Report finds flaws in how New Orleans police record data on stops, searches

The New Orleans inspector general said it’s impossible to tell whether New Orleans police are racially profiling suspects they stop to question because of flaws in how the department maintains its records.

That was the main finding from a report released Tuesday by Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s office. That office examined the NOPD’s “field interview cards” from January 2011 to June 2011 at the request of the independent police monitor in the office.

Quatrevaux’s office said police failed to properly fill out field interview cards for each person they stopped, and a secondary way of tracking the cards usage was not viable.

Field interview cards are supposed be used solely during “suspicious person” stops to collect information on individuals officers encounter. However, officers are supposed to have a reasonable suspicion for detaining someone to get information for the cards, and individuals cannot be detained based on their race and gender.

The inspector general was already planning its own investigation into the cards when the police monitor asked the agency to examine whether police were stopping individuals without reasonable suspicion and if there was bias involved in the stops.

According to the report, police include information on up to three different people on a single field interview card and often fail to delineate between those individuals when discussing any further actions taken as a result of the stops.

Police also regularly failed to document whether they had searched anyone as a result of the stop, or improperly reported that a search was not conducted when other information indicated that was not factual.

The Inspector General’s Office was seeking to track searches and their results to determine the success rate of “reasonable suspicion stops” and track how searches are allocated based on gender and race. A study by the Bureau of Justice Research in 2007 found that while police may stop individuals at the same rate regardless of race, African-American and Hispanic detainees are searched at much higher rates.

In addition, the report found problems in how officers justified stopping individuals to fill out a field interview card.

New Orleans police provide officers with a drop down box that includes explanations for why a stop occurred, which relieves officers of the responsibility of determining that justification themselves, the report said.

The Inspector General’s Office suggests that the NOPD end the process of including multiple individuals on a field interview cards, require officers to state in their own words why stops occurred and clean up recordkeeping deficiencies.

Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas acknowledged some of the failings noted by the inspector general in a response letter and said they have been the subject of internal discussion.

However, he noted that the computer system that supports the field interview cards was in place before he took control of the department, and revamping it could be cost-prohibitive given the department’s limited budget.

Serpas did add that he is committed to improving the system as funding becomes available.