Apr 262017

Patrick Armstrong

I was expecting more people would attend the NOPD Consent Decree Monitor’s public meeting Wednesday night at the Ashe Center on Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. In conversations about public safety I often hear the mythological excuse that New Orleans’ crime problem has something to do with the Consent Decree, as if crime wasn’t a problem here before 2013. Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, someone who ought to know better, calls our mandate for the NOPD to follow the United States Constitution a “hug-a-thug” program. United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions doesn’t have many nicer or more coherent things to say about the nationwide need for police and criminal justice reform. At the same time, we’re having a loud civic discussion in Louisiana about issues of public safety, and how big a slice of our tax pie goes to incarcerate people. Thank goodness Governor John Bel Edwards and so many legislators are committed to comprehensive, best practices reforms in Louisiana.

With these issues all over the news, I sure thought there’d be more people out on a Wednesday night to hear the progress report. Especially now that OCH has been repaved, restriped, and the street is finished and looking great. With the Consent Decree progress reports I’ve read showing almost universal progress within the NOPD, and walking down a newly completed street improvement project, I walked into the meeting ready to hear more good news.
The handful of folks who did show up to hear the progress report and voice their own concerns made it clear that despite the successes, we’ve still got a long road ahead to get where we want to be.

The most telling part of the meeting took place closer to the end. It had been a dense meeting, with a lot of updates and policy discussed. Serious and significant concerns had come in from audience members, many involving the historic and continued treatment African-American men by the New Orleans Police Department. None of the questions were easy. To the Consent Decree Monitors’ credit, they did not shy away from the hard questions.

But when one young lady strongly spoke up to ask about the Special Victims unit of the NOPD, and how her experience with detectives handing her own report of sexual assault did not match the reports of progress the unit has supposedly made under the Consent Decree, there were few good answers to give her. While the treatment of victims of sex crimes is a key part of the Consent Decree, few updates had been provided on that issue. The point of contact for the Special Victims unit was not in attendance, which understandably limited the responses that could be given.

Though one point hung in the air when the question was asked: why hasn’t the monitoring team spoken with victims of sexual assault? Let the victims speak to their direct experience dealing with the NOPD Special Victims unit, and let the Consent Decree Monitors put that in their report. It was clear that this wasn’t something that was happening on a regular basis. While conversations between the Monitors and victims’ advocates may be helpful, they can overlook key places where police response is not serving New Orleans’ citizens. The best response that could be offered was a promise to follow up with Superintendent Harrison.

One big sign of progress is that we know that promise will be kept. Consent Decree Monitors Jonathan Aronie, David Douglass, and Chief “T” Bowman have the kind of credibility that comes from crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s. What gets done with the information they present is up to the NOPD and the citizens of New Orleans.

That’s what this meeting was about, after all. Right now, the Consent Decree Monitors’ highest priority is helping the NOPD reevaluate recruiting practices and strengthen the training regime at the police academy. These are the high priorities at this time because the NOPD has already developed many of the core policies – use of force, use of cameras, reporting – and now that those are operational, the focus can turn to underlying structures of the department.

And here’s what they mean by operational: Consent Decree Monitors can look at the newly established NOPD policies on key reforms, and examine the data to make sure the NOPD is following their own rules. This is a critical piece of any effectively managed police department, and NOPD has been getting strong results.

There was an update on the use of body cameras, for instance. The NOPD has developed a policy on how the cameras should be operated. The monitors make sure these policies are being followed by looking at police reports where a camera should be in use, and then checking to see that the camera was in use. Following the rules with cameras also provides evidence of compliance with other NOPD policies such as use of force and Constitutional searches, because the monitors can look at the camera footage and make sure all the proper, legal steps are being taken when officers interact with citizens during a stop. The team provided a list of examples.

Which brings us to the overall report that the NOPD continues to make consistent progress on every area of the Consent Decree. There have been big setbacks in some areas, but there are tools in place to correct those setbacks in ways that did not exist before. As Mr. Aronie said, it is unrealistic to expect a police department that never does anything wrong, but it is critical to expect a police department to identify its own problems and take positive actions to correct them. This is taking place in the NOPD right now, and that is a tremendous sign that the reforms are working, despite any setbacks.

The proof will be available in several public reports being readied for public release over the next six weeks. The first will be the NOPD’s Use of Force Report, followed two weeks later by an overall report. The final report on deck is the report from a community survey the Monitors conducted, where officers, members of the public, and individuals who have been arrested. Some of y’all may be intimidated by reports like these, but I’ve read several of them over the years, and they are written to be accessible and informative to regular citizens. The whole purpose is to empower the citizens of New Orleans to know what the NOPD is doing, and engage with our own police department.

Because this is work that needs to be done. The rebuilding of the New Orleans Police Department is this city’s longest running and most important civic construction project. Just like our crumbling roadways need repairs, our civic institutions require ongoing maintenance. Just like our roads, for too long maintenance was deferred when it came to the NOPD. And just like our roads, finally getting around to fixing the problems can mean going over budget and ending up behind schedule. While everyone’s happy with fresh asphalt, smooth streets, and newly painted lanes, no one likes the disruption of road work near their home or business. You can’t have functional streets without the road work, and you can’t have a functioning police force without these reforms.

In each case, the work is necessary. In each case, it will be more expensive and take longer than we want it to. In each case, citizens must demand that we continue with the work that needs to be done even if it is hard work.

And just like New Orleans’ streets will never be “done,” there will always be some work to do with the NOPD. We’re never going to get a trophy that celebrates the one day none of our roads had a pothole and every crime was prevented. But this is work that is worth doing. That civic demand was in evidence Wednesday night at the Ashe Center on Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.

Patrick Armstrong lives in Mid-City and has been a NOLA TrashMOB volunteer for 3 years. His views are his own and do not reflect official positions of any organizations or groups he is a part of. He posts inane musings on Twitter @panarmstrong.

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