After a shooting in August by a New Orleans police officer who wasn’t wearing a body camera, an audit found that fewer than half of police incidents were being recorded by the new devices in accordance with NOPD policy, according to the monitoring team that is tracking a wide range of court-ordered reforms to the department.
A month later, in September, officer compliance rose to 62 percent — an improvement that a federal judge acknowledged during a rare open hearing Wednesday, while pushing the NOPD’s top brass to apply more pressure on officers and supervisors to comply with the policy.
U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan noted that the NOPD has a long way to go to improve a system of body-worn and in-vehicle cameras that is viewed as a linchpin to the success of a broader, court-mandated effort she is overseeing to reform a long-troubled police force.
The judge, who is overseeing a 2-year-old federal consent decree that spells out vast changes to the NOPD, raised concerns over documented lapses in the use and tracking of the cameras. She also questioned the department’s resolve in meting out stiff punishment to cops who fail to turn on the cameras and keep them running.
Morgan called the rare public status conference to let the public hear directly about the progress and failures of the camera systems.
The cameras are meant to document and deter bad police work, but they also have helped officers refute allegations of misconduct on the streets, according to Arlinda Westbrook, chief of the NOPD’s Public Integrity Bureau.
The cameras also are expected to help the consent decree monitors assess the accuracy of police reporting of incidents and of the information they write on field interview cards — an area where the monitoring team led by the firm Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton said it has found “a stunning lack of consistency.”
The team’s latest quarterly report, issued this month, found troubling lapses that included widespread malfunctioning of the in-car cameras that are meant to record traffic stops and other police activity. Only about a third of the department’s in-car cameras functioned correctly, with some devices not working at all and others failing to capture video because they had no more storage room, the report found.
Almost none of the cameras, which are designed to start automatically when a patrol car’s lights and sirens go on, worked right in the 5th, 7th and 8th districts. The monitoring team described a “supervision breakdown” in the lagging districts.
More recent figures presented Wednesday showed improvement in the percentage of working in-vehicle cameras.
Unlike the vehicle cameras, the body cams are not mandated under the consent decree. But now that they’re on the street, distributed to all officers in May under an initiative by former Superintendent Ronal Serpas, the monitors are tracking their use.
Even as police officials fine-tune policies and procedures for the body-worn devices, the head of the monitoring team, Jonathan Aronie, expressed frustration at the failure by officers and supervisors to document in reports when video footage of interactions with the public was available.
Some of the problems are a result of old technology, interim Superintendent Michael Harrison told the judge. On Wednesday, he said, three servers remained down, preventing officers from uploading the footage from their patrol car cameras.
The city’s chief administrative officer, Andy Kopplin, told Morgan that the city has found $4 million to help pay for new patrol cars, new servers and other NOPD gear. It replaces about the same amount that the city siphoned from the NOPD’s personnel budget recently to help pay for jail reforms and other expenses.
Morgan homed in on the issue of discipline for officers who don’t turn on their cameras. Westbrook said the PIB has two dozen open cases of allegations against officers related to the cameras.
Under NOPD policy, the body-worn cameras must be turned on for most interactions with the public, including traffic stops, vehicle pursuits, arrests, emergency responses, pedestrian checks, domestic violence calls and DWIs. A similar though shorter list applies to the in-vehicle cameras.
Westbrook spelled out a tiered disciplinary system for officers who fail to activate the cameras, based in part on what happens during the incident. For instance, officers who fail to turn on the cameras and end up using force could face major consequences, including dismissal.
Morgan asked whether that makes sense.
“The police officer doesn’t know when he gets out of the car whether it’s going to be routine or not. We want them to use it every time,” she said. “There has to be discipline. It needs to be serious enough that it more than encourages — it forces people to comply with the policy.”
The body cameras, highly touted by Serpas before his resignation in August, were fully deployed in May.
Lapses in their use came into sharp relief last month after 4th District Officer Lisa Lewis got into a struggle with Armond Bennett during a stop in the 3600 block of Mimosa Court. Bennett was shot once and fled, according to police.
Another police officer heard Lewis ask for help and say, “He’s got my gun!” according to an affidavit seeking saliva samples from Lewis, 43.
While the focus of most subsequent news reports was on the department’s initial failure to report the incident to the public, it was also noted that Lewis wasn’t wearing a body camera.
That prompted the audit by the monitoring team, Aronie said Wednesday.
Overall, Justice Department officials sounded encouraging notes over progress by the department in developing policies and procedures for the cameras.
Morgan said she expected cases of disciplinary action to spike before officers grow more accustomed to turning on the body cameras.
Donovan Livaccari, an attorney for the local Fraternal Order of Police lodge, cautioned against a strict disciplinary policy right away.
“I do think the department should make good use of counseling opportunities to make sure people understand what the rules are and how to apply them in the field, before initiating formal disciplinary proceedings,” Livaccari said.
“We still haven’t gotten to the point where it’s automatic, muscle memory: You get out of the car, you turn on the camera. Eventually that’ll just be a habit, and some of these things don’t become a problem.”
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