N.O. electronic monitoring program, maligned in report, faces uncertain future _lowres

Photo provided by Martha Brosch -- Martha Brosch, carjacking and beating victim

Her wounds have not completely healed, but Martha Brosch harbors no resentment toward the young thugs who pistol-whipped and assaulted her three months ago outside her Uptown home — a harrowing carjacking that left her with facial fractures and a broken nose.

But she remains angry at the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office over the failure of deputies to track down one of the youths who on the night of the attack allegedly had violated the terms of his electronic supervision yet remained free to roam the streets. The following night, authorities have said, the same teen again disregarded his ankle bracelet and, with the help of an accomplice, fatally shot a Domino’s Pizza delivery man in another carjacking.

Brosch, a 50-year-old schoolteacher, said the poor oversight by the Sheriff’s Office was “a significant injustice” that caused the monitoring program to give New Orleanians a false sense of security. So it came as no surprise to her last week when New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux released a fiercely critical report, based largely on 2012 data, that portrayed the electronic monitoring program as an abysmal failure and blamed the Sheriff’s Office for shoddy management.

“I realize the information is a little bit dated, but what it tells me is that nothing has changed,” Brosch said. “I feel like (the Sheriff’s Office) was negligent. I feel like they weren’t doing what they were employed to do by the city.”

Sheriff Marlin Gusman has fired back at Quatrevaux, accusing the inspector general of “political grandstanding” and promoting an irrelevant analysis that ignored recent significant improvements in the program.

Regardless of who’s right, victims’ advocates and exasperated City Council members see the report as the most recent sign that New Orleans’ attempt at electronic monitoring, like so many other components of the city’s criminal justice system, is in need of wholesale reform.

Quatrevaux’s findings, which included lax supervision by deputies and paperwork so flawed it affected or precluded the enforcement of court-issued “stay-away” orders, came on the heels of a recent report from his office that exposed the widespread mishandling of rape investigations by the New Orleans Police Department — a scandal that has attracted national attention.

While the reports differed in important ways, both have eroded confidence in the local authorities at a moment of mounting mistrust in law enforcement around the country.

“It’s just one more thing,” said Rebecca Rainey, program director for the Metropolitan Center For Women and Children, a nonprofit organization that serves victims of domestic and sexual violence. Many of the defendants enrolled in electronic monitoring would otherwise be awaiting trial behind bars, and Rainey likened the failure to supervise them to “co-signing on their crimes.”

“You think you have these (safety nets) in place,” she said. “We get women in here all the time who are struggling to get in front of a judge for a restraining order, and it’s like, ‘Why even go through all this trouble?’ ”

Tamara Jackson, who runs the nonprofit Silence Is Violence campaign, said the problems in the monitoring program mean that some crime victims are “revictimized” by the incompetence of law enforcement. “It’s been my experience that it’s been an ineffective program for quite some time,” she said.

In addition, the program’s future today is highly uncertain, in light of Gusman’s abrupt announcement last month that he would end his agency’s involvement in electronic monitoring at the end of the year. Blake Arcuri, Gusman’s attorney, wrote a letter to the city Nov. 11 saying the Sheriff’s Office intends to return the ankle bracelets to Omnilink, the program’s equipment provider, and disconnect the monitoring service at 12:01 a.m. Jan. 3.

The letter offered no explanation for the decision. The sheriff, who has complained of receiving belated payments from the city to track the ankle bracelets, has said he needs as many deputies as he can find to staff the new 1,438-bed jail scheduled to open early next year. By ending his agreements with the city to provide electronic monitoring and security at City Hall, Gusman “expects to net 12 security positions that can be shifted to the new inmate housing facility, which is a priority,” said Philip Stelly, a Sheriff’s Office spokesman.

For their part, city leaders appear to be exploring whether a third-party vendor can affordably take the reins of electronic supervision, while several council members, including President Stacy Head, are calling on the NOPD to absorb the duties. It’s unclear whether the transition could occur without an interruption in service, and Head said she hopes Gusman will be amenable to running the program until Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration can find a new operator.

“Electronic ankle monitoring is an important tool as we work to be tough and smart on crime, but the program has to work,” said Garnesha Crawford, a City Hall spokeswoman. “We will work to put a new system in place as soon as possible, but getting it done right is more important than getting it done quickly.”

Councilwoman Susan Guidry agreed that the Police Department would be the agency best suited to handle the monitoring. But she said the understaffed NOPD doesn’t want to “take on this program right now.”

“The problem is that we have a shortage of police officers,” she said.

A troubled history

New Orleans has electronically monitored some pretrial defendants since 2007. The program has enjoyed widespread support in the criminal justice system because it allows juvenile and adult defendants requiring supervision to await trial outside the troubled Orleans Parish Prison.

As of Friday afternoon, seven juveniles and 57 adults were being electronically monitored, Stelly said.

If the program is ended, those subject to electronic monitoring may be sent back to jail to await trial.

The city, before awarding the contract to the Sheriff’s Office in late 2010, had contracted with Total Sentencing Alternatives Program, a firm that drew criticism for being too sluggish to report supervision violations. The program, even in its early years, generated scrutiny when juveniles wearing ankle bracelets were implicated in new crimes.

Proponents of monitoring say that while ankle bracelets cannot not prevent the commission of crimes, they have a deterrent effect. But the program’s most useful element, they say, is detection — the ability of law enforcement to know whether people being monitored were at or near a crime scene. This helps investigators eliminate would-be suspects and, in some cases, locate witnesses.

Police conduct this crime-scene correlation manually, but city leaders have been working toward an automated notification process in which data from monitors would be overlaid with city crime mapping. That potential improvement is among the reasons some council members are insisting the city continue the program.

“The program is a good one in theory,” Head said, “but it has to function better than it does.”

Some of the issues identified in Quatrevaux’s report surfaced in a November 2012 review by the National Institute of Justice, which studied the monitoring program that fall.

The inspector general’s team looked at 359 files — involving 281 program participants — during the six-month period ending Sept. 30, 2012. The review found that deputies “routinely ignored” alerts that defendants were violating the terms of their supervision. Some of the most alarming discoveries revolved around 37 cases in which judges issued “stay-away” orders. Of those cases, only two defendants even had their “exclusion zones” recorded into the monitoring system — data needed for deputies to know that a defendant has, for instance, illegally visited the address of a victim or stayed out past curfew.

It’s not clear whether those oversights resulted in any new crimes against victims, and Quatrevaux stressed that his team didn’t attempt to delve into the particulars of those cases. But the report sought to emphasize failures in the operation that posed “potentially serious consequences for public safety.”

It highlighted a troubling practice in which the Sheriff’s Office “allowed defendants to violate curfew overnight.”

“Poor record keeping and lack of documentation resulted in an inability to hold monitoring deputies accountable or provide data for meaningful performance measures,” the report said.

Sheriff responds

While Gusman made clear that he has no interest in continuing the monitoring program, he took umbrage at Quatrevaux’s study and sought to rebut its findings. In a news release, he touted the program as “an obvious success,” citing an “extremely low” recidivism rate — participants being arrested for a new offense — of 7 percent.

Gusman claimed the inspector general also exaggerated the problems the program had in 2012. He noted that Quatrevaux’s review included the period just before a National Institute of Justice team came to New Orleans. At the sheriff’s request, that group made a series of recommendations that were quickly implemented, Gusman said, including increased staffing, upgraded equipment and revised protocols for the monitoring program.

Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a watchdog group, largely agreed with Gusman, saying Quatrevaux’s report painted “an inaccurate picture of the current condition of the (monitoring) program, as it talks about some issues that were much more prevalent in 2012 than they are in 2014.”

“The inspector general did a good job of documenting what the condition was in 2012, but you had some significant reforms that took place subsequent to that,” Goyeneche said. “The program, as it operates today, is very, very different than it was in 2012.”

Quatrevaux said his team conducted interviews with deputies in 2013 to determine if any changes had been made as a result of the NIJ assessment. They found that deputies last year still were failing to document actions they took in response to 86 percent of supervision violation alerts.

“We went back six months after the NIJ report and we looked at the files again,” Quatrevaux said in an interview. “We found very little difference between the two sets of data.”

‘Give me your keys’

The sheriff’s rebuttal did little to assuage Brosch, the teacher who was severely beaten in September by three teens. The assailants allegedly included Rendell Brown, a 16-year-old wearing an ankle bracelet who allegedly violated his house arrest the night of the attack but didn’t hear from sheriff’s deputies until the next day.

Brosch recalled seeing the trio in her neighborhood as she pulled into her Newcomb Boulevard home.

“That was a mistake that I made,” she said, “actually pulling into my driveway and getting out of my car.”

Brosch said she recalled Brown approaching her, a blue-and-white bandana on his face. “He pointed a gun at me and said, ‘Give me your keys,’ ” she said.

She backed away, her purse on her arm, and began struggling with her attackers. “I ended up on the ground at some point,” she said. “And then Shane Hughes” — another 16-year-old — “came up to me and they both were kicking me at that point.”

Brosch said she “never arrived at a point where I was resentful” toward the teens. If anything, she said, she has survivor’s remorse in light of the fatal shooting of Richard “Chris” Yeager, the 35-year-old pizza driver gunned down in Mid-City the night after the attack on Brosch. Brown and Hughes, accused of shooting Yeager 10 times, are being prosecuted as adults in the killing.

City Council members had harsh words for the Sheriff’s Office at a Criminal Justice Committee meeting in October that focused on the monitoring program. Head accused deputies of allowing Brown’s supervision alert to “languish so that someone died.”

“Your alert worked great,” she told Dave Scheppegrell, Omnilink’s electronic monitoring program manager. “It just fell on deaf ears.”

Leaders of the Sheriff’s Office told the committee that a deputy, having failed to reach Brown’s mother by phone, began getting dressed to respond to the house-arrest violation when a new signal indicated the youth had returned home. Chief Deputy Jerry Ursin maintained the Sheriff’s Office followed best practices in tightening the youth’s restrictions and admonishing him the following day. He also noted it was the electronic monitoring equipment that allowed investigators to develop Brown as a suspect the morning after Yeager’s shooting.

Head said the authorities should consider deterrents that fall between simply ignoring overnight curfew violations and throwing juveniles behind bars.

“I want to make sure we’re not talking about an all-or-nothing choice,” she said. “My problem with this program is there is not a consistent response in a meaningful way when children are outside of the parameters that’s supposed to keep them — and society — safe.”

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.