We don’t always agree with Mayor LaToya Cantrell. This is one of those times.
Our opposition is not out of hand. We are just not convinced that releasing NOPD from the federal consent decree that has been in place for more than nine and half years now is the right thing to do . . . at least not right now . . . and not without strong data to back up the assertion that the federal decree is no longer needed.
We have thought about this thing since the Mayor’s press conference a week ago. If we understood correctly, the general argument made by both the Mayor and Police Chief Shaun Ferguson was basically that the consent decree — with its mandates, procedures, goals and disciplinary measures — is too burdensome. It handcuffs NOPD officers . . . makes their jobs harder. That left us scratching our head. If we missed anything, please let us know. But getting rid of the consent decree because its burdensome or too punitive simply does not sit well with us.
We are open to the idea that things at NOPD have improved since the consent decree was implemented in January 2013. But before the Mayor and the Police Superintendent declare that it is time for the consent decree to go bye-bye, we believe the people of New Orleans deserve a clear and plain presentation of data and facts that back up that assertion.
Yes, we know there are dozens of quarterly, biannual and annual reports available online that detail the progress NOPD has made since 2013. The consent decree monitor also has dozens of reports available online. And the average citizen will probably never read them. They shouldn’t have to. A statement as bold as “NOPD no longer needs to be under the consent decree” ought to come with a PowerPoint presentation, a pie chart, a scatter plot, a line graph, a data table . . . or something that highlights significant data to support that statement.
We dug into a few of those reports ourselves, and while there appear to be some wins, there are still causes for concern. For example, the total use of force incidents dropped in 2020 by nearly 40 percent compared to 2016, from 548 to 348. That’s a win. However, across use of force categories, some numbers have remained the same or have risen. In 2020 the instances of “firearm exhibited/pointed” dropped to 243 down from 444 in 2016, but the instances of “firearm discharged” rose in 2020 to 8 from 5 in 2016. So they are exhibiting their guns less . . . but firing them more. And when it comes to the use of tasers, the numbers have not changed at all — 48 instances in 2016, 46 in 2017, 52 in 2018, 50 in 2019, and 48 in 2020.
While we understand that sometimes reasonable force is necessary to make an arrest, NOPD policy mandates that officers report their use of force so that each occurrence can be “reviewed to ensure that each instance of force was reasonable, necessary, and within Department policy” because “violations of policy or law are addressed through disciplinary action, which may range from counseling to dismissal and criminal prosecution, depending on the seriousness of the violation.”
Let’s keep it 100. You cannot tell us or the people of New Orleans that NOPD officers are overwhelmingly complaining that the consent decree is too punitive and burdensome, then expect us to believe that some of these same officers are actually reporting every single time they use force in the performance of their duties. Are we categorically declaring that police officers aren’t being truthful about their use force every time they make an arrest? Absolutely not. But we are saying, “hmmmm.”
There were a few more things Mayor Cantrell said that left us a little concerned. Her reference to police being under attack is one example.
“It feels like service is under attack. Period,” Cantrell said at the Aug. 4 press conference. “And we know that law enforcement is under attack nationally. You see it everywhere you go; you hear it everywhere you go.”
We respectfully beg to differ. Police are not under attack — not here and not nationally. Under scrutiny? Yep. And finally, a handful of the worst ones, in the most egregious circumstances, are getting called out and held accountable for their wrongdoing . . . as they should be. When you bury your knee in a man’s neck for more than nine minutes and end his life over an alleged counterfeit $20 bill, you need to be held accountable. When you bust through the door of a young woman’s apartment in the middle of the night on a no-knock warrant obtained with invalid information and kill her as she sleeps, you should be called to answer for your deeds. That is not an attack against police.
And neither are calls to defund the police. The only other thing that troubled us more than Mayor Cantrell’s characterization of police as “under attack” was her dismissive evocation of “defund the police” as if it is a meritless idea.
Mayor Cantrell is too smart and too thoughtful to not realize that people who continue talk about defunding the police as if it were a plot hatched by liberals and criminals to pull all financial resources away from law enforcement agencies are knowingly distorting the movement. And when they talk about the defund the police movement, they do so much in the same way and for the reasons George H.W. Bush used Willie Horton’s name and picture in 1988 — to politicize an issue, to scare all the good law-abiding folk into thinking that anyone who doesn’t want a militarized police force, or who doesn’t think America’s multi-billion dollar prison industrial complex works, or who would rather see a few more of their tax dollars going to other programs and services that build strong communities want crime and chaos and hate the police. That simply is not true.
Does the phrase “defund the police” sound jarring and shortsighted? Perhaps . . . maybe a more accurate description could have been used . . . something like “a thoughtful reallocation of resources that holistically addresses the conditions that create safe communities.” But, geesh, that’s a mouthful.
Look, we know that Mayor Cantrell knows that the challenges that face New Orleans must be dealt with holistically or she would not have created the Office of Youth and Family Services. And we know that she knows thoughtful discussions surrounding “defunding” the police are not about stripping the funding needed to operate a law enforcement agency.
Of course, law enforcement is needed. And police officers should be well-trained, well-equipped and well-paid. What most police departments don’t need is a fleet of armored trucks, night-vision sniper scopes and bomb detonator robots. We’ve said it before — what cities with the types of problems New Orleans has really need are more mental health professionals, more social workers, a better education system and better, more equitable economic opportunities. In the long run, those investments will help alleviate the sort of trauma that morphs and then spills out into our streets as violent crime far more effectively than any armored truck or armed police officer ever will.
Last week, Mayor Cantrell went on to say, “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.”
On that, we agree. NOPD is world class. They do deserve respect. Policing can be a dangerous job and is often thankless. We believe that many, if not most, of the men and women who make up the city’s police force are honest, hardworking public servants who deserve as much support as our City and the citizenry can give them. And we understand that it might be difficult to operate under a federal consent decree. We even recognize that the top leadership and even some of the officers that were present when this consent decree began are no longer with the department.
Here are a few other things we know. Police misconduct is real; and while anyone can be subject to it, far too often, Black and Brown communities disproportionately bear the brunt of police behaving badly. We know that the criminal justice system, like every foundational system in America, is historically and inherently biased. We know that law-abiding citizens do not want crime to run rampant. And we believe that people should not be scared in their neighborhoods — not of criminals and especially not of the police. But many people are, and it’s not for nothing.
Federal consent decrees do not just fall out of the sky. And the problems that NOPD had when the current decree was implemented did not rest with one or two department leaders; they didn’t start ten years ago; and they did not emanate from just a handful of bad-apple rank and file officers. The Department of Justice investigation that preceded the federal order found a “number of patterns or practices of unconstitutional conduct” at NOPD.
Bottom line — the argument for ending the consent decree cannot be that it is too much trouble or too punitive. The reason must be that it is no longer needed. No caveats. No complaints. The reason has to be that NOPD is better than it was before. Period.
Quite frankly, we can’t help but be concerned by the thought that there are officers that have a problem with disciplinary action. We will assume that officers aren’t disciplined for following the rules. As such, are there really NOPD officers that don’t want to be disciplined when they do something for which they should be? Are there actually NOPD officers that complain when they feel that the punishment for whatever infraction they have committed is too harsh? Are these the officers that are leaving? Good! And if the consent decree is actually keeping others from joining NOPD, thank God! We don’t want them either.
We will take fewer officers, for now, so long as they are committed to protecting and serving the people of New Orleans, ethically, morally and within the bounds of the U.S. Constitution over a full force of 1,500 officers any day — if even one of them has the audacity to complain because they are expected to perform their duties constitutionally or face reprimand when they don’t. Show us a police officer who thinks the job is either too hard to do it by the rules or too important to face consequences when he or she doesn’t follow the rules, and we will show you someone who doesn’t need to be a police officer.
It is not that we don’t believe that the consent decree plays some role in morale at NOPD. But ending it is not a panacea. It will not magically solve NOPD’s recruiting and retention challenges, and it most certainly will not solve New Orlean’s crime problem any more than blaming Chief Ferguson or other top NOPD brass for every disgruntled officer or blaming an uptick in crime on the Mayor’s travel schedule will.
There was something that Chief Ferguson said during the Aug. 4 press conference that we do appreciate.
“Consent decree or no consent decree, constitutional policing and the reforms we have implemented will not go anywhere.”
Okay. Good to hear. We’ll take the consent decree, then . . . at least for a little while longer.