By Matt Sledge | Nola.com | June 26, 2020
New Orleans police task force officers routinely stop people on a questionable legal basis, engage in unsafe practices, keep shoddy records and operate with lax supervision, according to a report released Friday by federal monitors.
Near-identical problems were identified in a report nine years ago by the U.S. Department of Justice that spurred the New Orleans Police Department reform process, the monitors said, and they are so severe now as to require “immediate personal attention” from Superintendent Shaun Ferguson, who is faulted for failing to hold district captains accountable.
High-profile incidents — including court cases where judges called out French Quarter cops for unjustified arrests, a tactically questionable raid in April that ended with a domestic violence suspect shooting an officer, and a car chase and fatal, fiery crash at a Broadmoor hair salon last year — “speak volumes” about the need for lieutenants and sergeants to get a handle on their units, the monitors said.
In a response included with the monitors’ report, the NOPD said it concurred with the findings and promised a raft of policy changes — including possibly doing away with district task forces altogether.
Supervision has for years remained one of the highest hurdles for the NOPD’s court-ordered reform agreement with the federal government, known as a consent decree. The monitors, who were appointed by U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan, said it was time for the NOPD to stop dragging its feet and take action.
“The NOPD obviously has its hands full with the cyber-attack and the COVID-19 pandemic response,” they said. “But these events further highlight the need for close and effective supervision. One need only look back to Katrina to see how ineffective supervision in the face of an emergency situation can lead to disaster. We continue to be surprised the department has not made supervision generally — and the operations of its task forces in particular — more of a priority.”
The monitors said that, if the NOPD commits to fixing the flaws highlighted in the report, it can do so in an “efficient” manner.
While the report was based on an audit of one week of police work in late November by task forces in four of eight geographic districts, the monitors said the problems uncovered were so widespread that they represented a department-wide culture problem.
The monitors didn’t name individual supervisors or officers. But they said the same problems kept popping up across the various task forces.
There were “questionable” stops and frisks of people on the street, poor planning for operations — including at least one high-risk search warrant mission — unofficial or missing uniforms, bad record-keeping and missing oversight from sergeants, lieutenants and district captains.
Guidance from above was so lacking that in one instance, a body-worn camera captured one officer calling another to ask what he “wants to do today.”
The monitors said they’d shared more detailed findings with the NOPD and in five instances referred officers to the department’s Public Integrity Bureau, which investigates cops for administrative and criminal violations.
The referrals involved a residential raid with “improper searches,” a “potentially pretextual stop,” two “questionable” searches of suspects and a drug investigation where task force officers turned off their body-worn cameras.
The NOPD didn’t comment Friday on whether the bureau has opened administrative or criminal investigations as a result.
The monitoring team’s report comes at a sensitive time for Ferguson, who had hoped Morgan would agree that the NOPD has reached substantial compliance with the department’s 2012 reform agreement, known as a consent decree.
At a court hearing in December, Morgan said the NOPD appeared to be on track to bring the reform process into its final stage this year. Her seal of approval would set the NOPD on a course for complete independence in two years.
But Ferguson’s troubles have only worsened since May, when he warned that the report was coming. Galvanized by the death of George Floyd under a policeman’s knee in Minneapolis, protesters have taken to the streets calling for radical changes to policing in America. In New Orleans, the force has also been criticized for a June 3 confrontation on the Crescent City Connection approach that ended with police unleashing tear gas and rubber projectiles.
The NOPD has historically had task forces in each of its eight police districts that try to stop crime proactively by roving through crime hot spots and well-trafficked locales like the French Quarter, rather than simply responding to calls for service. But last month, aware of the impending report, Ferguson benched the task force units and promised to retrain them in response to the monitors’ findings. For now, task force officers are responding to calls for service.
The department hasn’t answered questions about how many officers were reassigned.
Deputy Superintendent John Thomas is leading an internal review on the future of the task force units. The monitors said they expect a response on whether the NOPD plans to reinstate them by Aug. 10.
If the special units are ever to return, the monitors said, the NOPD must prove that they are “well managed and well supervised; that they engage in constitutional policing; that they wear appropriate uniforms and safety equipment; and that the unhealthy culture that seems to be developing in some task force units has changed.”
The NOPD said that if it brings the units back, it will give each of them specific, time-limited missions and require beefed up supervision, including random checks of officers’ body-worn cameras and more oversight by district captains and a special audit bureau. Cops would have to apply and pass a vetting process to serve in those units.
A name change may be in order to reflect a new and more focused mission, the NOPD said.
The monitors also harped on one of their longtime hobbyhorses: the NOPD promotion process, which relies on standardized, written tests.
Police associations say those tests are crucial to promoting supervisors on merit and avoiding political favoritism. But the monitors said Ferguson has placed far too much emphasis on test scores in lieu of a more “holistic” approach that would review a cop’s full resume.
The NOPD said it would adopt the monitors’ recommendations in its next round of promotions to lieutenant.
That drew concern from Donovan Livaccari, the spokesman for the local lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police. He said that while certain officers might be more suited for particular supervision roles than others, there’s nothing wrong with relying on an “objective” test.
The monitors said their concerns about the task forces have been bubbling up for years in ride-alongs and conversations with cops, but the NOPD has long dragged its feet in addressing them.
Their concerns boiled over — and the monitors decided to launch a full-blown audit — after task force cops based in Central City’s 6th District decided to chase after youths in a stolen car that ended with them crashing into the Unity One Beauty Supply salon in Broadmoor. The teens and a salon patron died in the crash and resulting fire.
The car chase was never approved by a supervisor, and Ferguson disciplined or fired all four officers involved. He said that the cops had a pattern of chasing cars in violation of NOPD policy and turning off their cameras to cover their tracks.
In addition to Unity One, the report also mentioned two other “problematic” incidents involving district task forces.
Comments about one incident match the description the department has given so far of an April 21 shootout between police and an alleged domestic batterer that left one officer with a serious gunshot wound to his arm.
Task force officers directed the operation to arrest Horace Toppins IV in a New Orleans East apartment, according to the monitors. But they went in without a plan, without proper uniforms, without bulletproof vests and without enough focus on their safety or of the bystanders inside.
“And, apparently, the task force officers directed two patrol officers to join them in this high-risk activity without any meaningful operational briefing, putting those two officers at great personal risk as well,” the monitors said.
Body-worn camera video revealed that the officer in the front of the raid was wearing a Nike t-shirt rather than department-issue garb.
The monitors also cited reporting in this newspaper about questions criminal defense attorneys have raised about a small group of task force officers assigned to patrol the French Quarter.
In one video, task force officers appeared to get their story straight about the justification for the arrest of a man on Bourbon Street for a gun and drugs. One judge later said the video showed officers trying to “fabricate” a reason for the arrest.
Ferguson took the officers involved off the street, and they’re under a criminal investigation that remains open, the monitors noted.
“But, if true, the story yet again highlights the culture of NOPD task forces and the dangers of insufficient supervision,” the monitors said.
Despite the scathing report, Mayor LaToya Cantrell remains determined to end oversight from the monitors. In remarks on Thursday, she said she was convinced that reforms are now deeply embedded in the police department’s fabric. She hopes to divert the money spent on the monitoring team to public safety and public health in light of the economic crisis.
“The end has to come, and the need for other departments to get to where we are is great, so focus attention elsewhere, get the bear out of our pocket and allow us to meet the needs of our people,” she said.
The latest monitoring contract, which was awarded to a private law firm in Washington, D.C., cost about $6.4 million over three years, compared to the NOPD’s budget of $193 million this year.
Rafael Goyeneche, the president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said Cantrell’s financial concerns were unlikely to sway the federal judge who has the power to bring the consent decree to an end.
“The mayor arguing that it costs too much money is not going to be persuasive to anybody,” he said. “The focus should be in fixing problems like this and achieving substantial compliance.”
Goyeneche said he believes some of the department’s problems may stem from the relative inexperience of officers promoted in the past few years to oversee an influx of new cops brought in under a hiring spree. But he’s certain the task force units will return in some shape or form, since residents expect the NOPD to try to prevent crime.
“This is an area that was overlooked for a period of time, and it’s an embarrassment for the department,” he said. “It’s a setback to public safety to not have these proactive capabilities available for a period of time.”
Livaccari, who represents rank-and-file cops, also thought the task forces would be back.
“Unfortunately in New Orleans, we have way too much gun violence, and it’s hard to address the gun violence without addressing guns or trying to get guns off the street, and it’s hard to do that if you’re just being reactive instead of proactive,” he said.
But a longtime civil rights lawyer who’s repeatedly sued the NOPD over police shootings, Glenn McGovern, said the NOPD should discontinue the units. He’s handled civil suits for the families of Adolph Grimes III, who was killed by members of a special plainclothes district squad in 2009, and Arties Manning III, who was killed by a member of an anti-robbery task force in 2017.
The latter unit — known as TIGER — wasn’t specifically examined in Friday’s report, although the NOPD said it was developing methods to assess and monitor it as well.
“They’re a bunch of cowboys … They think they’re special. They think they’re above the rules,” McGovern said. “It just goes against everything about how our police department’s supposed to operate.”