Among the steps taken by the city to comply with court-mandated reforms to the New Orleans Police Department, none has generated as much praise from federal overseers as the city’s progress in managing cops who work off-duty jobs in their police uniforms.
According to Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office, business has started to boom under a controversial new City Hall office charged with clamping down on an off-duty detail system that the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division once dubbed the NOPD’s “aorta of corruption.”
Yet an investigation by WWL-TV and The New Orleans Advocate found that a significant chunk of off-duty police detail work remains free from that oversight, managed by a trio of cops who dole out hundreds of thousands of dollars of lucrative work each year — usually to themselves.
The investigation found that the officers who run the Special Events Unit of the NOPD — coordinating off-duty policing for weddings, second-line parades, road races and numerous other events big and small — are also its biggest beneficiaries.
Sgt. Walter Powers Jr., who also heads the local Fraternal Order of Police lodge as its president, pulled in the most cash over the six-month period from May through October 2014, according to data that the city turned over last week in response to a November public records request.
Powers, a 36-year NOPD veteran, worked 168 of the 596 off-duty assignments his office coordinated in that span — more than one in four — and took home $20,325, increasing his regular salary and overtime pay for the six months by two-thirds.
On May 31 and again on Oct. 4 and Oct. 25, Powers assigned himself to six different details in a single day, making $675, $650 and $850 on those days.
Second and third on the list were the other two coordinators in the office: Sgt. Sabrina Richardson and Officer Christopher Avist. Each earned nearly $10,000 over the six-month period.
The three officers coordinate special events during their regular working hours, then frequently take those assignments themselves. They were among just a dozen officers who together reaped a third of the $306,000 that officers working those special events earned over the six-month period.
Critics said the data suggest that, at least for an office that handles about 10 percent of the off-duty police jobs in the city, a culture of favoritism and back-scratching remains.
“These reforms are going on, but this is still persisting under the direction of the Police Department, which is something that has to be an embarrassment to the department,” said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a watchdog group.
Goyeneche noted the premium rates paid to the detail supervisors — often the three special events coordinators — when they work the off-duty jobs.
“When you look at this and see that almost every detail that occurred over a six-month period of time, someone from that office is working it, and they’re paid in many instances at a higher rate than the other officers, then it doesn’t pass the smell test,” he said.
NOPD spokesman Tyler Gamble said NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison has reviewed the data and has directed the Compliance Bureau to set up new checks and balances to make sure the work is doled out fairly.
“Much like he’s done with other areas of the department, such as body-worn cameras, Chief Harrison is committed to creating a system of accountability to make sure the department can track what work is being done and make sure it’s being done properly,” Gamble said. “Chief Harrison realizes that’s a problem, and he wants to address it.”
Not everyone sees trouble in a system that has changed little even after U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan endorsed reforms to the paid detail system just over two years ago, as part of a larger reform blueprint that Landrieu and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder signed in July 2012.
Powers, for one, provides a service to the public under a system that the city set up, said Raymond Burkart III, an FOP attorney who represents Powers in a federal lawsuit that challenges the inclusion of the off-duty detail reforms in the federal reform pact.
“That system is not created by Sgt. Powers,” Burkart said. “That system was created by City Hall. Sgt. Powers is an equal opportunity coordinator.”
Asked about the concentration of assignments on a handful of officers, Burkart said what’s missing in the data is the number of officers who actually raised their hands to work such details, and their track record.
“Are there people who that section knows can be relied on to do the job properly, to show up? You’re (darned) straight,” Burkart said. “It’s not politics. It’s historical track record, usually.”
Gamble said the officers in the Special Events Unit do a lot more than just dole out details. They also set up incident plans for major events such as Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest,
the Super Bowl or the NCAA basketball tournaments.
The work they manage, too, often requires specialized officers such as motorcycle cops, where the pool of eligible officers is relatively small, Gamble said.
Still, only one of the top five earners for off-duty special events work is in the Traffic Division: Sgt. Bernard Crowden, who worked 64 details over the six-month period, taking in $7,775, the data show.
More than half of those assignments were worked alongside Powers.
The moonlighting jobs under the Special Events section pay differently — often better — than the hourly scale for detail work under the city-run Office of Police Secondary Employment, which now coordinates the bulk of police detail work.
Cops working an event under the Special Events Unit make $100 for an hourlong gig, with $50 more for each additional hour worked.
OPSE now operates under a tiered, demand-based pay scale that city officials say has helped boost officer interest. Base pay there is lower than under Special Events, but it can rise significantly.
Capt. Michael Glasser, head of the Police Association of New Orleans, called it a patently disjointed system.
“If everybody is treated the same, that’s fine,” he said. “But everybody isn’t treated the same. All details are not equal.”
Police groups balked from the start, and sued in federal court, over a new system designed to rid the largely self-regulated police moonlighting industry of the taint of corruption. The hope was that city coordination would prevent overly cozy relationships between customers and cops and would give more officers a shot at plum jobs. Police groups protested that the city never proved any systemic corruption.
The federal monitoring team that reports to Judge Morgan thinks otherwise, ladling praise on OPSE and its civilian head, retired Army Lt. Col. John Salomone, for making progress in complying with the consent decree’s mandates despite reports of some cops taking moonlighting gigs off the city books.
The monitoring team has been patient in awaiting a shift of the Special Events work to OPSE.
In the meantime, the work continues to comprise a far greater share of off-duty police jobs than the “less than 1 percent” that Powers testified to at a federal court hearing a year ago, the data show. During that trial, in which Powers was a named plaintiff in a suit challenging the new detail system, Powers explained the workings of his unit.
“So your office, that particular function has not come under the purview of the Office of Secondary Employment yet?” Morgan asked him.
“How is that going to change when it does come under?”
“We don’t have any idea how it’s going to change,” he replied.
Staff writer Jeff Adelson contributed to this story.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.
Note: This story has been changed to correct the time period of details investigated, May through October 2014