BATON ROUGE, LA. - A new report has found that Louisiana sheriffs wield excessive power, nearly two-thirds failing to comply with public records law. Of the 64 sheriffs, 23 have never obtained approval from the State Archives for their records retention policy, and three more allowed their policies to expire as far back as 1980. The policies of an additional four are so limited that they only address a small fraction of the records held by the sheriffs.
This lack of governmental oversight has made it difficult for those claiming police abuse to prove misconduct. According to civil rights attorneys, community activists, and criminal justice experts, it has led to impunity for bad actors.
Furthermore, without permission from the state to dispose of public records, much of the information surrounding alleged deputy misconduct may be lost forever. This includes internal affairs investigations into excessive force or in-custody deaths, as well as payroll records or other mundane documents relevant to potential litigation or investigations.
One example highlighting this need for better recordkeeping is New Orleans' Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office under former Sheriff Marlin Gusman. During his 17 years in office, Gusman never requested approval for a records retention policy from the State Archives and failed to obtain permission to destroy any records over 10 years.
This lack of proper documentation was especially concerning when one considers that the jail he oversaw had been under a federal consent decree since 2013 due to evidence of rampant violence towards both staff and inmates, as well as unsafe living conditions inside the facility.
In response to these findings, lawyers Emily Washington and Elizabeth Cumming with MacArthur Justice Center in New Orleans are working on behalf of incarcerated individuals at Orleans Justice Center under a federal consent judgment that aims to ensure constitutional guidelines are being followed within jails.
Without proper recordkeeping practices enforced by state law, they said they have had difficulty accessing many documents related to matters such as in-custody deaths and uses of force by jail deputies.
The implications here should not be overlooked; unchecked public officials can lead directly to abuses in power going undetected or unaccounted for – making it difficult, if not impossible, for victims seeking redress from a system seemingly stacked against them.
Even worse still is when those same officials are also responsible for ensuring compliance within their agency – leaving little recourse beyond legal action, which can prove prohibitively expensive or time-consuming even when successful outcomes are achieved.
It is imperative, then, that we start holding our elected officials accountable and make sure systems are developed which protect citizens' rights while simultaneously providing transparency into how our governments operate at all levels – even down to how local records are handled by individual sheriff's offices across Louisiana and beyond.
Comments / 21