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Fear of retaliation 

Alex Woodward talks with NOPD Chief Michael Harrison about a police monitor report detailing fears of retaliation from officers

click to enlarge New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison spoke at the Independent Police Monitor forum last week in the New Orleans City Council chambers.

Photo by Alex Woodward

New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison spoke at the Independent Police Monitor forum last week in the New Orleans City Council chambers.

Within his first official week as Superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD), Michael Harrison endured a two-hour autopsy of his department's history of retaliation, led by the Office of the Independent Police Monitor (OIPM). Harrison agreed there is a problem.

  "They're absolutely right," Harrison told Gambit. "It's about changing the culture."

  Twenty years following the death of Kim Groves, who was murdered as a result of filing a police brutality complaint against NOPD officer Len Davis, Groves' daughter Jasmine — wearing an "I Am Kim Groves" T-shirt — addressed a crowd inside a packed City Council chambers Oct. 20. Days before, Jasmine (who was 12 years old when her mother died) received a proclamation from the city honoring her mother.

  In 1994, Kim Groves witnessed Davis beat a young man in her neighborhood, and she filed a complaint with NOPD. Davis retaliated — he hired gunman and alleged drug dealer Paul Hardy, who shot and killed Groves on Oct. 14, 1994. Davis' case is one of NOPD's lowest points, with a years-long investigation revealing not only Groves' execution but a drug trafficking ring involving several NOPD officers. In 2011, U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan sentenced Hardy to life in prison. In 2005, a jury in Berrigan's court handed Davis the death penalty.

  A 2014 report from the OIPM, headed by Independent Police Monitor Susan Hutson, reviewed complaints and reports of retaliation from within NOPD and from citizens between 2011 and 2013. The report ("NOPD Retaliation Policy, Pattern and Practice") charted much-needed progress following the Davis case and the federal consent decree handed down by the U.S. Justice Department in 2012 — but, Hutson says, "More needs to be done."

  "There are incidents that happened a long time ago, and there are some that are quite recent," said Harrison, who was officially named NOPD chief in mid-October after taking the interim spot in August following Ronal Serpas' retirement. "Our No. 1 priority is reducing citizen fear of retaliation, reducing officer fear of retaliation, and being transparent about the whole process — being open to suggestions and inviting, so citizens and police officers can give us input as to what this policy should look like, and getting feedback as to the policy we make, and proving we used their feedback to make that."

According to the report, the OIPM found only 12 complaints (from the public and within NOPD) referencing fear of retaliation in Public Integrity Bureau (PIB) records. Some complaints involving several officers were recorded in investigations as only one officer.

  Between 2011 and 2013, the OIPM found 63 "contacts" from the public with complaints or fear of retaliation, with the most common complaints including allegations of harassment, retaliatory police action (like arrests and tickets), and police making threats against people to keep them from filing a complaint. In that same time frame, OIPM received 26 "contacts" from NOPD employees fearing or reporting retaliation from other officers. Common actions include intimidation of complainants or potential witnesses, and reassignment or threat of reassignment.

  Of the 63 complaints filed by civilians, only 5 percent were "proven" allegations by the PIB — while the PIB had a proven rate of 40 percent for the 26 interdepartmental complaints.

  The report found that NOPD's retaliation policy doesn't define how officers can be protected from retaliation or offer defined categories of retaliation, nor does it "protect civilians for any protected activities they may engage in outside of the official PIB process."

  "Without clear guidance on which specific acts may constitute retaliation," the report says, "NOPD employees and PIB investigators lack direction to judge their own or others' actions."

  The OIPM recommends that NOPD adopt training for retaliation policy and develop a "more detailed definition" of retaliation with specific examples. The report also says NOPD employees should be able to report misconduct directly to supervisors, the PIB or to the OIPM, and that those reports of misconduct should not be used against complainants for retaliation. The OIPM says the PIB should be responsible for tracking complaints, and employees who have endured retaliation should be given access to counseling and NOPD assistance.

  "I'm not going to tell you there aren't flaws of character, I'm not going to tell you there aren't bad cops. There are," said Michael Glasser, president of the Police Association of New Orleans (PANO). "There's bad city councils, bad mayors, bad senators; human nature is human nature. We do our best to screen and vet and train and monitor our cops. We don't always succeed. We try to. If we don't, we make it better."

  Glasser, who has accused former chief Serpas and Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration of mismanaging NOPD and significantly lowering department morale, said he had been a victim of retaliation after Hurricane Katrina.

  "We were placed out in a FEMA trailer after Katrina so we wouldn't be involved in the things that were going on in the police department," he said. "People like (NOPD Captain) Bruce Adams, (Major Raymond) Burkhart, myself and other colleagues, we were placed there so we could not be effective in affecting the change we want."

"Our No. 1 priority is reducing citizen fear of retaliation, reducing officer fear of retaliation, and being transparent about the whole process." — Police Superintendent Michael Harrison

  Earlier this month, the Civil Service Commission reported to NOPD that those officers — who, as the "Administrative Support Unit," reviewed officer complaints in that City Park FEMA trailer for years — must be laid off or demoted by the end of the month. PANO believes Serpas' policy of arranging his "commanders" in place of those ranked lieutenants created a loophole around civil service and effectively banished the captains to their self-described "trailer trash."

  "The retaliation that you fear sometimes is also within, and we are still dedicated to making this police department the kind of police department that works for you," Glasser told the crowd. "We are entrusted with your safety and that trust goes a long way and it means something to a lot of us."

The Oct. 20 forum ("Blow the Whistle: Residents and Officers Raise Voices to End NOPD Retaliation") also offered a platform for current and former NOPD officers to offer suggestions for drafting NOPD policy. Simon Hargrove, president of the Black Organization of Police, condemned the officers in the Davis case.

  "I don't want the public to think we didn't care," he said. "We were sickened. They wear the same uniforms as us."

  Hargrove suggested NOPD implement an anonymous tip line for officers, who often fear retaliation even if they're not involved with another officer's misconduct but are asked to keep quiet — effectively making them an accessory.

  Ira Thomas — who retired from NOPD after nearly 30 years on the force and currently is chief of police at Southern University at New Orleans — said once officers graduate from the academy, they are "introduced to police subcultures" and told to "forget what you learn in the academy, I'll teach you the real rules."

  "I know you're going to do the right thing, but reform starts from the top down," he told Harrison, adding that Harrison needs "to create an environment where NOPD is reminded to honor its code of ethics."

  Retired NOPD officer Roland Doucette said the police department does not have a policy protecting citizens from contact from officers after citizens have filed a complaint against them. PIB Deputy Superintendent Arlinda Westbrook said changing that policy "is not something we're waiting for the consent decree to start. I can commit to you today that will be part of the policy," she said.

  "I spent 10 years working at PIB," Harrison told Gambit. "I worked side by side with Chief Westbrook. I worked for her and I understand her job and the job I used to do, and I've also heard those citizen complaints before. What a lot of people don't realize is a lot of PIB cases are the result of police officers, but we are compelled to keep them anonymous so there is no retaliation against [the officer]. While some officers may feel like that, we believe we've protected many and we want to do a better job of doing that. It's about changing culture, and it's going to be difficult at times, but we're up for that challenge. ...

  "I think police officers feel a lot better now than when we first brought [Hutson] in, and feel a lot better about making complaints about things that aren't so right, but we still have a ways to go. We want to make sure nobody has any fear of retaliation — no police officer, no citizen."

  Hutson and the OIPM plan to release a report on racial profiling next year.

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