Credit: Tom Gogola

Orleans Parish Sheriff withholding use of force records from incidents at the jail

Civil rights attorneys are trying to shake loose those records, asking a federal judge overseeing the jail’s long-running consent decree to force Hutson to release the documents to them.

In late January, a sergeant working in the New Orleans jail called for backup because a detainee, who was housed on a tier reserved for people with mental health needs, had a broomstick in his cell. 

When three deputies arrived, they found the cell window covered in feces and “a large amount of unknown liquid on the floor.” 

The deputies then made “several attempts” to get the detainee — identified by the initials T.A. in court filings — to give up the broomstick, “but were met with negative results,” according to an incident report. 

There is no indication that mental health staff was ever contacted, even though OPSO policy requires it prior to a planned use of force. (A spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office said that mental health staff was not contacted because it was “not a planned use of force,” but did not respond to follow-up questions regarding that characterization.)

Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson is refusing to release investigative records in the case of T.A. as well as several other incidents of use of force by deputies. Civil rights attorneys are trying to shake loose those records, asking a federal judge overseeing the jail’s long-running consent decree to force Hutson to release the documents to them.

In T.A.’s case, one of the deputies went into the cell and attempted to physically pull the detainee  out, as another deputy shot pepper spray inside the cell. Deputies say the T.A. responded by pulling away and punching the deputy in the face with a closed fist. 

Several other deputies then entered the cell and applied “body shots,” removed T.A. from the cell, where they applied more “body shots” in order “to gain compliance due to his aggression and combative behavior.” Then, deputies tackled him and held him on the ground while he was shackled and handcuffed, and brought to a medical unit where he was able to flush his eyes. 

A spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office confirmed to The Lens that there are “active investigations” of deputies related to the incident, but that no disciplinary action has been taken. 

Six weeks after the incident, however, T.A. was arrested by sheriff’s deputies and charged with battery of a correctional officer. According to court filings by civil rights attorneys representing people incarcerated at the jail, the charge related to the incident is the only reason T.A., who is now receiving treatment at UMC, remains in custody.

The use of force by deputies on T.A. is one of several incidents in recent months that the civil rights attorneys with the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center are seeking more information about, saying they have concerns over their “appropriateness and legality.” 

But they say that Sheriff Hutson’s administration is refusing to provide investigative records that they are entitled to under the long-running consent decree meant to bring the jail up to constitutional standards. 

Last month, they filed a motion in federal court asking the judge presiding over the decree to force Hutson to turn them over.

“These requested records go directly to the current safety of the men and women in the custody of OPSO, particularly those class members with acute and sub-acute mental health needs,” the attorneys wrote. “OPSO has never objected to production of the requested documents nor suggested that the documents are not in OPSO’s possession. And the time provided for the production of requested records has passed.”

Lawyers for Hutson have yet to respond. 

Several of the other incidents the attorneys are seeking records about also occurred on the mental health tier. 

In one, on Jan. 31,  a detainee is alleged to have punched a nursing assistant in the face, who then responded by hitting the detainee several times in the face while he was being held against the wall by a deputy. According to an incident report, the detainee “sustained no injuries.”

In another, on Feb. 3, deputies sprayed pepper spray into the cell of a detainee who refused to leave his cell to be processed out of jail. There is no indication that mental health staff was called.

On Feb. 5, deputies were attempting to place a detainee on the mental health tier who had been punching hitting his head against the wall of his cell on suicide watch, which required him to change into a “suicide smock.” The detainee refused to put it on, saying that the other detainees had made fun of him before for wearing a dress. A mental health specialist attempted to speak with him several times, but he still refused. Eventually, deputies held him down, cut off his jumper, and placed the smock on him. 

While the attorneys say they have been given some initial documents, such as incident reports, and have been able to view video of the incidents, they are seeking records of any investigations that have taken place related to the incident, including “witness statements, interview recordings and/or notes, referrals for staff retraining and/or discipline.”

The motion is the latest in a series of disputes between Hutson and the other parties related to transparency by her administration since she took office nearly a year ago. In August of last year, the Magistrate Judge Michael North, who handles consent decree issues, blasted Hutson for failing to keep the court informed regarding several violent incidents at the jail. 

Hutson has responded, in part, by suggesting that all the parties in the consent decree should be forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement. That suggestion was roundly criticized by the other parties, and shot down by the judge.

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...