Political brawl over jail video erupts between police, mayor
A video showing inmates using drugs, drinking beer and handling a gun led a judge to placing the jail under federal oversight
By Kecin McGill
NEW ORLEANS — A political brawl has broken out between the mayor and a sheriff who runs the city jail, which has come under scrutiny for a video showing inmates using drugs, drinking beer and handling a gun.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu asked a judge last Tuesday to take the extraordinary step of placing the jail under federal oversight, effectively wresting control of it away from Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman. Landrieu is upset over an agreement Gusman reached with the U.S. Justice Department to reform the jail, saying the city, which funds the jail, can't afford the potential expense.
"Stated simply, the person at the top is neither accountable, nor capable of exercising leadership skills," the city said in court documents that cited the video and the recent guilty pleas of two jail officials in a bid-rigging bribery case.
Landrieu is trying to reform the much-maligned police department and reached a widely heralded agreement with the Justice Department last year to clean up the agency. Now he's trying to back out of it in light of Gusman's separate agreement. Landrieu said the city was making changes but can't afford all the requirements outlined in the jail and the police agreements.
Gusman believes the city has consistently underfunded the jail and suggested race may be behind the attacks. The African-American sheriff recently told reporters that Landrieu, who is white, was employing "Archie Bunker rhetoric," invoking the name of the fictional television bigot.
"They have to be looking at something different than just the record," Gusman told The New Orleans Tribune. "And maybe they're looking at the person who's there. Maybe they're looking at — they don't like the way that person looks."
Landrieu, a Democrat who carried a majority of the black vote in his 2010 election, has not directly responded to the remarks on race.
While the problems at the police department have been widely known, less publicized have been unsanitary, violent and dangerous jail conditions that have long been the subject of lawsuits and court orders. The extent of the dysfunction was driven home during a recent federal court hearing on the jail reform pact when videos, apparently made by inmates in 2009, were released.
Shown to a stunned courtroom audience, one video showed inmates smoking, snorting and injecting drugs. Some drank beer, some had cellphones and one inmate ejected bullets from a handgun.
In another video, an inmate was seen wandering Bourbon Street and boasting, "Y'all know I'm supposed to be in jail right now."
Gusman, a Democrat who was first elected sheriff in 2004, has said the dilapidated building where the drug party and escape happened has since been closed. Two inmates who escaped, including the one seen on Bourbon Street, were arrested and prosecuted.
His sketchy memory of seeing the video in 2009, and his failure to involve state or federal authorities in the investigation, drew harsh criticism from jail consultants in court.
The agreement to make changes at the jail, known as a consent decree, would settle complaints the Southern Poverty Law Center filed on behalf of inmates. The agreement, which was signed by Gusman, is awaiting a judge's approval.
During the recent court hearing, though, Gusman downplayed problems at the jail.
"I think we're doing pretty good without the consent decree," Gusman said, adding that a jail building now under construction with help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be a major step in improving conditions.
How much the jail agreement will cost is in dispute and will be the subject of federal hearings in May.
The Landrieu administration, citing one estimate in a court filing, says it could add $22 million annually to the $30.5 million the city already turns over to Gusman to house roughly 1,600 city inmates. The costs would cover medical services, higher pay for deputies and a larger jail staff.
City officials questioned whether he really needs that much money.
"The jail consent decree has undermined our ability to move forward with the costs associated with the police consent decree," Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni said.
The city budgeted about $7 million for this year to begin complying with terms of the changes in the police department, where decades of scandal include the shootings of unarmed civilians in the law-and-order meltdown after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The police reforms could cost in the neighborhood of $50 million over the coming years. The big-ticket items so far include $1.4 million to begin equipping all patrol cars with cameras to better document police, $1.2 million for new computer equipment and $2 million for a monitor's office that will make sure the police are toeing the following the pact.
While the administration complained the sheriff has asked for excessive funding given a jail population that has been decreasing, Gusman has cited increasing medical costs and the need for more pay for overworked guards.
"The only person who is holding out in moving forward and doing the things we need to do is Mayor Landrieu," Gusman said in a news release after the city's latest court filing. "It's disappointing."
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