In a move that a Civil Service Commission staff member called “unprecedented,” New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison urged the commission Monday to approve a plan to let him appoint 16 top commanders at will, not subject to normal civil service rules on promotions.

Harrison said he needs to formalize the rank of his commanders, who have led the NOPD’s eight geographic districts and other divisions since 2011, in order to cement the reforms the Police Department has enacted under pressure from the U.S. Department of Justice.

But all three unions representing New Orleans police officers spoke out against the plan, calling it an end-run around civil service protections.

A commission staffer said the plan could subject top-ranking officers to the kind of pressure alleged in a recent report from federal monitors on the department’s flawed hiring process.

The commission took no action on the proposal, deferring a decision until its next meeting in March.

The hearing represented the latest installment in a long-running dispute over how much authority the city’s top cop should have to hire and fire the high-profile district chiefs, who report to the department's deputy superintendents.

The police “commander” slot was created on a temporary basis in 2011 at the request of then-Superintendent Ronal Serpas. The Civil Service Commission created the commanders as a type of special assignment, rather than a formal rank within the department’s hierarchy.

The Fraternal Order of Police, the Police Association of New Orleans and the Black Organization of Police have been fighting the special designation ever since. They argue that officers should be promoted on the basis of formal tests, rather than being subject to the whims of superintendents and mayors.

Citing a favorable 4th Circuit Court of Appeal decision, the Police Association in October asked the Civil Service Commission to conduct a formal job study of the commander designation. The study will determine whether the commanders perform similar functions to the captains who led the police districts before 2011. Those captains were promoted and protected by civil service rules.

With the job study nearing its completion, Harrison sent the commission a letter on Feb. 6 asking it to change the commander designation to a formal rank, but still giving him the ability to promote and demote officers to that rank as he pleases.

Harrison called his proposal “one of the most important, critical requests I have ever made” of the commission.

The captains and majors who once staffed the department’s top ranks were responsible for many of the “key failings in leadership” outlined in a damning 2011 report from the U.S. Department of Justice on the NOPD’s unconstitutional practices, he argued.

Harrison said the commanders installed by Serpas and later himself have brought about “lasting reform and change.” He cited the overhaul of the Special Victims Section under Cmdr. Doug Eckert as an example.

“The continued success of these reforms is likewise reliant upon these individuals,” Harrison said.

The commission staffer who is leading the study of the commander position took a dim view of the proposal. Personnel Administrator Robert Hagmann called it “unprecedented, historically.”

“In effect it would subject individuals to political pressures, particularly as it relates to performance of their work,” he said.

Hagmann brought up a January report from the federal monitors overseeing the implementation of the NOPD consent decree. The monitors found that the department had hired dozens of recruits who had red flags in their backgrounds. At the top of the hiring process was an at-will deputy chief of staff, Jonathan Wisbey, who had come over to the Police Department from City Hall.

Jonathan Wisbey, the New Orleans Police Department official who resigned last month after hi…

Hagmann also questioned the argument that commanders had to be created as an at-will position, not subject to civil service rules, because they make and set policy in a way similar to political appointees in City Hall.

“In effect, no one in a role of commander has that final authority or actual policy decision. It goes up the chain of command,” Hagmann said.

Officials from the police unions echoed Hagmann’s remarks in addressing the commission.

Michael Glasser, president of the Police Association of New Orleans, said he had not heard “one piece of evidence” why captains and majors, who are protected by civil service rules, can’t lead districts.

“The position of commander has not dramatically changed the department. What changed the department was the consent decree,” Glasser said.

Donovan Livaccari, an attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police, agreed. “Those folks would have been just as successful had they been captains instead of commanders,” he said.

The commission members did not indicate how they might vote on the Police Department’s proposal.

“This is a very challenging issue,” Commissioner Ron McClain said. “We’ve heard really good things on both sides."

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Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

msledge@theadvocate.com | (504) 636-7432