James Gill: ‘Watchdogs’ fight each other

The two watchdogs of New Orleans never did see eye to eye, and now they are at each other’s throat.

A prime bone of contention between Independent Police Monitor Susan Hutson and Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux is stop and frisk. Neither has endorsed the methods employed by NOPD, but Hutson’s report was quite damning, while Quatrevaux punted, citing insufficient data.

Now Quatrevaux wants the City Council to make Hutson get his approval before she airs any more views in public. She doesn’t see how that would square with her title.

Hutson could hardly have chosen a better time to be quoted approvingly in a seminal federal case.

Judge Shira A. Scheindlin, ruling New York’s stop-and-frisk policy unconstitutional last week, cited the Hutson report that did so much to put Quatrevaux’ nose out of joint.

Hutson’s report called for officers to file a “narrative” explaining what gave rise to the requisite “reasonable suspicion.”

New York cops have for years buttonholed citizens more or less on a whim, in violation, Scheindlin ruled, of the Fourth Amendment. If New York hasn’t devised a constitutional stop-and-frisk policy, chances that New Orleans’ version passes muster must be nil.

When Quatrevaux and Hutson did their reports a few months ago, Police Chief Ronal Serpas acknowledged the need for “better data collection,” but warned it would be expensive. Reforms to be implemented under NOPD’s federal consent decree should cure all ills, Serpas suggested, but critics, including the NAACP and the ACLU, were not reassured. They noted that black males are disproportionately selected for frisking and claimed that cops were invading privacy by demanding Social Security numbers, for instance. Hutson alleged a lack of training, and claimed citizens were being harassed without reason.

Nobody doubts that stop and frisk works for law enforcement, and Scheindlin’s ruling does not question it on principle. But it would appear that Hutson’s strictures were on the money.

She alleges that Quatrevaux tried to persuade her to take a softer line, because he likes to suck up to police and prosecutors. Not so, he says, and accuses her of “inaccuracy” and bias against NOPD. That, naturally, is a view wholeheartedly endorsed by Serpas.

Whether or not Quatrevaux has the right to edit Hutson’s work before publication, her office was not set up to be wholly independent, because he controls the purse strings. The money to run the office is allocated from his budget and at his discretion. He is not inclined to be over-generous, she says. These two will continue snarling at each other for the foreseeable future.

Stop and frisk is not the only issue on which overweening government has received a poke in the eye.

Late last year the state Public Service Commission ordered prison telephone companies to quit charging 15 times the normal rate, and tacking on other exorbitant charges that few inmates’ families could afford.

The companies pass on 70 percent of their profits to the sheriffs and the state Corrections Department, so the morality of profiteering off the poorest among us had seldom been questioned in the corridors of power.

The PSC a few months ago suspended much of its order, and it is by no means clear whether decency has prevailed, but it may not matter much because, here too, the feds have intervened. The Federal Communications Commission last week capped prison phone rates at two bits a minute and outlawed surcharges for equipment to aid the hard of hearing.

Last week was altogether a good week for the victims of overzealous law enforcement, with Attorney General Eric Holder announcing that his prosecutors will no longer invoke the minimum penalty laws that have meant long prison stretches for countless penny-ante drug offenders.

This is another law-and-order exercise apparently designed to keep young black men in their place. It is being abandoned now not because government has experienced a sudden excess of compassion, but because locking up a higher percentage of our citizens than even the most-benighted nations is a luxury we can no longer afford.

Maybe we are entering a relatively liberal era, but it’s always going to be dog-eat-dog out there.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.