Valentine's Day at City Hall this year may be like no other as three veteran police commanders -- captains Timothy Bayard and Harry Mendoza, and Lt. Henry Dean -- are all appealing separate disciplinary actions by Police Chief Warren Riley. The appeals are being heard this week by a civil service hearing examiner.
The police chief is expected to testify in at least one of the three civil service hearings scheduled for Wednesday -- Valentine's Day. There may be no love lost among key figures in the cases, despite the professional demeanor exhibited last month during the first round of testimony in two of the cases.
In addition to the high drama of respected veteran commanders standing trial for breaking NOPD's internal rules, the disciplinary hearings offer a window into the command structure of a police department still trying to right itself 17 months after Katrina. For example, testimony in one case last month revealed the existence of a covert "special police unit" that reports exclusively to Riley.
Much is at stake for everyone involved.
"I got a 30-year career here," says Mendoza, who was fired from his post as the head of NOPD's Traffic Division. He is appealing a July 28 dismissal for allegedly failing to devote sufficient time to his police duties.
"I have a strong need for the men and women with me in the traffic division to see me cleared of these allegations as their leader. ... I don't believe the Riley Administration can continue to survive the crime problem, given the lack of foresight and failing morale."
Chief Riley responded in kind -- on the witness stand. "The department would be extremely dysfunctional if other captains worked as Captain Mendoza did," the chief testified.
At stake is more than the outcome of the individual cases. The still-battered city leads the nation in homicides per 100,000 residents -- regardless of whose population figures you believe. NOPD also is severely understaffed, losing cops at a rate of 17 a month last year, and the rate reportedly has increased since Jan. 1. Perceptions of an undisciplined force -- or the uneven administration of punishment -- can hasten the exodus of demoralized veteran cops and impair the department's handicapped recruiting efforts, observers say.
UNO criminologist Peter Scharf worries that the disciplinary cases will "alienate" seasoned commanders. "These cases send a troubling organizational message -- 'Don't be the highest tree or you will get clipped,'" Scharf says.
Riley is scheduled to testify Wednesday (Feb. 14) against Bayard, who conducted one of the NOPD's first organized rescues of thousands of citizens trapped by Katrina's floodwaters. Bayard also testified before a U.S. Senate committee reviewing the city's failed response to the storm.
Bayard, the vaunted commander of the vice and narcotics division and founding chair of a federally backed regional criminal strike force, is appealing a written reprimand in connection with the police arrests last June of two federal witnesses employed at the Bangkok Spa in the French Quarter. The case triggered Bayard's transfer from those posts.
A 33-year veteran of the NOPD, Bayard has applied for a job as chief of the Covington Police Department. He is seeking to remove the reprimand from an "otherwise exemplary record" at NOPD, said lawyer Gary Pendergast, who represents all three defendants.
Meanwhile, testimony in the Mendoza case is set to resume Tuesday (Feb. 13) and may continue into Valentine's Day, Pendergast said
In a separate but related case also set for Wednesday, Dean, the erudite president of the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) and assistant commander of the traffic division, will appeal a 30-day suspension for allegedly lying to internal affairs investigators probing the whereabouts of Mendoza.
For months last year, Riley's punishment of Bayard and Mendoza infuriated many of NOPD's rank and file. In their view, the two commanders (along with SWAT team commander Capt. Jeff Winn) provided the NOPD's only command presence during the chaotic aftermath of Katrina. (Riley was assistant superintendent at the time).
Almost overnight, however, much of cops' ire turned toward District Attorney Eddie Jordan Jr. after the Dec. 28 indictments of the "Danziger 7" cops on Katrina-related murder charges. But Bayard and Mendoza have hardly been forgotten. Officials from two police organizations, FOP and the Police Association of New Orleans (PANO), have been monitoring their hearings.
Supporters say the two captains ran highly-motivated divisions. Cops under their command did not loot or desert the city after Katrina -- unlike dozens of other cops. Instead, supporters say, the three commanders ran afoul of a new police administration seeking to eliminate threats to its power.
NOPD officials and city attorneys say the disciplinary cases are based on evidence and the officers' own testimony. They suggest the discipline of popular commanders is evidence of the tough, "no favorites" approach to discipline and professionalism that Riley promised the city during his swearing-in -- three months after Katrina.
UNO criminologist Scharf offers a third view: "This collection of cases is a divisive and discretionary squandering of professional capital and energy that could have been handled through other more constructive mechanisms, such as counseling, active supervision, etc."
Civil service hearings are conduc-ted in a drab-brown conference room of the seventh floor of City Hall. The Spartan surroundings belie the complicated issues involved in the cases, not to mention the careers hanging on the outcome.
Riley, wearing the crisp-white shirts of NOPD commanders, testified one day last month how a covert police investigation led to the firing of Mendoza, a former SWAT team commander.
It started with a flier.
Dated March 18, 2006, an anonymous circular leveled criminal allegations of payroll fraud against Mendoza. The allegations proved false, but the flier, rife with misspellings and bad grammar, also claimed that Mendoza rarely went to work. It was signed: "The Police."
Riley testified that he contacted Deputy Chief Marlon Defillo, commander of the Public Integrity Bureau (PIB). "I told him, take a look at it," Riley said of the letter. "See if there is any validity to it."
Hearing examiner Jay Ginsberg, a lawyer, asked the chief why he didn't contact Mendoza's supervisor, then-Assistant Superintendent Steven Nicholas.
"Internal investigations are between PIB and myself," Riley replied. "We have a special unit that focuses on covert operations as well as criminal operations," Riley said. "They can investigate anyone I assign them to [investigate]."
Riley testified he approved the use of photographic surveillance after agents spotted Mendoza visiting health clubs in Metairie or working paid details on the West Bank during regular working hours.
According to a copy of the surveillance log of the probe and covert photographs, which Gambit Weekly obtained via state public records laws, the investigation of Mendoza began April 4, 2006. He is identified in the reports as "target."
Mendoza's alleged movements during "payroll hours" were recorded, along with the license numbers of civilians with whom he came into contact. The surveillance also recorded the "total number of hours dedicated to the NOPD" for each day. The summaries gave Mendoza credit for only the time he went to his office in the Traffic Division trailer, located behind Municipal Auditorium.
The following excerpt is typical of the summaries:
"April 5, 2006.
"Day #2. 1:13 p.m.-1:31 p.m.: Target arrived at work in assigned police vehicle. 1:31 p.m. Target departed office via Basin Street gate to I-10 West, exited Causeway Blvd. (Target was lost in heavy traffic). See surveillance photographs #1&2. 2:06 p.m.: Target returned to work. ...
"4:25 p.m.-6:45 p.m.: Target traveled to ... Elmwood Shopping Center, Harahan, La., where he met an unknown white male in a black Mercedes Benz and an unknown white male in Grey BMW. All three cars opened trunks and removed gym bags. Target and company entered Elmwood Fitness Center.
"7:10 p.m.: Target was lost by surveillance in heavy traffic in the area of Veterans Highway and Causeway Blvd. (Jefferson Parish).
"Total number of hours dedicated to the NOPD for this day: 1 hour and 47 minutes."
The next day, agents reported Mendoza drove his marked police Expedition unit to Armstrong International Airport.
He met four passengers, who arrived by private jet, and escorted their white van to the Windsor Court Hotel. At 1:15 p.m. the following day, the surveillance team photographed the uniformed Mendoza outside Galatoire's Restaurant in the French Quarter. He went inside, then reappeared two hours later, loading at least four passengers into his police vehicle, the log states.
A black Dodge Durango limo followed. The caravan proceeded to the airport, apparently unaware they were under surveillance.
"...[A]ll passengers boarded a waiting private jet as target waved good-bye," a PIB agent wrote. "See photos # 18&19."
During a total of two weeks of surveillance in April 2006, Riley testified, agents covertly photographed Mendoza playing tennis, working private security details, hitting high-end restaurants, escorting civilians to private jets and working out at health clubs in Jefferson Parish -- all allegedly during his police shift.
PIB agents later raided the traffic division's trailer, seizing Mendoza's computer and records. Investigators also took a statement from assistant commander Dean, who stated that his commanding officer worked in the Traffic Division office every day, that he stayed for the entire shift, "and the only time you did not see Captain Mendoza was when you were out of the office," according to a disciplinary letter.
Dean's statements contradicted PIB's 14-day surveillance reports, which concluded that Mendoza devoted approximately 16 hours and 51 minutes to his duties during that time.
On July 24, Riley suspended Dean for 30 days. Four days later, the chief demoted Mendoza from captain to lieutenant, then fired him for failing to devote sufficient time to his police duties.
"I think Henry [Dean] is widely respected among the police officers in the department," says FOP spokesman Donovan Livaccari, an NOPD sergeant. "Like any good commander, Capt. Mendoza delegated responsibilities to his subordinates, as did Lt. Dean. Ultimately, the job in the Traffic Division was done and done well."
Mendoza's rumored association with the Landrieu political family has raised expectations (not yet met) of a legal counterattack depicting the internal probe as politically motivated. Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, a leading opponent of Nagin in last year's mayoral election, promised during the campaign that he would conduct a nationwide search for a new chief. There were rumors on the street that Mendoza might be the top cop if Landrieu was elected.
Ironically, the police surveillance of Mendoza ended just as the mayoral primary was heating up. Crime was returning to the depopulated city, and Nagin found himself under fire for his choice of Riley as police chief.
On April 10, 2006 -- "Day #5" of the surveillance -- the surveillance log noted:
"11:33 a.m.-11:40 a.m.: Target drove to 1200 block of St. Charles Ave. and entered Landrieu Campaign Headquarter. [sic]"
The 7-minute visit was the only hint of politics in the PIB surveillance log. "They were looking for a Hatch Act violation," Mendoza said later.
PIB agents raided the traffic trailer April 25, three days after Landrieu landed a runoff spot against Nagin. NOPD has denied that the Mendoza probe was politically motivated. After a day of testimony last month, the fired captain insisted: "I think it's political."
So far, Mendoza's official defense has centered on a city policy that gives police commanders latitude in setting their work hours and a personal management style that relied heavily on cell phones and loyal subordinates.
"Nobody is saying he's not getting the job done," Mendoza attorney Eric Hessler said.
In testimony, Riley acknowledged he could find no fault with the operation of the traffic division, which plans Carnival parades, presidential visits and other special events. The chief suggested any credit belonged to Lt. Dean, who was usually in the office, and not to Mendoza, who often was elsewhere.
"Did [Mendoza] ever fail to live up to [his] responsibility?" Hessler asked Riley during testimony last month.
"There were things that had to be tweaked," Riley answered, "but no --" Hessler cut him off and asked, "It was being run adequately?"
"By Lt. Dean," Riley answered.
"Who was telling Lt. Dean how to run the unit?" Hessler shot back.
"I imagine, Lt. Dean," Riley retorted.
Those familiar with both commanders say Mendoza called the shots while Dean focused on ministerial duties, such as furlough requests. Mendoza adds that PIB was fixated on his time in the office. "They missed everything that didn't happen at the trailer," he told a reporter.
For example, he says, he met with U.S. Secret Service agents at City Park to plan security for the April 10 visit of First Lady Laura Bush.
Mendoza also argued that he spent time covering the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift after his night watch lieutenant was transferred, time not covered by the PIB surveillance. Riley said the probe showed the night watch was "irrelevant."
Mendoza argues that he was in constant contact with his unit and the commanders via cell phone. Indeed, many of the 174 surveillance photos obtained by Gambit Weekly show Mendoza talking on his cell phone. Riley counters that Mendoza did not produce sufficient phone records to show he was devoting as much time to his NOPD duties as his private details. Mendoza answered that many of his communications were by phone text messages, which are not retrievable.
Mendoza is expected to produce evidence of his police work during the surveillance period when testimony resumes this week.
Meanwhile, attorney Hessler contends that Mendoza abided by a civil service policy that gives managers flexibility in structuring their work hours -- in exchange for being exempt from overtime pay. "They lack an understanding of what is expected of an exempt employee during a 24-hour operation," Hessler said of NOPD. "We're playing by the rules."
Riley acknowledged that NOPD has not asked civil service to amend its policy to address concerns about captains devoting sufficient time to police work. "We are reviewing it to make sure we have a policy that makes sure we address this issue particularly," the chief said.
Mendoza said his management style is at the core of the case. He said he seeks to cultivate the trust and confidence of his immediate subordinates. Captains make decisions and interact, he says. "It is not a job where you are grounded to one spot."
Under his command, Mendoza says, "Lt. Dean was grounded" at the traffic trailer. The division's sergeants were supervising individual officers on the street. Meanwhile, Mendoza says, he was interacting with the community and other police supervisors to help the recovery of the unit.
Per Riley's instructions in March 2006, Mendoza says, he began networking to prepare his division for the next hurricane season while NOPD worked on a broader recovery plan.
During a racquetball game with a Mississippi River pilot at a suburban health club, Mendoza says, he began to formulate a disaster plan for resupplying his unit by river barge. Mendoza adds that it was his "personal contacts" that got electricity hooked up to the traffic division's trailer. "We got the faxes up by the end of April," he says, adding that officers were still using portable toilets.
During his testimony, Riley said the NOPD's 32 captains are a "pipeline of information" and, as such, "they have to be involved on a day-to-day basis with their personnel and the community."
"Do you believe this can be done from another parish?" Deputy City Attorney Joseph DiRosa Jr., who is prosecuting the case for NOPD, asked Riley.
"No," Riley replied.
Captains must be visible to their subordinates and the public and therefore are expected to be in their offices, going through their "in-basket" and remaining available at any time to the top brass, the chief says. Riley adds that, although captains have a certain level of autonomy as to how they run their units, "it does not relate to how they come to work -- and if they come to work."
"I have a strong need for the men and women with me in the traffic division to see me cleared of these allegations as their leader."
Capt. Harry Mendoza, head of NOPD's Traffic Division (pictured above in an NOPD surveillance photo)
- The surveillance team photographed Capt. Mendoza entering the Green Acres Country Club in Jefferson Parish on April 20, 2006, where he played tennis with another NOPD officer for two hours and 19 minutes on a Thursday afternoon.