Judge: New Orleans cops can work more off-duty details to combat crime
A ruling raised the cap on off-duty work hours after city lawyers argued there was an increase in demand
By John Simerman
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate
NEW ORLEANS — A federal judge has approved the city's request to raise a weekly cap on off-duty work hours for New Orleans Police Department officers by a third, after Mayor LaToya Cantrell's administration argued that the current 24-hour limit under a long-running reform agreement can't keep up with the need.
Lawyers for the city requested an increase to 32 hours per week for a four-month pilot period "due to the increasing number of recurring/static details and the need for an increased police presence to combat crime in the community."
They also argued that raising the off-duty work ceiling "will allow officers to combat financial hardships as a result of inflation and will boost morale within the police department."
The U.S. Department of Justice, which entered into a sprawling police reform pact known as a consent decree with the city in 2012 while Mitch Landrieu was mayor, did not oppose the change. U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan, who has overseen the NOPD consent decree since its inception, endorsed it Wednesday.
Longer waits, shorter parades
The relaxing of the weekly work limit comes with the NOPD's off-duty detail system under a spotlight, while the department is pressing to win Morgan's blessing to release the city from federal oversight.
A steep slide in NOPD manpower in recent years led the city to shorten Carnival parade routes this year, among other accommodations for low police staffing. Meanwhile, waits for officers in an emergency have grown the longest in more than a decade. The city recently added new financial incentives for officers to sign up or stay on.
Recent media reports have highlighted the timesheets of numerous officers that appear to show several of them working overlapping detail and on-duty shifts, logging improbable hours or breaking weekly or daily work limits.
A report by WVUE-TV last fall found since-retired Sgt. Todd Morrell racing cars on the west bank while getting paid to work. It followed an earlier report by The Times-Picayune that pointed to several officers with questionable timecards, including Morrell and his officer brother, Nicholas Morrell. A third sibling, former state Senator JP Morrell, sits on the New Orleans City Council.
Todd and Nicholas Morrell are now among five current or former NOPD officers who have received FBI "target" letters in a federal probe of possible fraud, sources say. The others are Sgt. Rene Benjamin; Sgt. Michael Stalbert and Officer Brian Sullivan.
Meanwhile, the NOPD, the New Orleans Office of Inspector General and the New Orleans Independent Police Monitor have joined in an investigation of as many as 30 officers for "potential criminal and administrative violations" related to alleged timesheet issues, according to NOPD. Eight officers have signed stipulated agreements accepting short suspensions to avoid a drawn-out probe.
A broken system
The change lifts a work cap that was meant to address concerns raised by U.S. Justice Department officials more than a decade ago. In a scathing 2011 report on the NOPD that alleged myriad constitutional failures, the DOJ portrayed the detail system as a highly corruptible, officer-run bazaar for moonlighting jobs, with few real limits on hours officers could work.
The city's request appears to better reflect the current state of off-duty policework, from celebrity escorts to second-lines to security around construction sites or wedding parties.
That's because the consent decree has always allowed an exception to the 24-hour detail limit for "Major Special Events where manpower requirements are so intensive that sufficient resources may not be available for the safe operation of the event (e.g., Jazz Fest, Mardi Gras)."
Superintendent Shaun Ferguson has granted those exceptions regularly, for weeks or months on end — including through the pandemic, when most big public events have been cancelled.
For most of the second half of 2020, for instance, the weekly work limit stood at at 44 hours, internal NOPD emails show.
The city's Office of Police Secondary Employment, which doles out more than $9 million per year in detail work, last fall described the weekly work limit as "a fluid number based upon events taking place within the city on any given week."
City officials did not immediately respond to questions Wednesday about the potential impact of the higher work limits for officers. The loophole for Major Special Events remains, meaning Ferguson could authorize off-duty hours above the 32-hour cap.
Donovan Livaccari, attorney and spokesman for the local Fraternal Order of Police, maintained that off-duty details should never have fallen under the consent decree in the first place.
"All these years later, I am still wondering what the relationship is between how many hours an officer works details and the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, or any other provision of the U.S. Constitution, for that matter," he said.
Morgan, an appointee of President Obama, also ordered that payroll for off-duty details run through a "centralized vendor" to allow tracking of those hours by NOPD. Police officials acknowledged last year that the department couldn't previously access OPSE's payroll system to track its officers' moonlighting.
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