Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman painted an optimistic picture of his agency in a wide-ranging address Tuesday evening, accusing city leaders of underfunding the Sheriff’s Office and disputing reports from corrections experts that inmate violence has escalated inside the city's new jail.
The sheriff, speaking at the Beacon Light International Baptist Cathedral in Gentilly, said violence “has decreased dramatically” at the recently opened Orleans Justice Center because of the installation of hundreds of surveillance cameras and the “direct supervision” design of a $150 million facility that allows deputies to monitor inmates more closely.
Gusman, in his half-hour address, announced a restructuring of the Sheriff’s Office amid a scandal involving off-duty deputy details, and he reiterated his desire to build an additional jail building to accommodate special-needs inmates and expand a lockup the sheriff maintains is much too small for the city.
That project, often referred to as a “Phase III” facility, would be constructed with hurricane recovery dollars and, if approved, could be completed in two years, he said.
“There’s a big story to tell,” Gusman said. “The Sheriff’s Office has made so much progress, and sometimes it just doesn’t make the news.”
The sheriff showed a PowerPoint presentation that juxtaposed images from the past against the present, citing a host of accomplishments on his watch, such as the closing of outdated jail facilities and the drastic reduction of the city’s inmate population when compared to the jail dynasty built by Gusman’s predecessor, longtime Sheriff Charles Foti.
Gusman’s address, dubbed the “State of the Sheriff’s Office,” came amid one of the most turbulent times of his 11-year tenure. The Sheriff’s Office has struggled to improve conditions at the jail, with a federal judge monitoring its every move. It has been unable to hire enough deputies to safely staff the jail, a challenge the sheriff has blamed on Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s refusal to approve pay raises for them.
On Monday, Gusman’s chief deputy, Gerald “Jerry” Ursin, resigned amid an FBI investigation into deputies’ off-duty details — a probe that has resulted in criminal charges against Roy Austin, a former Sheriff’s Office colonel.
Austin, who pleaded not guilty Tuesday to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, coordinated the moonlighting work through his private company and allegedly billed local businesses for shifts that deputies did not actually work. The scheme, which largely targeted major sporting events and festivals, began in 2009 and involved some $83,000 in “fraudulently inflated charges,” according to U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite’s office.
Gusman said little about that matter in his address, but he revealed that he plans to restructure the Sheriff’s Office “in a positive way” following Ursin’s departure. He said he intends to hire a chief financial officer and a chief deputy who also will oversee the jail, a duty that previously had fallen to the chief correctional deputy.
Gusman has gone on the offensive this week, making the rounds among supporters and refusing a recent request by a group of clergy that he step down. His remarks Tuesday came a day after he delivered a similar address at a gathering hosted by the activist group Justice & Beyond.
Speaking at the Christian Unity Baptist Church on Conti Street on Monday, the sheriff disputed an alarming report published recently by the team of experts monitoring conditions at the jail, even as he acknowledged the Sheriff’s Office “slipped a little bit” last year after moving into the new building.
The experts, known as monitors, expressed concern in their semiannual report over an “absolutely unacceptable” level of violence at the new facility and warned that the Sheriff’s Office had regressed over the past six months in its efforts to implement a series of court-ordered reforms.
The lead monitor, Susan McCampbell, told a federal judge in February that the lockup is dangerously undermanned, and “staff are not in control of the facility.”
“We had been very hopeful that when the new jail opened there would be a decrease in the level of inmate-inmate violence and use of force” by deputies, McCampbell told U.S. District Judge Lance Africk at the time. “That has not happened.”
But at the Justice & Beyond event on Monday, Gusman insisted the Sheriff’s Office is “well-managed” and suggested the monitoring team had double-counted or in some cases triple-counted the number of serious incidents that have occurred at the jail.
The activist group did not allow the news media to cover the event, but The New Orleans Advocate obtained a recording of Gusman’s remarks.
“If you have an incident (in the jail), you’re going to have several people reporting on that incident, and then you’re going to have medical (staff) reporting it,” Gusman told the crowd. “What (the monitors) were doing was taking the combined total of the incidents and saying, ‘Oh, things are more violent.’ Not true. Not true.”
The monitors counted some three dozen cases involving contraband following the opening of the new jail in September, adding that the Sheriff’s Office made “limited effort to determine the source of the contraband and remediate the danger.”
But Gusman told the Justice & Beyond activists that “our level of contraband has dropped almost to nothing,” crediting the addition of body scanners at every entrance to the new jail.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.