In the eyes of the U.S. Justice Department, almost everything that’s wrong with the New Orleans Police Department comes back to a training program that has varied historically between weak and counterproductive.
In a 2011 report that sparked a raft of court-mandated reforms to the force, the department’s Civil Rights Division found officers were clueless about how to conduct proper pat-downs, searches, seizures and detentions.
Some couldn’t spell or write well enough to draft coherent police reports. Training in weapons and defensive tactics was limp, and some of the materials used conflicted with both the law and NOPD policy, a Department of Justice lawyer told a federal judge Tuesday.
Training once new officers hit the streets was even flimsier; whatever they had learned as Training Academy cadets seemed to fly out the patrol car window, the government found.
The new commander of the academy, Richard Williams, stood before the judge Tuesday vowing vast improvements — now and in the near future — in a training program that the DOJ found “deficient in nearly every respect.”
Williams, elevated to the role in October by new NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison, was greeted largely with kudos by U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan and the federal monitoring team that reports to her — at least for his initial steps and ambitious plans.
Williams pledged to enlist a broad array of state and federal agencies, the District Attorney’s Office, judges, expert agencies and a fresh slate of instructors to raise the level of training.
The department has hired a new curriculum director, trained its staff in developing lesson plans that a federal police monitor recently found to be deficient or nonexistent, added classroom technology and sent instructors back to school with the FBI, Williams said.
A new academy facility is on the way, with construction to begin as early as next month, and Williams pledged to evaluate every academy instructor.
His pledges follow a December report by the monitoring team that found NOPD cadets were being trained poorly, leaving them to “mimic the practices of their predecessors.” Since then, the monitors have said they’re encouraged by early steps taken by Williams.
Morgan, who is overseeing the NOPD reform pact that Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Attorney General Eric Holder signed in July 2012, praised the vision but pressed Williams to attach timelines and names to it.
“I want something, Cmdr. Williams, from you. That is a plan to accomplish these things: who in your organization is responsible and when it’s going to be done,” she said.
Morgan had called the NOPD brass into court for the latest public progress report on the department’s steps to comply with key aspects of the 492-point blueprint for change within the long-embattled police force.
The last hearing, in September, dealt with body-worn and in-car cameras, and NOPD officials returned Tuesday to report progress there, though they admitted that hundreds of officers still do not have the cameras.
“I want to get to the bottom of who’s required to have one, who has one and if they don’t have one, why not,” Morgan said.
The department also promised coming fixes — including the recent purchase of new servers — to the vehicle camera system, in the wake of a monitor’s report that found troubling lapses and widespread malfunctions. Only about a third of the department’s in-car cameras functioned correctly, the report found, with some not working at all and others failing to capture video for lack of storage space.
The focus on training came amid a lurching push by the city to restock a police force that has lost about 30 percent of its manpower in the past five years, thanks in part to a hiring freeze that Landrieu imposed in 2010 to help stanch a tide of red ink. A recent step to widen the pool of candidates by eliminating a higher education requirement for cadets was met with worry from both a DOJ lawyer and the lead federal monitor.
DOJ attorney Emily Gunston fretted over the impact of the change on police report-writing, which she said in many cases “was so poor that it really was impossible to tell what happened.”
Morgan noted that it’s been a persistent problem.
“People who can’t read and write don’t belong on the police force. I need to hear more about how you’re screening applicants,” she said. “I don’t think you can take on the task of teaching people to read and write and be a police officer.”
The lead monitor, Jonathan Aronie, of the Washington, D.C., law firm Sheppard, Mullin Richter & Hampton, also questioned the move.
“Our team had serious concerns about elimination of the college credit requirement. We want to see specifics about what robust processes are in place to compensate for that lack of credit,” he said. “Our team can’t get comfortable with that yet.”
Overall, Aronie offered “newfound albeit cautious optimism” over the momentum in training, saying he gives Williams “a check mark for good ideas.”
“I like what I’m hearing, but until I see the results I can’t get overjoyed yet,” he told Morgan, who then came to the department’s defense.
“Cmdr. Williams has just been here a few months,” the judge said.
“Thank you,” Harrison quipped.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.