Analysis: A Cascade Of Bad News For New Orleans Sheriff

Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Obituaries of nonpublic figures rarely provide a warts-and-all portrayal, just as arrest records tend not to include those accomplishments for which the average person would want to be remembered.

         So it often takes tragedy to bring about a more complete public telling of the lives and deaths of people like Cleveland Tumblin or William Goetzee.

         Casual readers of news gleaned from police blotters might only know of Goetzee from brief accounts of the time he tried to snatch a service revolver from the holster of a uniformed Department of Homeland Security officer outside a federal building in New Orleans in August of 2011.

         What didn't immediately emerge was that Goetzee, when he grabbed for the gun, apparently wanted to kill himself. And he did just that after he was locked up in the New Orleans jail.

         More details followed, after his siblings filed a lawsuit. Goetzee had been a civilian U.S. Coast Guard employee and a member of the Coast Guard Reserve, under high stress after the BP oil spill of 2010. He'd had a mental breakdown.

         "He needed to be an inpatient, not an inmate," his fiancee, Donna Gauthier said in a recent interview.

         Goetzee's brother and sister reached a $1.75 million lawsuit settlement this month with Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman, the elected official who runs the jail.

         The settlement was announced days after Tumblin's death.

         Anyone looking through newspaper obituaries might have stopped on the picture of a nattily attired Tumblin and read that he was a boxing instructor and mentor of youths. There was no mention of his court record — which attests to arrests for violent offenses and problems with mental illness; or that he, too, had been on the news pages days earlier — another apparent case of suicide at the New Orleans jail.

         Goetzee's suicide — he managed to choke himself on toilet paper — was in the part of the old Orleans Parish Prison complex known as the House of Detention. It was shut down in 2012. Inmates in the other structures were transferred to a gleaming new $150 million facility in September. It's a new jail with a new name, the Orleans Justice Center, but, it appears some of the same old problems.

         That Tumblin was able to attempt to hang himself in a shower area of the new jail (he died two days later) isn't the only evidence. That was just part of the recent cascade of bad publicity for Gusman.

         There was the report issued March 18 by the monitor overseeing federal court-ordered reforms at the jail. Despite the new building, the report said, inmates and staff at the jail "remain in significant danger."

         The report by a team headed by corrections expert Susan McCampbell said continued sniping between the Sheriff's Office and the city, which funds the jail, hasn't helped. But Gusman's operation came in for particularly harsh criticism.

         "The day-to-day crisis environment observed by the monitors in the agency's operations does not evidence a professional, competent, or informed leadership," the report said.

         Gusman insists that progress is being made, that more policy and procedure updates have been developed since the monitors' last visit to the jail. He repeated calls for more money from the city, saying low staffing is a problem because of low wages.

         The issues are still being hashed out in federal court.

         Gusman has been elected sheriff three times. He won last time despite the horrendous publicity arising from court hearings over reforms.

         But there are signs his political support may be diminishing.

         Three days after the latest monitor's report, an inmate advocacy group and some New Orleans pastors called for Gusman's resignation.

         A Gusman attorney said it won't happen.

         "Things aren't where they need to be," James Williams acknowledged, "but they certainly aren't what they used to be."

         – by AP Reporter Kevin McGill



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