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Force-ing the Issues?
Behind the Feds' NOPD Report with New Orleans' Indepedent Police Monitor
Upon release of the scathing U.S. Department of Justice report on the widespread faults of the New Orleans Police Department, Mayor Mitch Landrieu commented that no one in the room seemed shocked.
Not only have citizens personally witnessed the NOPD's abuses of power, they have recently seen action against a few of the Department's failings. For instance, in one of the less heralded sections of the report, the authors take the NOPD to task for mismanagement of its canine unit. When that finding was shared with the NOPD Brass, the Department's canine cops were halted.
Still, at the heart of what the report -- and the city administration that called for it - is asking for, there lies the necessity of a seismic cultural shift in police officers' attitudes and ways of conducting business. Undertaking that change is likely to involve not only acknowledgement of the problems, but a willingness to uproot practices that have become ingrained in the force over decades, as the report indicates. To offer a better understanding of the process that lies ahead, NoDef spoke with Susan Hutson, New Orleans' Independent Police Monitor. Since coming to New Orleans from Los Angeles - another city with a history of a troubled police force - Hutson has been taking a look at department practices and individual cases. But with a small staff of three, it's clear that the NOPD leadership will be required to shoulder some of the policing of the police if any real change is to come about.
Use of Force
The DOJ report said officers "routinely use unnecessary and unreasonable force in violation of the Constitution and NOPD policy." Without even considering the multiple instances where officers are accused in connection with deaths, the DOJ said police brutality continues to run amok around the NOPD. While the widespread violations, which involve police shootings, and deliberate retaliations against arrested subjects, are individual actions taken by officers, Hutson said the Departments policies have long been unclear about where the limits are.
"Just looking at the taser part of the [existing] policy; It says, 'Yeah, you can taser a handcuffed prisoner if they are actively resisting or trying to escape.' And, its like, 'Woah! that gives a lot of leeway there,'" Hutson said. "You need to define that. You need to specify which parts of the body. Because right now, it looks like you can taser people who just won't put their hands behind their back. And, I don't think that's what tasering is supposed to be for."
The report calls for a complete rewrite of the policy, and Hutson says that's happening right now. But an even more imposing shadow could be cast if the DOJ implements a more thorough system of reviewing all incidents in which officers used unnecessary force - especially when they fire their gun or use a taser. Right now, Hutson said her office is doing most of that work. Her office is already on the scene when officers discharge a weapon, or at other "critical events," as she called them. There, the monitors preserve evidence - a direct response to the alleged manipulations of police reports that occurred on the Danziger Bridge and surrounding the death of Henry Glover after Hurricane Katrina - and oversee investigative procedures. But that work - along with formally punishing officers who are found to be in the wrong - needs to be done within the police department itself, the DOJ report said.
"We need to adjudicate and review uses of force better and more thoroughly because I don't think that's being done right now," she said. "Lots of times, officers are not even reporting use of force, and we can't have that. They have to be reported, thoroughly investigated, thoroughly reviewed, and disciplined if appropriate."
Another of the DOJ's major findings focused on the what was described as the NOPD's widespread practice of pulling over victims and searching them without cause, and in violation of the Fourth Amendment's probable cause against unreasonable searches and seizures. The report said the heart of this practice was not simply left to the officers alone, but also a Department-wide focus on statistics, which "encourages stops without reasonable suspicion, illegal pat downs, and arrests without probable cause."
The stops aren't completely at random. Since taking the helm, Serpas has trumpeted Terry stops as an effective way to catch criminals who remain at-large. Justification for this vein of stops comes from a 1968 Supreme Court decision, police are allowed to pull over vehicles if they have reasonable suspicion that someone has or is about to commit a crime. In public information releases about arrests that result from the stops - like that of infamous gang member Elton Brand - Serpas almost always points out their effectiveness, and the volume of the stops is repeatedly heralded at Department COMSTAT meetings - where Department leaders review statistics and various crimefighting metrics. But the DOJ report says the Department's reliance on stat-generating stops does not necessarily result in safer streets. "Detached as it is from problem-oriented policing, community partnerships or long-term strategies, there is no indication that NOPD's emphasis on arrests results in better crime prevention or safer communities," the report says.
Upon her arrival, Hutson said she had a similar experience.
When I first got here, I went to COMSTAT couple of times, and listened to Commanders when they get up...they were asked by the deputy chiefs, 'Hey, we got people on the street, what are we doing, are we stopping people?', And the Captain said 'We're stopping everything in sight,'" she said. "And, I thought, 'Woah! That can't even be remotely legal!'"
Hutson said she and Serpas agreed to increase officer training, and Serpas has since spoken in public repeatedly about "selling the stop." This means requiring officers to articulate why they are being pulled over.
"When I go to the doctor, I like it a whole lot more when the doctor tells me what's about to happen," Serpas said on the topic at a City Council meeting yesterday.
Hutson is also planning to review the stops that are made for patterns herself. The requirements that are passed down from the feds are also likely to have limits contained about how many people can be stopped, and further requirements about an always-looming issue for police forces across the country - racial profiling.
"You need to be conducting consensual stops, but you also need to be doing LEGAL terry stops. There is a purpose to them," Hutson said. "They were able to do this in L.A. and really cut back on gangland murders and shootings. I think they can work, but they need to be done legally, and not in a pattern of racial profiling."
Biased policing isn't only a concern going forward when it comes to pulling people over. The DOJ report features a long section that details patterns of police discrimination toward not only blacks, but also women, Latinos, lesbian-gay-bisexual-
Within the LGBT community, Hutson said there is currently a lack of data to work with to address the concerns.
"In the outreach we've done so far, members of this community are very reluctant to even say the name of officers that they've had bad encounters with, you know, they are afraid to say very much of anything that we can use," she said. "But they have started talking to us."
The changes that the DOJ will implement are again likely to involve a systemic change. In order to engage with the communities, the NOPD will have to create programs and strategies that go beyond the "superficial" community policing initiatives the report says they currently have. (The report also points out that Serpas' 65-point plan to transform the NOPD involves more community policing than in the past, but the effects were unable to be gauged when the report was released because the programs are new.) Hutson also envisions a large role for the police monitor in stopping discrimination by conducting audits that look at the specific factors that contribute to discrimination.
"It won't just be someone saying 'It's fixed,' we'll be able to show it," she said.
The report's daunting list of issues in need of correction inherently puts another challenge before city government: Coming up with a plan to execute the reforms. In these early stages, the city is in the process of reviewing the document. The next immediate step will be review. Even Hutson's office is still deep in analysis of the report.
"The City, the City Attorney, and the rank of the department are scouring these recommendations, looking at what they need to do, and how to implement them... And, then the two sides are going to sit down and talk."
In addition to figuring out how to reform the department, the city and the feds will also have to figure out how they can push through reforms within the constraint of the city's limited budget.
"They are going to say, 'This is what we want, what can you pay for?' They need to get something that everyone can agree on and is fiscally responsible."
She cites Los Angeles as a city that paid a price for failing to keep its reforms within what it could afford.
"it took them several years to get out of it, and part of that was because they could not afford to comply with parts of it," she said of the L.A. consent decree. "For example, they could not afford to put cameras in [police] cars. They need to put something in place that is real, but gives them time to get things done, and gives time for this budget crisis to heal itself a little bit."
Then comes the official stuff. We have heard much about that consent decree - which means the DOJ will oversee operations at the Department. Any changes will also be overseen by a federal judge. While these negotiations are going on, the DOJ will file a lawsuit against the city to force the changes.
At last week's press conference to announce the findings of the report, Mayor Landrieu bluntly stated, "There will be a physical document that reads United States vs. City of New Orleans, and that paper will be filed in a federal court."
As official as this may sound, Hutson paints it as a voluntary, if not painful move on the part of all parties.
"They [DOJ] need to sue to get it into court, and to get the oversight of the federal judge, but the City is saying, 'We want this. We want you to come in, and we want to put in best practices, and do what's right for the community.'"
Once the court case openst, the results of the negotiations will be bundled into a consent decree, and the aforementioned federal judge will be placed in charge of overseeing the NOPD until reforms are made. Hutson describes this path as a compromise.
On the softer side would be a Memorandum of Understanding between the feds and the city, but she says the mayor and the powers that be have eschewed the lite option, and deliberately sought judicial supervision. On the other hand, Hutson points out that worst case scenarios still exist.
"So, there are a couple ways to look at it. It depends how the negotiations go," she said. The federal government is saying, 'Hey we have this pattern of practice.' So, they could go forward if they need to and just prosecute it."
To report an abuse of power or concern with an NOPD officer, call Hutson's office at (504) 681-3217 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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