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The New Orleans Police Department is hitting back on consent decree reforms, federal observers say

Seven months after New Orleans officers requested an exit from the police department’s consent decree, federal monitors have found backsliding in critical areas that remain problematic, including oversight, response times, downgrading of duty calls, the officer assistance program and staffing.

“We’ve seen slip-ups, and it’s within the power of the NOPD to fix those things,” lead monitor Jonathan Aronie said at a public meeting Tuesday night. He cited many factors contributing to the decline, including a rise in crime and the attrition of officers.

“The last few years have been frustrating for the community and also for NOPD,” Aronie said. “NOPD is non-compliant and it will take focused effort to bring it into compliance.”

Restless progress

The Consent Decree is a sweeping, 490-page plan aimed at reforming an agency riddled with civil rights scandals, brutality and wrongdoing, much of which was exposed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. It was implemented in 2012 by the US Department of Justice, the City of New Orleans and the Police Department itself.

Since then, compliance has been a stop-and-go while the department made strides in some areas, including impartial policing, and backslid in others. In August, Mayor LaToya Cantrell sought to end federal oversight, which she says “handcuffs” police with restrictions.

Their latest report cites flagged call response times and call demotions as areas of concern.

‘That’s really bad’

In November, 27% of domestic violence calls were marked GOA, which means “disappeared on arrival,” observers said, meaning the victim was gone by the time officers arrived at the scene. Observers identified the same pattern in sex crimes.

“Unreasonably long response times result in large numbers of GOAs,” Aronie said. “That’s really bad.”

Similarly, monitors during ridesharing saw officers inappropriately downgrading calls from Code 2, emergency, to Code 1, non-emergency.

“We’ve seen demotions simply because they didn’t have enough officers to get to a call,” Aronie said. “It doesn’t change the priority of a call.”

Insufficient supervision

High-profile scandals that continue to plague the police department, including payroll fraud and an attempt to reinstate officer Jeffrey Vappie in Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s protection detail, are at their core oversight issues, the observers said.

Officers assigned to the mayor’s security team were working under a “major lack of oversight,” observers said, trying to reclaim Vappie while he was still under investigation by the Public Integrity Bureau for payroll irregularities, amid allegations of an affair with the mayor. Vappie had been reassigned to other duties amid the scandal.

“When the surveillance team learned of this, we reached out to several members of the NOPD leadership team, who effectively quashed those efforts,” Aronie said.

The observers also highlighted problematic oversight issues as the civil servant assistance program lost staff, including its peer interventions coordinator. The program provides mental health resources to officers who have experienced traumatic events. Law enforcement officials failed to notice the staff loss, and the Professional Standards and Accountability Bureau made no mention of it in an audit that “painted a rosier picture than actually existed within OAP at the time,” according to the observers’ report.

“We have seen some unfortunate tragedies involving officers,” said Monitor David Douglass.

staff is limping

In September, US District Judge Susie Morgan commended the police department’s decision to hire civilian workers for non-emergency work, but observers still raise concerns about a drop in the number of commissioned police officers. On March 5, a detachment thought to be fully staffed with 1,500 officers had only 917 commissioned officers and 17 recruits.

“The numbers speak for themselves”, Aronie. The agency “needs more creative ways to address its current recruitment and retention problems.”

Last spring, Morgan sounded optimistic about police progress on the consent decree. She predicted an upcoming two-year “sustain period” of reduced surveillance.

But the department’s understanding of adhering to the decade-long reform plan appeared tenuous at Tuesday’s public meeting. The observers did not say when or if a pending court motion to terminate the consent decree would be granted, instead repeating that the “timeframe depends on the NOPD.”

Read the 2022 Annual Report of the Federal Monitors.