NEW ORLEANS -- The U.S. Department of Justice called it the “aorta of corruption,” a system ripe for abuse and favoritism.
Off-duty work details by New Orleans police officers have been a hot-button issue ever since. And despite the city’s recent objections to a federal consent decree to reform the NOPD, efforts to reform details have quietly continued at City Hall for more than a year.
In fact, the city’s Office of Police Secondary Employment, as it’s called, is now staffed with five employees. Director John Salomone, a retired army lieutenant colonel, was hired in May 2012 at a salary of $115,000. A marketing coordinator, employment manager, IT specialist and analyst have been added since.
So what does the city have to show for its efforts?
The city’s own projections called for the office to be overseeing more than 400 details by summer. But due to a variety of delays – both legal and logistical – the office has yet to coordinate or supervise a single off-duty detail, despite spending more than $274,000 so far to get the office up and running.
Raymond Burkart III, attorney and spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police, points to the lack of progress as an indicator that setting up an office inside City Hall to manage details is the wrong approach.
“You’re paying over $100,000 a year and you’re getting nothing. Nothing,” Burkart said. “Once again, City Hall has stuck its fingers into something it knows nothing about, nor any way on how to run it, and have these problems and business owners are scared. The system worked the way it was.”
Burkart rejects the notion that details need to be overhauled, arguing that the “aorta of corruption” characterization is ludicrous and that details are adequately monitored by the NOPD within its own rules and regulations.
He said any additional safeguards could easily be implemented by amending departmental policy.
“This whole thing is nothing but a mess that was premised on a lie and is a scheme that everybody has to pay for, but is getting absolutely no results,” Burkart said. “If we need to tweak the system, let’s tweak the system. But the fact is, the system we have works. And as you can see, the system that’s wanting to be implemented by the city isn’t working at all. It isn’t doing anything. And the taxpayers are paying for it.”
Burkart’s opinion – shared by many veteran officers – is not shared by the Department of Justice.
In its investigative report that led to the consent decree, the Department of Justice slammed the current detail system, stating that it: “1) drastically undermines the quality of NOPD policing, 2) facilitates abuse and corruption by NOPD officers, 3) contributes to compromising officer fatigue, 4) contributes to inequitable policing by NOPD, and 5) acts as a financial drain on NOPD rather than a source of revenue.”
Wherever the truth lies, the reform of off-duty details is now part of the consent decree and the city is being forced to make court-ordered changes.
The process, however, has been glacial.
A City Council committee has put the OPSE issues on its agenda three times since the beginning of the year to discuss necessary ordinances, and three times the matter has been postponed.
There was a breakthrough Thursday as a City Council committee passed three heavily-amended ordinances to present to the full council. But at the same meeting, the city revealed that the office would not be ready in time to supervise Saints games, one of NOPD’s largest ongoing details, in time for the upcoming NFL season.
Another recent delay has sprouted from two different interpretations of a new state law.
A memorandum filed by the city attorney in the consent decree argues that a new state law sets up barriers to the new system by restricting communication between the OPSE and police officers.
The author, state Senator J.P. Morrell, said his law doesn’t do that at all.
“I would argue first off, as far as stuff that OPSE should be directly covering, they are free to speak to their heart’s content.”
On issues not related to detail assignments, Morrell’s law requires communications to be put in writing. He calls it a simple transparency measure.
“If this is the 'aorta of corruption,' it needs to be held to a higher standard, there needs to be a paper trail of everything and there has to be some assurances to the public,” Morrell said.
The city declined to make Salomone available for an interview, but City Attorney Sharonda Williams said the written communication requirement makes it very difficult to set up policies and procedures.
“Right now, in this infancy stage and in this critical period of establishing the office, we need to have more conversations, more outreach, instructing the officers on how this office is going to be set up, putting in policies, procedures, forms that are required under the consent decree,” Williams said. “So we need to have a better avenue of communicating. And this bill is prohibiting that.”
Since Salomone came on board in May 2012, a foundation for the new detail policy has been set, Williams explained, but there are still a lot of policies and procedures to be ironed out.
“Some of that has been done, but there’s still more to be done and it has to be done within the next six months,” she said. “And we are looking for the court’s guidance in helping us to figure out how we go about doing that.”
Now that his bill has been signed into law, Morrell questions why no city representatives showed up at the Legislature to contest his bill when it was being debated.
“I held the bill in committee for two weeks and to give the city the opportunity to show up and testify why the bill wasn’t necessary. Nothing,” Morrell said. “They did not testify against the bill ever. The bill passed all committees unanimously, and both houses unanimously. So if that is stringent opposition and advocacy against a bill by the city of New Orleans, they got problems.”
Morrell said the city did issue a “red card” to his bill, a routine procedure that simply states the city’s opposition. But when Morrell posed questions specific questions to the city, he said he got no response other than being directed to a set of “Frequently Asked Questions” on the city’s website.
New Orleans Deputy Mayor and CAO Andy Kopplin, however, said the FAQ section was expanded to include answers to all of Morrell’s questions.
Nevertheless, with the city’s objection to his law, Morrell – who has two brothers on the police force – said he has looked more closely into the OPSE and he questions what he sees.
Morrell points out that the city’s own statistics show that the number of detail hours has decreased by more than 50 percent in past two years, even though the office hired a marketing coordinator last September.
“I can’t think of one business where if they hired a marketing person and lost half their book, that guy would still be there,” Morrell said. “Honestly, the longer this process takes, there may not be details anymore.”
Kopplin said the city is just as frustrated as anybody at the slow pace of progress, pointing to delays by the council committee and Morrell’s law among the many roadblocks bogging down the process.