Larger-Than-Life Sheriff Rules Louisiana Parish There's nobody quite like Harry Lee, the flamboyant and outspoken sheriff of Louisiana's Jefferson Parish. The Chinese-American lawman has a penchant for putting his foot in his mouth, but it only seems to increase his popularity.
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Larger-Than-Life Sheriff Rules Louisiana Parish

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Larger-Than-Life Sheriff Rules Louisiana Parish

Larger-Than-Life Sheriff Rules Louisiana Parish

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

NPR's John Burnett has this profile.

JOHN BURNETT: On Thursday nights, muscular men who wear camo uniforms and spit tobacco ride around Jefferson Parish in the back of a pickup truck blowing away troublesome swamp rodents called nutria. The swat team is commanded by Major Cary Nijola.

CARY NIJOLA: And there are certain rules of engagement. Basically, nutria that are halfway up the bank would be acceptable to shoot.

BURNETT: Unidentified Man: You got him.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUN SHOT)

BURNETT: Unidentified Man: Right there, right there. The other one. Going in the hole.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)

BURNETT: For as long as most people can remember, in Jefferson Parish there has always been Sheriff Harry Lee. Now in his 26th year in office, the 74-year-old, 300-pound sheriff - down from 400 pounds, he proudly points out - sits at his desk surrounded by his large gun collection.

HARRY LEE: I'm still as full of piss and vinegar now as I was 20 years ago.

BURNETT: He's the top cop and chief taxing authority of a booming jurisdiction of nearly half a million people, and because of peculiar state law, there's little oversight.

LEE: The sheriff of Jefferson Parish is the closest thing there is to being a king in the United States. I have no unions. I don't have civil service. I hire and fire at will. I don't have to go to the council and propose a budget. I approve the budget. I'm the head of the law-enforcement district, and the law-enforcement district only has one vote, which is me.

BURNETT: New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist James Gill has written often over the years about the sheriff.

JAMES GILL: He's a great character. Everyone likes him. Some people fear him. He can be sheriff of Jefferson Parish as long as he wants. Harry Lee has always been a law unto himself.

BURNETT: Unidentified Announcer: Channel 4 Eye Witness News Night Watch.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS PROGRAM)

BURNETT: An offhanded comment to a TV reporter blew up in his face.

LEE: Unidentified Woman: Sheriff Harry Lee says he plans to shake down black people in high-crime areas who may not have even committed a crime.

BURNETT: Since Katrina, murders in Jefferson Parish have doubled, the majority of them black-on-black killings. The sheriff tried in vain to explain his intended get-tough tactics the next day at a press conference inside his gray, fortress-like headquarters.

LEE: We know where the problem areas are. If we see some black guys on the corner milling around, just doing something, we would confront them.

BURNETT: The scowling president of the regional NAACP, Donatus King, wasn't buying it.

DONATUS KING: Confronting a group of black people on a street corner merely because they are black and milling around is a form of racial profiling. The NAACP opposes that tactic.

BURNETT: Under pressure, the sheriff said his deputies would not be indiscriminately frisking African-American males.

LEE: I agree with him totally. I went too far.

BURNETT: On his way out of the conference room, Lee leaned over and winked.

LEE: Shooting nutria is more fun.

BURNETT: A bit of demographic background - Jefferson Parish is overwhelmingly white. David Duke, the former Klan leader, was elected state rep here in 1989. Lee is lauded for keeping crime low, which means to most people keeping black criminals under control, says columnist James Gill, who lives in the parish.

GILL: This parish grew largely as a result of white flight, and it retains some of that feel of the 1950s today in its attitudes. And Harry's popularity depends, to some extent, I think, on the perception that he is a white man's champion, he is holding back the black hordes who might otherwise threaten suburban bliss.

BURNETT: Angela St. Hill is an African-American resident of Jefferson Parish. As a lay worker on social justice issues with her Catholic church, she's worked with Harry Lee. And she says though he may sound racist at times, he has a good reputation of trying to solve problems in the black community.

ANGELA ST: The African-American community knows that most of the time, he's doing the right thing for the right reasons, even though his words may not show that. Unfortunately, I think he talks a lot before he thinks about what he's saying.

BURNETT: Harry Lee, the son of Lee and Yip Shee Bing, owners of a New Orleans laundry, shrugs off the criticism.

LEE: It's more difficult for somebody to accuse me of being a racist when you figure I was born in the back room of a Chinese laundry. When I was a kid, I was called a chink.

BURNETT: Today Harry Lee has perhaps the highest approval rating of any politician in Louisiana.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: Mary Anne Farrington, drinking Crown Royal and water, says she's known the sheriff for 40 years.

MARY ANNE FARRINGTON: Harry Lee loves to party and everybody loves to party with him.

BURNETT: Guy Likist(ph) owns a car wash and a shooting range in the parish.

GUY LIKIST: Everybody comes here obviously to pay homage to the sheriff, you know, for the great job he's done. You know, they come to kiss the ring.

BURNETT: The sheriff, a Falstaffian character with white hair and great girth , moves through the crowd. Men pump his hand, women in slinky dresses seek a hug. The sheriff revels in it.

LEE: I've got 30 women sitting at my feet at 11:00. Somebody's got to do it.

BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News.

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