'We're making history': Louisiana's first Black female sheriff sworn in

Among the most pressing issues Susan Hutson faces taking over as Orleans Parish sheriff is a decrease in deputies employed by the sheriff's office


By Jillian Kramer
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

NEW ORLEANS — Susan Hutson took office Monday as the new sheriff of Orleans Parish and the first Black female sheriff in Louisiana, pledging during her inauguration ceremony to enact the reforms she said were badly needed and asking the city's people to hold her accountable for bringing the change she has promised.

"We're making history tonight," said Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Nandi Campbell, who welcomed hundreds to the ceremonies in downtown New Orleans that began with a parade and culminated in Hutson, who is also the first female sheriff in New Orleans, swearing to protect and serve the parish as the new head of the city's jail.

From a stage crowded with fellow reformers, including Campbell and Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams, Hutson thanked the people who had helped assure her victory, and said in remarks speckled with references to "Star Wars" that, "Now, we have a new hope."

Hutson won the December election with 53% of the vote, taking the seat from longtime Sheriff Marlin Gusman, who served in the role for 17 years. She ran as an avowed progressive — and now, Hutson must work to honor her campaign promises, including meeting the requirements that will free the jail from a federal consent decree and prioritizing quality mental health care.

In recent interviews, Hutson had already announced some of her plans to improve mental health care and ensure people the criminal-justice system operates efficiently.

She said she is creating a new executive level of positions, one between herself and the deputy chief, that includes assistant sheriffs for external affairs, custody, governance and administration, and information and technology, and a handful of legal and special advisors. Some of those employees will work to increase the jail's efficiency, including one who has "marching orders" to work with court officials and attorneys to create a more seamless system for releasing inmates from jail custody.

Today, that process can reportedly take several hours, according to Colin Reingold, director of strategic litigation for advocacy group the Promise of Justice Initiative.

"And I think it's hard to overstate how much every hour that a person is incarcerated is harmful," Reingold said.

In other areas, the new sheriff has said she would be slow to act. She's organized a transition team of more than 100 people — made up of heavy hitters such as Norris Henderson; the head of VOTE; Will Snowden, director of the Vera Institute; and Calvin Johnson, a former chief judge for Orleans Parish Criminal District Court — who have been conducting assessments and working with the community to compose reports and recommendations for Hutson's administration.

Hutson has also quashed internal rumors that she would fire any Sheriff's Office employees on day one. "Only a fool would come in and not know the lay of the land and make changes," she has said.

Among the most pressing issues Hutson faces upon taking over as Orleans Parish sheriff is a decrease in the number of deputies employed by the Sheriff's Office.

The jail's security staff dropped from 586 employees in February 2020 to 542 in October 2021. The department's most recent hiring report shows it gained 23 new workers between January and March — but lost 45 others.

Ahead of her inauguration, Sheriff's Office employees expressed concerns their jobs were in jeopardy, said Sean Bruno, the department's chief administrative officer. "They're just not sure what's going to happen," he explained. "Should they be looking for new jobs? They don't know."

Others worry that Hutson's promises on health care may be impossible to keep: Hutson, for example, has promised to fight the construction of the federally mandated jail expansion known as Phase III, a new 89-bed facility that would house inmates in need of mental health and other care. A federal judge, however, has said it must be built.

Hutson has already faced setbacks on one campaign promise: to rip up the contract with Wellpath, the health care provider for the jail. Despite her vocal opposition to the Nashville-based company, the city signed a new, one-year contract with it last month, weeks before Hutson took office.

"The timing on this has just been horrible for me," Hutson recently said.

During her inauguration speech Monday, Hutson said she recognized the challenges she will face.

"People are going to throw up challenges in our path," Hutson said.

But she implored the crowd to meet those challenges with her, asking them to join a fight to right the wrongs of past administrations and to keep her office accountable as honorary Jedi — a nod to Hutson's favorite movie series and her campaign theme of "a new hope."

Together, the crowd stood and took an oath to "become or remain a part of the change I want to see in my community," value "all persons and all lives," to "put on the honor of justice, to wear the belt of truth," and "take up the shield of faith in our quest for true justice and equity."

She said to laughter, "Welcome aboard, Jedi knights. Today, we are making our start, each of us together, fighting for change in this community."

The inauguration speech, which took place at The Fillmore event space, came after Hutson arrived at the ceremony via a parade led by a marching band and trailed by dancing Zulu Tramps.

Hutson rode on a house-like float surrounded by family and supporters and tossed T-shirts and plastic cups bearing her name to spectators gathered on the Canal Street sidewalk.

"I promised that we would bring progressive change to the sheriff's office," Hutson later said, "and we will."

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(c)2022 The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

 

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