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Devil in the Details 

The 'system' is essentially an unregulated flea market, a freelancers' bazaar for rent-a-cops

Last week was supposed to be a good week for Mayor Mitch Landrieu. It was the run-up to his first anniversary in office. He had planned an uplifting State of the City speech in which he could tout the progress of his freshman year. And he was to be featured glowingly on 60 Minutes on Sunday, May 1.

  Then reality came crashing in.

  In the midst of the positive reviews in which he had hoped to bask, news broke of yet another scandal at the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) — and this time the errant behavior occurred on his watch. Unlike all the other crap he's had to deal with since May 3, 2010, this mess could not be blamed on Ray Nagin or BP. Landrieu has to own this one.

  The latest scandal involves, almost predictably, abuses of the private "paid detail" system, which is not really a system at all. Therein lies the problem.

  For decades, cops have been able to legally supplement their income by working private security details outside their regular hours. That's fine on its face, but there have been abuses over the years — so much so that one federal study of NOPD called paid details "an artery of corruption" in the department.

  Here's why:

  Paid details are not controlled by NOPD. The "system" is essentially an unregulated flea market, a freelancers' bazaar for rent-a-cops. That allows entrepreneurial officers to "employ" their supervisors on the side. It doesn't take a genius to see how that can undermine departmental integrity and the chain of command. It also can lead to inside deals, conflicts of interest, appearances of impropriety (if not actual impropriety) and reduced public confidence in NOPD.

  Truly, at NOPD, the devil is in the details.

  The most recent example: One of Police Chief Ronal Serpas' closest friends at NOPD, 8th District Commander Maj. Edwin Hosli, formed an LLC that was retained last fall by the company that provides traffic camera services to the city. Traffic violations alleged via the cameras must be confirmed by cops, so the city's traffic camera vendor — with the blessing of the Department of Public Works, which previously oversaw the camera program — hired Hosli's company to provide cops on paid details to review the tickets.

  Turns out the cops hired by Hosli included Serpas' son-in-law and one of the chief's bodyguards, which prompts a familiar question: What did the chief know and when did he know it? (And, if he knew nothing, how does he explain such ignorance?)

  As scandals go, this one is a perfect storm. It involves traffic cameras, which are very unpopular; the police chief, who was brought in to reform the department; friends and family of the chief; and the fact that it all broke on the mayor's first anniversary in office.

  The only good news for Landrieu is he appears to have had nothing to do with it personally. Still, it's now his mess to clean up.

  So far, Landrieu has made the right moves. He ended the deal with Hosli's company, put police review of the tickets under NOPD's Traffic Division (where it should have been all along), and turned the scandal over to the city's inspector general, who is independent of the mayor's office. Landrieu also has ordered Serpas to get control of paid details so they are centrally managed from within NOPD. The mayor wants a plan by May 15.

  Landrieu says the scandal "only highlights how deeply embedded the problems with details are within the NOPD."

  Hopefully, by the end of Year Two, Landrieu will be telling us how he and Serpas have cleaned up the paid detail system.


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