The NOPD was dealt yet another black eye earlier this year when an investigation from the Inspector General’s Office revealed that off-duty officers were lining their pockets reviewing red-light camera tickets. Former 8th District Commander Edwin Hosli created a private company, Anytime Solutions, to manage the detail, where off-duty officers were paid $35 per hour to review camera evidence provided by another private company, American Traffic Solutions.
Hosli, a close friend of Chief Ronal Serpas, also made sure to provide the obligatory patronage that feeds on New Orleans like a malignant tumor. Anytime Solutions paid Serpas’s driver and his son-in-law, Travis Ward, who himself was previously suspended from duty after failing multiple breathalyzer tests when he totaled his NOPD cruiser back in 2009 (not exactly the type of person you want nit-picking other peoples’ driving habits).
The story made big news for a few weeks, but in the end very little came of it. On the bright side, the NOPD started employing on-duty officers to review the citations, belying the department’s earlier claims that it lacked sufficient manpower to do it.
Accountability was muted. At first, it looked like Hosli had the book thrown at him. He was immediately suspended without pay. Ultimately, however, the department decided that the only rule violated was in creating the private company, for which Hosli was suspended a total of three days. Reports indicate that his wrist was rendered sore by the force of the slap.
Just last month, the department responded to additional allegations of overbilling for review of camera tickets by arguing that, in fact, no officer was billing accurately but that the record-keeping was so poor that no firm conclusions could be drawn. It wasn’t the most inspiring defense.
All of this sounds like business as usual. We’ve become pretty blasé about police abuses in this city. It’s gotten to the point where the federal government is chomping at the bit to oversee NOPD operations. And we’ve convinced ourselves that this is just the way things are.
When I was younger, I used to watch old episodes of Dragnet on television. Jack Webb, portraying Sergeant Joe Friday with the Los Angeles Police Department, was the ultimate “by the book” officer. He was hard on suspects but even harder on his fellow officers when they stepped out of line. If all police were like they were on Dragnet, we wouldn’t have any scandals.
My favorite episodes of Dragnet were those involving the regulation of officers: internal affairs, shooting review boards and the like. They made it appear that departments had sufficient checks and balances to deal effectively with officer misconduct, that institutional features kept the department clean.
These features were totally gutted starting in the 1970’s as Americans’ fear of crime spurred them to pass laws protecting officers, supposedly from arbitrary or overly harsh discipline. Today, most states, including Louisiana, have what is called a “Police Officers’ Bill of Rights.” The “rights” afforded to officers include extraordinary protections such as limits on the timing of interrogations that are not available to ordinary suspects, even though the transcripts of interrogations are shielded from use in criminal prosecutions. Thus, an officer gets a soft-ball interrogation where he can brazenly admit to committing actual crimes, and his admissions can’t be used to prosecute him.
Essentially, while you or I may be at-will employees or have a limited administrative process for being terminated from a job, police officers have a ridiculous degree of protection that defies all common sense. This is why bad officers almost never get fired. Public Integrity Bureaus are usually a rubber-stamp for misconduct, and even if they strived to be more than that, they would often be hamstrung by the constraints of state law.
One example of how bad the situation has gotten comes from 2007, when Shreveport Police Officer Wiley Willis was conducting a videotaped interview with a DUI suspect, Angela Garbarino. Garbarino was obviously inebriated and argued with the officer, attempted to leave the room and refused to take a breathalyzer test.
Officer Willis then turned to the camera. When he turned the camera back on, Garbarino appeared handcuffed and marinating in a pool of what appeared to be her own blood. No honest person viewing the video could fail to see the police misconduct, to put it mildly.
Willis claimed, in a manner well-practiced by men who get their jollies beating defenseless women, that Garbarino fell down while trying to leave the room. Garbarino claimed that Willis lost his temper and beat her up. Willis failed a polygraph (which by itself would admittedly be weak evidence) and the department rapidly fired him.
Garbarino settled out of court with the city for $400,000 for her injuries. Willis, on the other hand, challenged his termination as being in violation of the Police Officer’s Bill of Rights to a civil service board and was reinstated with $56,992 in back pay. He decided not to return to duty, and was thus also paid severance. It was quite a haul for a disgraced officer.
The incident with Willis shows how difficult it has become to discipline bad cops. Police unions have pushed for these administrative monstrosities that keep bad cops on the payroll and make it possible for them to challenge terminations based on valid grounds, raising the specter of bad cops bilking taxpayers twice – first by violating citizens’ civil rights, and then by demanding back pay if byzantine procedural niceties are not obeyed in kicking them off the force.
It is no longer a matter of a responsible person in the department, or an elected civilian official, taking an officer aside and saying that they’re pushed the line one too many times and they’re out. Instead, firing a police officer involves complex administrative proceedings specifically designed to make it difficult to terminate an officer.
We are all paying for this mistake. Instead of a department of Joe Fridays, we have a department so far gone that federal oversight is a given. Instead of trust, the people of this city tend to regard the NOPD with immediate suspicion because their mission has become tainted.
There is genuine courage and sacrifice within the NOPD. There are officers who want to do better, who are sick of having to turn a blind eye to the misconduct of others because of “the way things are.” However, we have indulged a national trend that has given police greater job security at the expense of a good department, and there needs to be change. You’re not going to find many officers at any time who will support tightening rules and removing administrative protections, but it’s a bitter pill they need to swallow if they’re going to earn back the public’s trust.
We also need more common sense. The incident with Hosli’s little side business may have only violated one department policy, but it showed very bad judgment on his part. It is also relevant that there are holes in department policy big enough to drive a scandal through. It is no longer enough to simply say that no policy or procedure was violated; the real question needs to be whether the officer acted prudently and in a manner befitting his or her uniform.
Ultimately, we need change. Otherwise, we will condemn ourselves to a department rife with institutionalized corruption and waste, a department that will always be at odds with the public that it is supposed to serve and protect.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.