Independent monitor urged for New Orleans police

Copyright 2006 The Times-Picayune Publishing Company

Brutality complaints revive 2002 proposal

NEW ORLEANS, La. — Responding to recent complaints of police brutality, a New Orleans City Council committee Thursday urged Mayor Ray Nagin's administration to find the money to establish an "independent monitor" to review investigations into alleged police misconduct.

The idea of such a monitor has been kicking around City Hall for years, but with no move to put it into reality.

The cost is estimated at $250,000 a year, and the council's Budget Committee said the city needs to ensure money is in place for at least three years to have a chance of hiring a top-flight monitor.

The idea was first proposed in 2002 by a 21-member Police-Civilian Review Task Force appointed the previous year by then-Mayor Marc Morial. The panel's chairman was Marlin Gusman, at the time a councilman and now the city's criminal sheriff.

Triggered by public outcry over the fatal shooting of an unarmed Algiers youth by police in November 2000, the task force initially set out to study the idea of creating a civilian review board to investigate complaints against police.

But after deciding that similar boards had failed to work well in other cities, the panel settled on an independent monitor as a better option to bolster citizens' confidence that charges of misconduct were being investigated and appropriate changes made.

The group said the monitor should not investigate complaints but should review the way police complaints were received and investigated. It said he or she should report regularly to the mayor, the council and the police superintendent.

The panel said the independent monitor also should "perform a complete review of (the Office of Municipal Investigation) and report on its operations and viability."

The OMI and the Police Department's Public Integrity Division were the two city agencies empowered to investigate complaints about police. The OMI also investigated complaints about other city workers, but it has ceased to function since Hurricane Katrina.

The council held a hearing on the monitor proposal in February 2003 and gave it a qualified endorsement. Although members said they liked the idea, they questioned how much it would cost, where the money would come from and how the position would be filled.

In an effort to iron out the details, the council sent the matter to the Budget Committee, of which Gusman then was chairman. After that, nothing more was heard of the idea.

It resurfaced last month when the council listened to more than an hour of testimony from angry residents and community activists about alleged misconduct and brutality by New Orleans police.

According to the group Safe Streets/Strong Communities, the misdeeds included threats, cursing, public strip searches, unnecessary force, overuse of Mace, planting of evidence, racial profiling, racial epithets, thefts, and demands for payments or favors in return for reduced charges. The victims generally are poor, black or Hispanic, speakers said.

Led by Councilman Eddie Sapir, the council then revived the idea of creating an independent monitor.

Police Superintendent Warren Riley told the committee Thursday that he opposes civilian review boards but supports the idea of an independent monitor. "We want transparency. We want everyone to hear the facts about these high-profile investigations," he said, adding that in the end such a procedure would enhance the department's credibility.

All sides agreed that the monitor should be independent of the NOPD and should have an independent source of money, probably a grant from either the federal or state government or a foundation.

Mary Howell, a lawyer who has long worked on police brutality cases, said having a monitor could save the city money by reducing the number of brutality incidents and the number of lawsuits.

"This is something we really want to see happen," said Sapir, whose term expires next month. "This should not die because of budgetary constraints."

"It's only a small amount of money, but the return on it is just priceless," said Councilwoman Renee Gill Pratt, Budget Committee chairwoman.

Except for a brief appearance by Riley, no high officials from the Nagin administration were present for the discussion.

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