Last year's federal NOPD consent decree exposed long-running tensions between the New Orleans Police Department and the community. One group is trying to change the relationship between officers and civilians.
It's St. Joseph's night. A big crowd gathers in Central City, watching the Mardi Gras Indians pass. Simone Levine is in the crowd, but she's not just admiring the intricate costumes. Levine is an Independent Police Monitor, the civilian agency which oversees the New Orleans Police Department.
Part of Levine's job is coming out to events with a history of tension between community and police. Events like St. Joseph's night, Super Sunday and some of the larger second lines. A former government corruption lawyer, she's out tonight to help prevent potential clashes.
“So I've just basically checked in with the community," says Levine. "I've checked in with legal observers. I've checked in with the commander. And I've attempted to check in with as many officers as possible.”
Levine says she checks in to ensure that there's no conflict, and also to spread the word about her office. She encourages citizens to come to her with complaints or praise for police officers. And she reaches out to officers, too, letting them know they can come to her with concerns about their department.
“We want to make sure that officers realize our office is a resource for them as well,” says Levine. “And in general, it's an office that's dedicated to make sure we have the best police force out there."
In 2009, New Orleans citizens voted to create the Independent Police Monitor, along with the Inspector General's office. Ursula Price is Executive Director of Community Relations for the Police Monitor. She says her office grew out of a need for more police accountability.
“We have empowered officers with the ability to use lethal force against us and to represent the power of the law, but we have not been vigilant in making sure they are well trained and held accountable for their actions,” says Price.
So Price and Levine oversee police-heavy public events. They also deal with individual complaints about misconduct. In the past, if someone wanted to file a complaint, they had to do so with a bureau inside the police department.
Renard Thomas owns a photography company and serves on the board of a criminal justice non-profit. A few years ago, he says, he filed a complaint against police and never got a response. That stung.
“You had no recourse against them,” says Thomas. “They could do whatever they wanted.”
But since the Independent Police Monitor started, he feels he has a place to be heard. He's filed complaints on issues from parking tickets to officers patrolling in unmarked cars. And he's helped seniors file complaints, too.
“The police department is aware that somebody else is reporting. They know that somebody else is paying attention,” he says.
The police themselves appreciate this oversight. Talk to Robert Bardy — the Commander of the 6th District — about the Independent Police Monitor, and he'll pull out a binder of thank you letters, and a photo of a cake that a civil rights lawyer baked for him — appreciation specifically for his work making St. Joseph's night smoother for police and Mardi Gras Indians alike.
Now at big community events like St. Joseph's night, officers wear jackets that identify them by name. They let the Indians veer from a set route, an important part of their tradition. These changes wouldn't have happened without the Police Monitor.
“Their presence, their input has certainly helped me guide my men and women in a direction we want to go with our actions,” Bardy says.
Plus, the Independent Police Monitor is less intimidating. Monitors like Simone Levine are perceived as unbiased.
“She's not paid by the police department. She's not paid by the city. So she can give you an honest assessment and honest appreciation,” Bardy says. “And it's from a layperson. You know, 'cause we tend to see things through police eyes.”
Levine sees her position as a bridge between police officers and the community. With contacts inside the police department, she can help the community navigate the system. An example? A woman recently contacted the Police Monitor; she was getting ready to leave her abusive husband.
“She needed the police department to provide her an escort, provide her safety to go back into her home and actually get her things and the things for her baby. And we were able to call the commander in that district and to make that happen,” Levine says.
But the Police Monitor faces challenges. Not just a long history of distrust between the community and police, but also severely limited resources: just four staff members to monitor over a thousand police officers. The money comes from the Inspector General's budget, but Ursula Price says they need all the resources they can get, too. She hopes for more funding from grants or government. Meanwhile, Price and her colleagues work to prove their worth to citizens and police alike.
“We are not the typical leadership this city is used to seeing,” says Price. “We're not connected. Our supporters are largely low income people of color. But we continue to do our work and obviate the value of it. And I think in time people will see that it benefits them.”