Police Chief Ronal Serpas says police officers use legitimate reasons — not racial profiling — to determine who they should stop, but records about the stops are skewed by flawed software.
New Orleans Police Chief Ronal Serpas found himself on the hot seat last week during a meeting of the City Council's Criminal Justice Committee, which heard a couple of critical reports about NOPD's stop-and-frisk policies and the digital field interview cards the department uses to record stops. The issue: racial profiling.
The March 27 committee meeting came amid a chorus of allegations of discriminatory policing by the NOPD. Members of the local chapter of the NAACP held daylong protest vigils at City Hall, and NOPD brass came under political fire during a pair of tense meetings two days earlier, on March 25.
At last Wednesday's meeting, Independent Police Monitor Susan Hutson and New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux addressed the council committee before Serpas got to speak. Each summarized highly critical reports from their respective offices on NOPD's stop-and-frisk program. Both reports were released in mid-March.
"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 of the NOPD's stop-and-frisk practices.
Quatrevaux's report concluded that because of deficiencies in NOPD's field interview entry software and insufficient data collection, it was impossible to determine whether New Orleans cops have been profiling.
The offices examined more than 10,000 single-person digital field interview cards — created over two months in 2011 — regarding the people officers have stopped. (Thousands of other cards from the same period were left out because they involved multiple subjects and did not indicate which of the people interviewed was the subject of which police action.) Quatrevaux's report focused on data recorded on those cards, while Hutson's focused on NOPD policies and practices for conducting stops.
"We found of those (10,000 cards), 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 the NOPD's field interview card software did not require officers to record a legal basis for brief stops and detentions. The legal standard is "reasonable suspicion" that a crime has occurred.
In a phone interview with Gambit, Deputy Police Monitor Simone Levine said a whistleblower informed auditors that, during the period in question, some police districts submitted field interview data for police encounters that didn't involve suspicion of criminal activity, such as interviews with traffic accident victims. Shortcomings in the software diluted the data to the point of worthlessness, she said, because there was no way to distinguish accident victim cards and cards generated from police stops — the focus of the audit. It was therefore impossible to determine whether profiling was taking place.
"We can't evaluate the data," Levine said. "We can't say who exactly was stopped."
At the "global level," Serpas said at the meeting, NOPD data appeared to show that field interviews were conducted fairly and based on need, not other factors.
Serpas said citywide data showed that over the last year about 49 percent of completed field interview cards were for black male subjects. He conceded that black men don't comprise 49 percent of the city's population, but he said that in 90 percent of violent crimes in New Orleans in 2011, witnesses and victims — 70 percent of whom also are black, he added — identified an African-American male suspect.
"About 70 percent of field interviews are done because the officer saw the circumstance and took action," Serpas said, adding that the remainder occurred mostly in response to citizen complaints. Showing a map of where civilians were stopped, Serpas said the majority were happening in areas where residents most often complained of crime. However, he agreed the department could do more.
At the committee meeting, Quatrevaux said if officers were required to fully record a legal basis for each stop, it would minimize the possibility profiling would occur. "There is a solution to profiling — racial profiling and other kinds of profiling," he said. "In our view the estimated cost is not great."'
Serpas said he agreed the field interview software needed improvement but that the department lacked the funding.
"By and large, additional modifications have been discussed within the NOPD," Serpas said. "Let me be clear, I agree with Mr. Quatrevaux. It's just a matter of going forward with funding secured, so that you can pay programmers."
Council President Stacy Head was optimistic the cost of the improvements could be included in the yearly budget set aside for implementation of the U.S. Department of Justice consent decree and could perhaps be funded with federal grant assistance.
Hutson's companion report found that NOPD policy didn't explicitly spell out what constitutes "reasonable suspicion." While the report commended the NOPD for academy and in-service training on the standard for suspicion, Levine said that, in most cases, offices are disciplined for alleged violations of written policy.
Serpas criticized Hutson's report, saying it was in many parts just a reproduction of the DOJ's 2010-2011 investigation of the NOPD. The DOJ report led to the 121-page consent decree first unveiled last July and approved by U.S. District Court Judge Susie Morgan in January.
"I think it took them about 10 months to tell us what the Justice Department told us (in its earlier report)," Serpas said. Hutson's findings, he said, were based on departmental practices that have since been improved. Serpas said the department began conducting intensive reviews of field interview cards in 2011. The Public Integrity Bureau, NOPD's internal affairs unit, now has two FBI agents assigned to assist its work, and the department performs regular "integrity checks" on its officers.
"We do integrity checks," Serpas said. "We do hundreds of them a year. We're looking for anything illegal or anything that involves profiling."
Hutson took issue with Serpas' characterization of her findings as outdated.
"Our report encompasses a long time," Hutson said. "It encompasses before, during and after the consent decree." Therefore, she said, the report is more comprehensive than the DOJ's. "We stand by this report," she said. "And let me note that the consent decree does not get rid of the independent police monitor."
Earlier in the week, tensions between Mayor Mitch Landrieu and local activist groups led to two simultaneous public meetings about NOPD.
After weeks of demands from Danatus King, president of the NAACP's New Orleans chapter, Landrieu held a meeting at First Emmanuel Baptist Church March 25 to address community concerns about NOPD — specifically racial profiling. That meeting was about two-and-a-half miles from Christian Unity Baptist Church, where King simultaneously held a meeting on the same topic.
"There are lots of issues in the city of New Orleans," the mayor said. "We have to deal with them forthrightly."
Among audience members who spoke at the mayor's meeting was the Rev. Raymond Brown, who noted an improvement in the NOPD since the unveiling of the department's consent decree and its subsequent approval.
"Since the New Orleans Police Department instituted the consent decree, racial profiling has slowed down," Brown said. "It has not stopped."
The consent decree includes provisions designed to eliminate discriminatory stops and searches. The Landrieu administration, concerned about the projected $55 million cost of implementing the consent decree, has since moved to vacate the agreement. The city has filed an appeal of Morgan's order. Landrieu and Serpas insist that NOPD can make the improvements without federal involvement.
At the other meeting, King read a list of demands. Among them: an immediate end to racial profiling, the firing of any officer found to engage in racial profiling and reforms in the way NOPD conducts and records field interviews during stops.
King also demanded that the city "sign" the consent decree. In response, Malcolm Suber, a member of the group Communities United for Change (CUC), noted that the city signed the agreement last year, then changed course. Last summer, CUC unsuccessfully sued to intervene as a named party to the consent decree. In February, the group filed a brief opposing the city's motion to vacate the decree, arguing that the DOJ should put the NOPD under federal receivership.
Suber repeated the suggestion at the meeting. "They don't want to be a part of this? Take them over," he said.
Receivership is the same course of action Landrieu has suggested for Sheriff Marlin Gusman's office in the wake of a proposed federal consent decree aimed at cleaning up conditions at the local jail. Landrieu wants to quash that settlement because, he says, it carries a price tag of tens of millions of dollars a year for the city — on top of the $55 million cost of the NOPD consent decree. The mayor said Gusman has not been wise in how he has spent the millions the city already gives his office every year.
Several other speakers at the NAACP meeting, including WBOK-AM radio host and General Manager Paul Beaulieu, excoriated Landrieu and the City Council for their absence. (District B City Councilwoman Latoya Cantrell was the only council member to attend both meetings.) One audience member even called for a recall drive against Landrieu.
"I think it's significant that the people we elect to represent us politically are not here," Beaulieu said. He then turned to Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Parker of Memphis, Tenn., who was in the audience. Parker is a member of the DOJ's legal team in the NOPD consent decree litigation. "Mr. Parker, that's why we are dependent on the Justice Department," Beaulieu said.
Meanwhile, Deputy Police Monitor Levine told Gambit that her office continues to receive frequent reports of profiling from residents.
"In the last couple of months, we've received some pretty outrageous complaints," Levine said. "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.' ... 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?"