A decision late last week to remove three New Orleans police officers from their posts providing security at the Municipal Court building forced the closure of three of the four courtrooms and seemed to set up what could be a protracted battle between the city’s executive and judicial branches.
Chief Administrative Judge Desiree Charbonnet said the decision provided her and the other judges no time to develop a contingency plan for a court that often is a “boiling pot” because of the nature of the cases that are heard and the often close relationships between plaintiffs and defendants.
“This is a public safety issue,” Charbonnet said. “There’s a real need for these guys in the courtroom.”
The city, however, said the move was simply part of a plan to reassign 22 officers from places such as the courthouse, the District Attorney’s Office and the Police Department’s record room, where many officers were doing administrative tasks, and put them back on the street or in supervisory positions in various districts.
“This plan has been in the works for weeks,” City Hall spokeswoman Garnesha Crawford said in a prepared statement Monday. “Judge Charbonnet gave her word that she would help make this work because everyone agrees we should have as many officers on the street as possible.”
Charbonnet said police Superintendent Michael Harrison first called her about the matter at 2 p.m. Friday. An hour later, she said, Harrison met with her in her chambers and told her “the mayor wants them (the officers) out Monday.”
The transfers took effect Sunday.
The city said the moves were done in response to an Inspector General’s Office report issued in May that found many officers on the depleted force were behind desks, doing jobs that could be done by civilians. The assignments contributed to slow response times for an overwhelming number of calls the department receives.
“I directed the chief to get our police officers on the streets, so they can protect the citizens,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said. “That’s what this is.”
After a 26-person recruit class graduated last week, a Police Department spokesman said the number of officers stood at 1,135, including another 29 recruits still in the Police Academy. Two local police unions disputed that figure, saying the number is actually 1,074.
Of the 22 officers being reassigned, 15 handled administrative duties at the NOPD, three worked at the courthouse, three worked for the District Attorney’s Office and one was assigned to the Department of Sanitation.
Three sergeants and two lieutenants have been stationed as supervisors in the 1st and 7th districts, which include parts of Mid-City and New Orleans East, respectively. Sixteen officers were assigned to work among all eight police districts and will be put in patrol cars to answer calls for service, a suggestion in the IG’s report, while one officer was sent to the Special Operations Division, which includes units such as the bomb squad and traffic fatality unit.
Assistant District Attorney Christopher Bowman said the officers assigned to that office helped investigate sex crimes and homicide and often were responsible for getting witnesses to court.
“Obviously, these were hard-working officers,” he said. “But the district attorney is mindful of the needs of the Police Department. We will continue to do the best we can while doing more with less.”
Landrieu said the judges of Municipal Court can make up for the lost officers with Sheriff’s Office deputies or constables; the latter seemed to be the city’s preferred replacement option.
But Charbonnet said the city has a legal obligation to keep the officers there.
A city ordinance reads in part that “the superintendent of police shall detail police officers in each section of the Municipal Court to keep order and execute the orders and decrees of the judges.”
The NOPD countered that state law allows for local governments to provide public safety in any way possible, so long as an agreement can be made among various government bodies.
“In accordance with this statute, the constable can provide security in the courtrooms,” NOPD spokesman Tyler Gamble said.
But 1st City Court Constable Lambert Boissiere Jr. said there’s no way he’d be able to provide security at the courthouse — at least not immediately.
Boissiere, a former city councilman, said Harrison first called him about the possibility on Thursday, the same day that the City Council voted down an attempt by Landrieu to redirect money collected for building maintenance at Municipal Court and use it to pay for salaries there.
The judges, led by Charbonnet, objected to the proposal, saying it was an effort to shore up a shortage in the city’s general fund with money designated for another purpose.
Boissiere said the request to have his constables provide security was too sudden.
Constables, he said, are not trained like police officers and most of their duties are civil, such as serving subpoenas.
“It can’t be done overnight,” he said of trying to take on the new tasks suggested by the mayor and Police Department, adding that money to pay for additional constables also would be an issue. “I don’t have a fat budget.”
Because of the dueling legal viewpoints between the court and city, Charbonnet said the court’s attorneys likely would become involved in the situation. Until the matter can be resolved, she said, chances are the three sections that were closed Monday will remain closed indefinitely. “It just doesn’t work without those blue shirts.”
As for the reassignments, Harrison said, the judge’s concerns are much the same as his.
“It probably does have some risk involved with it,” Harrison said of the idea of courtrooms with no police presence. “But with a shortage of police officers on the street, there is a risk to public safety.”
Harrison said department leaders will continue to look at ways to reassign other officers if possible. He said he met with the judges of Juvenile Court on Monday.
City Council President Stacy Head praised the transfer of the 22 officers as “an excellent first step in identifying immediate solutions to (the) patrol manpower shortage.”
WWL-TV reporter Paul Murphy contributed to this report. Follow Danny Monteverde on Twitter, @DCMonteverde.