Our Voices

Holding Sheriffs Accountable

Do you know who your local sheriff is? Or whether you even have one?

Most people have no idea, says Linda Franks, a local organizer with the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalition. And that knowledge gap has allowed too many sheriffs to operate under the radar, unopposed and unaccountable to the communities they’re supposed to serve.

Franks hopes to change that by helping launch Communities For Sheriff Accountability (C4SA), a new nationwide coalition of organizers, including Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, working to radically shrink and redefine the role of sheriffs. By uniting efforts across the country, C4SA members aim to educate and empower people to keep their local sheriffs in check—building resources, sharing strategies, and perhaps even inspiring more community members to run in sheriff’s elections themselves.

We spoke with Franks for more on C4SA, the far-reaching power and influence of sheriffs, and the practical ways we can have and maintain public safety without giving more resources to law enforcement.

The history of sheriffs in this country is one of oppression; it’s a system that was built to exact terror in certain communities, to keep certain people—undesirables—in line and they haven’t deviated from their modus operandi to this day.

Every year, sheriffs and their deputies use their unchecked policing power to make more than 2 million arrests, perpetuating harm in Black and Brown communities. As the chief jail operator, sheriffs are supposed to ensure these facilities are as safe and humane as they can be but all too often their mismanagement has led to people dying at alarming rates under their care.

Their power and authority doesn’t stop there. Sheriffs have a hand in everything from mass deportation policies to enforcing evictions and have even infiltrated our schools under the guise of protecting students, responding to typical childhood misbehavior with undue violence and force.

Sheriffs also have a lot more political power than people realize. I think people would be very surprised to see just how much influence the Sheriff’s Department has on legislation, what bills get passed, what initiatives get put forward as far as law enforcement and criminal justice reform. They’re the only elected law enforcement officials and can do things in very clandestine ways. They kind of work like the Wizard of Oz. So you’ll see these things out in the front, but when you pull the curtain back, there’s the sheriff.

Unfortunately, it took the death of my son to really begin homing in on what is the role of the sheriff in my community and just how much power they have over my freedom and over my safety.

In 2015, my son, Lamar Johnson, was pulled over for a traffic ticket and detained in East Baton Rouge Parish Prison. Four days later, he was found dead in his cell. His death just made no sense whatsoever. And that trek into finding out what happened to him led us down this rabbit hole of investigating not only the circumstances behind his death but also how this parish prison was being run by our local sheriff, Sid Gautreaux.

We found some very disturbing things—including how more than 40 people have died in the parish prison since Sheriff Gautreaux was elected in 2007—and I think it opened my eyes because sometimes in a society we want to look the other way. We can rationalize by saying these people that are in jail have done something and they deserve it. But until we are actually exposed to the horrific, dehumanizing attacks against their human rights, I don’t think we can fully comprehend the need for advocacy in this area.

The launch of this coalition is a major milestone and will go a long way towards generating the collective power we need to expose sheriffs in their wrongdoing, educate and empower communities with that knowledge, and then hopefully be a part of the solution of correcting it.

That doesn’t mean we’re just going to cancel all sheriffs. You may be an amazing, fair sheriff whose community is really seeing positive changes and positive outcomes. We want to give props where props are due and encourage that. We also, and I’m being generous here, understand that these men and women who have been elected as sheriffs are sometimes confined by old beliefs, by old ways of doing things, and sometimes haven’t been presented even with the possibility of how their departments can change. So I think it’s better for us to come in and say, look, this is what we are holding you accountable to do, and we as a larger community want to help you do it.

Ultimately, we want to reimagine what our lives could be like when we don’t have these systems in place. But the only way we’re going to get there is if we begin to take out these old vestiges of slavery and oppression and terror, and instead show what a rehabilitative and restorative approach to criminal justice can look like.

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