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The Police Monitor 

Charles Maldonado on Susan Hutson, the NOPD's independent police monitor

A New Orleans city ordinance requires the Office of the Independent Police Monitor (IPM) — a semi-autonomous, non-investigative arm of the Office of Inspector General (OIG) — issue "at least one public report each year, by March 31, detailing its monitoring and review activities," along with statistical information about the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD).

  And it's done that, releasing two annual reports totaling 11 pages, as well as one three-page memo, released in October 2010.

  In an interview Jan. 4, IPM Susan Hutson told Gambit we'll soon see a great deal more activity from her office, starting with a public report to be released this month on the IPM's soon-to-be-redesigned website. Moreover, Hutson, who has headed up the department since June 2010, is hoping to expand her office's reach, pursuant to an operations agreement — known as a consent decree — now in the works between NOPD and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), which last year released a scathing report accusing the department of a number of serious civil rights violations and negligence in internal investigations. While the DOJ won't offer any firm timeline, the consent decree is expected to be issued in the first half of 2012.

  "We think we're going to have an expanded role in this consent decree," Hutson says. "We're going to have duties."

  As an oversight office, IPM has, thus far, shown restraint. That's in part due to its budget, which is modest, and its stated responsibilities, which are limited.

  "This was my wish list that I gave to the council and to the mayor's office," Hutson says. She's in her office inside the OIG's marking up the IPM's 2012 budget request. The document lists 15 full-time staff members, whose salaries total $1.4 million, plus $172,000 for office supplies and operations costs. "I got no additional increases."

If one were to rank the city's budget priorities by dollar allocation, IPM would fall well behind synthetic turf for Behrman Park in Algiers, a $732,000 one-year contract the city finalized last summer. The office of the IPM, on the other hand — which was created in 2009 to monitor what's often identified as one of the most dysfunctional police departments in the country — expects $418,132 to pay its four full-time staff members this year. (IPM's operations budget is doled out as needed from the OIG's $6 million-plus total budget, but much of it is used to employ 27 other people.)

  As for what it does, IPM is exactly what its name suggests: a monitor. Its most important duty is monitoring internal misconduct investigations performed by the NOPD's Public Integrity Bureau (PIB). PIB shares certain information — details of complaints against officers, disciplinary actions, use of force reports — with IPM through a shared database. IPM uses that data — figuring in an accused officer's history and the seriousness of a complaint — to make a non-binding recommendation as to how aggressively PIB should investigate an allegation and dole out discipline. Even in those cases — probably between 250 and 275 in 2011, Hutson says — where residents take their complaints directly to IPM rather than PIB, Hutson's staff must yield to PIB.

  Talk of expanded IPM duties under the consent decree raises concerns for officers, who will face three layers of scrutiny — PIB, IPM and a federal oversight office — once the agreement takes effect.

  "They feel like they're getting dumped on," Hutson says. "I think there is a morale problem. They're worried about what's going to happen with this consent decree."

  Jim Gallagher, a retired NOPD sergeant and the chairman of the civil service and labor committees for the New Orleans Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the largest of the city's three police associations (the other two are the Police Association of New Orleans and the Black Organization of Police) says his group will fight any such proposals.

  "While the Fraternal Order of Police supported the creation of the Independent Police Monitor and continue to support Ms. Hutson in her current endeavors, we would strongly oppose any expansion of her duties and/or powers, especially as concerns the investigation of police officers," Gallagher writes in an email to Gambit. "It is the duty and responsibility of the Independent Police Monitor, as per city ordinance, to refer any allegations of wrongdoing or misconduct by police officers to the New Orleans Police Department for investigation."

The office already has begun to flex its muscle, and as a result faced opposition from FOP. Last fall, OIG requested expanded access to officer evaluation reports, which are now classified under the City's Civil Service rules. OIG attorney Suzanne Lacey Wisdom has identified Hutson's office, in particular, as a key beneficiary should the Civil Service Commission vote to open the records.

  For her part, Hutson wishes the request had gone further. She had hoped for access to psychological evaluations.

  "Eventually, I'd like to get all that, but I can tell you right now that the associations aren't going to agree to that," she says.

  The immediate goal of the request, Hutson says, is to identify discrepancies with NOPD employee evaluations.

  "If you've got somebody with huge complaints and [disciplinary actions] and somebody who had a bunch of uses of force that were inappropriate and somebody who writes horrible reports, then you look at an eval [evaluation] and he has perfect evals — you've got a problem," she says.

  The commission has yet to even call a vote on Hutson's proposal. Police association attorneys, as well as Civil Service Commissioner Joseph Clark, have raised serious objections — saying the request is a violation of privacy protections, and say the protections were written into civil service rules for good reason.

  In the commission's November meeting, Clark noted that OIG and IPM have the option to petition a court for evaluation access. FOP and OIG staff are in the process of negotiating a consensus report.

   "Our last session ended with the attorney for the OIG stating she wished to do more research on the issue and asking that any further discussions be placed on hold," Gallagher writes. "The Fraternal Order of Police and the other parties agreed."

In the meantime, Hutson plans to roll out her office's first real policy report, which concerns the same subject as the earlier memo: PIB investigations of "critical incidents."

  "The first thing I did when I got here in June 2010 was look at how they handle what we call critical incidents. Those are officer-involved shootings, custody deaths, etc. because, of course, Danziger and [Henry] Glover, etc.," Hutson says. "In 2010, I went to, maybe, 10-15 shootings total. There was no review process after. The department did not have a robust review process."

  The Department of Justice agreed, complete with ironic quotation marks, in its investigation of the NOPD last year. "NOPD policy does not set out a clear process for reviewing officer-involved shootings or other critical incidents," the report said. "Our conversations with NOPD officials indicate that PIB has in the past conducted administrative 'hearings' that consisted primarily of the PIB commander meeting with the officer to discuss the shooting."

  Hutson says officer-involved-shooting investigations have improved somewhat. PIB is more involved in controlling officer-involved-shooting scenes. But some problems persist. Hutson says she's seen cases where involved officers were not properly separated from witnesses after shootings. She even names one case where the involved officer appeared to be overseeing evidence collection.

  "That's completely unacceptable," Hutson says. She has recommended NOPD look to her former employer as an example of better practices.

  "One of the things I said was you really should move toward what Los Angeles was doing," she says. "They were having problems having real investigations of shootings and critical incidents. And so, when the consent decree came in, it changed how they did what they were supposed to do. So we can get ahead of the consent decree, which is coming here as well."

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