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Demanding Accountability: SPLC sues La. sheriff’s office for public records regarding officer brutality

On May 27, 2020, only two days after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, Modesto Reyes was fatally shot by Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office deputies in Marrero, Louisiana, after what began as a traffic stop.

Sheriff Joseph Lopinto claimed officers opened fire because Reyes, 35, allegedly pointed two firearms at the officers. JPSO deputies, however, don’t wear body cameras, which means the only footage of the incident is eight seconds of video from a Taser. The sheriff’s office never allowed Reyes’ family to see the footage, but it showed the clip to the media, which reported that the video appeared to show a man face down, rolling onto his back and holding two firearms. Despite the footage, an independent autopsy requested by the family determined the cause of death was two gun shots in the back. The sheriff has disputed it.

People demonstrated for months in Jefferson Parish following Reyes’ death. They were joined by the families and supporters of Chris Joseph, Daviri Robertson and Keeven Robinson, Black men killed at the hands of JPSO deputies over the past few years, whose families also wanted answers. 

Today, the outcry for accountability for cases of police brutality against Black and Brown people continues nationwide as the murder trial of Derek Chauvin – the former Minneapolis officer who is accused of killing George Floyd – takes place. Just this week, only 10 miles from the courthouse where the trial is occurring, Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, was killed by a police officer who claimed to have confused her gun with her Taser. 

In Jefferson Parish, a suburb outside New Orleans, the cases of deadly encounters with police have largely been ignored on a national scale, but the Southern Poverty Law Center has begun to unravel a deep-rooted history of police brutality by the sheriff’s office. 

The SPLC began investigating misconduct by JPSO deputies after Reyes’ death and found at least 30 federal civil lawsuits filed against the department since 2010, many for excessive force and some for illegal use of deadly force or wrongful death. We know these findings are not all-inclusive, as they include only incidents that resulted in federal civil lawsuits.

We needed more information if we wanted a fuller picture.

In the summer of 2020, we filed a public records request for data on officer-involved injuries and internal affairs records regarding citizens’ complaints made against officers from 2010 to 2020. We were told that the data we requested simply did not exist and that certain records were only accessible for the past three years. Further, the sheriff’s office claimed that making internal affairs records public amounted to an “invasion of privacy.” We revised our request numerous times, but portions continued to be denied outright.

As for the records we were allowed to see, we encountered other obstacles. The sheriff’s office wanted to charge more than $2,300 to produce the documents, an excessive amount that places the records out of reach of most members of the public. The sheriff’s office wouldn’t even allow our staff to reproduce documents using our own portable equipment to avoid the burdensome costs.

So, we’re suing.

As our lawsuit Casteel v. Lopinto filed today states, access to public records, including the documents the SPLC requested, is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Louisiana Constitution. The Louisiana Public Records Act allows the SPLC the opportunity to reproduce requested records at our own expense, which JPSO has refused to allow. What’s more, internal affairs investigations cannot be hidden from the public because of what those investigations might reveal about the officers involved. These are public records, detailing the behavior of public officials accused of abusing the public trust while performing their duties.

By illegally withholding public records regarding complaints against deputies, the JPSO is dodging accountability from the community it allegedly serves and protects.

The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office is no stranger to controversy and claims of abusive policing. It was led for more than 25 years by Sheriff Harry Lee, who was unsuccessfully called on to resign by the NAACP after comments suggesting racial profiling. His successor, Newell Normand, was no stranger to controversy either, and his tenure as sheriff saw his agency facing excessive force lawsuits. Current Sheriff Joseph Lopinto III was a defense attorney for many of the deputies and the JPSO on a number of excessive force lawsuits obtained by the SPLC.

“They have historically not been friendly with Black and Brown communities in Jefferson Parish,” said Chanelle Batiste, an organizer with the Kenner Uprising Coalition, a community coalition urging disinvestment in local law enforcement, including the sheriff’s office. 

One of the victims named in the civil lawsuits the SPLC has obtained was a 17-year-old boy who was brutally beaten by officers; Normand claimed the youth “started it.” Another was a 48-year-old woman named Bessie Hernandez who was beaten and arrested at her home in front of her children and husband, and then released when officers realized they’d arrested the wrong Bessie Hernandez.

In another case, Honduran immigrant Casco Atdner, who was simply cashing a workers’ compensation check at a bank, was stopped by JPSO deputies who believed it was impossible for him to have the cash on him without being a part of organized crime. He was assaulted and arrested, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection was called on him, according to the lawsuit. He was held under an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainer for several weeks.

In many of the lawsuits the SPLC has reviewed so far, the sheriff’s office has avoided accountability by using a legal doctrine that delays civil rights lawsuits if the people seeking relief are facing a criminal case, which is often likely for a person bringing an excessive force case against a deputy. Their civil rights cases are stayed until those criminal cases are resolved, and if they result in a conviction, the cases aren’t reopened.

Yet, from information collected by the SPLC so far, it appears that the JPSO is dealing with deep-rooted, systemic issues of police misconduct. We want answers and accountability, and so does the community.

Photo by Times-Picayune /The Advocate/Max Becherer