Harry Lee was elected sheriff of Jefferson Parish seven times by voters who liked his muscular brand of law enforcement and his pledge to residents that when they dialed 911, a deputy would show up quickly.
He died in 2007, but voters’ affection was passed on to his chosen successor and his chosen successor’s chosen successor, the current sheriff, Joe Lopinto.
But voters’ expectations of law enforcement are changing, and the Sheriff's Office will need to change with them.
That doesn’t always seem to be happening, according to a deeply reported piece by Richard Webster published in our pages last week in collaboration with ProPublica and WRKF and WWNO.
The piece compared the different policies and practices of law enforcement in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish.
New Orleans’ principal law enforcement agency, the police department, has operated under a reform agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice for eight years now. The so-called consent decree was prompted by jaw-dropping abuses by police, and yearslong cover-ups, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Now, whenever a New Orleans police officer uses any force, there is an internal affairs investigation. NOPD prohibits neck holds, warning shots, firing at moving vehicles and pistol-whipping. The Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office has none of those rules.
The federal agreement has not always been popular in New Orleans, and the city continues to pay hefty fees to attorneys and others who monitor its progress. But the tough love has turned the department into a model of reform.
The consent decree was initiated under the Obama administration. The Trump administration took a more skeptical view of federal oversight of local law enforcement, but the trajectory of the New Orleans consent decree did not change significantly under the Republican president.
The Biden Justice Department promises to reinvigorate the federal oversight function, and a likely — and deserving — first local target would be the Louisiana State Police.
In the meantime, Sheriff Lopinto has a chance to reform his agency and make use-of-force policies more modern and transparent.
Jonathan Smith, a former Justice Department official who helped oversee the investigation into NOPD, said that a lack of accountability is “probably the most important thing I’ve seen in every department where there’s been a problem. That gives people impunity to engage in bad conduct.”
Lopinto can start by deploying body cameras, which he has so far resisted as too costly.
They are now a common feature of law enforcement, including in suburban communities similar to Jefferson. Sheriff Randy Smith of St. Tammany Parish has joined the movement. Lafayette also deploys body cameras. In fact, four-fifths of large law enforcement agencies in the nation use body camera technology.
In New Orleans, the police department typically releases body camera footage within ten days when an officer shoots someone or a suspect is hospitalized or killed.
The cameras are a useful tool to protect citizens from overzealous officers. But they also protect officers from false or exaggerated complaints by arrestees.
Jefferson Parish has changed since the Harry Lee era.
The citizens deserve a Sheriff's Office that keeps up. So do the deputies whose hard work makes Jefferson a safe place to work and live.