Laws reforming police details in New Orleans pass council committee

A pair of ordinances that would establish a new office at City Hall for organizing police officers’ off-duty security shifts appears headed for approval by the New Orleans City Council, a step aimed at cleaning up what federal investigators have called one of the most troubling sources of corruption on the force.

The two laws, proposed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office, cleared the council’s budget committee easily on Thursday after spending several months in limbo, indicating that objections raised by council members and police representatives have been largely smoothed out in private meetings.

Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, who has two sons in the Police Department, attached a series of amendments that would give the council some flexibility to adjust exactly how much officers get paid for certain security details and would put a limit on how much City Hall can collect in administrative fees, among other steps.

She said her aim was to make sure the city doesn’t end up making a profit off the backs of police officers who are already forced to work detail shifts as a means of supplementing their incomes.

“You’re talking about our best and finest who have to work a second job because we don’t pay them enough,” Hedge-Morrell said. “So I think that we have to try to bend over backward in this process to be fair and equitable.”

Landrieu’s representatives at the meeting, who had already met with Hedge-Morrell to talk over potential tweaks to the ordinances, largely agreed, although they expect to continue working on some of the details before a full council vote and raised some concerns about whether Hedge-Morrell’s changes could fall afoul of the sweeping court order governing NOPD reforms.

The private details worked by NOPD officers have drawn intense scrutiny. In 2011, a U.S. Justice Department report labeled them an “aorta of corruption,” an assessment that then came into question after the author of the phrase, former federal prosecutor Sal Perricone, resigned amid revelations that he had made disparaging remarks about the department and Police Chief Ronal Serpas in anonymous online comments.

Still, Serpas himself proposed the new Office of Secondary Employment as a means of bringing order and transparency to the detail system. And the Justice Department still insists that the police details need to be cleaned up. The two sides signed a formal consent decree governing police reforms last year that requires the new office be established.

Late last year, the Landrieu administration drew up one ordinance that would establish a fund to collect payment for the details and pay out money to officers, and another ordinance that would establish what officers get paid for their shifts, determined by rank.

The most significant compromise reached on Thursday centered on the administrative fee that City Hall will charge to cover the costs of managing the details, an expense that city officials estimate already runs the Police Department between $400,000 and $800,000 a year.

Landrieu’s original ordinance tacked a $5-an-hour charge on top of whatever a private customer is paying to have an officer provider security, which is set by rank according to a new scale. Hedge-Morrell’s amendment sets the fee at either $5 an hour or 15 percent of the hourly rate earned by the officer, whichever turns out to be less.

Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin said the change could cost City Hall as much $190,000 a year but that the administration was willing to take the risk, with the proviso that the Mayor’s Office may ultimately have to come back to the council if the fees aren’t keeping up with expenses.

“We’re making projections of expenditures based on a book of business,” Kopplin said. “The more business we generate, the smaller that fee can be, and we all have the same incentive to keep that fee small and that book of business large. So we’ll work together on that.”

Hedge-Morrell agreed to strike language in her amendment that would have barred the city from charging customers any other type of fee. The city is asking for leeway to charge more for extras such as police dogs or vehicles, arguing that the cost of using police equipment ought to be borne by the customer rather than taxpayers. Hedge-Morrell worried that tacking on extra charges could ultimately price officers out of the market, threatening a vital source of income. But Kopplin assured the council that City Hall won’t be adding any charges before coming back to them with a detailed list of fees for particular pieces of equipment.

The Mayor’s Office also agreed to an amendment specifying that if the city collects more money from fees than is required to run the detail office, that money will be paid back out to officers and the fee will be reduced in subsequent years.

Kopplin said he agreed broadly with the aim of the amendment’s language but planned on bringing the council a proposal with more detailed wording on how that would actually happen in time for a full council vote.

The mayor’s staff did warn that some of the proposed amendments may not pass muster with the Justice Department or the federal judge overseeing the consent decree. For instance, one amendment says that paid details specifically required by the council — such as those attached to special event permits — would not have to comply with the standard pay schedule set out in the ordinance. Erica Beck, Landrieu’s executive counsel, cautioned that such a caveat might leave the administration caught between a city law on the one hand and a federal court order on the other.

The most pointed back-and-forth of the meeting came over a discussion of whether or not to incorporate a few words into the ordinance stating explicitly that City Hall must comply with a new law authored by Hedge-Morrell’s son, state Sen. J.P. Morrell. The statute says that any communication between the Office of Secondary Employment and NOPD officers has to be documented. It’s a requirement that Landrieu’s office argues will make the office’s work almost impossible, although in a court filing this week, the Justice Department argued that it sees no reason the law would slow implementation of the consent decree.

“It’s prohibiting speech between two offices of city government and we think it’s wholly inappropriate to put that gag order into effect,” Kopplin said. He acknowledged that city officials have already begun to comply with the law, since it did pass the Legislature, but asked council members not to “endorse a piece of legislation that we think is inappropriate.”

“That’s your opinion, and that’s OK,” Hedge-Morrell said. “What I’m saying is it’s a law, it’s a state law, and we have to abide by it.”

“And we are,” Kopplin said.