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Watching the Watchdogs 

Born of violence and addled by politics, a citizen panel launched during the lame-duck administration of Mayor Marc Morial has persevered to produce a scholarly, "street-smart" report that could improve police-community relations -- if Mayor Ray Nagin and the new City Council can rise above transitional politics and adopt its recommendations.

Chaired by City Councilman Marlin Gusman, Morial's chief administrative officer from 1994-2000, the report by the 20-member Police-Civilian Review Task Force is marked by critical thinking and refreshing independence. For example, the task force found that the Morial administration all but de-fanged the city Office of Municipal Investigation (OMI), a watchdog agency created 20 years ago after the police killings of four people in Algiers during an NOPD investigation into the slaying of a policeman. (The task force was formed after two unarmed men died following separate confrontations with police, also in Algiers. Appropriately, the first town hall meeting on the report will be in Algiers; public hearings are scheduled for Aug. 15-16.)

These days, both Morial and Gusman are attempting to shield themselves from a corruption scandal by asserting they sent any allegations of wrong-doing to OMI -- the very agency they gutted. As chair of the task force, Gusman deserves the sharp public rebuke he has received for delaying release of the report for three months. Now, one happy consequence of Gusman's political miscalculation is that a more thorough public review of the report may be inevitable. Gusman seemed to acknowledge as much last week. "Like it or not, this task force has taken an independent light and we are going to see it to its independent conclusion," he told the panel.

Morial formed the task force in June 2001 to "evaluate the creation of a citizen's review board to consider complaints against police officers." Since its first meeting on Sept. 11, the panel has heard from 13 different experts, including federal prosecutors and FBI agents, and criminal justice professor Samuel Walker, author of Police Accountability: The Role of Citizen Oversight. The task force also reviewed materials by the U.S. Department of Justice, the National Institute of Justice, OMI and the police Public Integrity Division (PID).

The task force notes in its report that civilian review boards have not lived up to expectations in other cities -- a view now widely shared by experts on police-community relations. The report concludes: "The most important, top priority to insure citizen oversight and departmental accountability is the establishment of an independent monitor."

A monitor -- preferably an attorney "of high integrity with a reputation for fairness and effectiveness" -- would be retained on a three-year contract paid by the city (but not NOPD). States the task force: "The Monitor would not independently investigate individual citizen complaints but would review investigations conducted by PID and OMI. He or she would not be involved in criminal investigations."

The monitor would review policies, procedures and complaint patterns and provide regular reports to the mayor, the City Council, the police chief and the public. The expressed goal of the monitor is to build public confidence and support "for what is being done right." Police Superintendent Eddie Compass' delegate to the panel, Deputy Superintendent Warren Riley, last week immediately announced NOPD's support for the monitor proposal.

Officers accused of criminal misconduct already may undergo investigation by PID, OMI, and a grand jury convened by the district attorney. A civilian review board would add another layer of bureaucracy to the process. Meanwhile, Riley and other panel members expressed concern that the upcoming hearings on the task force's report could invite "police bashing" and "venting."

We think NOPD should seek out criticism, using the "customer service" model of policing urged by the Justice Department. Agents of both OMI and PID should attend the task force meetings ready to take preliminary complaints from any citizen or visitor to our city. Such proactive measures will build community support for other task force proposals, such as financial incentives to field training officers who meet high standards of discipline.

Meanwhile, OMI, which has paid for itself many times over according to a report by Morial's 1994 transition team, must be restored immediately. Nagin's first call should be to his own transition team co-chair, David Marcello. A lawyer, Marcello was also the transition team leader for Morial's 1994 task force report on OMI, which praised the "well-qualified" staff (led by the late director Peter Munster) for a "remarkably good job with its bare-bones budget."

The 1994 OMI task force report began with what now is a familiar ring: "[I]n New Orleans, where corruption and favoritism in government have been somewhat accepted historically as a way of life, the public's confidence in government has become severely eroded. Indeed, public figures may have acted the way they have in the past ... because they had good reason to believe the public would let them get away with it."

Nagin has pledged to combat this "way of life," and the public is responding. Now, we need healthy watchdogs over police misconduct and public corruption at City Hall. We need OMI and PID as public watchdogs -- and we need an independent monitor to watch the watchdogs.

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