In New Orleans, Political Brawl Over Police, Jail

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  • NEW ORLEANS (AP) — 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.

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