Report: NOPD faces multiple systemic challenges
By Brendan McCarthy
NEW ORLEANS — At the beginning of the year, as murders spiked and public outcry reached an apex, the New Orleans Police Department announced that a high-profile consultant would come to town to assess a police force struggling to control crime and overcome internal struggles.
The exercise produced a 188-page reform blueprint, which the department made public in July as police leaders vowed to "professionalize" operations. Police Superintendent Warren Riley assured he would act quickly on the recommendations, which relied on "community policing" strategies.
But the final product gave no clue as to the department's current state: NOPD brass and consultants had edited out a slew of findings by the consultants and the department's own officers, who pointed out systemic weaknesses. Rather, the document reads like a list of sound practices for starting a department from scratch: posing solutions to problems never identified.
Draft versions of the report, however, included a comprehensive, unit-by-unit assessment, along with often blunt analysis and complaints from front-line officers, who by all accounts were encouraged by Riley to speak openly and honestly. One of those drafts, obtained by The Times-Picayune, includes a list of the consultants' findings and responses to them by nearly 30 NOPD leaders.
The documents detail a department debilitated by low morale, weak command-and-control and a lack of money, staff and equipment. The consultants found that overtaxed officers struggle under pressure to accomplish more with less staff, time and money. In addition, the report repeatedly highlights a disconnect between Riley and his command staff.
In turn, the disconnect trickles down to the city's foot soldiers, who often don't clearly understand or support some of the policing tactics touted publicly by their chief, such as "zero tolerance" arrest policies.
The documents offer a rare window into the inner workings of a police department tasked with the dual challenges of battling intractable violent crime and rebuilding after a flood. Led by Lee Brown, the former police chief of Houston and New York, the consultants from Brown Group International conducted more than 200 interviews with NOPD's rank and file, analyzed five years' worth of crime statistics and undertook several on-site visits.
Drafts not released
For months, the NOPD has declined to release draft versions of the consultant's findings in response to public records requests. One official from the superintendent's office, Capt. Juan Quinton, initially said the document didn't exist, then later said the department didn't have a copy of the consultant's reports or any of the corresponding documents.
Brown Group International executive C.O. Bradford said his group delivered to the department copies of the findings, the officer responses, along with a fully edited comprehensive assessment. According to Bradford and more than a dozen people interviewed, BGI's comprehensive findings accurately portray the department.
Sgt. Joe Narcisse, commander of the NOPD's public information office, has declined repeated requests to make Riley available for an interview about the report's findings.
Although many have credited Riley with seeking an honest internal review, it's unclear what reforms, if any, have been implemented. As outlined in the plan of action, Riley created a new position, titled change manager, which the report calls the "most pivotal position in the determining the future of the NOPD."
Shortly after naming a change manager, Riley rescinded that promotion and replaced Maj. Lawrence Weathersby. When questioned about the report Friday in a City Council budget hearing, Riley announced that the department would hold a news conference Monday to update the progress. He said officers have been assigned to 22 committees to oversee tasks, adding that the department "continues to implement" recommendations.
Several high-ranking sources said they've seen little action.
"People were concerned that nothing would happen as a result of this report," said a high-ranking officer, who requested anonymity because the officer is not allowed to speak to the news media according to department protocol. "We've been studied over and over again, but nothing ever happens. We want change, we just don't think things will happen."
Recruit training questioned
Among a host of concerns, consultants and officers highlighted the department's ailing recruiting and training system. The department has failed to replenish its depleted ranks, which shrank quickly because of attrition after Hurricane Katrina.
To fill street patrols, officers are routinely pulled from support roles to answer service calls, consultants found.
A committee of officers wrote that the department needs to ensure "adequate attention to support and service units as a way to provide officers with the tools they need to do the job."
The ranks are stretched even thinner because officers also have had to cover mundane duties once handled by noncommissioned, civilian employees of the city.
After the flood, Mayor Ray Nagin laid off nearly 3,000 of the city's civil service employees. The NOPD has since had difficulty filling its 247 budgeted civilian positions.
Officers wrote, "Police technicians in Records are minimum wage employees and are leaving for better-paying jobs and working conditions in the fast-food industry."
This leaves the agency struggling to cover not only police vacancies, but also noncommissioned staffers.
The lack of patrol officers prompted Riley to mandate 12-hour shifts and 60-hour workweeks through December for officers in a majority of districts.
The NOPD has slightly more than 1,350 commissioned officers, of which 1,263 are on active duty. It is one of the lowest levels in years.
In one encouraging sign, attrition leveled off several months ago. The department also hopes to graduate a large recruit class, more than 62 cadets, who should start patrolling the city before year's end.
But officers, in remarks to BGI consultants, pointedly questioned the quality and training of some of those recruits. In the rush to bolster the ranks, one group of officers wrote, the department has pinned badges on less-than-stellar candidates.
"The Department is devoting time and resources to recruits who are grossly inadequate in sentence structure, grammar and spelling," the officers wrote.
Training officers reported that they worried about the motivation of many recruits and felt that some applicants are signing up to join the NOPD "simply because of the need for a job or benefits."
Zero tolerance criticized
The day-to-day operations of the department also faced intense scrutiny. Consultants found that the department, with its limited ranks of patrol officers, responds daily to a bevy of service calls unrelated to crime. False alarms, medical calls, traffic accidents and other mundane incidents require too much attention from already-taxed officers, the draft report notes.
Officers recommended the department reinstitute the false-alarm section, which fell prey to cuts after Katrina. Also, officers lobbied for the screening of medical calls, for traffic division personnel to handle all accidents, and for the creation of a streamlined report form used strictly for noncrime incidents. Such moves would allow officers to devote more time to arresting and investigating criminals.
Yet, according to the findings, officers have low confidence in the "zero tolerance" tactics instituted by NOPD higher-ups, which emphasize making low-level arrests.
"Zero tolerance practices leads to multiple arrests, causing citizens to further distrust the police," officers wrote.
They recommended a focus on quality of arrests over quantity.
That issue become a point of contention recently when the Metropolitan Crime Commission released a study showing that half of the arrests the NOPD made in the first six months of the year involved traffic and municipal offenses.
The private watchdog group recommended police use more discretion, issuing citations for municipal or traffic offenses rather than arresting and jailing people.
Riley disputed the criticism, saying officers use discretion on minor offenses but often arrest people on minor charges if they have extensive criminal histories. Halting the arrests of certain people "will end up ultimately in chaos in certain parts of New Orleans," he said, adding that minor crimes sometimes blossom into larger ones.
Beyond the low confidence in policing tactics, some officers worried about their safety. "Several officers reported an element of fear when walking beats after dark," the consultants' report states.
The recommendation: Continue walking beats, just not at night or in inclement weather.
Toll taken on morale
Amid all the challenges presented by the city's fractured post-Katrina landscape, officers said the department also suffers from a simple lack of money, equipment and the ability to perform basic investigatory procedures.
Trailers double as offices. The crime lab lacks key equipment and certification. Evidence storage is in peril, crowded among trailers. The records division, whose employees share desks, splits minuscule office space with the city's taxicab personnel and some city computer programmers.
Air-conditioning systems in several of the more modern police stations work only sporadically. Consultants found that district detectives are buying their own investigative equipment, such as tape recorders and VCR/DVD tools. Officers rely on the goodwill of neighboring parish sheriff's offices, which assist in drug testing and the creation of photo identification lineup cards.
The lack of money owes to a mishmash of issues with federal, state and city entities, all complicated by the often slow-footed recovery bureaucracy. The consultants did not lay blame on any specific agency for the financing issues.
But the lack of money and manpower clearly has taken a toll on the rank and file's morale.
Officers also called communication between the ranks spotty and inconsistent. And with fewer officers being pushed to make more arrests, officers reported feeling that they work constantly under the directive, "Do more with less!" officers wrote in their responses to consultant's findings.
In the fight to quell crime, police feel they aren't getting much help. With a broken social service system failing to support the city's most dysfunctional families, police believe they are left to bear the brunt of the ills of urban poverty.
Meanwhile, at least locally, citizens show "insufficient interest" in assisting the police in investigations, the consultants reported.
The police also had some biting criticism for the district attorney's office. Officers told consultants the office lacked sufficient training, experience, adequate pay and pretrial preparation time.
Community policing urged
In opening the doors and all of the books to Brown's team, the NOPD took the rare step of putting itself under the microscope. While it is common for groups, such as RAND and the Vera Institute, to offer their own studies and reports on the NOPD, rarely do those recommendations become gospel.
The last consultant to come to town and undertake a vast assessment of the NOPD was Linder & Associates, a New York team that drastically altered police operations in 1996 under Superintendent Richard Pennington.
Following John Linder's plan of action, the department adopted a "zero tolerance" approach to crime and flooded the streets with uniformed patrols. Results were charted through computerized statistics, a system called COMSTAT, under which top brass are held accountable for the numbers at weekly feet-to-the-fire strategy sessions. It still exists today.
Violent crime dropped precipitously after the recommendations were instituted. Murders fell from an all-time high of 425 in 1994 to a modern low of 168 in 1999, the only year in more than two decades in which the city reported fewer than 200 murders.
However, Brown's draft assessment, reflecting the view of both consultants and officers, now attacks those same zero tolerance policies. Brown's assessment concentrates instead on community-policing tactics that would require officers to build relationships and work with citizens, government agencies and others on quality-of-life issues.
Working on a $238,000 contract financed by a consortium of business groups, consultant Brown and his associates spent several months with NOPD personnel.
Consultants interviewed more than 200 local law enforcement members and compiled countless questionnaires, all filled out anonymously by participants.
The group then used the input to create a 250-page assessment of the department. They presented it to top members of the NOPD, including Riley, in a two-day retreat in early June, according to internal department records, a BGI executive and more than a half-dozen interviews conducted with people who either attended or were briefed on the retreat's proceedings.
Bradford, the BGI executive, called the assessment a "very accurate" portrayal, adding that consultants also analyzed NOPD data, records and statistics spanning five years.
"The assessment was based on a lot of feedback," Bradford said. "It painted a picture of the current status of the organization. ... We wanted to unfilter to the administration what their department felt, what their perceptions were."
The officers were asked to mull the findings and respond with their recommendations. Participants were not allowed to leave the room with paperwork or files. Several participants interviewed on condition of anonymity called the consultant's work thorough and accurate.
Robert Stellingworth, president of the New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation, questioned whether all of the "perceptions reported in the report" were based on fact, as opposed to personal vendettas against the chief.
"These findings are not based on fact, they are based on what some people said," he said. "This was supposed to be used in a constructive way for the department to understand the perceptions held by some. Some of them are very incorrect. The final report which was released is correct."
Bradford acknowledged that some might feel the assessment is flawed because it includes officer perceptions that differ from than the view held by the administration.
"We strongly disagree," he said. "We wanted the superintendent to know those perceptions, those feelings were out there. We captured those perceptions as reality."
Copyright 2007 New Orleans Times-Picayune
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