When the U.S. Department of Justice released a damning report on the New Orleans Police Department in 2011, federal investigators put police brutality on their first page. They said their review “revealed a clear pattern of unconstitutional uses of force by NOPD officers.”
Five years later, despite signs of improvement, federal watchdogs have yet to offer a definitive statement that the department has cleaned up its act. But they do say cops appear to be far better at reporting when they use force.
The 2011 report said officers routinely used deadly force contrary to policy or law, and when civilians did not die, they were injured in “retaliatory” beatings or by “uncontrollable” police dogs.
A sweeping reform pact signed with the federal government in 2012 required the Police Department to release an annual report on every time officers use force, regardless of whether it was justified or not.
In May, the Police Department released its most recent version of the document, which showed a 52 percent increase in use-of-force reports in 2015 compared with the year before. But both department officials and federal watchdogs said the rise, though it may seem alarming, in fact represents a positive development.
Police do not appear to be getting more physical four years into the reform push, according to the watchdogs. Instead, as a result of improved supervision, widespread use of body cameras and new department policies, the federal monitors believe, officers are just doing a vastly better job of documenting the same kicks, takedown moves and flashed guns they used before.
“The evidence ... suggests that the numbers you’re seeing here are not driven by a material increase in use of force; they’re driven by better reporting of use of force,” said Jonathan Aronie, the lead federal monitor overseeing the consent decree that mandates sweeping changes in the NOPD.
A close look at the report reveals that in several of what the Police Department terms “key indicators,” uses of force have dropped or are essentially unchanged.
Police fired their guns on purpose 12 times in 2015, compared with 10 times in 2014. They used “conducted electrical weapons” — commonly known as Tasers — 94 times in 2015, down from 138 times in 2014, a 32 percent decrease. And police dogs bit civilians 10 times in 2015, compared with 12 times the year before.
The vast bulk of the increase in uses of force came in other categories. Police reported pointing their guns at civilians 367 times in 2015, compared with 101 times in 2014, a 263 percent increase.
The other largest jumps came in the “use of hands,” which increased 28 percent, and in “takedowns” — an ill-defined maneuver in which officers physically take civilians to the ground. Takedown reports went up from 90 incidents in 2014 to 154 in 2015, a 71 percent increase.
“The most notable thing is that we see that pointing of a firearm or (Taser) is now being reported,” Aronie said. “That also is one of the things that, frankly, is very easy not to report. … Most departments, as far as I know, don’t even count pointing of a weapon as a use of force.”
Still, said Aronie, “citizens are, and have the right to be, concerned about having a firearm pointed at them.
In at least two instances last year, according to a department summary of complaints reported to the Public Integrity Bureau, officers were disciplined for such encounters.
One officer resigned after he drew a gun on a man carrying a weapon in a holster. Another officer was given a five-day suspension when he pointed his gun at the occupants of a residence during the execution of a high-risk narcotics search warrant.
Police brass attribute the rise in use-of-force reporting to a combination of factors including better supervision, the body-worn cameras now issued to all patrol officers and new, federally approved policies on use of force.
“In general, they’re more comprehensive,” Compliance Bureau Deputy Superintendent Tim Averill said of the new policies. “People are understanding them better, people are reporting them better, and that’s all a net plus.”
Those policies, as well as a new software program that allows officers to electronically report baton whacks, kicks and other uses of force, did not go into effect until December. But officials said supervisors were well aware of the new rules months earlier and had begun to train their officers.
“It’s gotten to a point where officers are actually over-reporting,” said Public Integrity Bureau Deputy Superintendent Arlinda Westbrook.
She and other department officials believe many officers may have been confused in particular about what constitutes a “takedown.” The department is in the process of formalizing that definition now.
“I don’t want to skew my numbers, but what’s good about it is the buy-in,” Westbrook said. “Out of an abundance of caution, officers are willing to report any time they touch someone.”
Capt. Michael Glasser, president of the Police Association of New Orleans, offered a slightly different take on the numbers. He said most officers have been through several retrainings on use of force in the past several years, leading to “a great deal of confusion.”
In the era of body cameras, Glasser said, “it’s a lot easier to report the use of force, and deal with the bureaucratic effort, than it is to deal with the allegation that you’re hiding it.”
Westbrook and others in the department believe their conclusion that last year’s higher numbers reflect improved reporting, not an actual increase in uses of force, is backed up by a drop in the number of civilian complaints.
The number of complaints about excessive or unauthorized force fell from 45 in 2014 to 26 in 2015, a 42 percent decline, according to department records.
The office of Independent Police Monitor Susan Hutson, which also tracks civilian complaints, declined to comment on the use-of-force report.
The Police Department began releasing statistics on use of force only last year, and at that point it offered a different spin on its numbers. In its last report, the department said a 3 percent decrease in use-of-force reports between 2013 and 2014 was “a positive trend.”
Aronie said the greatest value in use-of-force reporting will come in the next two years as the monitors are able to watch long-term trends.
So far, neither the monitors nor the Department of Justice has taken a step back to assess whether New Orleans police officers’ overall use of force is reasonable or unreasonable — a crucial test under the 2012 reform agreement, and one the department must pass before it can regain its independence from federal oversight.
But at the close of a May 19 court hearing on use of force, U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan praised the Police Department for making “a lot of progress.”
Federal overseers, Morgan said, are “now at a point where they can really begin monitoring and comparing 2015 to ’16 and 2016 to ’17, and that’s when we’ll know for sure that we — everything has been done that needs to be done.”