NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison should be allowed to continue the process of reforming the New Orleans Police Department into the next city administration, but the Orleans Parish Jail and the Sewerage & Water Board both remain “completely broken” and in need of total systemic overhauls, outgoing City Councilwoman Susan Guidry told a group of civic activists Tuesday night.
Guidry, a civil attorney and Mid-City neighborhood leader before her election to the District A seat on the City Council in 2010, said she was immediately confronted by the magnitude of problems with the criminal-justice system in the city. She served as first co-chair and then chair of the council’s criminal-justice committee for her entire eight years in office, leading the charge for fiscal accountability at all the city’s criminal-justice agencies by demanding ever more detailed spending plans from them prior to approving their budgets each year.
Following the Danziger Bridge and Henry Glover shootings, the New Orleans Police Department’s reputation was at a serious low when both Guidry and Mayor Mitch Landrieu took office in 2010 and invited the U.S. Department of Justice to help craft a package of reforms. The consent decree that resulted, though costly and at times controversial, has made the difference in the NOPD between then and now like “night and day,” Guidry said at a meeting Tuesday night at the Rotary Club of New Orleans Riverbend.
The additional burdens on officers imposed by the consent decree and then-Superintendent Ronal Serpas were initially unpopular within the department, but Guidry said that Harrison has been successful at both implementing those reforms and improving morale. This year, Harrison oversaw the first decrease in the the murder rate in two years, almost returning to its 2014 low of 150 killings.
“I do hope Latoya [Cantrell] chooses to keep him on,” Guidry said. “He’s such a real person. You can just feel the respect from the officers.”
The federal oversight of the NOPD through the consent decree is expected to end this year, making it even more critical to maintain leadership in the department that understands the value of its reforms, Guidry said.
“Once the consent decree ends, we have to make sure the culture doesn’t change back again,” Guidry said.
Guidry also expressed confidence in Cantrell and hope for her administration, noting that they have sat next to one another on the City Council for five years now. Cantrell is “tough as nails,” Guidry said, and her devotion to making New Orleans better is sincere.
“She cares throughout her being for the city,” Guidry said of Cantrell.
If the improvement to the New Orleans Police Department is the success of the last eight years, the condition of both the Orleans Parish Jail and the Sewerage & Water Board of New Orleans have been continued failures, she said.
The problems at the jail are well-documented and, like the police department, also resulted in a consent decree requiring federal oversight. Unlike the police department, however, those reforms have yet to produce results, Guidry said. Even the implementation of a “compliance director” intended to prevent full federal receivership produced such paltry results that the director himself resigned following the most recent hearing on the ongoing issues there.
“It’s so completely broken, it is hard to imagine what it’s going to take to put it back together and make it right,” Guidry said.
Problems are continually being discovered at the new jail, while both staffing and training levels remain unacceptable, Guidry said. The reports from the most recent consent decree hearing Monday on the jail were “shocking,” Guidry said — the women’s section lacked basic necessities such as toilet paper, and deputies in all but one unit were unable to locate the “cut-down” tools used to respond to suicide attempts.
“It is severely broken in every respect,” Guidry said.
The human-rights problems at the jail are even more troubling, Guidry said, because it is intended to house people before they go to trial.
“Almost none of them have been convicted of the crimes they’re charged with,” Guidry said. “They’re people in our community, and we want it not to be a traumatic situation.”
The city has made some progress on reforms at the jail, most recently approving salary increases for deputies and more training and certification for them, Guidry said. They have also reformed the bail system to end the “debtor’s prison” system, so that monetary bails are only imposed when people awaiting charges are considered a threat to society or a flight risk.
Finally, she said, the mayor’s office has made tremendous progress in unifying and coordinating re-entry services for people leaving the jail, preparing them to rejoin society and reducing their risk of offending again.
“Do we want to let them just walk out of jail with nothing, no resources?” Guidry said. “Then they would go right back to the only thing they know to survive.”
The scale of the problems at the Sewerage & Water Board is similarly challenging, but have only recently come to light, Guidry said. In decades past, the agency was seen as a leader in engineering, a top career choice for graduating engineers. In recent years, however, that leadership turned to arrogance, and instead of improving, the agency began simply covering up its problems.
The Aug. 5 floods from an afternoon rain storm — and the public assurances that the pumps were working when in fact many were not — revealed the extent of the problems at the Sewerage & Water Board, Guidry said. The infrastructure has become decrepit, the management is inefficient, and customer service is no priority.
“No longer will they be able to keep the curtain closed, because now we all know,” Guidry said. “I don’t see anything that’s working.”
Guidry said she had personally toured the S&WB pumps and facilities, and looked to the naked eye to be in good order, despite the critical failures that are now public knowledge. The veracity and even the origin of the agency’s long-repeated mantra that the city can pump an inch of rain in the first hour, and a half-inch after that is also now called into question, Guidry said.
“No one could even tell us where that came from, and we had been saying it all along,” Guidry said.
How the next administration can fix the agency’s problems remains unclear, Guidry said, but stricter, more informed oversight will be needed. For example, one of the agency’s five energy turbines has received a staggering $30 million in repairs, but remains broken. The S&WB assures the council that those repairs will finally be finished by May, but Guidry said she doesn’t have the expertise to know if those claims are valid.
During the most recent city-government elections, the notion of returning the S&WB from a separate state agency to a city department was frequently discussed, Guidry said, and she was inclined to support it. More recently, however, city officials are being told that such a move would reduce the ability to issue bonds for S&WB-type projects, another claim Guidry said the public needs more information to evaluate.
“I have no answers,” Guidry said. “We need to get a group of people in the right professions to see what we should do.”
Despite the dour outlook on the drainage issues, members of the Rotary Club of New Orleans Riverbend asked Guidry how they could most effectively make a difference on the criminal-justice issues. Guidry offered two immediate suggestions.
First, on the police department, she encouraged civic groups like Rotary to get involved in “Adopt a Cop” programs, particularly during Mardi Gras, that provide outside support and encouragement to officers and build relationships in the community. Second, on the jail, Guidry said citizens can help contribute to local organizations that ensure jail residents, particularly women, are treated humanely and have access to basic toiletries.