After countless audits, millions of dollars spent and a half-decade of court hearings, the New Orleans Police Department on Friday received its first report card on federally mandated reforms.
Despite what U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan called a "remarkable" transition, the grade could still be summed up as an incomplete.
At a hearing held in a packed lecture hall at Loyola University instead of Morgan’s courtroom, federal watchdogs said the NOPD has made great strides but isn't yet across the finish line.
They cited five key areas where the department is still missing the mark, including supervising beat cops and making proper street stops. Getting the NOPD over the finish line — and shaking off its federal minders — will also require buy-in from hundreds of ordinary patrol officers and growth in the size of the force.
“We’re not done yet, but we are where we should expect to be,” lead federal monitor Jonathan Aronie told city officials and onlookers who filled the amphitheater. “These things are complicated. Other cities have not got this far, this fast.”
That verdict could come as something of a disappointment to city leaders, who claimed the NOPD has reached "93 percent compliance" in a letter last month which argued the time was ripe for an end to the monitoring regime.
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The monitors said the NOPD has hit the mark on 10 of 18 key requirements under its 2012 reform pact with the U.S. Department of Justice, called a consent decree. They include curbing officers’ use of force, fixing the beleaguered sex crimes squad and training officers to deal with the mentally disturbed.
The NOPD has almost reached its goals in three other areas: improving the training academy and investigations of officers' misconduct and policing without bias against women, LGBTQ people or racial minorities.
Despite the areas still in need of improvement, Morgan reminded the audience Friday that when Justice Department investigators descended on the department in 2010 at then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s invitation, they found a “broken” police force.
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There were at least nine federal investigations into the NOPD, including probes of the Danziger Bridge and Henry Glover fatal shootings immediately after Hurricane Katrina. Cops routinely patted down and roughed up residents without legal justification. The department’s K-9 team was so poorly run that dogs often bit their handlers.
The NOPD couldn’t even find some internal reports on police shootings.
“I remind us of this history not to dwell on the past but because it highlights how remarkable the department’s transition has been,” Morgan said.
The judge said that after a slow start, the department has ticked off successes throughout the consent decree’s 492 paragraphs.
“The New Orleans Police Department has made significant progress in every area," she said. "While this does not mean our job is finished, it is a notable achievement.”
In a 56-page report filed into the court record on Thursday, the monitors painted a picture that was a far cry from the Justice Department's depiction of reckless and inept cowboys in 2011.
From 20 officer-involved shootings in 2012, the department logged just four last year, none of them involving civilians.
Out of 122 “use of force” incidents reviewed last year, including shootings and Taser strikes, the monitors and the Justice Department found none that violated the law. And 97 percent of officers turned on their body-worn camera to capture what happened during those incidents.
Meanwhile, the NOPD has created a special team to probe officer shootings, as well as a panel that reviews whether those incidents should spur changes to tactics or policy.
Aronie recalled that when one cop complained the panels, called use-of-force review boards, were “Monday morning quarterbacking,” another officer shot back a response.
“Yes, that’s exactly what we’re doing,” the second officer said. “That is our job. That’s what we need to do.”
The monitors said the NOPD has engineered a transformation in its rape and domestic violence investigations. Back in 2011, the federal government said New Orleans cops routinely ignored female victims’ complaints.
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“You would think that New Orleans was the safest city in the world for women, because they had no domestic violence and no sexual assaults — according to the data,” Aronie said of the old NOPD. “Women are reporting now. They do have faith in the police.”
The monitors said the department’s improvement has resulted in a steady downward trend in resident complaints against officers, from 669 in 2013 to 470 last year. Supervisors’ formal complaints against their own officers have stayed more or less steady, which the monitors see as a positive sign that the force can hold itself accountable.
Yet despite its successes, some of the NOPD’s highest hurdles are still in front of it, the monitors reported. Among them:
The NOPD is short of officers everywhere, including in the ratio of supervisors to officers it is supposed to have under the consent decree. The supervisors the department does have aren’t combing through their beat cops’ police reports thoroughly enough.
As Arties Manning gasped for air in the courtyard of a New Orleans East apartment complex, Officer Terrance Hilliard’s head was spinning.
The NOPD has not proved that it fairly evaluates and promotes its officers.
The force “still is not attracting sufficient quantity and quality of recruits.”
The overworked force also falls short on community engagement, including posting specific officers to geographic “regular response zones” where they can build rapport with residents.
And in what might be the toughest challenge for the NOPD, beat cops too often use “boilerplate language” to justify searching suspects.
“We see room for tremendous improvement there. We’re not seeing blatantly unconstitutional stops, but what we are seeing is a lack of clarity as to the standards,” said David Douglass, the deputy federal monitor.
Despite the shortcomings identified at the hearing, city leaders were all smiles when they took to the podium to give their response. None mentioned a letter last month in which the city accused the monitors of blurring the lines between their duties and the NOPD’s.
The letter also raised questions about the cost and pace of the reform process. It was signed by Mayor LaToya Cantrell, City Attorney Sunni LeBeouf, then-Superintendent Michael Harrison and City Council members Jason Williams and Helena Moreno.
At the hearing Friday, LeBeouf said the city was reaffirming its commitment to reform.
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“We are so excited about where the NOPD is, and we look forward to continuing the great work that is being done within the department,” she said.
Speaking after the hearing, Aronie said last month's letter came as a surprise.
“There is nothing that we have done that has gone beyond the consent decree,” he said. “The letter was out of the blue. I don’t understand the letter. It doesn’t reflect any of the tone and cooperation we’ve had from the department.”
Aronie said he looks forward to working with new Superintendent Shaun Ferguson, who was sworn in Jan. 18.
"He impresses me as a serious, committed individual, and I like that," he said.
A city spokesman said the NOPD will work with the consent decree monitors to harmonize their assessments of the department's progress.
"We look forward to working closely with our collaborative partners, including the monitors, to identify a clear objective path forward in achieving compliance, and in working to reconcile the assessment,” said Beau Tidwell.