We see signs of slippage in the ongoing reform of the New Orleans Police Department. Both Mayor Marc Morial and Police Superintendent Richard Pennington must act quickly before NOPD slips out of control again. Time is of the essence, especially in light of the U.S. Department of Justice's recent refusal of the mayor's request to give up its long-running brutality probe of NOPD.
One major problem is a lack of official effort to publicize the two city agencies that investigate police misconduct. There are little or no public service announcements (which are free of charge), press releases, or information on the city's official Web sites about the complaint-making process at the Office of Municipal Investigation and the NOPD's Public Integrity Division (PID). This, from an administration that works overtime to manipulate the media.
That's a big change from six years ago. Then-PID Maj. Felix Loicano, Pennington's hand-picked commander, mounted a media blitz to advertise the investigative agency's move from NOPD headquarters to offices at 118 N. Rocheblave St. At the time, we noted how the old IAD seemed to shun publicity -- and the fact that IAD seldom advertised its services beyond the phone book. That has been a longstanding complaint against the bureau by the standard-setting International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).
Well, guess what? We recently noticed the city's renewed lack of zeal in trumpeting the services of both OMI and PID at the worst possible time -- Mardi Gras. At the mayor's annual post-Mardi Gras press conference, Chief Pennington proudly observed that he had received "very few" civilian complaints of misconduct by his officers during the 11-day Carnival season. When we noted that toll-free phone numbers for PID and OMI were not widely publicized during Carnival, Pennington replied: "Those [phone] numbers are out there. The public knows. They are on the Internet."
First, we doubt that many locals, let alone visitors, know the phone numbers for PID or OMI. One might argue that a caller could get PID's phone number from NOPD's non-emergency number, 821-2222. But, if a resident or a visitor is upset enough to call PID in the first place, he or she should need to make only one call. That's what "user-friendly" is all about.
Second, OMI still does not have a toll-free phone number. And the investigative agency's move to a suite of offices at 1340 Poydras St. has not been widely publicized.
Third, PID has a toll-free number on NOPD's Web site, but it was not listed under the hyper-link for Mardi Gras emergency numbers.
Save for the phone numbers buried among lists for police divisions and "other" city agencies, there is no detailed information about the services of either PID or OMI on the Web site.
Fourth, NOPD publishes brochures for tourists and convention visitors that list "numbers to know." Neither OMI nor PID is on the list. The same brochure claims the department is "leading the charge in police reform at home and all across America." Let's see the mayor and the chief back that claim up with some meaningful, reader-friendly data. Such information is long overdue.
We further note that in a 1991 IACP management study of NOPD, the IACP concluded: "The absence of reliable citizen complaint and internal affairs is a glaring department management failure. ... Publication of citizen complaint and internal affairs statistics will enhance credibility with the public that the New Orleans Police Department is policing itself."
The IACP report was one of several studies that served as stepping stones to the election of Morial as mayor in 1993 and his appointment of Pennington as chief in 1994. Ten years later, however, the public is still not getting this critical information about police conduct on a regular basis and in a user-friendly way.
PID figures, with analyses, should be attached to NOPD's quarterly crime reports. PID reports should spell out not only who is making the complaint (visitor, resident or arrested person) but also the outcome of the investigation. How many complaints are rank-initiated and how many are filed by civilians? In addition, how many officers have been assigned to desk duty (and where) pending the outcome of an investigation? And how long has he or she been "sitting on a shelf" awaiting clearance to go back on the street?
Morial has resisted efforts by some U.S. Justice Department officials to sign a consent decree, which would commit the city to continue reforms at NOPD -- under federal court oversight -- long after Morial and Pennington are gone. We support such a consent decree for NOPD.
There's no question NOPD has greatly improved since the "bad old days." We also have a mayor who is without peer when it comes to putting on a press conference. Now let's get some action on a solid, longstanding recommendation for police reform. Shore up the slippage at NOPD.