The team of monitors tracking the court-ordered overhaul of the New Orleans Police Department raised new concerns this week about the widespread malfunctioning of in-car cameras intended to record traffic stops and other police activity, pointing to a “supervision breakdown” that allowed the problem to fester for years.
A recent analysis found that only about a third of the department’s in-car cameras functioned properly, with some devices not working at all and others failing to capture video because their storage medium was full.
In its latest progress report, the monitoring team counted the cameras among a list of areas in which the NOPD has failed to meet the sweeping requirements of a consent decree the city signed with the U.S. Department of Justice in 2012. It said the department is still struggling to develop new policies, has glaring inconsistencies within its so-called “field interview card” process and remains generally afflicted by shoddy record-keeping.
“Overall, we continue to believe NOPD is making progress toward meeting its obligations under the consent decree,” the monitors wrote, noting a “new sense of comprehension and urgency” they’ve detected at the long-troubled agency. “This progress notwithstanding, as we noted in our prior report, NOPD still has a long way to go before achieving full and sustained compliance with its consent decree obligations.”
In-car cameras have become staples of American policing, aiding prosecutions while promoting accountability and reducing aggression between officers and citizens, the monitors wrote. But most of those benefits can’t be achieved when the cameras aren’t working.
“This not only violates the consent decree, but it puts citizens and officers at risk. It also fosters an unhealthy cynicism among officers,” the monitors wrote in their 116-page third quarterly report, released Wednesday by the monitoring firm of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton.
Virtually none of the in-car cameras — designed to start recording when an officer activates the police car’s lights or sirens — functioned properly in Districts 5, 7 and 8, while they were largely in working order in Districts 2 and 4, the monitors found.
Videos not downloading
The footage from the cameras is supposed to be downloaded to a server within each district station then deleted from the police car’s onboard hard drive.
“For this process to work, however, it appears the car must be in the ‘correct’ district station and must be in the station parking lot long enough for the video to download,” the monitors wrote. “If either condition is not satisfied, the video will not download. It appears this may be the cause of the nonfunctionality we observed in the 5th, 7th and 8th districts.”
The monitors wrote in a footnote that the NOPD has made “significant progress” in addressing the camera issue since June 30, the end of the three-month reporting period. But more than three years after federal authorities first expressed concern about the operability of the cameras, the monitors had sharp criticism for the NOPD’s district supervisors, who they said should have dealt with the issue directly or raised the matter “to a level where something could be done about it.”
This week’s report also raised questions about the department’s recording of so-called “use of force” incidents at a time when NOPD brass are touting the implementation of body-worn cameras, a technology that, while not part of the consent decree, is gaining traction across the country. Of the 145 “use of force” reports the monitors reviewed, only 49 indicated the incident had been recorded.
The monitors said some of the reports might have “simply failed to note a recording was made,” but they stressed that the department’s paperwork needs to include that information because the recordings make it easier for supervisors and others to determine whether an officer’s actions were reasonable. It wasn’t clear from the monitors’ report whether the use of force recordings in question involved in-car cameras, body-worn cameras or both.
“The absence of recordings creates not only substantive difficulties for the supervisors, investigators and the monitoring team, but also creates justified suspicion among citizens,” the monitors wrote.
The use of force reports were found to be sorely lacking in other respects. Few of the files were complete, the monitors wrote, and none of the ones reviewed included photographs of the persons subjected to police force, another violation of the consent decree. Many of the reports also lacked statements from all of the involved parties and witnesses.
Confusion on cards
Confusion also continues to cloud the NOPD’s use of “field interview cards” to document interactions between officers and citizens — a practice that can be a yardstick for whether officers are racially profiling “suspicious persons” they stop and search. The monitors described the cards as a meaningful barometer of police interaction with citizens — “an issue that goes to the very heart of the consent decree.”
The cards aren’t being completed consistently, and the monitors said they found little change since New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux last year highlighted a series of flaws in the department’s documentation of field interviews.
“The OIG’s concerns did not come as a surprise to the monitoring team,” the monitors wrote. “In our many interactions with NOPD officers and supervisors since our appointment in August 2013, we have witnessed a stunning lack of consistency among officers regarding when and how (field interview cards) should be completed.”
In a survey of officers, the monitors spoke with many who admitted they didn’t know when the cards needed to be completed, while those who professed to know the policy “had it wrong as often as they had it right.” Sixty-two percent of the officers interviewed did not believe their supervisors were reviewing the data regularly.
“This is particularly troubling,” the monitors added, “considering the critical role (the cards) should play in ensuring constitutional policing.”
Because of incomplete records, the monitors said, they weren’t able to fully assess whether the department has made strides in its use of photo lineups presented to witnesses to identify criminal suspects. In many districts, they said, the NOPD “was unable to provide us with a list of cases that involved a photographic lineup.”
In districts where data were available, the results were not promising. In one district, for instance, only one of 14 cases reviewed by the monitors showed that the officer presenting the photo lineup was different from the investigating officer, as mandated by the consent decree.
“In one district, on multiple occasions, the officer administering the photographic lineup informed the witness he/she would be reviewing multiple photographs to identify a suspect, but then showed the witness only a single photograph,” the monitors wrote.
The report also documented shortfalls in the NOPD’s videotaping of interrogations of people in custody. One district, the monitors wrote, produced recordings that were “mostly static without audio,” while most districts failed to maintain complete logs of their recordings.
The monitors weighed in as well on the NOPD’s training program, which they referred to as a “mixed bag.”
“Some of the instruction we observed was substantively high quality, taught by a dynamic instructor using teaching techniques appropriate for an adult audience,” the monitors wrote. “On the other hand, some of the instruction we observed was substantively inadequate, dry and ineffective. A major shortcoming of the training we reviewed was the absence of meaningful lesson plans.”
The monitoring report was not all criticism. The monitors had high praise for the department’s fully staffed Consent Decree Implementation Unit, which has added five compliance managers.
“To its credit, the Implementation Unit has not limited its efforts to addressing the Department of Justice’s and monitoring team’s previous comments, but has taken a fresh look at the policies, reorganizing and revising them to improve structure and clarity,” the monitors wrote.
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