Federal monitor releases report; chides NOPD for moving too fast on policy rewrites

AP file photo  -- Federal NOPD monitor releases first report about consent decree progress. Show caption
AP file photo -- Federal NOPD monitor releases first report about consent decree progress.

Report: Policies altered before monitor in place

The team of outside experts supervising progress on a sweeping, court-ordered reform plan for the New Orleans Police Department said Monday that city officials ignored that plan by charging ahead on important policy revisions without first consulting the monitoring team or the U.S. Department of Justice.

The rebuke came as part of the team’s first quarterly report since taking on the monitoring job in August, a 60-page summary of how the team plans to track improvements in nearly every aspect of the NOPD’s operations.

The monitoring team, led by the law firm Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, gave city officials and the NOPD credit for taking “important steps” in setting up a new compliance bureau and making “significant progress” toward implementing key aspects of the plan, known as a consent decree.

Overall, the report concludes, the “NOPD’s progress in meeting its commitments under the consent decree is gaining momentum.”

But the report also faults the city for moving ahead with policy revisions before the monitoring team was in place, raising the possibility — indeed, the likelihood — that some of those policies will have to be rewritten again.

Doing so, the report notes, could mean having to “retrain personnel, which, of course, could cause added expense, delay and confusion among the rank-and-file.”

And since the monitoring team has, in fact, “identified shortcomings in the NOPD’s new policies,” the report continues, the reform plan’s “intended review-then-implementation structure appears to have been well-justified.”

The report, which notes that NOPD officials are already making changes to incorporate the team’s feedback, offered the first public glimpse of what could be a complicated relationship between city officials and the outside experts tasked with keeping an eye on them.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu backed a different firm to act as monitor, suggesting a consulting company led by a former Chicago police chief who could help implement reforms, rather than a more compliance-minded law firm. He has argued the consent decree, which resulted from a lawsuit filed by the Justice Department over alleged unconstitutional practices at the NOPD, isn’t necessary to begin with.

But since U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan disagreed with him on both of those points, the mayor and his police chief, Ronal Serpas, will have to live with this type of quarterly progress report until the judge finds the department is in full compliance, which could be years from now.

In a written statement on Monday, the mayor noted the report’s reference to growing “momentum” in carrying out reforms, but he made no apologies for moving ahead on policy changes before the monitor was in place. “The city didn’t wait for the consent decree to begin transforming the department,” he said.

Serpas released a similar statement, noting, “We started taking aggressive steps to improve training, policy and procedures shortly after I came on as chief, and many months before the Department of Justice offered its advice on how to strengthen the NOPD.”

The monitoring team’s first report concludes that city officials appear “committed to fulfilling the objectives of the consent decree,” but it also does not pull punches.

The group points out that police officials began revising the department’s policy manual as early as July 2012 — more than a year before the monitor was in place — and identifies specific faults with some of the revisions.

The manual doesn’t properly distinguish between “policies” and “procedures,” the report says, which has already caused “confusion among the ranks.”

In places, the department appears to have simply “cut and pasted” language from the consent decree, the report notes, without tailoring the language “to make the policies understandable, practical and effective.”

The separate responsibilities of police personnel at different points on the chain of command aren’t clearly delineated, the report says, and parts of the manual are repetitive to the point of being confusing.

The monitoring team will hold public meetings this week to discuss the report. The first meeting, on Tuesday, will be from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Joseph A. Craig Elementary School, 1423 St. Philip St. There will also be a meeting on Wednesday from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the St. Maria Goretti Center, 7300 Crowder Blvd.