There is no doubt that specialists working in law enforcement agencies are the representatives of the authorities. With that in mind, their behavior and the extent to which their actions are aligned both with the official laws and ethical norms remain extremely important for the maintenance of order. Police officers or civil servants who fail to meet the prescribed norms of behavior, overutilize their power, or commit serious indictable offenses can be punished individually if no other people are involved.
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However, when the concentration of such cases in law enforcement and state agencies becomes obviously high, the situation comes to the attention of the government represented by the Department of Justice. The executive department uses consent decrees as effective tools helping to improve certain agencies’ organizational structures, eliminate the misuse of power, and regain the trust of common citizens. As the example of the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) indicates, entering into police consent decrees is an effective motivator that encourages positive organizational change.
Consent Decrees and Law Enforcement Agencies
In the context of agencies responsible for law enforcement such as NOPD, consent decrees are understood as the means of setting structural reforms. In fact, they present formal agreements that are signed by the representatives of cities where multiple cases of violations are registered. Considering the peculiarities of police departments’ work, consent decrees are primarily used in order to prevent police officers from neglecting the rights of citizens. In addition to that, an important role of consent decrees is their ability to eliminate the cases of physical violence related to conflicts between police officers and the population.
Nowadays, consent decrees are referred to as agreements that possess legal power and indicate police departments’ willingness to meet all performance and ethical standards. Interestingly, the use of such agreements with police departments in New Orleans and other states has become a common practice with the introduction of the Crime Bill more than twenty years ago (Harmon, 2017). Using this act, the Department of Justice is eligible to design and negotiate agreements with the representatives of police departments if it is evident that they experience a decline in ethics or a professional integrity crisis.
Prior to the introduction of federal oversight, these agreements are reviewed by judges and approved by all interested or affected parties (Harmon, 2017). Agreements between police departments and the Department of Justice are dissimilar when it comes to details, but almost all of them “mandate improving civilian complaint, investigation, and disciplinary mechanisms” (Harmon, 2017, p. 619). The agreement between NOPD and the U.S. Government is aimed at achieving all these goals and restoring the reputation of the police department damaged due to a series of violations and criminal acts.
Ethical Challenges and the NOPD Consent Decree
The importance of ethical principles in any sphere of activity cannot be overstated since ethics is an effective tool, helping to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate actions and realize their consequences. When speaking about the role of ethics in law enforcement, it is pivotal to note that without using moral principles, it is impossible to make justified decisions concerning the use of force.
Moreover, if ethical principles and the responsibilities of law enforcement specialists are neglected, it gives rise to arbitrary behavior and mass disruptions of public order. Ethical challenges that negatively affect NOPD officers’ professional performance and reputation include the misuse of force and unjustified searches and stops. Also, they refer to the discrimination of LGBT people and ethnic minorities and the failure to properly investigate the cases of sexual crime and domestic violence.
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To begin with, ethical challenges that led to the introduction of the police consent decree in New Orleans refer to different ways to misuse power. At the beginning of the 1990s, the police department in New Orleans was considered to be among the most problematic police agencies in the country (Harmon, 2017). This conclusion was made due to its high corruption rates and issues related to wage levels. The mentioned problems led to a number of considerations at the confluence of ethics and the conflicts of interest.
The prerequisites to the introduction of the consent decree by DOJ relate both to ethical issues and the inability of police officers to respect the law. For instance, according to the report issued by the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division (2011), NOPD fails to ensure that its officers respect the U.S. Constitution, which leads to the violation of civil rights and increases crime rates in the city. The report published prior to the introduction of the consent decree presents the results of the federal investigation. These results demonstrate a variety of ethical and legal challenges related to the performance of the NOPD.
The findings of the report discussed in this section became the key ethical challenges justifying the introduction of the consent decree. DOJ started the investigation in 2010 due to numerous cases of corruption, post abandonment after Hurricane Katrina, and people’s complaints concerning the legality of arrests (United States Department of Justice, 2011). However, the cases of police misconduct in New Orleans were widely known long before the start of the investigation.
The first group of findings explaining the need for the consent decree refers to the misuse of force. According to the Fourth Amendment, all people in the United States should be protected from unreasonable searches, which acts as an explicit reference to the inappropriateness of excessive force and the abuse of office (United States Department of Justice, 2011). However, the investigation revealed the regular use of unreasonable force by NOPD police officers.
The review of one hundred resisting arrest reports published in 2009 and 2010 indicates numerous cases of unreasonable force. Also, it points to obvious inconsistencies between the actions described by police officers and the character of physical injuries in detained individuals (United States Department of Justice, 2011). In one incident that attracted reviewers’ attention, an NOPD officer inflicted bodily injuries on a handcuffed detainee, but police supervisors did not start the investigation and study bodily harm. Also, ethical challenges related to NOPD officers’ performance involved incitement to physical violence.
For example, after a conflict between two officers, one of them was called a coward for “not at least punching” his affronter (United States Department of Justice, 2011, p. 37). Therefore, an important concern was related to some officers’ failure to take a civilized approach to the resolution of conflicts.
Apart from the use of force, the problematic areas identified by the reviewers were presented by the lack of justifications needed to stop and search citizens. The review found that many arrest reports provided by NOPD officers involved the cases of warrantless search and other issues resulting from a lack of proper training (United States Department of Justice, 2011). In many situations, the concerns were based on NOPD officers’ inability to disclose the reasons for making Terry stops and their attempts to overuse the plain feel exception.
The classical manifestations of ethical challenges such as the cases of discrimination also contributed to the introduction of the agreement. In particular, it was found that some NOPD officers were unjust towards citizens based on their characteristics. In law enforcement, the need to base decision-making on some peculiarities such as race, ethnicity, or religious affiliation is justified only in the cases when officers possess specific information concerning the alleged criminals. In other situations, it is considered to be inappropriate and indicates the presence of unlawful discrimination.
The federal reviewers claim that many complaints received from the residents of New Orleans refer to NOPD officers’ use of racial stereotypes in stopping people. Among them are the claims about detainment for “being a black man driving a nice car” and prejudiced attitudes to black and Latino male teenagers (United States Department of Justice, 2011, p. 35). Based on these cases, some recommendations concerning training and workforce diversity were provided.
Ethical challenges were also manifested in warped judgments about LBGT people and police officers’ inability to conduct adequate sexual crime investigations. First, many MtF transgenders claimed that they had been accused of prostitution, often with the help of fabricated evidence (United States Department of Justice, 2011). Additionally, the analysis of NOPD employees’ ability to detect sex crimes demonstrated the prevalence of deficient investigations with the lack of efforts to reach witnesses or detain the suspected rapists (United States Department of Justice, 2011).
NOPD officers’ controversial working practices also included the use of stereotypes about rape and domestic violence victims in their investigation strategies. Therefore, prejudiced attitudes towards gender non-conforming people and the victims of male sexual and physical violence were a part of NOPD’s problem with ethical decision-making.
Individuals who Impacted NOPD Negatively and Positively
As it has been stated, the events that led to the introduction of the consent decree involved a range of crimes committed by NOPD police officers. With that in mind, it would be just to regard the offenders as the key individuals who contributed to NOPD’s bad reputation. One of the first cases took place thirty-seven years ago when seven NOPD officers (John McKenzie, Dale Bonura, Ronald Brink, and their colleagues) killed four citizens of Algerian descent and injured fifty people (Ramsey, 2015).
The next decade was also full of high-profile scandals related to the moral portrait of police officers in New Orleans. For instance, in 1994, an NOPD officer named Len Davis organized a contract killing of a woman who had made a police brutality complaint (Ramsey, 2015). One year later, another police officer named Antoinette Frank committed a robbery with violence, using her department-issued sidearm (Ramsey, 2015). The case took place at one restaurant in New Orleans and resulted in three first-degree murders.
The negative impact of NOPD officers on its reputation was especially severe a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina. The spread of the emergency panic was extremely fast, and some police officers used the situation to escape the rules of conduct. After the Katrina events, more than fifty employees (both officers and civilian staff members) were fired for the desertion of their posts (Ramsey, 2015). Therefore, the natural disaster became an indicator of NOPD’s unpromising situation with staff morale and professional integrity.
The progress demonstrated by NOPD after the consent decree effective date is due to the concerted efforts of its administrative staff and police officers. In particular, specialists from the New Orleans Consent Decree Monitor (2017) appreciate the contribution to the progress made by John Salomone, a lieutenant colonel who leads the Office of Police Secondary Employment at NOPD. Due to this specialist’s work, the City of New Orleans has managed to improve the system of secondary employment and meet some requirements specified by DOJ.
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When speaking about people who have a positive influence on the police department’s compliance with DOJ requirements, it is necessary to mention Michael Harrison, the superintendent of NOPD (Lane, 2017). The mentioned person was appointed to the position four years ago, and this decision beneficial for the performance of NOPD. Harrison has two important tasks – apart from improving the level of safety in the city, he has to ensure that the organizational climate is beneficial to NOPD’s further development. Judging from the reports by the Consent Decree Monitor in New Orleans, Harrison is successful in fulfilling both tasks.
NOPD’s Experiences under the Consent Decree and Progress
The introduction of the consent decree became a significant motivating factor for positive change in NOPD’s internal structure and working practices. At the same time, the need to overcome a variety of barriers to effective and ethical performance involves a lot of stress and requires extra work. According to the recommendations provided in the legal document issued by DOJ, NOPD employees were required to review practices associated with excessive force and reduce the impact of bias on decision-making and case investigation (the United States of America v. City of New Orleans, 2013). Apart from the abovementioned goals, NOPD was tasked with the establishment of improved training programs for the police staff in order to eliminate the violations of the U.S. Constitution.
The need to comply with new requirements and improve data reporting became a significant challenge for NOPD officers. In fact, the document contains almost five hundred points to be implemented, which requires a lot of time. Since entering into the consent decree, NOPD has supported a variety of effective initiatives helping to ensure compliance with ethical and legal standards.
Among these efforts is the introduction of new training opportunities such as the EPIC program and the use of body and in-car cameras to detect cases of excessive force (New Orleans Consent Decree Monitor, 2014). Additionally, the staff of NOPD and the representatives of oversight bodies are involved in the improvement and evaluation of field interview card processes.
In general, numerous changes following the consent decree indicate NOPD’s willingness to improve, but the success of new initiatives intersperses with failures that often give rise to high-profile scandals. Speaking about the recent ethical failures of NOPD, it is pivotal to note its officers’ inability to ensure the absence of criminal records prior to approving the choice of new employees. Despite these mistakes, the police department is planning to solve the remaining problems and exit the consent decree at the beginning of 2020 (Lane, 2017).
According to the findings reported by federal monitors, almost one-third of new NOPD recruits were high-risk applicants due to the causes of employee terminations in the past and failed applications to other law enforcement agencies (Sledge, 2017). In addition, many concerns related to the newly-hired people included their mental health or alcohol and drug abuse problems in the past.
In spite of some recent cases that demonstrate the police department’s inability to meet all expectations, the reports prepared by oversight agencies present positive findings that prove NOPD’s progress. The findings related to different periods of time are primarily positive and indicate the success of NOPD in implementing new ethical standards. As of 2014, the positive tendencies in the police department’s improvement were related to recruitment policies and the effectiveness of body cameras in reducing the use of excessive force (New Orleans Consent Decree Monitor, 2014). It is clear from more recent reports that NOPD continues to demonstrate positive development in a variety of aspects that used to be problematic.
For example, the consent decree monitoring team notes that “progress toward compliance with all use of force requirements” is among the greatest achievements of NOPD (New Orleans Consent Decree Monitor, 2017, p. 14). However, even though the progress related to the unjustified use of force is evident, the accidental shooting cases that involve NOPD officers have not been eliminated.
The introduction of the police consent decree has helped to design some new rules concerning the use of force, and NOPD’s most recent achievements indicate their effectiveness. The fourth section of the agreement between NOPD and DOJ refers to the minimization of the use of force against people with mental health issues (New Orleans Consent Decree Monitor, 2017). In order to meet the requirement, NOPD has designed a training program for crisis interventions that includes more than a hundred participants. The program is focused on working practices that help to de-escalate conflicts verbally, reduce aggression in people with mental problems, and collaborate with psychiatric institutions.
The progress is insignificant when it comes to unjustified arrests and stops practiced by NOPD officers in the past. As the most recent findings of the monitoring bodies demonstrate, up to 20% of arrests and stops can lack objective reasons (New Orleans Consent Decree Monitor, 2017). Despite that, NOPD has managed to demonstrate progress in one more area of concern – biased policing. For instance, the number of citizen complaints related to discriminatory policing has decreased due to NOPD’s collaboration with LGBT rights advocates and new language inclusion policies (New Orleans Consent Decree Monitor, 2017). Therefore, NOPD’s continuous improvement increases its chances to restore its positive image.
In the end, the key ethical challenges involved in the introduction of the police consent decree in New Orleans were related to the lack of proper leadership, high corruption rates, and the abuse of rank. The latter was manifested in police officers’ sense of impunity, due to which some cases of police brutality remained unreported. Other challenges identified by federal monitoring agencies included the discrimination of sexual, racial, and linguistic minorities.
Worse still, gender biases were detrimental to the investigation of sex crimes and the cases of domestic violence. The experience of New Orleans with police consent decrees can be called rather positive due to its practical results. Thus, since the introduction of the agreement with DOJ in 2012, NOPD has managed to improve the performance of its staff in such areas as training, inclusion, and the use of force with mentally ill citizens. Even though the police department’s plans concerning the end of structural reforms are indicative of its inflated self-expectations, the progress of NOPD and its officers’ working practices is widely recognized.
Harmon, R. A. (2017). Evaluating and improving structural reform in police departments. Criminology & Public Policy, 16(2), 617-627.
Lane, E. (2017). NOPD sets an’ ambitious goal’ to exit consent decree by 2020, chief says. The Times-Picayune. Web.
New Orleans Consent Decree Monitor. (2014). Third quarterly report. Web.
New Orleans Consent Decree Monitor. (2017). 2017 annual report of the Consent Decree Monitor for the New Orleans Police Department consent decree. Web.
Ramsey, D. X. (2015). How Katrina sparked reform in a troubled police department. The Atlantic. Web.
Sledge, M. (2017). Federal watchdogs find NOPD hired many recruits despite serious questions about their records. The Advocate. Web.
United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. (2011). Investigation of the New Orleans Police Department. Web.
United States of America v. The city of New Orleans. Civil No.:12-cv-01924. Consent decree regarding the New Orleans Police Department (E. D. La. 2013).