Opinions split on federal oversight, civilian hiring practices within NOPD

Federal judge overseeing reforms to department praised changes, citing progress in hiring

By John Simerman
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

NEW ORLEANS — A renewed push to shunt low-level policework to civilian employees and private companies drew praise from the federal judge overseeing reforms to the New Orleans Police Department, as the city reported progress this week in trying to shore up a depleted force.

Community activists, meanwhile, panned Mayor LaToya Cantrell's recent public attack on federal oversight of the department at a pair of community meetings led by the court-appointed monitor.

Opinions split on federal oversight, civilian hiring practices within NOPD.
Opinions split on federal oversight, civilian hiring practices within NOPD. (Photo/AP via Bill Haber)

Raising fears of a corrupt force left to its own devices, activists called for community oversight "with teeth" once a police consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department ends. They dismissed assurances that the NOPD culture has transformed after a decade under federal court watch.

The lead federal monitor, Jonathan Aronie, made clear on Tuesday that he doesn't think the NOPD is ready to police on its own, five months after U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan projected the department would enter a two-year "sustainment period" over summer.

A scandal involving officers allegedly double-dipping with police moonlighting gigs and doubts over the impact of officer losses in other areas prompted Morgan to hit the brakes soon after that April hearing, Aronie said. He pointed to a gutted officer-assistance program as an example of reforms imperiled by an exodus of cops.

Last month, Morgan ordered up a slew of new audits to check for backsliding. But while the mayor said she aims to escape the consent decree, her chief administrative officer, Gilbert Montaño, appeared eager Tuesday to satisfy the judge's demands.

Montaño pointed to fat bonuses, a series of pay increases and loosened eligibility rules that the city recently approved to keep and hire officers. He also outlined a planned shift of traditional police duties to civilians.

"We're almost diving into a new realm of what police officers will be responsible for," Montaño said.

Civilian push 'an excellent start'

He said the city is readying a bid request for a private company to handle responses to routine vehicle crashes. The city hired a company for some of that work but has since deemed it must go out to bid, Montaño said.

The city also is pushing to hire 75 civilians to answer calls or collect evidence, following Baltimore and some other cities that have turned more to civilians in investigative roles. A plan hatched last year to deputize city employees to handle low-level citations also has gained traction, he said.

Morgan and the City Council have urged a swifter shift to civilians. She called it "an excellent start" and said she saw "a difference in the speed that things are happening."

The monitors also anticipated strong report cards soon in the two areas of the consent decree that Morgan has not checked off: bias-free policing, and stops, searches and arrests. But Aronie said their reviews of other areas that were previously found in compliance is ongoing.

Aronie fielded questions at a pair of community meetings at the Ashe Power House Theater in Central City on Tuesday and Wednesday, the first held since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some critics alleged ongoing corruption on the force. A few pointed to recent criminal probes of alleged payroll fraud by officers, or the case of Gerry Paul, an officer who returned to duty while booked on suspicion of raping a crime-scene technician.

Activist George Mahdi, 75, said the consent decree is "serving its purpose," saying he feared the NOPD will lower its recruiting standards and take on bad cops once it ends.

"They did what they wanted to do. It's going to happen again," Mahdi said of the NOPD's notorious past. "It's ludicrous for us to think this is going to be a smooth process."

Judge, monitor: Reforms not the problem

On Tuesday, Morgan again rejected claims from Cantrell that the consent decree "hurts recruitment, prevents (officers) from chasing criminals, and buries them in burdensome and unnecessary paperwork."

Aronie said the NOPD hasn't raised those complaints in private. He noted that the department authorizes vehicle chases — about 40 per year on average — of violent suspects who pose an imminent danger.

"You can't do stupid pursuits," he said. "Cities across the country are doing the same thing, and the idea you can't fight crime unless you can engage in a movie-style chase is just wrong."

There is no data to suggest that the consent decree has hurt recruiting, Aronie said.

Former New York City police chiefs who were brought in to help revamp the New Orleans force described a burden from the consent decree's focus on reviewing officers' actions. But in a 10-day review, they cited other factors for cratering officer morale.

Among them: anti-police rhetoric; an opaque promotion process; a Public Integrity Bureau prone to "far-reaching, self-initiated investigations" ending in unfair discipline; and "a lack of serviceable equipment and deplorable working condition(s)."

Aronie said the monitors met this week for the first time with Fausto Pichardo, the former NYPD patrol chief who is now acting as NOPD's chief of operations, but hadn't yet seen a redeployment plan.

Aronie lamented the city's decision to replace Arlinda Westbrook, the longtime civilian head of NOPD's internal affairs arm, the Public Integrity Bureau. Morgan recently heaped praise on Westbrook, who has moved to a different role with the city.

"Whenever the leader of the key accountability bureau is removed, one should have concerns," Aronie said. "She has been instrumental here. It would be silly if I didn't have a concern about that move."

Morgan said she will hold monthly court hearings to update the public on the city's progress, with more community meetings also planned.

Staff writer Matt Sledge contributed to this story.

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