Independent monitor?

It was always incongruous: An independent police monitor who isn’t quite independent, but instead oversees a division within the New Orleans Office of Inspector General’s Office.

But in the three years since Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux hired Police Monitor Susan Hutson, her small — to supporters, much too small — operation has struggled to make much of a mark, making the natural tension in the arrangement something of a footnote. But more recently, though, the question of how independent the independent police monitor is supposed to be is at the center of a simmering dispute.

Quatrevaux has asked the City Council to intervene; the IG contends he is Hutson’s boss, plain and simple, with oversight over her findings about police policies and practices. For her part, Hutson said any such intervention would violate the central tenet of her office captured in her title: That she remain wholly autonomous and shielded from interference.

The spat between the two, which ignited weeks ago, is full of accusations of bias, in both directions. In his letter to the council’s criminal justice committee, Quatrevaux said flawed reports by Hutson could taint his office’s credibility. Hutson has countered instead that Quatrevaux, concerned about protecting his office’s relationships with other agencies and politicians, has attempted to clamp down on her inquiries.

More recently, Hutson said the two are trying to put aside the animosity and work out their differences. But they have issued dueling legal memos, each coming to different conclusions about exactly who calls the final shots when it comes to the police monitor’s work.

Even those involved in the creation of the monitor’s office don’t agree on this key point. And the law itself isn’t quite clear.

Advocates who spent decades pushing for civilian police oversight, culminating in the creation of the monitor position in 2008, say they never envisioned an office that would be subordinate to anybody. That wasn’t the intention when they agreed to house the monitor’s office within the IG, they said.

“The key word is independent. It should be that,” said Ted Quant, director of the Twomey Center for Peace Through Justice and one of a handful of advocates who has been active on the issue for years.

Norris Henderson, who as a staffer with Safe Streets, Strong Communities intensively lobbied for the creation of a monitor, said he always thought the office would remain autonomous, although under the umbrella of the IG. If there was any benefit to the arrangement, it would be insulating the monitor, which wasn’t embraced by NOPD brass, from political pressure, he said.

But Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson, who helped get the IG changes into the New Orleans Home Rule Charter, said she always intended for the IG to supervise the monitor. The charter amendment not only laid out the parameters of the two offices, but specified that the IG’s Office would get a dedicated stream of tax money each year, out of which the IG would fund both itself and the monitor.

“We put the independent police monitor as a part of that office so the inspector general would have autonomy to oversee that whole department, including the IPM,” Clarkson said. “That is his business how he runs the Office of the Inspector General. She is intended to be a part of his office.”

Former Inspector General Robert Cerasoli, who was IG at the time the monitor’s office was created, agreed that putting the IPM under the IG was purposeful. “There was a legislative intent to definitively have the independent monitor be under the direction of the IG,” he said.

But a close read of the ordinance and charter does leave open questions.

In a legal memo by executive counsel Suzanne Wisdom, the IG’s office pulled out the dictionary to build the case. Wisdom emphasized that the definition of “division” makes the monitor subordinate to the larger IG operation. “A plain reading of the Charter indicates that the intention is that the IPM be part of the OIG,” she wrote.

Additionally, the IG is tasked with hiring the monitor and can move to fire her, although a termination must be approved by the New Orleans Ethics Review Board.

But the ordinance spelling out the role of the police monitor is extremely detailed, down to requiring the monitor to hold a certain number of meetings each year. It lists programs the monitor is supposed to create and mandates that the office issue at least one public report annually. Never does it mention any oversight role for the inspector general when it comes to the monitor’s findings.

In her memo to the council, Hutson highlighted the law’s silence on that point, leading her to the conclusion that the IG isn’t supposed to oversee her. “This legally protected independence is particularly important regarding the OIPM reports. The OIPM is solely responsible for the contents of its reports,” she wrote.

There is some indication that Quatrevaux’s interpretation of the monitor’s position within his operation has evolved. The IG’s “strategic plan” for 2013-2016, released in September 2012, for instance, is quite clear that although the monitor is one of four divisions of the IG’s office, its “operations are independent of the OIG and it has a separate and distinct mission.”

The plan goes on to explain that the inspector general and police monitor are guided by different codes of ethics, one specifically for IGs and the other for civilian police oversight boards and monitors.

Councilwoman Susan Guidry, head of the council’s criminal justice committee, has been asked by Quatrevaux to broker the recent dispute. In a statement, she said that she’s been in touch with the two sides. “I am hopeful that a resolution can be achieved, and I feel that it would be premature for me to comment further at this time,” she said.

A legal opinion written by Steven Lane, an attorney with Herman, Herman & Katz who is the council’s legal counsel, advised that he concluded the monitor is “subservient to the authority of the OIG.” He highlighted, for example, that the monitor’s budget is left to the discretion of the IG. “If the IPM were independent from the OIG, it would have been included as part of the budget” with its own line item, he wrote.

Henderson recalled that melding the IG and IPM was a marriage of political convenience, meant to combine disparate bases of support for the two institutions at a time when there was plenty of skepticism about each. While some in the black community were suspicious of the IG, which was often seen as a tool to check the power of African-American politicians, civilian police oversight was broadly supported, he said. On the other hand, white voters were less apt to support the police monitor, but tended to back the IG wholeheartedly. Combining the two helped the home rule charter changes pass with 77 percent of the vote, he said.

Both Quant and Henderson said activists pushing for a truly independent police monitor were very aware of the struggles of the long-impotent Office of Municipal Investigations —which had been created amid frustrations with the troubled NOPD of the early 1980s. Although it went through a few different incarnations, OMI was very rarely effective.

“At every step, there were ways to gut the OMI of its power and funding and so forth. The staffing went down, the different powers that it had reduced,” Quant said. “We wanted something that would be an independent police monitor that would be able to give the public some real information so it could be used to fight for the reforms we need.”

Henderson said the tension between the monitor’s office and IG is untenable. He and other activists are frustrated that the IPM has remained so small, with just Hutson, a deputy monitor and community relations staffer manning the shop. The expectation was that the office would grow to the point it would be able to analyze systemic problems at the NOPD and issue public recommendations — something it can’t do effectively with so few employees, he said. Even as IPM has remained stagnant, meanwhile, activists have noticed that Quatrevaux has hired new staff.

The police monitor’s location — within the IG’s offices at the Federal Reserve building on Lafayette Square — makes it hard for the monitor to be readily accessible to the public, as intended, Henderson said. Security is unusually tight at the building, with visitors unable to go to the monitor’s office without prior permission.

“It seems like we are having some irreconcilable differences,” said Henderson, who voiced similar complaints during a recent meeting with Quatrevaux. “We need a divorce, with child support.”