A sign directs voters to a polling place at Edward Hynes Charter School in New Orleans’ Lakeview neighborhood on Nov. 8, 2022. (Greg LaRose/Louisiana Illuminator)
Elected sheriffs, among the most powerful figures in local law enforcement, are overwhelmingly white men in Louisiana. In a state with a Black population of more than 30%, only four out of 64 sheriffs are Black, and only one — Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson — is a woman. But this fall, voters will have an opportunity to elect a more diverse crop of sheriffs, if they so choose.
In the Oct. 14 election, 23 candidates who are not white men are running for sheriff in 15 parishes where the post is now held by a white man. (Most of those 23 candidates are Black men.) And in some parts of the state, where the Black population is roughly equal to or higher than the white population, Black candidates may have a chance to win.
Research suggests that law enforcement agencies benefit from diversity.
“It probably helps to balance the criminal justice system when you have people with different backgrounds other than just [as] prosecutors or law enforcement officer[s] going into law enforcement positions,” said Robert Collins, professor of public policy at Dillard University.
In Caddo Parish, for example, two Black men and one white woman, all Democrats, have qualified to run as sheriff. They are running against three white men, all Republicans, to replace Sheriff Steve Prator, who is retiring from the position after more than 20 years. Caddo Parish is about 50% Black and 46% white, according to a recent census estimate.
“The numbers there are close enough that I think you could make the argument that it could go either way,” Collins said. “In the state of Louisiana, Black turnout tends to lag a little behind white turnout. So, you know, in a case like that, the Black candidate is gonna have to make sure their vote turns out.”
Black candidates are often working at a disadvantage when it comes to parishwide offices like sheriff or district attorney, according to Collins, because they typically have to win over a large number of white voters. Historically, nonwhite voters are more likely than white voters to cast their ballots for candidates of a different race, he said.
In addition, previous generations of Black politicians often avoided running for the office because of their own histories with law enforcement: “A lot of the civil rights leaders had an antagonistic relationship with law enforcement so they didn’t want to become part of law enforcement,” Collins said.
Concerns about racial bias
In a February report focusing on the racial makeup of elected law enforcement officials in Louisiana, the Southern Poverty Law Center raised concerns that the lack of diversity in leadership may be reflected in how sheriffs’ offices conduct their business.
“Although people of color are grossly overrepresented at every point of the criminal justice system in Louisiana, white individuals hold the power to influence Black citizens’ interactions with racial profiling, criminalization, and incarceration,” the report said.
Black people represented 57% of Louisiana’s local jail population in 2019 and 65% of its prison population in 2022. And parishes with high Black populations tend to send more residents to state prisons than others. Some neighborhoods in Shreveport, Caddo Parish’s largest city and the third largest in the state, have incarceration rates more than triple the state average, according to a report from the Prison Policy Initiative.
The report’s author, Delvin Davis, noted in an interview that Caddo’s current sheriff, Prator, made “slavery-evoking remarks” in 2017 expressing frustration over a package of criminal justice reform bills the Louisiana Legislature passed that year, complaining that state prisoners who were put to work in local jails would be released as a result of the new laws.
“In addition to the bad ones … they’re releasing some good ones that we use every day to wash cars, to change oil in the cars, to cook in the kitchen, to do all that where we save money,” Prator said.
In statements to the media at the time, Prator denied that his remarks were racist or meant to evoke slavery. But critics accused Prator of exploiting state prisoners, who are mostly Black, for labor.
“Instead of using jail as a place for people to receive counseling or healing or remedy or things like that, it’s a place to get mainly Black people in and use them for labor,” Davis said. “That’s the kind of history that the challenger is running against.”
Prator did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Prator’s remarks pushed Hersy Jones, Jr., who is Black, to enter the 2019 Caddo Parish sheriff’s race, where he came in third. Prator won outright with 65% of the vote, avoiding a runoff. Jones said he’s running again this year because he wants to reestablish trust in law enforcement.
“We need the African American community in the high-crime areas to buy into law enforcement, and they won’t buy in because they don’t trust the police,” Jones said. “My platform is designed to say that the law has to respect itself and we have to declare to little people, big people, Black people, white people, rich people, poor people that we gotta do law and order, and if you don’t apply the law to everybody, you’re really not doing law and order.”
A powerful position
Sheriffs in Louisiana have a great deal of power. Along with running local jails, sheriffs in many parishes are also in charge of criminal investigations, tax collections and evictions. As elected officials, they are not directly overseen by parish councils, and their deputies do not have the same civil service protections as other public servants.
Sheriffs’ power extends beyond their normal law enforcement duties. The Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association is one of the most influential lobbying groups in Baton Rouge. State legislators and Gov. John Bel Edwards, whose brother is the sheriff of Tangipahoa Parish, often seek the group’s input on statewide criminal justice policy.
The association has been credited with nixing recent efforts to legalize recreational marijuana in the state, despite broad statewide resident support for legalization.
The SPLC report points out that once elected, a sheriff often stays in his position for a long time. Harry Lee was sheriff of Jefferson Parish for nearly 30 years, a position he once famously described as being “the closest thing there is to being a king in the U.S.” In Orleans Parish, Marlin Gusman, a Black man, served as sheriff for 17 years before he was unseated by Hutson, the first Black woman ever elected sheriff in the state.
In an interview, Hutson said she would like to see more women as sheriffs.
“As a woman and as a Black woman, I go through additional types of microaggressions in the job,” Hutson said. “So just having somebody else there who might be experiencing something similar with me, it’s good — it’s good to see someone like you.”
Patricia Gilley, a retired attorney running to replace Prator in Caddo Parish, is one of only two women in Louisiana sheriff’s races this year. In an interview, Gilley, said she believes she can bring a needed change of perspective to the office.
“Everybody up here is afraid to do anything that’s different,” Gilley said. “But if you get a woman who’s not afraid of anything and you put her in there, things could happen that’s for the good.”
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