Justice Department warns New Orleans on proposed police ordinances

Cynthia Hedge Morrell
Cynthia Hedge Morrell

The U.S. Justice Department has warned Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration that an ordinance going before the City Council on Thursday would violate the terms of a sweeping, court-ordered reform plan for the New Orleans Police Department.

The new law would help establish an office at City Hall for coordinating the off-duty security shifts that police officers work to earn extra money. Federal investigators have singled out police details in New Orleans as one of the most troubling sources of potential corruption on the force, and the court-supervised consent decree between the city and the Justice Department spells out how the detail system should be cleaned up.

But in a letter to City Attorney Sharonda Williams on Wednesday, the Justice Department warns that proposed regulations governing the new Office of Police Secondary Employment may run afoul of that blueprint because of a series of tweaks added by Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell.

The Justice Department argues that Hedge-Morrell’s changes violate the terms of the decree by moving some detail work outside of the office’s control, and by creating loopholes that would allow officers who work certain details on a regular basis to avoid being rotated to other jobs.

The amended ordinance cleared the council’s budget committee in June and will go for a full council vote Thursday.

“The current version of the ordinance appears to conflict with the New Orleans Police Department consent decree,” reads the Justice Department’s letter, signed by Deputy Assistant Attorney General Roy Austin. The letter adds, “Moreover, as you are aware, the city can be held in contempt if it violates the decree, particularly if this violation is knowing or deliberate.”

Hedge-Morrell’s office responded to a request for comment Wednesday afternoon with a written statement that said, “Ms. Morrell just received a copy of the Justice Department’s letter and is reviewing it.”

Although the Mayor’s Office warned back in June that the amendments might not pass muster with federal officials, the city attorney’s office responded to Wednesday’s letter with another rebuke for the Justice Department. Landrieu originally embraced the decree wholeheartedly, but his administration has spent the past few months trying to convince a federal judge to let the city out of the binding agreement, arguing that the Justice Department was less than forthcoming during negotiations about how much the deal would cost the city when combined with a separate decree aimed at shaping up the city jail.

“We are reforming the NOPD every day and our intention is to comply with the consent decree,” Williams said. “However, the DOJ continues to give contradictory information to the city, which demonstrates the agency’s unwillingness to work as a credible partner.”

The council is scheduled to take up two separate regulations on Thursday. One ordinance would establish a special fund where City Hall would deposit earnings from detail work and pay wages out to officers who work the extra shifts; the other lays out a pay scale for detail work based on rank.

Bringing the detail system within a central clearinghouse overseen by the Mayor’s Office, rather than a system in which the NOPD exercises nominal control over the off-duty work, is supposed to tame a host of alleged abuses. Federal investigators, invited by the Landrieu administration to scrutinize the department, pointed to a variety of situations where details could erode the quality of the force, from officers simply overworking themselves with extra hours to others who would shirk official duties in favor of more lucrative side jobs or look the other way when private customers broke the law.

But the mayor’s proposed regulations for governing the Office of Police Secondary Employment got pushback from council members and police representatives when they went before the council earlier this year.

First, the council deferred voting on the ordinances. Then Hedge-Morrell, who has two sons on the NOPD, introduced a series of amendments. Some were designed to make sure the city couldn’t use the new office to earn a profit on the backs of officers’ extra shifts, since the Mayor’s Office will be collecting a fee from private security customers to pay for operating the new system; other amendments carved out various exceptions to proposed rules governing how details are supposed to operate.

On Wednesday, the Justice Department singled out three of those amendments as potentially at odds with the consent decree.

One amendment stipulates that security assignments officers’ work on behalf of taxing districts “shall be considered overtime, and not be under the purview of the Office of Police Secondary Employment.” The Justice Department’s letter argues that sentence conflicts with the decree because “it removes some secondary law-enforcement work from the OPSE’s” control.

Two other changes, the letter argues, would violate the terms of the decree because they grant exceptions to a new rule that says officers who work a detail assignment on a regular basis have to be rotated out of those job after a year.

Hedge-Morrell inserted language that would allow the council to simply grant a waiver from the requirement by ordinance, as well as an explicit exception in cases where police security assignments are required by the city.

“The United States will continue to work with the city and all other stakeholders to implement the decree,” the letter reads. “In particular, we will continue our efforts to resolve all legitimate concerns regarding secondary employment and welcome conversation with the city about how to do so. However, as part of the process of implementing the decree, it is the city attorney’s duty to adequately advise the city regarding its obligations pursuant to the decree.”