Disciplinary actions taken against New Orleans police officers dropped dramatically in 2014, a year of turmoil for the department that saw a change in its top leadership.
Firings were down by 67 percent from the year before, suspensions were down by 27 percent, and the average number of days an officer was suspended for bad behavior fell from 25 to 16 days, according to a report released March 31 by the Independent Police Monitor’s Office.
During 2014, Superintendent Ronal Serpas resigned in August, and Michael Harrison took the helm on an interim basis for the next two months. Mayor Mitch Landrieu made Harrison’s appointment permanent in October.
The reduction in disciplinary actions also occurred as Landrieu struggled to meet his pledge to replenish the force’s diminished ranks, although there is no evidence that officials’ desire to keep staffing numbers up led them to retain officers who otherwise might have been fired.
While there’s no obvious reason for the lower numbers, police union officials said they believe they may be a result of the disruption in the department that came with the changes at the top. After Landrieu appointed Harrison, the new leader in turn appointed new deputy superintendents, the officials who actually oversee disciplinary hearings.
“There was probably some slowdown in getting things scheduled during the change of administration,” said Donovan Livaccari, a lawyer who represents officers for the Fraternal Order of Police. “There were fewer of those hearings to begin with.”
Serious disciplinary hearings dropped significantly from 2013 to 2014, the report shows, from 25 to 14.
But NOPD spokesman Tyler Gamble said he doubted the change in chiefs translated to a drop in disciplinary actions. He said the declines were essentially a statistical fluke, the result of investigations that can take months to ripen.
“It would be hard to compare the years and loop all this together as apples to apples,” Gamble said. “There’s a lot of different variables.”
Gamble pointed to Friday, when Harrison fired an officer over a 2013 incident in which he punched the driver of another car after an off-duty fender bender.
The police monitor’s report highlights two factors that figure into a disproportionate number of disciplinary actions at the NOPD: alcohol and the department’s troubled paid detail system, which has been the focus of a major reform effort.
Of 104 separate charges against the 18 NOPD employees who faced hearings by deputy superintendents, nearly two-thirds involved paid detail work.
Alcohol was a factor in eight of the 18 cases in which officers faced serious disciplinary hearings, according to the report.
Monitor Susan Hutson’s report also states that in two of the 14 deputy superintendent hearings that actually convened in 2014 — in four cases, officers resigned under investigation — the department shut out her watchdogs: once by failing to give her office proper notice, the other time by excluding her representatives from observing a meeting.
But Hutson said she feels confident the department is improving its relations with her office under Harrison. “Talking with him is like talking with somebody that you’ve known forever,” she said.
Police unions, meanwhile, are taking a wait-and-see approach to the new chief.
“A lot of these hearings that were reported in the (police monitor’s) report were probably investigated under Chief Serpas’ watch. So, I guess the jury’s still out on how that plays out,” Livaccari said. “I would agree that (Harrison) presents a friendlier face than his predecessor.”
Another possible factor in the drop in disciplinary actions, of course, is that there are fewer cops to begin with. As the department continues to hemorrhage longtime officers, it has struggled to fill their places with new recruits.
Fewer cops walking the beat may result in fewer complaints. Hutson said complaints from all sources to the department’s Public Integrity Bureau plummeted from 1,401 in 2011 to 951 in 2013 and to a preliminary estimate of 870 complaints in 2014.
She said her office plans to analyze why complaints are dropping.
“We don’t know if it’s because of the number of officers that are leaving,” Hutson said. “Is it that officers are doing a better job of understanding rules and regulations? Is it the consent decree? We want to see.”