ROBELINE — What likely started innocently enough as a free fountain drink or cup of coffee offered to Robeline police officers as a courtesy for hanging around this village's only convenience store at closing time allegedly escalated last year to an open practice of carting out bags of soft drinks and sometimes even gallons of milk, authorities said.
Robeline's three police officers — officer Shelby P. Borders, 50; officer Curtis W. LaCour, 44; and officer David S. Minish, 43 — are accused of felony offenses in connection with their actions. One former store clerk also is charged with a felony, while a second was arrested on a misdemeanor charge.
No longer are freebies handed out at Shop-A-Lott in Robeline.
Discounting meals and providing free soft drinks to police officers are not uncommon practices at some businesses, especially in smaller communities where the officers and store employees are on a first-name basis.
However, most law enforcement officers recognize the fine line between an occasional courtesy and putting themselves in a position of being unduly influenced or perhaps taking advantage of the generosity. That's why most police departments have established policies about gratuities.
Mansfield Police Capt. Gary Hobbs wrote the department's current employee policy and procedures manual, which specifically outlines how an officer is to handle such situations.
Years ago, Hobbs said, many Mansfield restaurants and convenience stores offered free meals to on-duty officers. The thought being an officer in uniform would act as a deterrent to any criminal behavior.
The free meals have since stopped but some are still discounted. Mansfield police are prohibited from soliciting special favors. But if they are offered a free or discounted meal or drink, they can accept it.
"The officers should not accept anything that would tend to influence them in their official duties. ... I don't think a free Coke would do that," Hobbs said.
The Minden Police Department does not have a policy regarding gratuities and Police Chief T.C. Bloxom Jr. said he's never received a complaint of any of his officers seeking a free meal or drink.
"But I have no objection if they accept a cup of coffee," Bloxom said.
The Natchitoches Police Department has a policy that prohibits officers from accepting any gratuity, spokesman Lt. Cary Hargrove said.
Shreveport and Bossier City police policy prohibits officers from accepting any on-the-job compensation besides their department-authorized pay.
Robeline Police Chief Gordon O'Con would not comment this week about his officers' arrests Sept. 6. "I've been advised not to say anything right now."
But O'Con confirmed that Borders, LaCour and Minish were on active duty.
Mayor Tommy O'Con said there are no immediate plans to take disciplinary action against the three officers since any recommendation has to come from the elected police chief. So far, Gordon O'Con, who is Tommy O'Con's brother, has made no such recommendation.
Tommy O'Con, who also said he'd been advised by village attorney Dan Dyess not to comment on the arrests, added that the officers have been working with the Natchitoches Parish sheriff's office since the investigation was disclosed in November.
"The Louisiana Municipal Association attorney said until they are proven guilty, they don't have to resign," Tommy O'Con said.
LaCour, who qualified last week to run for the District 9 Police Jury position, said he could not talk about the arrest upon the advice of his attorney. He offered that "our attorney" planned to make a statement, but LaCour would not identify the Natchitoches attorney.
A person answering the phone at Borders' residence Thursday said he was not at home, and Minish, who identified himself when he answered the phone, hung up before The Times could ask any questions.
LaCour, Borders and Minish each are charged with one count of theft of goods more than $100. Former store clerks Laura Procell, 25, and Wanda Martin, 25, also were arrested, with Procell charged with theft of goods over $100 and Marlin with theft of goods less than $100. All were booked into the Natchitoches Parish Detention Center and released after posting bonds set by the court: $2,000 on the felonies and $1,000 on the misdemeanor.
Sheriff Victor Jones Jr. said in a news release the arrests followed a "lengthy investigation" conducted jointly with the Natchitoches Parish district attorney's office. The theft complaint was received in November but the investigation has been drawn out because of separate reviews of surveillance video and the subpoena of records related to the case.
District Attorney Van Kyzar just more than a week ago gave the go-ahead to proceed with the case, officials said. Kyzar on Wednesday and Thursday did not return several messages seeking comment.
A series of surveillance videotapes shows each officer going into Shop-A-Lott at closing time and filling plastic bags with dozens of bottled soft drinks, Chief Investigator Travis Trammell said.
"It grew out of Lott Oil extending a courtesy of a free fountain drink or cup of coffee to officers who came in at closing time "» but over a period of time, it evolved into regular drinks and more," Trammell said. "There's no telling how it got to this point, but the store started experiencing losses and they watch their videotapes and see all of this going on."
The officers also are reportedly seen eating chips, honey buns, M&Ms and an assortment of other snack foods — all without payment.
"Their story is they can get all of the drinks they want for free. ... You can call it what you want to call it but it is stealing," Trammell said.
The Robeline mayor and police chief were briefed on the investigation and shown portions of the videotapes before the officers were arrested.
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