New Orleans police officer groups took their attack on city oversight of off-duty police details to the Civil Service Commission on Monday, arguing it violates state and city law, regardless of a federal judge’s endorsement.
The political and legal battle between police and the city could mean that, at least for now, the city has no way of paying officers who work details under the new system, City Attorney Sharonda Williams said.
The new Office of Police Secondary Employment took shape last month with a set of City Council votes that, among other things, set pay rates for cops working private security jobs while in uniform.
Housed at City Hall, the office began doling out work a few weeks ago, and by Jan. 11 is slated to manage most details as part of a broad set of federally enforced NOPD reforms.
The move infuriated police, who for decades have worked out their own deals with private parties to supplement their incomes. Mainly, they hate the 15 percent off the top that will go to fund the new office, the rigid oversight and a policy that will rotate most off their favored details after a year.
They complain about having to fund an office that is expected to cost more than $1 million by next year, through an administrative fee on merchants and others who until now have hired the police directly.
The office is led by retired Army Lt. Col. John Salamone, whose base salary is $116,000, and three employees, including a marketing director, with pay ranging from $61,000 to $72,000, city records show.
The wrangling comes more than two years after police Superintendent Ronal Serpas announced a series of detail reforms following scandal involving one of his friends, Cmdr. Edwin Hosli, who ran a private firm that hired police to review traffic camera tickets for the city.
Around the same time, a U.S. Justice Department report slammed the largely unregulated detail system as “an aorta of corruption,” asserting that some officers prioritized lucrative moonlighting gigs over their actual jobs.
They also found that subordinates could end up coordinating details where they doled out work to their own supervisors.
Officers in charge of details often received coordinating fees on top of their payment for the security work.
Justice officials insisted on including detail reforms in the federal consent decree that Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Attorney General Eric Holder inked last year.
Officer groups, meanwhile, have been trying for more than a year to derail the plan.
On Monday, days after filing lawsuits in state and federal court, they argued that Landrieu and the City Council jumped the gun in setting pay rates for the officers instead of leaving it to the commission, said Eric Hessler, attorney for the Police Association of New Orleans.
“The federal consent decree says it has to happen, so it has to happen,” Hessler said. “It doesn’t say laws and rules of civil service go out the window.”
Hessler argues that the new office legally turns the off-duty work into city employment, which makes it a civil service issue that could affect overtime, benefits or Social Security.
Williams, the city attorney, called it “another attempt aiming to impede progress” on the reforms.
Amid the city’s fight this year to wriggle out of the consent decree, an opinion by a federal Labor Department attorney seemed to settle the issue of whether the new city system would violate federal labor law. But FOP attorneys said Monday that they believe the IRS will find that the detail jobs count as city work.
Serpas had left the meeting — stalled in his bid to restore an assistant chief post to oversee consent decree issues — when the debate turned to a seemingly minor topic: setting up new payroll codes for the detail work, so the money could come in officers’ paychecks.
The police groups balked, claiming it could create tax trouble for both the city and the officers without legal clearance.
“There are paid details that are already organized, and officers are already doing them, and they have no way of getting paid,” Williams said.
“If you move forward allowing officers to get paid on a city paycheck without an IRS ruling,” countered FOP treasurer Jim Gallagher, “you’re opening a whole can of worms.”
Messages to a Landrieu administration spokesman on just how many details the new office oversees, or how the police are being paid, went unreturned.
Raymond Burkart III, an FOP attorney and spokesman, said he’d heard that the new office was letting some private employers pay the police directly for now.
Burkart said the city wants it both ways, arguing that officers working details are city employees for social security withholding purposes, but not under federal labor law.
That’s one of FOP’s arguments in a federal civil lawsuit filed last week against the city and NOPD. A similar suit was filed in state court.
“They’re trying to split the baby, but it is or it isn’t,” he said.
Hessler called the new detail system “a big quagmire of answers to a lot of problems that didn’t exist.”
Williams said the new pay system and city oversight of details was “unprecedented in the city,” but that other jurisdictions have similar programs.
The commission declined to rule on the issue Monday, asking for more time to consider it, under the advice of commission attorney Gilbert Buras.
“We are in uncharted waters,” he said.