The crime spree seemed patently bizarre, particularly for a lawman of several years. In an apparent meltdown, Paul Sylvester, a deputy with the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, was arrested last week after authorities say he opened fire on an SUV full of people and, later the same night, picked a fight with a random patron at a Waffle House in Gentilly.
As startling as the allegations were, Sylvester is hardly the first sheriff’s deputy to trade his badge for the orange inmate garb of Orleans Parish Prison. The arrests have run the gamut of misconduct, from a deputy charged with facilitating a jailhouse stabbing to others caught smuggling contraband into the jail.
Just last month, a Sheriff’s Office recruit was accused of trespassing and impersonating an officer after she somehow worked an entire shift at the jail despite being fired days earlier.
“People get paid a whole lot less in other professions and are still honest and still forthright,” Sheriff Marlin Gusman said this spring as he announced the arrest of Rubin Robertson, a deputy accused of funneling marijuana to inmates. The sheriff rejected the notion that meager pay was to blame for the recurring malfeasance, asserting that such behavior boiled down to the direction of “someone’s moral compass.”
The arrests of Sylvester and the rogue jailers before him highlight a fundamental, yet often overlooked, challenge Gusman faces as he seeks to carry out a sweeping, court-ordered plan to reform the city’s jail: recruiting — and retaining — competent deputies.
It’s a task complicated in part by the relentless negative publicity OPP has generated over the past several years, making a career at the Sheriff’s Office an increasingly difficult sell to aspiring law enforcement professionals.
“The morale right now is the lowest it’s ever been,” said one young deputy who left the agency recently and insisted on anonymity because he still works in local law enforcement. “I don’t see how they can claim there’s a hiring process, because it seems like all you need is a pulse to work there.”
The so-called consent decree — Gusman’s settlement agreement with inmate advocates and the U.S. Department of Justice — has opened an unprecedented window into the jail’s shortcomings, many of which have been attributed to a dangerous lack of manpower.
As recently as two years ago, an inmate was raped, forced to perform oral sex, tied up and “stuffed in a laundry bag” on a tier of the jail that, according to court records, was not being supervised by a single deputy. Inmate-on-inmate attacks remain a common occurrence, and deputies are assaulted with alarming regularity.
“The lack of adequate deputies in the jail is the most significant driver of violence and unsafe conditions faced by people in OPP,” said Katie Schwartzmann, the MacArthur Justice Center attorney whose class-action lawsuit on behalf of inmates prompted the consent decree. “A well-trained staff is absolutely critical to achieving constitutional conditions in our jail, and without that, we will not get there.”
Gusman has butted heads repeatedly with Mayor Mitch Landrieu over the cost of the reforms — not to mention the proper size of New Orleans’ new jail. While that high-profile conflict has threatened to undermine the modest improvements seen at OPP, the success of the overhaul is perhaps most dependent upon the performance — and, by some accounts, the sheer number — of Sheriff’s Office employees.
“I don’t think it’s sufficient to just hire people,” Susan McCampbell, the court-appointed outside corrections expert monitoring the reforms, said in federal court last month. “There has to be some sustainability for the safety and protection of the inmates.”
While some progress has been made, McCampbell and her colleagues have warned of a lack of urgency in the hiring of new deputies. In 2014, the Sheriff’s Office hired 196 deputies to work in the jail; 80 resigned; 20 were terminated; and three retired, resulting in a net gain of 93 new deputies for the year. Through the first half of 2015, 107 new deputies have been hired while 52 have left.
Councilwoman Stacy Head expressed frustration Friday that the Sheriff’s Office’s hiring goals remain in a state of flux. At a City Council budget hearing, Carmen DeSadier, Gusman’s new chief of corrections, could not even provide complete numbers of how many deputies are currently assigned to jail facilities.
DeSadier insisted, to Head’s astonishment, that the Sheriff’s Office also will not know exactly how many employees it will need to staff the new $145 million jail until it opens. DeSadier put the tentative figure at 295 deputies, but she said that number was subject to change.
Previous staffing estimates have fluctuated wildly, with one report released by McCampbell’s team in February projecting the Sheriff’s Office needed to hire as many as 600 new employees. “It’s a moving target at this point,” said Philip Stelly, a Sheriff’s Office spokesman. Gusman declined to be interviewed for this article.
The Sheriff’s Office has sought to recruit new deputies through social media and job fairs in New Orleans and Mississippi, and through advertisements in community newspapers. “We have also held meetings with the area Marine Corps commandant in an effort to interest military personnel to fill off-duty time as correctional officers on a part-time basis,” Stelly said.
McCampbell and Sheriff’s Office brass also have raised concern in recent weeks about the effects of a new 10 percent pay raise announced by the New Orleans Police Department, an agency that also suffers from a battered image but that as of January will pay its recruits about $42,600 a year.
Sheriff’s Office deputies receive a starting salary of $27,000 a year, a rate that increases to $33,000 after one year and completion of the P.O.S.T. Correctional Academy.
Over the past two months, the Sheriff’s Office has lost at least nine employees who transferred to NOPD “solely because of pay,” said James Williams, an attorney for Gusman.
A new class of 30 recruits is scheduled to begin Monday, but DeSadier predicted some would-be deputies will leave by the end of the first week “because they decide, after getting there, the pay is just not enough.” She added that she was “appalled,” after decades of working in corrections in Chicago, to learn of the salaries earned by deputies in Orleans Parish.
While many deputies supplement their income by working security details around the city, Gusman has blamed inadequate compensation as the primary reason the Sheriff’s Office has struggled to fill positions.
McCampbell, the jail monitor, said last month that “no one will ever know the number of people who didn’t apply for OPSO jobs because of the substantial discrepancy in the salaries” between the Sheriff’s Office and the NOPD.
But the Landrieu administration, which under state law must pay for the care of inmates, has pushed back against those claims.
The city this year commissioned a study that outlined the typical differences in pay between correctional officers and law enforcement officers tasked with “primary policing responsibility” in their communities. In New Orleans, sheriff’s deputies primarily operate the jail.
The study found that, after five years of service, Sheriff’s Office deputies earn between 72 percent and 75 percent of what their NOPD counterparts make. Nationally, correctional officers earn about 68 percent of the median salary paid to police officers in the same area, according to the study, prepared by the PFM Group.
Several former deputies said in interviews that salary was of tangential concern, secondary to factors like morale, professionalism and the opportunity for career advancement.
Bryan Collins, a deputy who resigned from the Sheriff’s Office in 2013 and filed a whistleblower lawsuit against Gusman that was later dismissed, said the hourly pay remains a “discouragement to existing deputies and a dissuasion to many prospective recruits.”
But he added that he didn’t expect the NOPD pay raises to have an adverse effect on the Sheriff’s Office, in part because “higher caliber” candidates often apply to the Police Department first.
“The areas involving reputation, public image and integrity of an agency are usually of paramount importance to any professional deputy or conscientious recruit,” Collins said. “Dedicated deputies and/or candidates seek out departments they can feel proud to work for.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.