Nearly half of Louisiana’s sheriff’s offices are violating the state’s public records law, according to a new investigation from the ProPublica and Truth, a nonprofit newsroom based in New Orleans. Lacking a formal document retention policy, as required by state law, Louisiana sheriff’s offices have been accused of destroying public records, including documents showing evidence of police misconduct.
Under state law, Louisiana requires all sheriff’s offices — as well as other state agencies — to write an official public records retention policy and submit it to the state for approval. The law also requires these agencies to seek permission to destroy public records from the state archivist.
However, the documents submitted ProPublica and Truth show that 30 of 64 state sheriff’s offices have not sought approval for their policies, have allowed their policies to lapse, or have policies that only apply to a small percentage of public records. Furthermore, nearly two-thirds of sheriff’s offices reportedly did not request permission to destroy public records.
As a result of this practice, individuals seeking information about alleged police misconduct often find it difficult to obtain the necessary documentation due to unclear public records rules. Furthermore, some Louisiana sheriff’s offices have even been accused of intentionally destroying public records containing evidence of police abuse. For example, in the case of Eric Parsa, an autistic teenager who was killed in 2020 when Jefferson Parish police officers placed the boy in a prolonged choke hold, Parsa’s family claimed in a 2021 lawsuit that police illegally destroyed the accused officers’ disciplinary records. According to ProPublicaa judge later ruled that the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office “should have known to preserve the disciplinary and training records of the deputies involved in the case.”
However, Louisiana sheriff’s offices appear to be brazenly confident in their practice of destroying public records – even if it’s against state law. According to ProPublica, the Louisiana Sheriffs Association interprets state law as allowing individual offices to keep records for at least three years instead of a more detailed, formal policy. “We believe that sheriffs who use the statutory alternative of a three-year minimum retention period in the absence of a more formal retention policy are not acting illegally,” said Michael Ranatza, executive director of the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association. ProPublica.
When sheriff’s offices fail to establish a public records retention policy—and follow it—the consequences can be devastating. “Comprehensive and accurate records are critical to identifying and correcting patterns and causes of harm, such as when looking at staffing or employee discipline,” said Elizabeth Cumming, an attorney who represents inmates at the Orleans Justice Center. ProPublica. “Without robust records generation, maintenance, review and assessment practices, our clients will continue to experience preventable violations of their rights.”