As we head into runoff elections for the offices of Sheriff and Coroner, and face demoralizing choices like whether to re-elect either Charles Foti or Marlin Gusman, it is crucial that we do more than simply vote for the false choices offered us. It’s time to ask what needs to change!
On October 11, 1971, the Ludington Daily News ran an article titled, “Orleans Parish Jail – Hell Hole of U.S.” In the forty years since, New Orleans has elected a new Sheriff exactly twice (Foti in 1974 and Gusman in 2004), and OPP is still a hell hole. Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) is currently under a consent decree following a lawsuit over conditions in the jail, and has been under various consent decrees since the 1960’s. Under both Foti’s thirty year tenure and Gusman’s ten year tenure as sheriff, lawsuits over medical and mental health care of prisoners, treatment of female prisoners, and treatment and housing of juvenile prisoners resulted in numerous consent decrees. The choice now between Charles Foti and Marlin Gusman is a false one between two men who, together, are responsible for 40 years of violence, incompetence and failure in the jail.
One of the forces that perpetuate corruption in the New Orleans political landscape is the lack of turnover in powerful offices like the Sheriff. The lack of term limits and limits on cross-governmental candidacy encourages elected officials to focus on maintaining their power, influence and bottom line while cutting the average workers and citizens who populate this city out of decision making and resource allocation. The Mayor and City Council are subject to term limits, however the Sheriff’s office has no term limits, and no accountability.
The Sheriff’s office is not the only public office in need of term limits or other electoral reform. Frank Minyard, the outgoing coroner, was first elected in 1974 (the same year as Foti), and has held the office for ten consecutive terms. During his tenure, the coroner’s office has been accused on numerous occasions of failing to classify as homicides the deaths of individuals beaten or shot by the police. In 1990 the death of Adolph Archie, beaten to death after fatally shooting a police officer, was originally classified by the coroner as an accident. Henry Glover, shot by a police officer in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and then set on fire was originally ruled by the coroner as undetermined and was only reopened after enormous pressure from family and community. Cayne Miceli, whose death was originally ruled “drug-related” by the New Orleans coroner, died after being held in five-point restraints during an asthma attack; and the list goes on. A 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences recommends phasing out the office of the coroner entirely and replacing that elected position with an appointed medical examiner. However in New Orleans not only is the coroner elected, there is no limit on how many terms a coroner may serve.
We the people who bear the brunt of the impact from callous policies, have to take charge to transform what we have into what we deserve. In Orleans Parish we can change our City Charter by having 10,000 registered voters petition a change and then vote on it. We have been battered by exclusionary political elitism for too long, it is time to reclaim our power and remind them who they work for.