The long-contentious relationship between two New Orleans watchdogs could end in a less-than-amicable “divorce” if talks between Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux and Independent Police Monitor Susan Hutson result in an agreement on a proposal for a City Charter amendment to remove Hutson’s operation from Quatrevaux’s office.
After two years of public disagreements and an allegation on Hutson’s part of a hostile work environment, the two sides have been in discussion for months about how to split. Any breakup would need to be approved not by a judge but by the voters because their relationship is spelled out in the charter.
As in so many divorces, settlement negotiations have ultimately centered on one thing: money.
“We’re discussing a divorce — a political divorce,” Quatrevaux said. “Whether it occurs or not, I can’t predict. But I have made an offer.”
Tensions between Hutson and Quatrevaux first flared publicly in 2013, when the two sides clashed over Hutson’s criticism of the New Orleans Police Department’s policies regarding racial profiling during stop-and-frisk street searches. Since then, the relationship has gotten worse, with Quatrevaux allegedly refusing to say hello in the hallway of their shared office.
The disagreement centers around how “independent” Hutson’s office actually is. By charter, the “independent police monitor” is a component of the Inspector General’s Office. But Hutson argues that to be truly free of outside influence, she needs control over her own budget and staffing.
“It’s called an independent police monitor,” she said. “We can’t be independent if we’re caught up under another department.”
Both offices were created on a permanent basis by a 2008 charter amendment.
With five staffers, Hutson’s office relies largely on volunteers to take civilian complaints, monitor internal Police Department investigations and mediate police-community disputes. Hutson had hoped to expand her powers as part of a 2012 federal consent decree, but instead, an outside law firm was put in charge of overseeing that sweeping reform agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, somewhat muddying her office’s oversight role.
The Inspector General’s Office, which also conducts investigations of dozens of other city agencies, has performed accounting analyses of the NOPD’s budget and crime reporting.
If the two sides are to split, they will need to come to an agreement on how much of the 0.75 percent of the city’s annual budget that the 2008 charter amendment sets aside for the city’s Ethics Review Board and the Inspector General’s Office should go to the police monitor.
Neither side is looking for more money to be spent overall, said Michael Cowan, the chairman of the Ethics Review Board, which has purview over both offices.
And no more money will be spent, according to City Councilwoman Susan Guidry, chairwoman of the council’s Criminal Justice Committee. “Not in today’s budget climate,” said Guidry, who has been kept apprised of the negotiations.
The council would need to approve a charter amendment before sending it to the voters for their approval. It’s not clear whether that process could be completed in time for the October election.
Guidry said the council’s approval would hinge on “what’s being proposed and whether they’re in agreement — whether it’s a mutually beneficial situation.”
Whether the negotiations will succeed remains a question. For more than a year, the Ethics Review Board has sought to mediate the dispute between the two sides but to little avail.
“There just didn’t seem to be a resolution that was satisfactory to both sides,” Cowan said. “I think that just got them thinking about more of a structural solution, a cleaner solution.”
The board put to rest one of the messier elements of the dispute — Hutson’s allegation that Quatrevaux had created “a hostile work environment based on race or gender” — at a Dec. 8 meeting. Hutson is a black woman, while Quatrevaux is a white man. Board members voted 6-0 to reject Hutson’s claim. Cowan said he could not release more details on the investigation’s findings.
“I don’t think I’ve been treated fairly, and I said that,” said Hutson, who declined to elaborate on her claim. “But it’s time to move on.”
Outside observers said that at a time when police-community relations are causing disturbances across the country, having the police monitor finally fulfill its function of serving as a “bridge” to the community is critical.
“If you hear the rally cry across this country, from Ferguson to New York to Baltimore, that’s what they’re crying about, the injustice in law enforcement,” said Norris Henderson, an activist who helped create the original push for a police monitor under the Inspector General’s Office.
Henderson complained that Quatrevaux’s heavily secured offices — in a federal building in the Central Business District — are a virtual “Fort Knox” to the New Orleanians who most need to make complaints about the NOPD.
“We need to sever this relationship and give (Hutson’s office) the independence that they need — and the resources — to be successful,” he said.
The marriage of the two offices may have long ago reached the point of irreconcilable differences. In March, the police monitor released its annual report without first seeking Quatrevaux’s approval, as he has long contended is required.
“I don’t see any necessity that they be under the same roof,” said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission. “Maybe they both take their money and go their separate ways.”
Editor’s note: This story was changed May 6 to clarify that Quatrevaux and Hutson were in agreement that more data on racial profiling in stop-and-frisk searches was needed. However, Hutson was much more pungent in her criticism of the profiling policies based on the data that was available.