Looking for Consent
A day in court
Joseph Daniel Fiedler illustration
Inside a federal courtroom, some reporters stifle yawns. There are no firey lawyer speeches or dramatic court orders for a conflict-driven news media to report.
United States District Judge Susie Morgan’s public hearing on efforts to improve the New Orleans Police Department is moving at glacial speed.
It is the pace of reform – a deliberative, detailed and often tedious tempo set by the judge to the wonky “beat” of the “NOPD Consent Decree.” (2:12-cv-1924). The court-approved reform plan includes more than 420 provisions to resolve federal allegations that NOPD has violated the constitutional rights of New Orleanians for years. The charges are detailed in a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) investigative report dated March 16, 2011.
Today, almost four years later, Judge Morgan is about to hear reports about the distribution of NOPD body-worn cameras and dashboard cameras for police cars.
“You may be aware that nationally a lot of attention has been focused on camera usage” Judge Morgan tells the audience, including a visiting judge tasked with overseeing a DOJ police reform plan in Puerto Rico.
NOPD is “ahead of the curve” on cameras, Morgan says. She then grills Chief Michael Harrison and Ben Horwitz of the NOPD Compliance Bureau on a chart that purports to show the allocation of police body cameras.
The chart shows 371 officers have body cameras; 276 do not, a reporter for The Lens says.
Officers who don’t wear body cameras are assigned to detective units, task forces or work undercover, Horwitz says.
Jonathan Aronie, head of the court-appointed monitoring team for the Consent Decree, objects. The chart shows no task force officers in the First Police District are outfitted with body cameras. “They can’t all be undercover,” he says.
Morgan asks Horwitz to return the chart to court with more information later in the week. “I’m still concerned whether we have enough (body-worn) cameras” the judge says of officers with “proactive” assignments.
“We do have enough,” says Chief Harrison, adding that 100 additional body cameras should arrive soon.
The judge isn’t satisfied. During Deputy Chief Arlinda Westbrook’s presentation on discipline for camera violations, Morgan says she wants NOPD to “eliminate gaps” in camera coverage. “I want to get to the bottom of who’s required to have one and why they don’t. They (officers) need a camera immediately when they walk out the door.”
Turning to NOPD’s dashboard cameras, Horwitz tells the court, “We don’t have an update on the percentage of police cars with working cameras.” He cites failing servers, which are being replaced. The judge orders NOPD to submit a timeline for in-car cameras.
A reporter blinks in disbelief.
NOPD has been promising cameras in police cars for at least eight years.
In a Gambit February 2007 story, freelance writer Arianne Wiltse catalogued efforts to rebuild the local criminal justice system post-Katrina, including then-Chief Warren Riley’s promise the NOPD would install cameras in all traffic and patrol units by the end of June that same year. The story appeared under the imperishable headline: “Can anybody fix this?”
The rhetorical question lingers here in court, almost 10 years after Katrina.
NOPD has the cameras; they’re just not getting the picture(s).
Department of Justice lawyer Emily Gunston says the DOJ report of 2011 found the training provided to NOPD officers was “deficient in almost every respect.”
There was no comprehensive plan for training; no analysis of police activities and matching training curricula; and no system for tracking training of individual officers. In-service training was “haphazard” and “not taken seriously by officers.”
Officers didn’t understand the legal limits of force and had “an unacceptably poor understanding” of constitutional limits on searches and seizures.
Aronie says: “The monitoring team unfortunately found that many of the deficiencies continue to exist.”
Some NOPD training instructors were “dynamic;” others had “little control of their class.” The academy lacks a “full complement” of lesson plans. Aronie said he saw no effort to use body camera recordings for training but concedes it’s not required by the city pact with the DOJ: “There is no consent decree provision that says ‘Thou shalt innovate.’”
Aronie praises Chief Harrison’s recent appointment of Lt. Richard A. Williams as director of education and training. “He impressed us as someone fully committed to training,” Aronie says of Williams, a 23-year veteran of the NOPD, who held the same position from 2007-’11. Pre-Katrina, Williams directed police recruitment.
Lt. Williams tells the court he envisions an academy known for “community policing” and “constitutional policing.” Recruits are schooled in the “1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th Amendments,” which are “critical to law enforcement,” before hitting the streets as officers, he says (constitution.findlaw.com/amendments.html).
Body camera recordings will be used for training, Williams adds. “I will expect a good report on that soon,” Morgan says.
Williams says 39 academy lesson plans – roughly one third of all NOPD instructors – are “ready to go.” Other lesson plans are being updated. “Everybody didn’t know how to do lesson plans,” he says. “Many thought Power Point presentations were lesson plans (they’re not).” The judge acknowledges NOPD policies are still being reworked to Consent Decree standards, making Williams’ job “difficult.”
She orders him to produce a “plan of actions” for achieving the Chief’s goal of “building the best” police academy in the United States with deadlines.
“In the end, I’m looking to you,” the judge tells Williams.
Chief Harrison’s elimination of two years of college as NOPD’s minimum hiring requirement remains controversial.
DOJ’s Gunston says Harrison persuaded her the old rule could be an “artificial barrier” to otherwise qualified recruits for the understaffed force. Gunston says she remains concerned about the “poor quality” of written police reports and their “basic reading and writing skills.”
Harrison adds the NOPD hiring process is “very rigorous;” only 3 percent of all applicants are accepted. Williams says recruits can be identified for remedial training.
The judge doesn’t buy it. “Let me tell you, people who can’t read and write don’t belong on the police force.” The academy can’t be expected to teach both remedial writing skills and police skills, she says.
Community activist Norris Henderson agrees; NOPD training overall “leaves much to be desired.”
Much of the day’s hearing focused on body cameras, which like the stricken requirement for college credits were implemented by retired Chief Ronal Serpas Ph.D., Mayor Landrieu’s first “reform” chief.
Reporters should be alert to potential changes to other Serpas policies, including:
• “You lie, You die” Serpas’ signature disciplinary policy requires dismissal of officers for first-offense violations of job-related dishonest cases. He called the policy a “major cultural change” for the NOPD.
• “Selling the Stop” These protocols require officers to: “emphasize their concern for the well-being” of people they stop; give reasons for the police encounter; and “provide opportunities for the person to respond.”
Judge Morgan says the next court hearing (May 21) will focus on NOPD supervision and begins with Lt. Williams “back on the hot seat.”