The Perils of Police Reform


The 2012 Consent Decree arranged between the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the City of New Orleans has swept the city and the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) into a critical phase—one that is being watched closely by the communities served by the NOPD as well as by police reform constituencies across the country.

But unless the process is altered it may achieve little of its promise, and may fail to address the legitimate reform needs which the decree was meant to address.

Can the plan be salvaged?

While the promise implicit in the Decree—of a police force that engages positively with the community and embraces policing best practices in areas ranging from the use of force and stops, searches and arrests to secondary employment, interrogation practices and transparent reporting—is deeply compelling, the challenges in achieving these changes and sustaining them are immense.

A decision on the federal NOPD Monitor and a ruling by the supervising federal judge is expected to be announced shortly.

The new Monitor's task is complicated by the legacy of policing culture in New Orleans.

The opening sentences of the March 2011 report, Investigation of the New Orleans Police Department, New Orleans, Louisiana, commissioned by the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), makes the point effectively.

“The NOPD has long been a troubled agency,” the report declares. “Basic elements of effective policing – clear policies, training, accountability, and confidence of the citizenry – have been absent for years.”

My own experience bears that out.

When I came from the Police Foundation in 1995 to teach at the University of New Orleans, my NOPD students would introduce themselves in class by indicating which leader and race-based NOPD “cartel” they belonged to: Antoinettes, Taylor's Children or McNuggets.

In 2010, five years after Hurricane Katrina, I was named to New Orleans Mayor-elect Mitch Landrieu's Criminal Justice Team Task Force that was established to examine the actions of the police department during the catastrophe

Those actions, which eventually triggered the present NOPD Consent Decree, included incidences of police violence, lying and subsequent cover-ups.

Grim milestones along the NOPD's path since then include the trials of five New Orleans police officers in the death of Henry Glover, who was shot by a police sniper Sept 2, 2005; the subsequent cover-up of this incident; the unprovoked police shootings two days later of unarmed African-Americans crossing the city's Danziger Bridge; and the 2011 convictions of several NOPD officers for these crimes.

As a result of the repeated alleged criminal acts of the NOPD, the Justice Department appointed Civil Rights Division Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez to oversee proposed sweeping changes for the NOPD, such as new monitoring procedures, restrictions on the use of force, and investigative procedures which were elaborated in over 400 recommendations.

These were accepted by Mayor Landrieu and his new police chief (and former NOPD officer) Ronal Serpas.

One of the issues that will make full implementation of New Orleans police reforms challenging is whether the current City of New Orleans senior management will be able to examine policies they have put into place themselves in new and fresh ways.

That's not an easy task for anyone – and it isn't one that New Orleans citizens believe their police force will take on easily.

Questionable Practices

The Consent Decree identified a number of questionable policies and practices that were put in place or expanded by the current New Orleans police leadership, such as quotas for detaining citizens (e.g., for field interviews).

Some critics argue that a number of conflicts plaguing NOPD leadership are exacerbating concerns about whether the police are capable of tackling the department's systemic problems such as non-transparency and failure to combat conflicts of interest.

These critics cite as evidence the fact that, soon after the release of the March 2011 report, Eddie Hosli, a newly named commander and a close associate of the current NOPD Superintendent, was identified as a principal in a for-profit company engaged in off-duty red-light camera review activities.

This, along with the appointment of the Superintendent's close associates to serve as commanders over “civil service” superiors, has raised broad citizen concerns regarding NOPD management conflicts of interest, candor, equity and focus.

Another area that will challenge the NOPD's compliance with the Consent Decree will be earning genuine “buy infrom rank-and-file officers.

A recent survey of NOPD officers I conducted found broad alienation, concern and even hostility by NOPD officers towards the police and city administration. The study of 463 of the city's 1,300 officers, paid for by the police union, found that most disagreed with the overhaul under the current administration.

Some 80 percent said they would leave if they could keep pay and seniority, and 97 percent thought the department was undermanned. Some officers raised concerns that several deadly force provisions in the Decree may even place them at physical risk.

My research suggests that these attitudes will translate into increased attrition rates. More than 80 officers have left NOPD in the first nine months of the year, many with years of experience.

As a result, I believe those charged with overseeing NOPD compliance with the Consent Decree will need to be vigilant and proactive in helping to head off two potential negative consequences of the Decree itself: a near-term reduction in available NOPD experienced officers, and a corresponding increase in violence in key neighborhoods across the city.

Minority Community Perspectives

Anecdotal observation suggests, as well, broad wariness among New Orleans minority community organizations about the management of the Consent Decree.

As articulated in recent fairness hearings conducted by the supervising judge, Federal District Court Judge Susie Morgan, the Decree may draw away resources badly needed to curb the city's spiraling violent gun crimes and in the effectiveness of efforts to reform NOPD.

The projected cost for police reform, including externally managed training and monitoring activities is $11 million per year ($55 million over 5 years.) In fact, some of the city's African American leaders have expressed greater concern about NOPD de-policing and community gun violence than about NOPD civil rights violations.

As the City, the NOPD and the court-appointed monitor work to comply with the Consent Decree, there will be enormous pressure on the NOPD – even if the high levels of attrition I am concerned about do not occur – not just to acclimate to changes in many areas from training and recruitment to performance evaluations and departmental discipline, but also to keep up with the operational demands placed on the NOPD every day.

In this regard, no single issue is more important than the growing murder rate.

There were 200 murders reported in 2011, compared with 175 the previous year. Based on the FBI-calculated rate of 57 reported murders per 100,000 populations in 2011, New Orleans had the highest per capita murder rate of any U.S. city last year.

I predict that homicide levels (150 in the first three quarters of 2012) will continue to increase for the remainder of 2012, equaling or exceeding the rates in 2011.

Light on the Horizon?

Yet, when circumstances are dire—as many would characterize them in this particular case—the prospects for improvements are enormous.

Anchoring this perspective is the example represented by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), which underwent a similar Consent Decree process from 1999 to 2006, from which it emerged a stronger and more transparent organization, according to a 2009 review by researchers at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

The review highlights a number of sweeping changes that occurred during and after the Consent Decree in L.A. including 83 percent of residents stating that the LAPD is doing a good or excellent job. There was also a sharp drop in how frequent excessive force was used by an LAPD officer.

These results were obtained by a renewed focus on many areas such as how police engage the community around them as well as the creation of L.A's Force Investigation Division.

While the changes in Los Angeles cannot solely be credited to the Consent Decree, they would not have occurred without a commitment from key leaders within the Los Angeles police department and community to reform.

Would the LAPD reform strategy work in New Orleans?

While the reform process involved in the Consent Decree is similar, the approach in Los Angeles was different than it will be in New Orleans. Not only are the cities culturally distinct, but there are also different population sizes, demographics and city size, and different police and city leadership.

Major differences in perceived legitimacy, funding support, police leadership capacity, broad buy-in, and perhaps the depth of reform challenges also emerge in any comparison between the two cities.

The LAPD's focus on renewed leadership may work for New Orleans, but the policies within the Consent Decree must be shaped for New Orleans.

Deep cultural divides within the NOPD (perhaps a legacy of the police “cartels” of the 1980's and1990's mentioned above) need to be overcome for any change to take hold.

For many of us in New Orleans —on all sides of this effort—the days ahead will be both difficult and enormously exciting.

Change is hard. But what's clear is that without transparent, inclusive management, and outside independent monitoring of the process—combined with broad community and police participation, New Orleans may have little to show for the huge amount of funds ($55 million) that it plans to spend on police reforms.

Those are precisely the elements that are meant to be addressed in the new implementation and strategy plan for the police monitoring team.

As the New Orleans 2012 murder toll increases, the urgency of getting this done right should be obvious.

Dr. Peter Scharf, a leading criminologist and professor at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, was the founding director of the Center for Society, Law and Justice at the University of New Orleans, and is the author of nine published books including the Badge and the Bullet. This commentary was prepared with the assistance of Benjamin Mauro. They welcome comments from readers.

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