dumbfounded, but that the question stuck with him until he remembered the day he got to tear up a speeding ticket for an elderly resident who’d come back in the wake of Katrina to rebuild his home.
“That’s when it’s really good to be Sheriff,” he said, the smile leaping back onto his face, “when you get to tear up a ticket like that. This job has been the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life, the most important thing I will ever do.”

As Stephens handed the microphone over to Jodie Lohfink, the 2012 Chamber Chairwoman, his audience got to their feet and sent their Sheriff riding into the sunset with a rousing ovation.

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