The sheriff of Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish answers only to voters. In this conservative suburb, that translates to nearly unchecked power.

This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with WRKF and WWNO, and it was also co-published with The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published.

As Sojourner Gibbs pulled out of her parking space at a Sam’s Club in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, one afternoon last summer, she felt the familiar, sickening symptoms of diabetic shock. Weakness, confusion. She began to sweat and shake uncontrollably. And then, Gibbs said, panic set in.

Her car lurched forward a few feet. She slammed on the brakes. The groceries she had just purchased for her family’s Juneteenth barbecue jostled in the back. People started honking their horns. A concerned woman walked up to her car. “I’m a diabetic! I need help!” Gibbs yelled.

The woman called 911. Dispatcher notes show a report of a “Black female sitting/screaming” in a gold Ford Expedition. “Appears scared.” Moments later: “Needs EMS.”

Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office deputies arrived before the paramedics. First just one, then three more. Gibbs, a doctoral candidate in public policy, thrashed in the front seat, her body stiffening. She recalls telling deputies she was diabetic. The sheriff’s department report says she told deputies to “go away.”

She insists she heard one say, “This bitch is lying. She’s high on something.”

As deputies surrounded the car, Alicia Dardar, who is white and grew up in Jefferson Parish, pulled up nearby. Dardar felt uneasy as she saw what was happening, she said, and she thought of George Floyd, who a month earlier had been killed by a Minneapolis police officer. She started recording with her cell phone.

Alicia Dardar witnessed and filmed sheriff’s deputies throwing Gibbs to the ground as the Black woman pleaded for help. “I think the cop saw a Black person and instantly assumed she's on drugs,” Dardar said. “If it was me in that vehicle, it would have been a very different moment.”

Her video shows the four deputies dragging Gibbs out of the driver’s side door. Gibbs cries, “I don’t know why you’re doing this.” Then a deputy grabs one of Gibbs’ legs from underneath her, sending her face-first into the dirt. They secure her hands behind her back with zip ties, restraining her as paramedics arrive.

She remembers thinking of her sons, 10 and 4, and praying: Please, Lord, do not take me.

When paramedics arrived and took Gibbs’ blood sugar level, it was 17 milligrams per deciliter. Levels below 40 milligrams can be critical, even fatal. She said one paramedic told her, “You could have died.” While she was in the ambulance, deputies combed through her belongings in her SUV.

Over the next few months, Gibbs would file a complaint with the sheriff’s internal affairs division, hoping the officers involved would face consequences. What she didn’t know at the time, but would later learn, is that the Sheriff’s Office would fail to follow its own internal investigations policy. Despite her complaints, no official would ever interview her or Dardar before exonerating the officers of all wrongdoing. The Sheriff’s Office did not respond to questions about Gibbs’ case.

Had the scene in the parking lot played out in New Orleans, just four miles away, Gibbs’ pursuit of answers likely would have had very different results. That’s because just over a decade ago, the U.S. Department of Justice released a scathing report about policing in the city. It found that the New Orleans Police Department had failed to properly track and review when its officers used force, that its internal investigation system was deeply flawed, that officers were disproportionately shooting and killing Black people, and that years of ignored complaints and stonewalling had eroded public trust.

The report led to a settlement agreement with the city in 2013 that has resulted in drastic overhauls in policing, turning a troubled department into a model — albeit an imperfect one — of reform. Federal monitors wrote in February that despite still needing some improvement, NOPD had become a “changed agency.”

But the DOJ has never launched an investigation in Jefferson Parish, a suburb of about 440,000 people west of New Orleans that straddles the banks of the Mississippi River. Its Sheriff’s Office is one of the largest in the state, with jurisdiction over the entirety of the parish’s 665 square miles, including those cities that have their own police departments.

The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office complex is named for former Sheriff Harry Lee, who espoused racist views in public statements.

Here, policing looks a lot like it did in New Orleans a decade ago, with racial disparities in the people officers shoot, little transparency in cases where force is used, and a flawed internal affairs process that critics say protects problematic deputies instead of the public. Records and data collected over the last year by WWNO/WRKF and ProPublica support the claims that many Black residents have made for years: that deputies treat white residents and residents of color in significantly different ways.

More than 70% of people who deputies shot at during the past eight years were Black, more than double the 27% of the population that is Black, the news organizations’ investigation found. Seventy five percent of the people who died — 12 of 16 — after being shot or restrained by deputies during that time were Black men.

The disparities resemble those of the Louisiana State Police, which has come under heavy fire recently over a pattern of violence directed at Black arrestees. At that agency — which Black lawmakers have asked the Department of Justice to investigate — 67% of incidents where the police used force in recent years have targeted Black Louisianans, the Associated Press reported Sept. 9. Black people make up nearly one-third of the state’s population.

The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, when questioned about such incidents, failed to provide vital details, exhibiting a lack of transparency. In response to public records requests, the office could not account for how often its deputies use force. It also refused to provide the news organizations with copies of complaints against deputies.

After failing to respond to weeks of emails and voicemails, Sheriff Joe Lopinto declined to be interviewed for this story and did not respond to written questions. He said only that when his deputies commit serious misconduct, they are arrested, noting that at least nine deputies have been booked since he became sheriff in 2017, although he could not say how many of those incidents involved officers inappropriately using force.

Based on news reports, only one of those bookings appeared to involve excessive force — a 21-year Sheriff’s Office veteran who was accused of pepper-spraying a man without justification.

Gibbs said she has heard stories of abuses by Jefferson Parish deputies for years, but she didn’t see herself as someone who would ever have a reason to worry.

“I thought as long as I do the things I’m supposed to do, I’d be OK,” she said. “​​We pay our taxes. We have a very nice home. We go to work. We go to school. We educate our children.”

In the end, though, she said, none of it mattered. The deputies didn’t see a woman experiencing a medical emergency. They saw a Black woman acting irrationally, pegged her as a drug addict, and treated her as such, she said.

“They had a narrative in their minds of who I was and why I was and where I was. And no matter how many times I said I’m diabetic, no one responded to that,” Gibbs said. “They saw me and thought the worst.”

Across the Parish Line

Carved out of land that belonged to Orleans Parish until 1825, Jefferson Parish encompasses sprawling suburbs outside the city and stretches down to fishing villages on the Gulf of Mexico. The histories of the two parishes are intertwined, their shared border revised over the years by annexations for reasons both political and pragmatic.

As the two communities grew, their histories diverged. New Orleans is an international port city, a tourist mecca famous as the birthplace of jazz. Jefferson Parish boomed in the white flight movement of the 1950s and 1960s, once electing David Duke, the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, to the state legislature.

A confederate flag flies at a home just a few blocks from where Ferel Burke lives with his family. Ferel says he was beaten by deputies severely enough that his eyes swelled shut and he still has migraines from the incident.

Although the population has diversified over the years — Black people now account for more than a quarter of the population, and Latinos have grown to account for 15% — Jefferson Parish voters supported Donald Trump in the past two presidential elections and sent conservative Republicans to Congress, including former U.S. Sen. David Vitter and Rep. Steve Scalise.

And while the margins of victory have grown tighter in recent years, the area’s conservative bent has repercussions for the oversight of the Sheriff’s Office. That’s because the Jefferson Parish sheriff, like the majority of the country’s sheriffs, is an elected position and answers only to the voters.

The sheriff also derives considerable power from the Louisiana Constitution, which prescribes that the position be unconstrained by governmental or civilian oversight. Sheriffs don’t answer to politicians, unlike in New Orleans, where the police chief is appointed by the mayor and can be fired. In New Orleans, the City Council approves the police budget, but the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office is funded through sources, such as property and sales taxes, that do not require outside approval. Public calls for accountability ultimately can only end up with the sheriff.

The late Sheriff Harry Lee, who served for 28 years until his death in 2007, called his job “the closest thing there is to being a king in the U.S.” Lee openly espoused racist views in public statements, once declaring: “If there are some young Blacks driving a car late at night in a predominantly white area, they will be stopped.” He eventually backed off the order, but he announced 20 years later that his solution to violent crime was “only stopping Black people.”

When Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the federal levees flooded New Orleans in 2005, it prompted a large crowd of mostly Black people to attempt to cross the Crescent City Connection bridge into Jefferson Parish. They were confronted by sheriff’s deputies and Gretna Police Department officers and forced to turn back. At least one officer fired a shot in the air, according to local reports.

No one was hurt, but the law enforcement blockade led to protests and allegations of racism from civil rights groups. Lee defended the officers’ actions, saying the area had already accepted thousands of evacuees and didn’t have enough supplies to care for thousands more.

Although the DOJ later found that the officers hadn’t intentionally broken any laws, Jonathan Smith, who was with the DOJ at the time, said the events were a “big red flag.” Federal investigators knew at the time that Jefferson Parish was “a troubled department,” said Smith, who served as chief of the Special Litigation Section for DOJ’s civil rights division from 2010 to 2015. He added, though, that he could not discuss whether any specific agency was of interest during his tenure.

Ultimately what happened on Danziger Bridge in New Orleans three days later overshadowed the Jefferson Parish blockade. There, NOPD officers shot six Black people who were part of a crowd fleeing the flooded city, killing two of them. Police attempted to cover up the murders by planting evidence, fabricating witnesses and falsifying reports, an investigation later found.

A united front of civil rights attorneys, elected officials and Black and white residents demanded accountability. The DOJ launched its yearlong investigation. And in 2011, the department issued its damning report.

“NOPD’s failure to ensure that its officers routinely respect the Constitution and the rule of law undermines trust within the very communities whose cooperation the Department most needs to enforce the law and prevent crime,” DOJ investigators concluded. Two years later, the DOJ entered into a consent decree with the police department, which agreed to sweeping changes in how it operates and strict outside oversight.

Several former federal officials told the news organizations there is no particular set of problems that trigger a DOJ investigation, which is a necessary step before the department can seek a consent decree. High-profile flare-ups — like the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, or the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore — tend to bring scrutiny.

There are, however, certain patterns of misconduct that have proven to be of interest to the Department of Justice, Smith said. Most of them involve findings of racial disparities, and many involve the police using excessive force and failing to discipline officers for wrongdoing.

Smith said that a lack of accountability is “probably the most important thing I’ve seen in every department where there’s been a problem. That gives people impunity to engage in bad conduct.”

A boy plays basketball in a park in Algiers, Louisiana. The Crescent City Connection, the twin bridges seen in the background, connects the west bank of Jefferson Parish to Orleans Parish.

Evidence of problematic policing, however, does not ensure that a federal investigation will be conducted. At the time Smith was with the DOJ, he said he had a maximum of 15 attorneys working on police investigations. While the department would not provide updated numbers on staffing, it’s clear the Civil Rights Division has to make some hard choices about where to focus its efforts among the more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the country, Smith said.

DOJ involvement also tends to go in waves and largely tracks the politics of the president. President George W. Bush pursued just three consent decrees; President Barack Obama pursued 15. And under President Donald Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions circulated a memo cautioning against their use and entered into zero.

After President Joe Biden’s election, Attorney General Merrick Garland quickly rescinded Sessions’ order and announced investigations into the Minneapolis and Louisville, Kentucky, police departments following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The DOJ also opened an investigation into the Phoenix Police Department in response to accusations that officers used excessive force against homeless people.

Absent a consent decree, imposing more accountability on the sheriff’s office would probably require an amendment to the state constitution, according to experts, which is unlikely to pass given the opposition from both law enforcement and the public.

Advocates say that leaves the DOJ as their best hope, citing the changes they’ve seen in New Orleans.

“The consent decree has played a significant role in the way the NOPD shows up now,” said Norris Henderson, the founder and executive director of the New Orleans-based advocacy group Voice of the Experienced, which promotes criminal justice reforms. “JPSO has been operating with reckless abandon for years.”

A Department That Polices Itself

One night last August, a little after 4 a.m., Theresa Burke arrived at her son Ferel’s hospital room in New Orleans, summoned by a phone call from a nurse who said he had been brought in by deputies, bruised and bloodied.

Hours earlier, Burke had tried to find Ferel, 13 at the time, after hearing he had been detained for stealing a car with two friends and attempting to run from officers. She didn’t think to contact local hospitals. The deputies who met Burke outside her son’s door tried to stop her, telling her she wasn’t authorized to see him. She refused to take no for an answer.

Theresa Burke and her son Ferel near their home in November. The two allege that he was beaten by Jefferson Parish sheriff’s deputies over the summer of 2020. Since the incident, he has been getting frequent headaches and was ordered by his physician to sit out of playing football for a season.

As Burke approached her son’s hospital bed, where he was lying on his side, his wrists handcuffed behind his back, the 32-year-old dental assistant hit record on her phone. She provided a copy of the resulting video to WWNO/WRKF and ProPublica. Burke can be heard gently calling her son’s name. “Ferel? Ferel, wake up.”

He was drenched in sweat, his face bloody, Burke said. He wavered in and out of consciousness.

“Look at me,” she said, keeping her voice low so the guard at the door couldn’t hear. “Look at me. What’s wrong?”

“Beat me up,” he responded.

“Beat you up? Who beat you up?” Burke asked her son.


Burke paused to compose herself and said: “Mama gonna take care of it. Don’t worry, ya hear?”

But as she sought accountability and an explanation for her son’s injuries, Burke would find no easy answers from a department that answers only to itself.

Over the next year, she would hear conflicting accounts: Her son said a deputy grabbed his hair and smashed his head into the pavement. The deputy who arrested him wrote that Ferel suffered minor injuries that could have been incurred in the car wreck or during the arrest.

Theresa Burke holds her phone, which shows her son Ferel after, according to the Burkes, he was beaten by Jefferson Parish sheriff’s deputies. The deputy who arrested him said he could have been injured during the car wreck or during the arrest.

But here’s one thing all parties ultimately agreed upon: an officer struck Ferel. The arresting deputy said Ferel resisted, so he “delivered two closed fist strikes to Mr. Burke’s abdomen,” after which he “finally complied.”

In New Orleans, since the DOJ investigation, that simple fact — admitted to by the officer himself — would have prompted an internal affairs investigation, even without a formal complaint, experts said.

In addition, the department’s use-of-force policy includes a detailed list of prohibited actions, such as neck holds, warning shots, shooting at moving vehicles and pistol whipping. It states that officers have a duty to intercede when they suspect a colleague is using excessive force. There is also a separate 14-page policy laying out the reporting requirements for uses of excessive force.

But none of that applies in Jefferson Parish.

The Sheriff’s Office has a policy that says deputies should only use as much force as necessary to protect themselves and the public. It does not include a list of prohibited actions. Instead, it states that “generally” deputies should not fire warning shots or shoot at moving vehicles unless the driver is using deadly force.

The policy also does not say what level of force should prompt an intervention or internal investigation. It states only that when a deputy’s use of force results in an injury to either the deputy or a civilian, the deputy must complete a report while a ranking officer goes to the scene to determine and document if there are witnesses or evidence.

In Jefferson Parish, it’s not clear that the department is tracking how its officers use force at all. In response to requests, the department provided only records of shootings. But the vast majority of use-of-force incidents — like Ferel’s — do not involve shootings, experts say. However, in response to requests for records regarding those non-shooting incidents, the Sheriff’s Office provided none, instead sending along files on a suicide and murders committed by civilians. The research organization Police Scorecard Project made a similar request for data on use-of-force incidents. The Sheriff’s Office responded by saying those records don’t exist.

For a long time, New Orleans’ system was similarly broken.

But after the DOJ intervened, the NOPD created a Use of Force Review Board that reviews all incidents. The outcomes of use-of-force investigations are published in an online database. The number of times NOPD officers have reported using force has fallen by half over the past five years, from 754 in 2015 to 338 last year, due largely to improved training, according to the consent decree monitor and criminal justice experts.

In Jefferson Parish, there was no independent monitor Burke could turn to for help. She posted on Instagram about Ferel’s injuries: “I am deeply saddened,” she wrote, “and I want justice for my child.”

Then she hired attorney Chris Murell, who filed a civil lawsuit and asked the Sheriff’s Office to provide all records related to Ferel’s arrest and injuries. Their response, reviewed by a reporter for WWNO/WRKF and ProPublica, did not include an internal affairs investigation, a use-of-force review or any mention of discipline. The only time the punching is mentioned is in a single sentence in a report prepared by the deputy who arrested him.

These factors — the deputy’s admission, the boy’s hospitalization, his mother publicly accusing the deputy of attacking her son — should have raised red flags within the Sheriff’s Office and prompted an internal affairs investigation, said Sam Walker, emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

“I would assume that hospitalization of a use-of-force victim would automatically trigger an [internal affairs] investigation,” Walker said. “The officer’s claims cannot be accepted without at least some investigation.”

But Burke said that’s exactly what happened. And some people in the parish seem to be OK with that, she said.

“They’re going to stand together [with] their police officers if they do wrong, especially if it’s a Black kid,” Burke said. “They don’t care.”

“My Son Has a Bullet Wound”

Even in the most high-profile use-of-force incidents — when officers shoot someone and or a person dies in custody — the Sheriff’s Office has faced similar criticisms. Since 2018, a string of incidents where deputies shot Black people has prompted mounting calls for reform. Those calls intensified last summer amid the nationwide protests in response to Floyd’s death and allegations that the office concealed from the public that a deputy shot 14-year-old Tre’mall McGee.

Tre’mall McGee, 14, was shot in the back by a Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office deputy in March of 2020 while he was facedown on the ground.

Tre’mall and three friends ran from deputies in March 2020 after being pulled over in a stolen car. Tre’mall was facedown, trying to squeeze under a shed in a backyard, when a deputy shot him in the shoulder. (The deputy said the boy moved his arm and he feared Tre’mall had a gun. The boy did not.) The deputy could not be reached for comment.

Tre’mall’s mother, Tiffany McGee, said she tried for months to get answers about her son’s shooting, but said the Sheriff’s Office stonewalled her: Tiffany said she met with the sheriff’s criminal investigations bureau and asked to file a complaint. They sent her to the internal affairs division, which told her to contact the New Orleans branch of the FBI. The FBI sent her back to the Sheriff’s Office, where detectives referred her to the head of the gun violence unit, who told her their officers hadn’t shot at anyone recently.

When McGee pressed the sergeant, he asked, “He was shot with a firearm, not a Taser?” according to a recording of their conversation.

“My son has a bullet wound,” she replied. “That is never going to go away. At 14 years old, OK?”

Frustrated, McGee finally turned to the media. When reporters questioned Lopinto last summer, he insisted the Sheriff’s Office has a “great reputation of doing the right thing.” But, he emphasized, “we have the authority to defend ourselves. And guess what? There’s people out there that shoot at us.”

Lopinto then lashed out at the attorneys and families suing him. He accused them of spreading a “false narrative for the sake of trying to get a payday” and dismissed Tre’mall’s injuries as “non-life-threatening.” In response to the family’s lawsuit, the Sheriff’s Office said its deputies’ actions were “reasonable under the circumstances” and accused Tre’mall of negligence.

After WWNO/WRKF and ProPublica filed a public records request for investigative reports into every time deputies shot at someone since 2013, it received records for only 16 of 35 incidents. The Sheriff’s Office withheld the remainder, saying some (nearly four years old) were still under investigation, were the subject of pending criminal litigation or involved juveniles. In at least a dozen of the 35 shootings, deputies’ accounts were disputed by witnesses or the people who were shot at, according to public records, news reports and subsequent lawsuits.

Leantay Brooks’ brother, Leo Brooks, was shot to death by Jefferson Parish deputies in July 2019. The Sheriff’s Office claims Brooks was reaching for a gun at the time. A lawsuit filed on behalf of the family insists that Brooks was facedown and handcuffed when he was killed. An investigation by WWNO/WRKF found that in at least a dozen of 35 incidents where deputies shot at someone, the sheriff’s official accounts were disputed by witnesses or the people who were shot at.

The news organizations’ review found that of the 40 people deputies shot at during the past eight years, 29 were Black — meaning 73% of people shot at by police were Black, more than double their share of the population. (In some of the 35 shootings, more than one person was shot at.)

After similar findings by the DOJ in New Orleans, NOPD now typically releases body camera footage within 10 days of an officer shooting at someone or an incident that results in the hospitalization or death of a civilian. Each shooting triggers independent reviews of witness interviews, autopsies and disciplinary hearings.

In New Orleans, “people can have faith in the process,” said Stella Cziment with the New Orleans Independent Police Monitor, a civilian oversight agency. “There’s a lot of eyes on that decision, and a lot of evidence behind that decision.”

Without the benefit of that transparency, people in Jefferson Parish alleging abuses by deputies have turned to the courts. Since 2013, nearly twice as many lawsuits alleging wrongdoing by deputies have been filed against the Sheriff’s Office as against the NOPD, despite NOPD having about 1,100 officers compared to about 760 at the Sheriff’s Office, according to a WWNO/WRKF and ProPublica review. Three-fourths of the plaintiffs in the Jefferson Parish lawsuits were Black.

The litigation has exposed problems in how the Sheriff’s Office handles some of its most serious cases. While it conducts criminal investigations to see if deputies violated the law, the Sheriff’s Office repeatedly said in sworn statements in court filings that it did not conduct internal affairs investigations into high-profile deaths of people in police custody.

This is significant, said Lou Reiter, a national police consultant and trainer. Internal affairs investigations not only scrutinize the actions of the deputy but also assess the response of the organization as a whole. Is there a strong enough policy in place to prevent misconduct? Is it enforced? Did supervisors react appropriately and discipline those found to be in violation of the agency’s ethical standards?

“They’re a fact-finding, unbiased look to say, ‘How can we protect all the stakeholders?’ Because, in the end, if you don’t do a good job, the community pays for it,” Reiter said of internal affairs investigations.

Eric Parsa, 16, died in January 2020 after deputies — including one who weighed more than 300 pounds — sat on his back for at least nine minutes while he was facedown on the pavement of a parking lot, according to court records. The coroner ruled the severely autistic boy’s death was an accident as a result of excited delirium, with “prone positioning” as a contributing factor.

The family filed a lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office, which issued a press release saying the suit was “rife with false claims and malicious accusations” and claiming that Parsa had attacked his father and deputies were trying to control him.

William Most, an attorney suing on behalf of Parsa’s parents, asked through discovery if the Sheriff’s Office had conducted an internal affairs investigation. The answer was no, according to court filings. No one was disciplined.

Most, looking to establish a pattern as to how the Sheriff’s Office handles in-custody deaths, also asked about the May 2018 death of 22-year-old Keeven Robinson, whose family claims he died after deputies beat and choked him. Lopinto told reporters he suspected Robinson’s death was due to a combination of asthma and poor air quality. But the coroner ruled his death a homicide by asphyxiation and that his injuries were consistent with someone squeezing his neck or choking him.

As with Parsa, the Sheriff’s Office said it did not conduct an internal affairs investigation into Robinson’s death. It also said no one was disciplined.

Walker, the criminal justice professor, said the absence of internal affairs investigations into such deaths is “inconceivable.”

“I don’t think this occurs anywhere else,” he said.

A Flawed Complaints Process

After Gibbs’ encounter with deputies, she was taken to a local hospital where she stayed for several hours while her blood sugar levels normalized. She returned home later that day with leaves and dirt in her hair from being thrown to the ground. Her arms were sore from where the deputies grabbed her. She had scratches on her wrists from being handcuffed.

She stood before her husband and two children, shaken and distraught, and wept.

Ten days after the incident, Gibbs — named after the famed abolitionist Sojourner Truth — filed a complaint with the sheriff’s internal affairs division, hoping it would spur an investigation and result in disciplinary action against the deputies.

Sojourner Gibbs

“I was pinned in the dirt by an officer’s knees on my right shoulder and right thigh,” Gibbs wrote. “In between cries, I said, ‘Please don’t kill me. I am a diabetic.’”

Since that day, she wrote, she’d had trouble sleeping, often lying awake at night thinking about how when she needed help, she “instead received harm.”

She sent a follow-up email three days later, asking the Sheriff’s Office to preserve any evidence of the encounter and to provide any police reports.

Days went by, then weeks, with no response. Nobody reached out to Gibbs for an interview, which is a direct violation of the sheriff’s internal investigations policy. It states that the investigator shall “thoroughly exhaust all leads,” which includes interviewing “the accused employee, all principals, and all witnesses.”

When WWNO/WRKF and ProPublica filed a public records request for copies of all complaints against Sheriff’s Office employees during the past two years, the office denied the request, calling it overly burdensome and an invasion of privacy. The agency said it couldn’t even provide the number of complaints filed, stating such a number “does not exist.”

When the news organizations narrowed their request, seeking only substantiated complaints from 2017 through mid-2020, the Sheriff’s Office turned up only one report. It involved a deputy who was suspended for three days after being accused of slapping and choking a patient in an ambulance.

“If you find out one out of every 50 [complaints] is sustained, that indicates a failure to really investigate and take seriously complaints about use of force,” Walker said.

Ashonta Wyatt, a leader in Jefferson Parish’s Black community who helped found an organization called the Village Keepers to push for reforms of the Sheriff’s Office, said the lack of accountability in the complaint process has damaged public trust.

Ashonta Wyatt, a leader of Jefferson Parish’s Black community and co-founder of a local advocacy group called the Village Keepers, has helped lead the push to get the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office to start using body cameras.

“We feel almost at his mercy,” she said of the sheriff. “I have family members and friends that will not drive in parts of Jefferson Parish. Ever. They just won’t do it.”

NOPD’s complaint procedures prompted similar criticisms of opacity before the DOJ investigation, but the department now publishes the outcomes of all complaint investigations in a public database.

During the three-year span in which Jefferson Parish substantiated only one complaint, NOPD substantiated 247, according to the department.

No Body Cameras

It’s been more than a year since Dardar took video of Jefferson Parish deputies dragging Gibbs out of her vehicle. Dardar grew up in Jefferson Parish during the reign of Sheriff Harry Lee and remembers when he ordered deputies to stop Black people driving in white neighborhoods. She said she had long worried about how the Sheriff’s Office treats Black people. But witnessing what happened to Gibbs was difficult, she said, particularly because her 12-year-old son saw the whole thing.

“I don’t see how you could treat a fellow human that way, especially one who’s screaming for help and zero threat to you,” she said.

Dardar’s video is the only footage Gibbs has seen of what happened that day. That’s because the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office remains one of the few large law enforcement agencies both in Louisiana and across the country that does not use body cameras.

About 80% of U.S. police departments with at least 500 sworn officers had body cameras as of 2016, according to the most recent report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Many more have adopted them since then. The St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office, one of the largest in Louisiana, entered into a $1.6 million, five-year contract that covers purchasing cameras, training officers on their use and storing the video footage.

The Gretna Police Department, located on the west bank of Jefferson Parish, followed suit in May.

“It’s something that is good for the community, it’s good for the officers,” Police Chief Arthur Lawson said, according to local news reports. “If the officer is acting inappropriately or violates our policies, it gives us a tool there.”

Lopinto, however, has consistently pleaded poverty, saying his department can’t absorb the cost it would take to store the footage, which he estimated to cost at least $1.9 million annually.

After the shooting of 14-year-old Tre’mall McGee, the state House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution requesting that Lopinto, by Jan. 1, 2021, present a plan to outfit deputies with body cameras.

Rep. Rodney Lyons, D-Harvey, who introduced the resolution, said there is a “parish-wide consensus” in support of the technology. Lopinto, however, dismissed the resolution as doing “nothing” and having “no effect of law.” He has yet to present a plan.

About three months after Gibbs filed her complaint with the Sheriff’s Office, she received a letter from the department. It was 99 words. Gibbs read it slowly, carefully digesting every sentence. It said the investigation into her complaint had been concluded. All four deputies had been “exonerated.”

“This means that the investigation and reviews have determined that the facts do not reflect a violation of this Department’s Code of Conduct,” the Sheriff’s Office wrote, concluding by thanking Gibbs for bringing the matter to its attention.

Gibbs said the letter retraumatized her. But she was not surprised.

“If you want to perpetuate a certain conduct, you keep that person moving forward,” she said. “Institutions protect institutions.”

In response to a lawsuit Gibbs later filed against the Sheriff’s Office, the department defended its deputies’ actions as “reasonable under the circumstances” and wrote that Gibbs, “by virtue of her own actions and conduct, was guilty of negligence.”

When a reporter told Gibbs the deputy who grabbed her leg from underneath her also shot 14-year-old Tre’mall and later was promoted to detective, she put her head in her hands and cried.

A deputy asked Tre’mall McGee’s mother, Tiffany, if she was sure her son was shot with a gun not a Taser. “My son has a bullet wound,” she replied.

Hannah Fresques of ProPublica contributed data analysis. Mariam Elba of ProPublica contributed research analysis. Gordon Russell with The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate contributed reporting.