A muscled Army veteran and hardened street cop who rarely cracks a smile, Higgins may be the most irresistibly intimidating man in America.
He is the rising star of weekly Crime Stoppers segments that have garnered a cult following in the four months since he first went on air. His stern demeanor, back-country drawl and made-for-TV one-liners explain why, in towns across southern Louisiana, he is quickly becoming known as the Cajun John Wayne.
“I got chills just listening to that man talk,” a fan wrote recently on Facebook.
“You scare me. In a good way. Makes me feel safe,” wrote another.
“Chuck Norris just got replaced,” a third person declared.
Criminals, it seems, are listening, too. On April 9, Higgins looked into the camera and told Ladarious Young to turn himself in to “start to make things right.”
“You can’t run from your own guilt, son,” Higgins said into the camera while discussing Young, a local fugitive who was accused of assaulting a woman with a beer bottle. Young was also linked to a casino heist. “You can’t hide from what you’ve done, and you’ll never escape … the long arm of the law,” Higgins added on KATC, the ABC affiliate that delivers Crime Stoppers to eight parishes (counties) across southern Louisiana.
The next day, authorities said, Young walked into the sheriff’s office and surrendered, telling officers the broadcast had persuaded him to do the right thing.
In some quarters, including pockets throughout southern Louisiana, the relationship between police and the citizenry can be fragile, if not fraught.
Just this month, in nearby Lafayette, a sheriff’s deputy and a state trooper were arrested and accused of planting drugs on a suspect. Days later, a sheriff’s deputy in the state was shot three times in an apparent ambush.
With videos of police using lethal force going viral with increasing regularity and distrust of law enforcement running high in some communities, Higgins offers a compelling counterpoint.
“I think the reason that he’s striking so many people is that he’s a man’s man, but he’s got empathy,” Alex Labat, a KATC anchor, told The Washington Post. “We hear things about law enforcement and the excessive force that they use, but the only weapon Clay Higgins uses are his words.”
Letitia Walker, KATC’s news director, told The Post that the response from viewers has been overwhelming, with many DVRing Higgins’s segments or demanding the station put them online minutes after they air.
“He’s truly authentic,” Walker said. “Nothing is written for him. We show up, and he turns it on, and we just press record. He does everything in one take.”
Higgins’s most memorable expressions, such as “have your affairs in order” — which he growled during a segment in which he promised to hunt down a generator thief — are inspiring memes and being repeated by fans who swarm the lawman in public, Walker said.
Until recently, being on television was never part of the plan, according to Higgins, who took time away from hunting down an escaped murderer to chat with The Post one recent afternoon. (The killer was eventually captured, Higgins noted later.)
For the past seven years, he worked the night shift in St. Landry Parish, a risky, isolated job in which he could go hours without seeing another officer.
“There’s less violent crime in rural areas, but when you go to a disturbance or burglary, you can be a long way from backup,” Higgins, a father of three, told The Post. “Gotta be able to handle your business.”
In December, Sheriff Bobby J. Guidroz asked Higgins to become the department spokesman. Higgins, who has no experience in communications, cautiously agreed and quickly found himself reading from a weekly Crime Stoppers script that he just couldn’t stomach.
It was too canned and unnatural, he told producers, reminding them that he’s not an actor. Tossing the script, Higgins listened to his gut, drawing on 17 years of law enforcement experience.
“I told my wife I was gonna speak the truth,” he told The Post. “That’s how I’ve done it on the street for many years with suspects, criminals and victims alike. People don’t want to hear political crap, they want to hear the truth.”
Perhaps no video better demonstrates Higgins penchant for speaking from the heart than a recent Crime Stoppers segment in which he appeared at a World War II memorial to express his disgust for a Romanian scammer.
“If you’re a foreigner, stealing from our elders from far across the sea, listen to me — you’re the lowest of the low,” he says in the clip
Higgins rarely expresses contempt for the suspects he’s hunting.
“A convict is not necessarily a bad person,” he told The Post. “I’ve met many convicts I can trust and very few attorneys. I’ve always spoken on a straight man-to-man basis to suspects I’ve arrested.”
His own failures in life, he said, have made him less willing to judge the people he puts behind bars. It’s an attitude he’s developed over a lifetime of personal successes, mistakes and tragedies.
Between 1989 and 1991, Higgins lost his father, his daughter and his wife in three separate tragedies. After six years in the Military Police Corps, he managed car dealerships but found himself longing for law enforcement. He left a job making $130,000 a year for a job making $8 an hour.
“It was the best decision I’ve ever made in my life,” he said. “I’ve been a workaholic, had marriage failures and took a lot of ass-whippings in life. Gradually, I reached the conclusion that I needed to be a cop again. I became a better man and husband and father and Christian and more at peace with myself. I found my true purpose.”
The sense that Higgins knows exactly who he is explains why people find him so trustworthy, Walker said, noting that suspects’ families have begun calling him to personally turn their loved ones over to him.
When people make mistakes, Higgins said, he expects them to “take their licks like a man.”
“You may as well turn yourself in,” he told two wanted men during a March segment. “You know the company you keep, so you also know, our phones are already ringin’.”
“Great messages, Lt. Higgins!” a woman wrote. “If I were breaking the law in these parts, I would definitely NOT want to meet you. You’re the best law enforcement spokesman I’ve seen anywhere in a long time. Keep up those great messages and thank you for serving our community and keeping us safe. God bless you and keep YOU safe, sir.
“You are too kind Ma’am,” Higgins responded the next day. “Thank you. … and may I say, what a lovely lady you are, holding your adoring Black Lab. Happy Easter.”