The civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) ended its eight-year investigation of the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) last week, and Mayor Ray Nagin greeted that news by suggesting there is now no need for an independent monitor of NOPD. We strongly disagree.
We applaud the efforts of the mayor and Police Chief Eddie Compass to remove NOPD from the feds' watch list. NOPD has come a long way since 1994, when an international human rights organization declared that the department led the nation in citizen complaints of both police brutality and corruption.
But law enforcement officers carry awesome powers, and with those powers must come accountability. During its investigation, the Justice Department persuaded NOPD to end a number of ill-advised practices. As recently as last year, for example, NOPD ordered police officers to stop choking suspects to prevent them from swallowing drug evidence. At DOJ's prompting, NOPD instead adopted a less hazardous and more constitutional alternative. With DOJ now out of the picture, an independent monitor is the best option for objective oversight of police policies in New Orleans.
Despite support for such a monitor from a wide range of knowledgeable observers (including civil rights lawyers, Chief Compass and other police brass), Nagin is cool to the idea. In the wake of the DOJ decision to end its oversight of NOPD, the mayor appears ready to let the monitor proposal languish on the City Council's calendar, where it has been stuck for more than a year. (Commentary, "Still Waiting," March 4, 2003). "I'm not pressed for it right now," Nagin said last week. The Justice Department's recent decision "even lessens the need for [a monitor] right now," he added. We disagree. We think now is the perfect time to ensure -- and codify -- a long-needed reform.
The proposal in question calls for an independent monitor who would review police policies, procedures and complaint patterns and make regular reports and recommendations to elected officials, NOPD and the public. He or she would not be involved in criminal investigations but would monitor police misconduct probes by the police Public Integrity Bureau and the city Office of Municipal Investigation. The monitor, preferably a lawyer with a reputation for integrity and fairness, would have a three-year contract and report to the City Council.
This proposal was the recommendation of a 20-member citizens task force formed by Mayor Marc Morial in 2001. It was probably the last, best idea of the Morial Administration. Before leaving office, Morial told Gambit Weekly that he regretted not institutionalizing the hard-won police reforms of the 1990s. Indeed, Morial ignored our pleas to enter into a consent decree with the Justice Department to anchor those reforms.
Mayor Nagin should not make the same mistake as his predecessor. History shows us that police reform requires constant vigilance.
"The fact that the Justice Department is no longer there should increase the need for an independent monitor -- not decrease it," says Mary Howell, a civil rights lawyer and former member of the Morial citizens task force. "The history of these problems with the police department is that we wait until some disaster happens and then we try to fix it. The whole point of the independent monitor is that it is proactive, preventive, consistent and institutionalized."
Last week, Nagin said he is "pretty comfortable" with the current level of oversight of NOPD from outside entities such as the private Metropolitan Crime Commission (MCC). But Raphael Goyeneche, president of the MCC, cautions that the nonprofit, pro-law enforcement organization is quite different from a civilian police monitor.
"The fact that the MCC has a presence in the community and receives information on administrative and ethical wrongdoing does not elevate us to the level of an independent monitor," Goyeneche says. "To say there is not a dire need for it right now is probably true, and it is a wonderful place to be, but history has shown that there will be problems that will crop up from time to time. Having an independent monitor system in place will be a benefit to this police department and to this community."
Nagin enjoys the company of Peter Scharf, a nationally renowned criminologist and director of the University of New Orleans Center for Society Law & Justice. Scharf compares civilian oversight of police to a "1960s fantasy."
"I don't see those mechanisms as the principal driver toward police integrity, nor does our upcoming study for the Justice Department," Scharf says. "The major mechanisms that drive integrity are coming from within." Scharf favors increased resources for "internal controls," such as computer-assisted early warning systems of police misconduct and better screening and training of police supervisors.
We favor a balance of both external and internal controls. We do not have that right now. We need a full-time, independent monitor to assure the public that the police department is being managed as well as it can be. We have seen the consequences of inadequate oversight of NOPD; they are too horrible to repeat -- again.