Council committee meets on alleged racial profiling by NOPD

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New Orleans Independent Police Monitor (IPM) Susan Hutson and Inspector General (IG) today presented to the New Orleans City Council's Criminal Justice Committee the results of two highly critical reports on the New Orleans Police Department's stop and frisk programs. The IG report, which examined 10,000 field interview cards generated over two months in 2011, concluded that because of sloppy and incomplete data-gathering on officer field interview cards, the office was unable to determine whether racial profiling was taking place during so-called "Terry stops," where officers briefly stop, detain and possibly search subjects. Under the U.S. Supreme Court's 1968 ruling in Terry v. Ohio, officers must have a reasonable suspicion that a crime has occurred to conduct a stop and frisk.

"This is something that is very much in the public eye. It's been in the public eye since I've been here," Hutson said.

NOPD Chief Ronal Serpas told the City Council today that citywide data shows that over the last year, only about 49 percent of field interview cards completed were for black male subjects.

("I don't think that African American men comprise 49 percent of the population of the city of New Orleans," said Louisiana ACLU director Marjorie Esman, responding during the public comment portion of the meeting. Serpas later responded that in 90 percent of violent crimes in New Orleans in 2011, victims and witnesses identified a black male suspect. More than 70 percent of victims, he added, were black. Further note: Public comment on the profiling issue became very contentious. At one point Council Vice President Jackie Clarkson told speaker Randolph Scott to "hush" after he criticized her. The audience booed in response. Clarkson [for some reason] decided to escalate, calling on a police officer to "quiet down" the crowd, which in fact had the opposite effect. Finally, District A Councilwoman Susan Guidry calmly said she wanted to "move on," and the meeting moved on.)

"About 70 percent of field interviews are done because the officer saw the circumstance and took action," Serpas said, and others occurred where citizen complaints were coming in.

Still, said Deputy Police Monitor Simone Levine in a phone interview with Gambit, a whistleblower informed auditors that, during the period in question, some police districts were submitting information for encounters that didn’t even involve suspicion criminal activity, such as interviews of traffic accident victims. There was no way to distinguish between those and cards generated from police stops.

“We can’t evaluate the data. We can’t say who exactly was stopped,” Levine said.

(More after the jump)

It was therefore impossible to determine whether profiling was taking place. That, along with ambiguity on Terry stop policy, would easily have allowed it to happen unchecked.

“Teaming that possibility and that issue up with the fact of how many complaints we receive on a regular basis of racial profiling and discriminatory stopping, that was the reason that prompted the review in the first place,” she said, adding that those complaints continue.

“In the last couple of months, we’ve received some pretty outrageous complaints. For example, a teenager from an Uptown area who reported, while sitting on his mother’s porch, being approached by an officer who didn’t believe that ‘he looked like he lived there,’ quote-unquote,” Levine said. “The officer pulled him off the porch. He cuffed him. He searched him. And eventually he released him. But, you know, the question is how will that man see the police as he turns into an adult in our city."

The offices examined more than 10,000 single subject digital field interview cards — created over two months in 2011 — about subjects officers have stopped. (Thousands of other cards from the same period were left out because they involved multiple subjects and did not indicate which person was the subject of which police action.) Quatrevaux's report focused on data recorded on those cards, while Hutson's focused on NOPD policy and practice in conducting Terry stops.

"We found of those, 50 percent of the time, there was no answer as to why a search occurred,"Quatrevaux said. "Of those where it said there was no search, 12 percent gave a reason for a search."

Quatrevaux's audit also found that officers weren’t required to record a legal basis for brief stops and detentions.

"That is information an officer will be required to explain in court," Quatrevaux said.

Hutson's report found that written policy did not properly explain how to determine whether a stop is legal. Even if officers are trained on reasonable suspicion, Levine said, officers are most often disciplined for deviating from written policy, not spoken training guidelines.

The NOPD should update its mobile field interview software to require that officers enter a narrative and a legal basis for each stop, Quatrevaux said. It should also eliminate from the program's menu non-criminal and redundant "stop type" categories, including the current category "other." Quatrevaux said these modifications would help ensure that officers are only making legally justifiable stops.

Serpas said he agreed with Quatrevaux's report.

"By and large, additional modifications have been discussed within the NOPD ... Let me be clear, I agree with Mr. Quatrevaux," Serpas said. He added that changes to the software have been discussed, but the department has not, up to this point, had the funding. "It's just a matter of going forward with funding secured, so that you can pay programmers."

Quatrevaux and Serpas both estimated that the changes would cost somewhere in the hundreds of thousands, rather than millions. Correction: Serpas estimated the cost to be in the hundreds of thousands. Quatrevaux believes the modifications would be much less. Council president Stacy Head said she thought it could be included in the yearly budget set aside for implementation of the federal consent decree.

"There is a solution to profiling — racial profiling and other kinds of profiling," Quatrevaux said. "In our view the estimated cost is not great."

Serpas was more critical of Hutson's report, though.

"I think it took them about 10 months to tell us what the Justice Department told us," in its 2011 investigation of the department, Serpas said.

Serpas said the department began conducting intensive reviews of field interview cards in 2011 and performs regular integrity checks on officers.

"We do integrity checks. We do hundreds of them a year," Serpas said. "We're looking for anything illegal or anything that involves profiling."

As to the IPM's criticism about written policy, he said that the basic guidelines for Terry stops in Louisiana have been well established for decades, and officers are well aware of them.

"Our report encompasses a long time. It encompasses before during and after the consent decree," Hutson said and is thus more comprehensive than the DOJ report. "We stand by this report. And let me note that the consent decree does not get rid of the Independent Police Monitor."

During public comments, NAACP New Orleans president Danatus King said he was skeptical of the department's commitment to change.

"The proof is in the pudding. There's comments that have been made that things are improving, things are getting better, but the proof belies those claims." King mentioned a recent WVUE report, in which the station obtained an email from 4th District Lt. John Deshotel telling his sergeants to "pinpoint bicycles," saying "hood neighborhoods can probably be beneficial."*

"When an officer talks about 'hood' neighborhoods, that is racial profiling. That is racial profiling," King said.

*Serpas, later in the meeting: "It's regrettable that the Lieutenant spoke in shorthand, in a police jargon."

Guidry: "In police parlance, what does 'hood' mean?"

Serpas: "it means a neighborhood and it might mean a neighborhood in need of help."

Audience: 10-15 seconds of laughing.

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