The federal judge overseeing a court-ordered reform plan for the New Orleans Police Department said Thursday that progress toward one of its most basic goals — improving how the department supervises its officers — has been too slow.
U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan chided the NOPD during a hearing in federal court on Thursday, the latest in a series of updates on the NOPD’s progress in implementing a reform agreement the department signed with the U.S. Department of Justice in 2012.
It came just a day after one of the monitors appointed to watch over the department said in a public meeting that he has seen little change under the city’s new police chief, Michael Harrison.
“I’ve been disappointed, especially recently, in some of the findings that the monitors have provided to me, in terms of things that should have been clear and easy,” Morgan said. “It’s time for us to pick up the pace.”
The public hearing followed an hours-long, in-chambers meeting between the parties in the case Tuesday, in which Morgan expressed in pointed terms her dismay at how slowly the NOPD has improved supervision, according to consent decree monitor Jonathan Aronie. He said the judge has set a July deadline for the department to demonstrate tangible progress.
In an April 28 report, the consent decree monitors appointed by Morgan to act as neutral watchdogs in the case found that supervision is lacking from line sergeants all the way to the chief.
“The buck stops at the top. These problems didn’t arise under Chief Harrison, certainly, but, ultimately, we do find that there’s been a lack of direction, guidance and accountability given to the supervisors,” monitor David Douglass, a former federal prosecutor, said after a public meeting Wednesday night. “We have not yet seen meaningful improvement under Chief Harrison.”
NOPD spokesman Tyler Gamble took exception to the notion that change has not accelerated since Harrison was appointed as superintendent in August.
Gamble said Harrison has brought in two new deputy chiefs, changed the leadership of the troubled sex crimes unit and installed a new commander for the department’s training academy, among other moves.
He instituted new activity logs for officers to document how they respond to calls for service. The department also plans to remove the burden of handling payroll from the sergeants who handle front-line supervision.
“Making sure that we have effective supervisors in places has been at the top of his list,” Gamble said.
The monitors have, nevertheless, documented what they say is a wide array of problems with leadership at the department:
Supervisors could not prove that photo lineups were preserved, that they had reviewed camera footage after police officers used force on civilians or that interrogations had been recorded, according to the monitors’ latest report. District commanders failed to keep disciplinary records. Detective supervisors who worked five days a week somehow oversaw teams that worked seven days a week. Sergeants’ work schedules were missing.
Again and again, the monitors’ report says, when it comes to supervision, the “NOPD is not yet able to demonstrate compliance.”
The city has argued that the NOPD’s lack of documentation of supervision activities is a paperwork problem, not a sign that the underlying supervision itself is wanting.
But Douglass said in court that supervisors more than anyone else should be expected to uphold the letter of the consent decree, including its record-keeping requirements. When the files are missing, Douglass said, “the facts tell us, frankly, that the supervision is not happening.”
The NOPD, for its part, tried to strike a conciliatory tone in court. Deputy Superintendent Robert Bardy said working with the federal monitors has been “an opportunity for me to learn and to grow in this process, seeing as we’re working together to accomplish the same goal.”
Bardy rattled off a list of changes the department has made in the two days after meeting with the judge, including better record keeping for photo lineups in the NOPD’s eight district commands and changes in the functioning of camera systems.
“Her comments were very forceful, and so I think rightly so, the department had immediately responded to those things,” Aronie said of the in-chamber meeting on Tuesday. “That’s what we want to see.”