By Anitra D. Brown
The New Orleans Tribune
A week after cancelling a trip to Singapore to, instead, embed herself with NOPD, Mayor LaToya Cantrell came out swinging today (August 4) for the embattled New Orleans Police Department and its officers, calling for an end to the federal consent decree and even chiding the public and local media for focusing on “negativity” as it relates to the department and its efforts to keep New Orleans safe.
Instead of going to a conference in Singapore last week, Cantrell stayed in New Orleans and met with NOPD officers, attending 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. roll calls at district stations, speaking directly to the officers about the challenges and issues they face, she says. The recent visits by the Mayor, along with NOPD Chief Shaun Ferguson, to each district, though not unheard of, were likely spurred by the public criticism that NOPD and the Mayor’s administration have taken lately as it relates to public safety concerns across New Orleans.
It appears, Mayor Cantrell and Chief Ferguson have emerged from this process convinced that NOPD and its officers need more support and less denigration as they do their jobs.
“It feels like service is under attack. Period,” Cantrell said in a Thursday morning press conference. “And we know that law enforcement is under attack nationally. You see it everywhere you go; you hear it everywhere you go. It’s time for us to truly understand that we have a world-class New Orleans Police Department just like we have a world-class city. The men and women we depend on deserve our respect.”
Respect also means the federal consent decree that NOPD has been under since January 2013 should end, says Cantrell, adding that in the next week, her administration will make a formal petition to the Department of Justice to end the decree.
The Mayor is convinced that several of the recent separations from the department are linked to the consent decree. Most recently, nine officers, including one retiree, left the department, she says.
“The separations are aligned with the consent decree,” Cantrell says. “The consent decree handcuffs our officers by making their jobs harder, pestering them with punitive punishments and burying them with paperwork. They are leaving because of it.”
NOPD Chief Shaun Ferguson echoed the concern, also saying that some of the punitive policies of the decree have resulted in officers’ departures.
The consent decree dates back to May 2010 when, at the request of Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the United States Department of Justice launched an investigation of reported civil rights violations and other misconduct by the New Orleans Police Department. In May 2011, the DOJ detailed concerns about NOPD policies and procedures as well as alleged incidents of unconstitutional conduct by the NOPD in a written report. More than a year later, in July 2012, the City, the NOPD and the DOJ entered into the consent decree that officially went into effect six months later in January 2013. The 110-page document outlined sweeping, department-wide reforms at NOPD designed to to address the concerns and misconduct outlined in the report.
Nearly 10 years later, Cantrell asserts that the goals of the decree have been met and that it is time to move on.
“I know that the men and women who are a part of our police department right now are not responsible for us getting into that consent decree. But they have been responsible for the results that have been demonstrated and for more movement in the last four years than we have seen over time,” Cantrell says, adding that its “seems like the goal post would move every time our officers demonstrated results.”
She continued, “NOPD officers know how to police constitutionally. It is absolutely time to move forward with the petition to terminate (the consent decree) and allow our officers to do what they do best—protect this community, use discretion and ensure that this city is safe.”
For his part, Chief Ferguson says the petition to end the consent decree does not signal a return to policies and practices.
“Consent decree or no consent decree, constitutional policing and the reforms we have implemented will not go anywhere,” he said.
Mayor Cantrell says much of what she learned listening to officers share their concerns was not news to her, but that this opportunity to engage with officers helped confirm that the department and her administration are on the right track as they focus on retention and recruitment at NOPD. That is why unshackling NOPD from the constraints of the decade-long consent decree is vital, she says.
“We can’t look at those who left. I have to look at those who are here, who stayed, who show up everyday for this city,” the Mayor said. “They want recognition, respect, and not to be handcuff. This is our opportunity to go deeper and to bring resolve and real results.”
Constraints of the federal consent decree were not the only issue on officers’ minds, according to Cantrell and Ferguson, who both say officers expressed concerns over a number of matters, ranging from promotion policies to equipment and resources and even negative rhetoric from the public toward NOPD and its officers causing morale issues.
Instead of waiting for annual promotions, Ferguson and Cantrell say the department is stepping up its efforts to recognize and promote officers more regularly as their service records call for it. Some 150 officers have now been promoted to senior officer status, and Ferguson says another 30 are expected to be promoted in the coming weeks.
Chief Ferguson said NOPD officers even raised concerns about personal appearance standards, such as being able to wear cooler uniforms, maybe shorts, in the summer and loosening policies around beards and finger nail polish—all issues Cantrell and Ferguson say they will visit.
“It’s the little things,” Ferguson said. “It may seem minute to you, but those little things mean a lot to our officers.”
And while they vow to do their part to address the concerns raised by officers, Ferguson and the Mayor scolded local media for what they see as its role in the negative rhetoric surrounding NOPD and public safety.
“We really need to change our posture with regards to our officers. Lets talk about the officers that are faith based leaders, yoga instructors, coaches with NORDC,” Ferguson says. “And it’s not just the media. It’s the public and some of our elected officials who keep beating the drum of negativity.”
Not to be outdone by Mayor Cantrell’s morning press conference, by Thursday afternoon, at-large Councilwoman Helena Moreno and at-large Councilman JP Morrell, both of whom have been at odds with Cantrell’s administration over one issue or another, released a data analysis of exit interviews of NOPD officers that they believe indicate it is not the consent decree, but rather “working conditions”, such as a lack equipment and issues with facilities, along with an “unwillingness” of NOPD management to address the concerns that are the real reasons behind the attrition of NOPD officers.
In written statement about the analysis, Morrell said, “According to public safety analyst Jeff Asher, the top reason for officers leaving the force is not the consent decree, or even pay, but a misguided management style that has led to a hostile work environment. Exit interviews are given for a reason. They’re an education tool for departments to learn from the past and move forward in a positive direction. Former officers have made it very clear why they are leaving the force. Without addressing these main concerns, it’s difficult to see how we can truly change the trajectory of our police department.”
It may be worth noting that while this game of one-upmanship over who has the answers to the city’s crime problem and why NOPD can’t seem to attract and retain officers played out, two men were shot in the 1200 block of Lamanche Street in the Lower 9th Ward, with one dying at the scene while another was transported to the hospital. Neither the Mayor’s press conference nor the at-large council members’ data analysis release could stop the latest demonstration of violence in New Orleans. But, oh well . . .
Also worth mentioning is that NOPD’s staffing issues are not new and did not develop suddenly, but instead can be traced back to former mayor Landrieu’s two-year hiring freeze, that resulted in NOPD’s ranks dropping by more than 400 officers, to a 40-year low of fewer than 1,150 during his tenure.
Nonetheless, at the Thursday morning press conference, Mayor Cantrell says her administration will continue to focus on retention, recruitment, and resources for NOPD, adding that a second allocation of funds from the American Rescue are on the way and will be allocated to “help meet the needs of public safety across the board.”
At the Thursday morning press conference, Mayor Cantrell says her administration will continue to focus on retention, recruitment, and resources for NOPD, adding that a second allocation of funds from the American Rescue are on the way and will be allocated to “help meet the needs of public safety across the board.”
With the arrival of the latest funding, Cantrell says the total investment in public safety comes to about $80 million. She also says the City has already started ordering new vehicles, including 75 ford explorers that are now in and are being outfitted with necessary decals and public safety equipment decals, including lights and sirens.
Cantrell says that her administration is also working with NOPD and other resources across the community to expand programs such as the Alternative Dispatch Pilot Program, which began last August and gives 911 dispatchers the option to bring a mental health counselor into the loop on an emergency call to better help the caller.
“Not every call requires a law enforcement response,” she says, adding that expanding Alternative Dispatch Program “will free up our officers to concentrate on the real threats to public safety.”
Ferguson said that the department is also looking at taking more reports for non-violent crimes, such as car thefts, online or by phone. He also suggested that some minor domestic violence calls could warrant an alternative dispatch approach of some type, although no details on what the threshold for domestic violence calls would be as it relates to determining the type of response needed. And he would also support changes to state laws that require a police report for all car accidents resulting in $500 or more in damages, he said as having police only respond to car accidents that result in injury, death or major physical damage would also free manpower for violent crime.
As for meeting with officers at the district level, Ferguson says it has long been his practice to interact with NOPD officers on a regular basis, but admits that the the COVID-19 pandemic hindered those visits during. Accompanying the Mayor on her recent tour of NOPD district stations has reinvigorated his desire to stay more connected to the rank and file officers that serve the City.
“These conversations will continue with our officers,” Ferguson says. “This was refreshing for me. I felt great going to see them and I am definitely going to keep that up.”