A tale of two sheriffs

by Patrick Flanagan

Unlike our friends in Iberia Parish, Lafayette has been fortunate to have a sheriff who has valued integrity and innovation for nearly two decades.

Outgoing Lafayette Parish Sheriff Mike Neustrom
Photo by Robin May

For the last 16 years, we’ve been fortunate here in Lafayette Parish to have a forward-thinking sheriff like Mike Neustrom.

Just look south to Iberia Parish for an idea of what Neustrom’s polar opposite would have brought, namely a growing sense of embarrassment as seen playing out in recent months with the federal civil rights scandal currently faced by longtime Iberia Sheriff Louis Ackal for his role in a series of alleged inmate abuse cases. Ackal’s story, in fact, just got even juicier with the recent revelation of secret recordings in which he’s heard making anti-Semitic comments and threats like this one: “I said the only thing I’m gonna give you — f**king shoot you right between your goddamned Jewish-eyes-look-like-opossum bastard.”

Ackal’s comments, according to this report from The Advocate, are believed to have been regarding a U.S. Justice Department attorney who’d met with the Iberia sheriff in the lead-up to his federal indictment on criminal civil rights violations. (For more on the craziness that led to Ackal's troubles, check out The Advocate’s coverage of the issue here and here.)

Back to Neustrom, who’s set to step-down as Lafayette Parish’s top law enforcement official after 16 years. Today, in fact, marks his last official day as our sheriff. And it’s been a good run, one that will hopefully leave a lasting impression on the way we approach law enforcement in this parish.

As we’ve reported since his retirement announcement last year and during the ensuing election that ended in November with the election of Mark Garber as our next sheriff, the legacy Neustrom will leave is one of a progressive-minded law enforcement official willing to take the path less traveled when compared with the majority of other agencies in Louisiana. His administration will mostly be remembered for the leaps taken in redefining our approach to corrections, replacing the punishment-driven models of old with new ideas, namely rehabilitation and diversion. This required bringing on the right people for the job and getting to the bottom of why a person has been incarcerated: Was it drugs, mental illness, or did they end up in jail because they just didn’t have the money to pay off a ticket or fine resulting from some minor offense? Neustrom, as many of his peers will attest, has helped change the conversation about crime and punishment not just here in Lafayette Parish, but among agencies throughout the state.

While Neustrom spoke with us briefly this morning, he was caught up dealing with everything that goes on in the last day of a 16-year administration and therefore unable to dedicate the time required for a thorough interview. So we instead reached out to Rob Reardon, Neustrom’s longtime director of corrections who’s also leaving office at day’s end (read more about that here).

In talking with Reardon, we wanted to know what he’ll take away from his 16 years working alongside Neustrom, and his thoughts on the legacy Neustrom will ultimately leave behind once he’s gone.

“Here’s what I’ll tell you: Sheriff Neustrom was an apolitical sheriff, he didn’t play the politics game,” says Reardon. “Over the course of dealing with all the sheriffs I’ve dealt with in my 27 years, I always ask ‘Why do you want to be sheriff?’ He told me ‘because I want to make it better.’ And from him that’s genuine. He wants to make society better. And I told him, ‘Well, you’re a terrible politician,’ and he just laughed in that way he does.”

For Reardon, one of the major reasons he stuck behind Neustrom till the end has centered on his open-mindedness to new ideas.

“He was always pushing the envelope to be open to different possibilities. He was always talking to me and the other division heads, saying, ‘Hey, can we do this or why can’t we do this, or can we try this?’” says Reardon. “He’s somebody who really changed the culture and environment of what law enforcement and corrections can be. And just a good example of that is all the people since my resignation coming from all over the state and even other states saying ‘Y’all have a model here,’ and then asking me to come work there. He’s the one that allowed all that to happen. He’s someone that really facilitated teamwork, and it’s going to be interesting to see what happens next.”

So if the Garber administration should take anything from Neustrom’s example, Reardon recommends maintaining that open-minded approach to new ideas.

“That lock ‘em up ideology has been demonstrated not to work for the last 200 years, and that’s not Rob Reardon director of corrections talking, that’s Rob Reardon professor of UL talking to you,” he says. “Mark [Garber] in a lot of ways will change the organization, but I’m sure there will be similar paths and a similar vision as well. It has to be similar. Number one: taxpayers aren’t willing to afford just locking up people just simply because of the strain that puts on the community, and socially. I don’t think the community would be willing to do that. It costs a lot of money to lock people up, and there’s better ways to do it. We’ve been demonstrating that for the last 15, 16 years.”

And as far as Neustrom’s legacy goes?

Rob Reardon (left) and Neustrom
Photo by Robin May

Reardon: “Sheriff Neustrom has really just been so far ahead of other systems — I’m not saying people — but just in his vision about how a system could operate better, that there are better ways to manage mental illness, drug abuse, low level misdemeanors.”

So when we remember Neustrom’s 16 years as sheriff, we should consider ourselves fortunate, not because he proved to be so vastly different from that guy down in Iberia Parish, but because he’s set such a high bar for anyone following in his footsteps from here on out.

For more on Neustrom's successes as sheriff, check out some of our past coverage here and here.