NEW ORLEANS -- The New Orleans Police Department is in the process of overhauling many of its own policies and practices.
And there's one recent change that could alter policing in the city. It’s a move that's already drawing the ire of some officers.
Weeks ago, the New Orleans Police Department adopted a policy on foot pursuits, outlining when cops should or shouldn't chase a person.
To many cops, the new policy appears to discourage them from chasing someone.
"This takes away their ability to fight crime,” said Eric Hessler, attorney and spokesman for the Police Association of New Orleans. “And we truly believe that this is the first policy of many, which is going to be issued as a result of the consent decree that is going to strip the officers of the ability to protect the public.”
The NOPD’s spokeswoman, Remi Braden, said the policy is unrelated to a pending consent decree over the department.
“NOPD is constantly updating and enhancing its policies simply to be a better department,” Braden said in a released statement. “This most recent policy on foot pursuits helps guide officers in making the best tactical decisions, so that the safety of the public, suspects and our officers is not compromised.“
In order to justify a pursuit, cops must have evidence or information beyond simply a person running away from police.
The new policy notes that foot pursuits are “inherently dangerous and require common sense, sound tactics and heightened officer safety awareness.” The goal of the policy is to help officers balance whether to chase, or not to chase.
The new policy lists 15 situations in which an officer should call off or stop a foot pursuit. These include instances in which a cop is unaware of their own location, or if there is inclement weather or darkness.
The policy also forbids cops and bosses alike from criticizing an officer’s decision-making. Because foot pursuits potentially put the police and the public at risk, “no officer or supervisor shall be criticized or disciplined for deciding not to engage in a foot pursuit because of the perceived risk involved,” the policy states.
This is a far cry from three years ago, when top NOPD officials fired a young officer for not chasing and shooting at a fleeing gunman. Stephen Neveaux, of the Fourth District, was fired for cowardice and neglect of duty, and called gutless by his NOPD colleagues.
Neveaux was slow to react, and went to render aid to a gunshot victim instead of chasing the gunman. The city’s Civil Service Commission later reversed the NOPD’s decision, granting Neveaux’s appeal and getting him his job back.
Foot pursuits are commonplace in policing. Cops are heralded when they chase down a perpetrator. Often, the NOPD will put out a press release congratulating officers in such cases for good work. On the other side of the coin, countless times cops come up empty and a suspect gets away.
The Police Association of New Orleans claims the policy handcuffs cops from doing police work.
"We are getting many complaints in regards to officers feeling that they aren't allowed to do their jobs,” Hessler said. “Or they are being pressured on one end to make arrests, but they are being saddled with so many different rules and regulations on how to accomplish that arrest, that they don't coincide, and the job cannot get done."
The changes come amid a planned policy overhaul tied to the pending federal consent decree. The consent decree – entered in court but not yet finalized by a federal judge – calls for the NOPD to review all of its policies within a year, and make sure they follow the law, as well as best policing practices.
Justice Department investigators found numerous flaws within the agency, but the policies and practices regarding foot pursuits did not come under scrutiny. In a lone instance, investigators criticized an unnamed NOPD sergeant who had six shootings within four years, one of which occurred in a foot chase of a man stopped and questioned over his failure to wear a seat belt. Investigators found the cop's tactics questionable.
Raymond Burkart III, an attorney and spokesman for the local Fraternal Order of Police lodge, said cops feel the new policy is a mandate: “Don’t chase bad guys.”
Both Burkart and Hessler said the NOPD previously never had a policy on foot pursuits.
And Burkart questioned why a new policy was needed.
"Why are we not focusing on the important stuff?" he said of the NOPD. "We believe officer safety is paramount, always. And our officers do a really good job of deciding whether to pursue on foot or not."