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Louisiana Sheriffs Repeatedly and Conveniently Destroy Public Records

by Benjamin Tschirhart

There are 64 sheriffs across the state of Louisiana. Despite what many of them apparently believe, they are subject to certain rules and laws, just like the rest of us. That message just hasn’t reached some of them. Two-thirds of them appear to be in violation of state law concerning the retention and destruction of public records, according to documents uncovered during an investigation conducted by Pro Publica and Verite.

“Brazenly confident” is the description used by reason.com when describing the attitude of these so-called public servants toward their handling of public records. When a member of the public attempts to lodge a misconduct complaint, they often find themselves up against a blank wall.

For example, Eric Parsa, an autistic teen, was killed in 2020 by an officer who placed the boy in a “prolonged chokehold.” When his family sought justice, they found that the records pertaining to the incident had conveniently (for the officer anyway) been destroyed. A judge ruled that the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office “should have known to preserve the disciplinary and training records of deputies involved in the case.” One must suspend their connection with reality to conclude that a failure to retain these records was due to an honest mistake.

According to Louisiana Sheriff’s Association executive director Michael Renatza, “we believe that Sheriffs … are not acting unlawfully” when they use a three-year retention policy “in lieu of a more formal, detailed policy.” Under state law, all sheriff’s offices are required to write a formal records retention policy and submit it to the state for approval. Yet, the investigation revealed that two-thirds of the offices have failed to seek approval to destroy records, and 30 of the 64 have neglected to seek approval for their policies, allowed them to expire, or have a policy which only covers a small percentage of their public records.

This, predictably, results in the public suffering “preventable violations of their rights” explains attorney Elizabeth Cumming, who defends detainees at the Orleans Justice Center. She says that “comprehensive and accurate records are critical if patterns and causes of harm are going to be identified and corrected.”

Identifying and correcting problems never seemed to be a high priority for former New Orleans Sheriff Marlin Gusman, who in a 17-year career as sheriff, never once submitted a retention policy for approval. This did not change even after the 2013 institution of a federal consent decree meant to address issues of endemic violence and unsafe living conditions for those unfortunate souls in Orleans Parish custody.

New Sheriff Susan Hutson promises this will change under her leadership, affirming her belief that having a well-run department “includes following the law.… These are the communities’ records. It’s their information. And we should be making sure it’s collected, preserved and available.” Unfortunately, her view on the rule of law is the minority position among the state’s 64 sheriffs.  

 

Source: Reason.com; Propublica.org

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