Alexandria has been beset by racial tension since a two-hour police siege and shootout Feb. 20 left two SWAT team members dead and three other officers injured as they tried to serve an arrest warrant at a house in an African-American neighborhood. The lone gunman, a convicted felon armed with an AK-47 assault rifle, also was killed in the gun battle. Tensions in the central Louisiana city continue to simmer.
New Orleanians well know that the recent events in Alexandria could happen here -- because they have. The NOPD killings of four blacks in Algiers in 1980 and the 1994 cop-orchestrated murder of brutality witness Kim Marie Groves are just two examples. The "Algiers Incidents" and the Groves murder each fostered brief episodes of reform at NOPD. The Algiers killings sparked the creation of the city's Office of Municipal Investigations (OMI) under the late Mayor Dutch Morial. Sadly, the city's omnibus watchdog agency was effectively de-fanged by Dutch's son, Mayor Marc Morial. The Groves killing led to the creation of the Public Integrity Division (PID) and the relocation of the police internal affairs division to a site outside NOPD headquarters.
The police shooting death of an unarmed black man, Erik Daniels, in Algiers in June 2001 served as catalyst for another vehicle for reform: the Police-Civilian Review Task Force. District D City Councilman Marlin Gusman, who served as former Mayor Marc Morial's chief administrative officer from 1994-2000, chaired the task force. Last July, the task force recommended an independent civilian monitor over NOPD "to ensure citizen oversight and departmental accountability." We endorsed that idea enthusiastically -- but we're still waiting to see it implemented.
An independent police monitor would review 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 investigations by PID and OMI. The monitor, preferably an experienced lawyer with high integrity and a reputation for fairness, would have a three-year contract and report to the City Council.
Ten years ago, the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department hired a police monitor. Since then, the number of excessive-force suits has plunged from 381 in 1993 to just 71 last year. In addition, monitor oversight of police has helped sheriff's deputies reduce unsafe practices in traffic stops -- a leading cause of police deaths by shooting. We should learn from Los Angeles' experience.
Most observers, from top NOPD brass to civil rights activists, believe that the independent monitor concept is better for New Orleans than the more controversial civilian review board. Given such long-standing consensus, we were relieved to see the monitor proposal finally come before the New Orleans City Council last month. Per council protocol, the matter was referred to the its budget committee, which Gusman chairs. We hope the committee will move on the proposal quickly, but experience has taught us not to be too optimistic. The monitor proposal should have been implemented during the Morial years, but it wasn't -- and neither Morial nor Gusman has offered a good reason why. Gusman did a fine job chairing the task force; he now should shepherd the proposal through to adoption. And soon.
Unfortunately, Gusman used the recent council action as an opportunity to blast a Times-Picayune editorial that criticized him for delays in releasing the task force report. We were more heartened by the response of Councilmembers Jackie Clarkson and Oliver Thomas. "This is an important issue and my concern is that we would further damage citizen confidence if this effort is not adopted into New Orleans' culture," Thomas said at the meeting. "I hope we make an investment to make it work and that the funds are adequate to make it work." Clarkson additionally favors an ombudsman or citizen advocate to ensure that civilians' complaints are treated fairly -- a separate recommendation of Gusman's task force.
Important questions remain. Who will select the monitor and the ombudsman? How much money will each cost? Where will the money come from? But the larger question everyone should be asking is, how much longer will it take to implement this idea? At the very hour that the Alexandria police SWAT team was preparing to execute its fateful arrest warrant, the New Orleans City Council was voting to send these and related issues to the budget committee. That panel convenes in the Council Chambers at 3 p.m. Wednesday, March 12. We urge the committee to move quickly. This is one reform that's much needed, much agreed upon and, by now, long overdue.