Nearly half of Louisiana sheriffs are in violation of a state law regulating the preservation and destruction of public records, according to documents provided by state officials. 

Of the 64 sheriffs statewide, 23 have never secured state approval for a records retention policy, three allowed their policies to expire, one as far back as 1980, and the policies of an additional four are so limited they only address a small fraction of the records in their possession.

Further, in the past decade, nearly two-thirds of all Louisiana sheriffs failed to file a request with the state for permission to dispose of public records, as required by law. The State Archives, the agency responsible for overseeing and approving the handling of records, keeps disposal requests on file for 10 years.

Lacking such approval could mean the offices are unlawfully destroying everything from check stubs to internal affairs files. Importantly, it means they are not fully accounting for records of alleged deputy misconduct, which can be crucial in investigations and litigation over alleged civil rights violations. 

Verite requested the records retention policies and disposal requests filed by every sheriff from the State Archives, the agency responsible for overseeing and approving the handling of records. 

This reporting follows a Jan. 12 story on accusations that the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office illegally destroyed documents in a lawsuit involving an autistic boy who died in custody. It also comes on the heels of increased scrutiny on the outsized power wielded by Louisiana sheriffs. 

The lack of governmental oversight faced by these elected officials – despite years of complaints and allegations of civil rights abuses – has made it increasingly difficult for alleged victims of police abuse to prove misconduct. It has also led to impunity for bad actors, according to civil rights attorneys, community activists and criminal justice experts. 

Some of the largest sheriff’s offices are the worst offenders when it comes to following the public records law.

The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office under former Sheriff Marlin Gusman never sought approval for a records retention policy during his 17 years in office, according to the State Archives. In addition, Gusman did not obtain permission to destroy records for at least 10 years.

The jail has been under a federal consent decree since 2013 following evidence of rampant violence – at the hands of both the guards and of those jailed – and unsafe living conditions that, among other violations, deprived medical care and ignored the needs of the suicidal. The consent decree is concerned with federal, not state law, and does not require the OPSO to get a state-approved records retention schedule.

As part of the federal consent judgment, Emily Washington and Elizabeth Cumming, attorneys with the MacArthur Justice Center in New Orleans, represent the men and women held in the Orleans Justice Center. They said they have been forced to request court assistance in accessing records related to in-custody deaths and uses of force by jail deputies. This highlights the need for records retention policies, Cumming said, not just for public accountability and transparency, but also for ensuring jails are being operated in accordance with the constitution.

“Comprehensive and accurate records are critical if patterns and causes of harm are going to be identified and corrected, for example when looking at staff deployment or employee discipline,” Cumming said. “Without a robust practice of record generation, maintenance, review, and assessment, our clients will continue to experience preventable violations of their rights.”

Sheriff Susan Hutson, who defeated Gusman in the 2021 election, completed and signed a new records retention policy draft Tuesday (Jan. 24), which will be submitted to the state for approval. Improving the agency’s handling of public records is a priority, she said. 

“One of the things I told our communities is that this is going to be a well-run department, and that includes following the law,” Hutson said. “These are the community’s records. It’s their information. And we should be making sure it’s collected, preserved and available.”

Gusman is not alone in disregarding the public records law.

The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, for example, destroys its deputies’ disciplinary records after three years, according to its written policy. Yet, as previously reported, it has not secured approval for that policy, nor has it submitted requests to dispose of public records in at least a decade, according to the State Archives.

This came to light in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by the family of Eric Parsa, a 16-year-old autistic boy who died in January of 2021 while being restrained by JPSO deputies. Attorneys for the family accused the sheriff of illegally destroying the disciplinary records of the accused deputies.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna Phillips Currault in a November ruling found that JPSO should have known to preserve the disciplinary and training records of deputies involved in the case. However, the family failed to prove JPSO destroyed evidence in “bad faith” or with a “desire to suppress the truth,” she stated in denying the family’s request to place sanctions against the sheriff. 

Earlier this month, JPSO attorney Danny Martiny said the office doesn’t comment on pending litigation. Jefferson Parish Sheriff Joe Lopinto, who did not respond to requests for comment, denied all wrongdoing in court filings. 

Attempts to reach Gusman were unsuccessful.

A law without enforcement

Record retention policies, or schedules, determine how long public records are preserved, and provide guidelines on how they should be destroyed. Every public agency is required by law to submit one for approval with the State Archives. 

State law instructs the secretary of state to notify the head of any agency of the “impending, or threatening unlawful removal, defacing, alteration, or destruction of records … and initiate action through the attorney general for the recovery of such records.”

Destroying, damaging, altering or removing public records “required to be preserved in any public office or by any person or public officer” is punishable by up to a year in prison, a fine of up to $1,000, or both.

State Archivist Catherine Newsome said aside from “ongoing outreach” to agencies throughout the state, there is little more State Archives can do as they are not a “law enforcement or compliance agency,” she said.

Verite reached out to the 42 sheriffs’ offices that do not have an approved records retention policy, or a records disposal request filed in the past 10 years. Only four, including Hutson, responded.

Joe Hamilton, the human resources director for the Natchitoches Parish Sheriff’s Office in northwest Louisiana, said they did not file any disposal requests in the past 10 years because they haven’t destroyed any records during that time. Hamilton couldn’t explain why they didn’t have a records retention schedule prior 2018.

Jackson Parish Sheriff Andy Brown, who was first elected in 2004, also did not explain why his office’s first approved records retention schedule was not filed until July.

“When I became aware that we were not in compliance, we began efforts to correct the problem,” Brown said in an email. “We intend to comply with all requirements!”

Michael Ranatza, executive director of the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association, said their interpretation of the law allows sheriffs to retain public records for at least three years in the absence of a “more detailed records retention schedule.”

“We believe that Sheriffs utilizing the statutory alternative of a three-year minimum retention period in the absence of a more formal retention policy are not acting unlawfully,” Ranatza said.

He did not address why 42 sheriffs do not have any disposal requests on file for at least 10 years.

The association’s interpretation does not seem to square with guidance from the Secretary of State’s office, which says, “State agencies are required under La. R.S. 44:411 to submit a records retention schedule (a listing of the agency’s records with the proposed length of time the records must be kept for administrative, legal or fiscal purposes) to the State Archives for approval. Agencies must renew their records retention schedules every five years. Schedules that were approved more than five years ago are considered expired.”

Asked if every agency is required by law to submit a records retention schedule to the Secretary of State for approval, Newsome said, “Yes.”

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Before coming to Verite, Richard A. Webster spent the past two and a half years as a member of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network. He investigated allegations of abuse against the Jefferson Parish...