Who is "Bobby" Webre?
Robert "Bobby" Webre has become a face that people know in Ascension Parish and an ambassador for local law enforcement. He currently holds the rank of Colonel and the position of Chief Deputy of Criminal Operations for the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office.
Sheriff Jeffrey F. Wiley released a statement in July that he would opt for an early retirement in the event that his daughter Erin Wiley Lanoux is elected judge in November. In that case, Webre would become interim sheriff until the 2019 election.
But who is he? And what does he make of it?
"The chief deputy is the second man in charge," Webre said. "We take an oath that is different from most deputies. My oath of office would indicate that if something were to happen to the sheriff, or the sheriff were not able to complete his term in office, that the chief deputy would assume the role as interim sheriff."
The chief deputy assists the sheriff with all aspects of the administration of the department, civilly and criminally. The position is all about helping with leadership and management of the office. Before obtaining his current rank and position, Chief Webre held the position of Lt. Colonel of Criminal Operations from 2011-2016.
"Of course from being in the military and being in law enforcement, I'm very used to those ranks," Webre said. "The number three man in the department has held the Lieutenant Colonel, so it kind of progresses through that."
Webre added that in Ascension, the sheriff is just the sheriff. He does not go by rank. But some sheriffs do go by rank, likely in terms of a number of stars.
Webre attended East Ascension High School and said that by the tenth grade he knew he was going into the military. Before that he spent his boyhood playing outdoors. He claims to have been a little rebellious, but never smoked a cigarette or marijuana.
"I just felt a desire to go into the military," Webre said. "My dad was such a great guy. Anything mechanical he wanted to know how to work on and learn how to fix it. He was a mechanic and a hard worker. But that did not interest me."
His uncle was in the military. It made sense to Webre. He signed up for the military in the eleventh grade for the delayed entry program.
"I can remember this like yesterday," Webre said. "In '82, I graduated January 18th and on the 21st I hit the ground in Fort Sill Oklahoma for boot camp. My senior trip was boot camp. I wanted to be a paratrooper, so I double volunteered for the army and to be a paratrooper. Of course parents aren't too happy that kids want to jump out of airplanes, but that's what I wanted to do."
Webre's job in the military was to be an artilleryman. He knew he was heading for combat arms, infantry, artillery, or cavalry. "I was a cannon cocker, shooting big guns," he said.
From Fort Sill, Webre went to Fort Benning, Georgia for jump school. "Being that there's only one airborne division left in the free world, that's the 82nd Airborne Division, I knew my chances of being stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina were going to be good."
Webre said that he finished his advanced training and got his jump wings pinned on coincidentally the same day his class was graduating high school. He muses that if he would have finished one day earlier that he maybe could've attended.
"It would've been a nice thing, but it did give me a little bit of a head start in life," he said.
He became a platoon leader in basic training and lead the platoon in second, third, and fourth phase. His leadership qualities may have played a role in directing him to headquarters battery division artillery after boot camp.
"Out of the whole division artillery, I was assigned to headquarters," Webre said. "That's a little private first class. And here again, I don't know what I'm doing. I don't know why I'm in headquarters, but come to find out I was going to be the colonel and the command sergeant major's aide and driver. Does that sound fun? I don't even know, but I know that everyday I would get up and plot maps, get jeeps ready, get radios ready. We would hit the field and go to observing points and tactical operation centers."
Webre said he was a 19-year-old kid, a private first class, and he got to hang out with 40-year-old men all day for the next three-and-a-half years. It had its advantages though.
"Just by watching them--how they would interact with soldiers and other officers, how they were spot on with what they did and not shy about bringing me into the tactical operation centers--just by being there it gave me a lot of good leadership ideas and maybe traits."
When Webre left the military he went straight to the sheriff's office. His whole life has been in service, approaching 33 years in the department. He'd completed 68 jumps with the 82nd, which he said is not many compared to some old timers.
"I did get a chance to deploy to Grenada," he said. "That was probably the first military operation since Vietnam. It wasn't a very long operation. That's when Reagan ordered the 82nd Airborne and the Rangers to go rescue medical students at the True Blue Medical Center in Grenada and overthrow that communist government.
"At that time, in the early '80s it was all about the domino effect of these communist countries. I think Grenada went communist or was taken over by communists. We were able to do that very successful operation and we were able to get those students out.
"We learned a lot from that because since it was the first actual combat since Vietnam, there was a lot to catch up on and a lot to learn. There were many communication issues that were corrected because of that combat operation. I think it really helped us when we got to the Gulf War in 1991."
Next, Webre served as Ascension Prison Warden for half of his career from '96 to '11. He doesn't come off as the typical, depressed movie-type warden though. On the contrary, he said it was probably his most challenging appointment.
"Not only do you run a prison with hundreds of inmates and a large staff, you have a large physical plant to take care of," he said.
The prison, located in Donaldsonville, holds 572 inmates, but Webre said there is probably 510 there now.
"When I started we had 213, and in 16 years we grew to over 500," he said. "I watched the jail expand in a big way. When I became Warden it was completely new to me. I wasn't a correctional officer before I became Warden.
"When Sheriff Wiley became sheriff in '96, I was one of his lieutenants that was running courtroom security, so I had some security. I was running the warrants division. I was also on the crisis response team. And [Wiley] says, 'I need somebody to be the warden.' And I agreed to do it."
Webre attributes a good staff and a lot of reading about best practices towards his success. Webre got the prison accredited through the American Correctional Association (ACA). It was a two-year process. "Less than two percent of parish or county jails in the country are accredited," Webre said. "We are certainly proud. We had good, basic guidelines. But after a 24-month period we had over 400 guidelines. It was a big deal, and Sheriff Wiley enjoyed being able to say we were one of the few jails in the country that was accredited.
"Most state jails are accredited, but very few county or parish," he said. "We were able to do a lot. We were able to build a stand-alone chapel there, so inmates could go to a church service and not feel like they were inside a prison. We were able to put a computer lab there so inmates could get their GED online.
"We have many programs there to help the incarcerated population come out a little better than when they went in. It was so important to us because it's a parish jail. I can count on one hand the amount who go away for life. Most of them are going to go in and get out. And where are they going to live? They're going to live in our local community. If they come in reading on a fifth-grade level, if I can get them to eighth grade, better for us.
"My philosophy has always been that one program is not enough. You hear about all these programs like 'Scared Straight.' To me that generally doesn't work. What you have to do is address a lot of needs if they are going to be incarcerated there. The punishment is that you are in jail. We're going to tell you when to go to sleep, when you're going to wake up, get breakfast, go outside. So, it's not like you have freedom. Your whole life is going to be structured on me telling you what you're going to do.
"So my philosophy is to address if they have any substance abuse problems, educational needs, vocational needs, and faith-based needs. If you can touch on all those things and do it well, you can probably get the recidivism rate to about 38 percent over a five-year period. That sounds high, but if you do none of that, there's more like a 48 percent chance that you'll be back in jail in five years."
Moreover, Webre said he promises that the prison kitchen, which serves over 1500 meals a day, is the cleanest kitchen in the world. "They can come out and go work at any restaurant," Webre said.
"We have over 220 police cars. You know who does the large majority of maintenance? Inmates. So any inmate that gets out of jail can go work at any automobile dealership, doing oil changes, brake changes, etc., and never have issues again if they stay away from crime and drugs."
River Parishes Community College gives certificates to inmates who became mechanics. Moving on, Webre maintains that being prison warden was not dreary, like in the movies.
"It was one of the positions I had where you could continue to challenge the staff, the inmate population, and the community. But being there 16 years--that's a long time--the dreariness of it is you start seeing people come back. Great guy when he's in, good trustee, looks like he's on the right path--boom--and you get disappointed when you see him again. You see him a second time, or you see him a third time back in jail. That's the heartache.
"Oddly enough, it was not dreary. Yes, it's jail. It's bars. It's a lot of glass, but you do get to see a lot of success," Webre said. "In those 16 years I never did let it get boring. I would agree with you. If your life gets dreary and boring, then bad things can happen. Keep challenging ourselves to do things."
Specifically, he remembers painting the jail. He also recalls preparing for a major flood as a colorful highlight of his tenure as warden. Imagine building ladders and holding drills to get 300 inmates on the roof of the jail, and you might get a pretty good picture of it.
Next, in '93 Webre was selected as one of the original members of the Department’s Crisis Response Team.
"It was the first time our department could say we really had a SWAT team," Webre said. "Colonel Paul Robert, who's retired now but works with us part-time, was so instrumental in developing that team. He was a long-term member of our department at the time and ran our training division. He was part of an anti-terrorist assistance program.
"It was back in the day in the early '90s when LSU had a grant to train local and foreign law enforcement officers in SWAT tactics. Just to be one of the seven members of your department picked to join that team was an honor in itself. Our patch had seven stars on it. One of the legacies for me is to say I know I'm one of those seven stars on the Crisis and Response Team patch. We were actually doing it the right way--how to make entries into a home, how to clear corners, how to approach, how to do hand signals--all the things that you may have seen on TV."
Webre recalls an operation where a man went into a church in Gonzales and shot four people.
"He runs out and we had him hemmed in a shed," Webre said. "I made entry into that to get him out of there. Great to be able to do that and get him out and nobody else gets hurt. I probably made five or six entries like that. If you look at the team now it's grown so much, and we have so much better equipment. It was an honor to be among the first selected for that team."
Further, in 2007, Webre was selected to attend the prestigious FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia. The department is lucky to send one member each year. "Everybody would agree that the FBI is the premier law enforcement agency," Webre said. "They don't seem that way now watching a lot of the news and the controversy. But forget about that. Those field officers and people that run the FBI training academies are absolutely the best professional guys you are ever going to want to meet.
"It's an opportunity for local law enforcement to send some of your administrators through leadership and police management training. It's kind of the gentleman's school for upper management in local law enforcement."
Chief Deputy Webre shared much about his history in the military, on the SWAT team, and as warden, but what about the future of the Ascension Parish Sheriff's Office? Webre said that one challenge for their department is the population growth.
He is not against growth but acknowledged that Ascension is losing its small-town feel. He would like to see the parish grow along with proper infrastructure arrangements in place.
"I think we have 125,000 residents living here," he said. "There's no doubt I think that is going to continue to grow 30-40,000 in 15 years. What do you do with that growth? How do you budget for that growth? We have infrastructure problems. The department can help with the traffic problem, but it's about figuring out the best ways to do it.
"We have a growing opioid epidemic. How do we confront those challenges as an agency, leading a large parish? What's going to happen in the industrial corridor there? So, you certainly hope that your budget and resources grow along with the growth of the parish.
"The thing that would concern me as sheriff is the growing crime in Baton Rouge, our neighbor to the north--a record number of homicides," Webre said. "How do you keep that seepage from spreading to Ascension?"
Webre answered his own question. He would address it at the investigative level. Ascension Parish is currently at the national average for crime, but lower than the Louisiana or Southern average.
Finally, Webre said that Sheriff Wiley is like a big brother to him. They met in 1988.
"We bonded then because he was working right down the hall from me. When he announced he was running for sheriff, no doubt our department was going to solidify behind him because as a chief deputy, he was a good coach, a good leader, and a great cheerleader for the department.
"He had a lot of energy and always wanted to challenge the department, kind of the philosophy I took to the jail when I went there. We probably didn't hang out more outside of the office because we had families, and he's a little older than me with his own circle of friends.
"But it almost became like a big brother type of friendship. We always relied on him. He could always rely on me. We would do some things together. But I cherish it because a big brother relationship is pretty special, too.
"If the sheriff decides to retire, great! Good for him!" Webre said. "If he decides to stay and run again, I will be his biggest cheerleader, his biggest supporter, and I would do anything I can to get him reelected."
Bobby and his wife Karen Webre have been married for over 25 years and currently live in Gonzales. He is a member of the East Ascension Rotary Club, American Correctional Association, American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Knights of Columbus, and the FBI National Academy Association.