Matt Issman’s 44-year career in law enforcement has come full circle, bringing the longtime federal agent back to community policing as the city’s acting police chief.
He took over leadership of the Bay St. Louis Police Department on Wednesday, two days after Police Chief Daren Freeman turned in his resignation.
Freeman had hired Issman as a part-time investigator in January to deal with internal affairs and personnel issues at the department after the September 2016 suicide of Police Chief Mike De Nardo, who was under investigation for alleged gun sales and payroll fraud. Issman had applied for the chief’s job while Capt. Wes Mayley served as interim chief before Freeman was named Jan. 3.
Freeman served for about eight months until a meeting with the mayor on Monday involved discussion of a videotaped drug arrest that reportedly shows Freeman having physical contact with a handcuffed suspect.
Issman said he accepted the acting chief position Tuesday, after the mayor approached him “all of a sudden.”
“I told him I’d be happy to do what I can,” Issman said. “I’ve never backed away from a challenge.”
An adventurous career
Issman said he has a wealth of experience in state, local and federal government and in running small police departments.
“My last two jobs were helping under-performing, dysfunctioning agencies get back on track,” he said.
He’s twice retired, but has most recently been working as a part-time investigator for the District Attorney’s Office in St. Tammany Parish and the St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office.
As a young man, Issman was a deputy with the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office and a state trooper with the Louisiana State Police.
Issman said his most challenging job was working in El Centro, California, across the border from Mexicali, Mexico, during his years with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the 1980s and 1990s.
“It was kind of like the wild west,” he said. “Smuggling and drug smuggling. We don’t have control of our borders.
“It was a target-rich environment in a desert with a harsh climate. I had very dedicated agents and they were on the front lines every day.”
ICE sent him to Washington, D.C., to work in internal affairs from 2001-06, and then to New Orleans as a supervisory special agent. His federal work also has included investigations for the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Small Business Administration.
He is retired from the Treasury Department as a supervisory criminal investigator/assistant inspector general. The department sent him to Baton Rouge after Hurricane Katrina to oversee disaster fraud cases and later sent him to work at Treasury Headquarters in D.C.
Before Katrina, there was no database for disaster fraud, he said. His investigations became part of a database that can be used to pinpoint new frauds.
“The same people that were claiming they were injured in Katrina and had losses — low and behold, when the wildfires in California happened, they were there, too. And then came the flooding in Missouri, and what a coincidence, they were there, too. Now what bad luck you have,” Issman said, displaying what he calls his “very dry” sense of humor.
Issman returned to the Louisiana State Police as a captain for about two years before he became chief of police at LSU Alexandria in 2011.
“Policing in an academic situation is challenging,” he said. “That is the definition of community policing. I still had a daughter in college at the time. If anything kept me awake at night, it was worrying about the students’ safety.”
He also has been a senior law enforcement instructor at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia.
New man behind the desk
Issman sat at his new desk Wednesday with an ink pen, sunglasses and Cohiba cigars from the Dominican Republic tucked in his shirt pocket. A dispatcher’s voice could be heard from a nearby police scanner. A name plate from one of his previous jobs is tucked at the side of his desk.
His office is in Fire Station No. 1, where the beleaguered police department moved in January because of black mold. Its building on U.S. 90 at Main has been condemned. Police have makeshift headquarters at the fire station on Main Street just south of 90.
Issman said Tuesday was Freeman’s last day on the payroll, but they are in contact by phone.
“I don’t want anything to fall through the cracks,” he said, including changes made to address internal strife that rose up after De Nardo’s death and news of his investigation. Freeman fired some people and others resigned.
“Chief Freeman made a lot of good reforms and addressed all of the previous issues.”
The Coffee with a Cop program that Freeman started will continue, he said.
“Meeting with the community in a non-threatening environment is awesome,” the chief said. “It lets people know our officers are human. They breathe and bleed like everyone else.”
Issman said he hopes to start a citizen police academy to help members of the community understand police work.
“I want people to know the police department is still the same, the officers are still here and our main focus and function is public safety and community service. Nothing’s changed just because the man sitting in the seat has changed.”
Flair for drama
Off duty, his passion is drama. He’s been acting in community theater a number of years, taking on roles such as Daddy Warbucks in “Annie.”
He is portraying the chairman on the board in the Bay St. Louis Little Theater production of “9 to 5.” It starts Friday night and runs for three weekends.
“It’s kind of portraying something you are not and having people believe you are that person.”
Issman and has three grown children and two young grandchildren. He is living in Bay St. Louis and just bought a condo in Long Beach.
“If I weren’t working, I’d be with my grandchildren every chance I could get,” he said.
But, he said, “I’m working because I want to, not because I have to.”