City running into obstacles with new police detail system
Struggling to enlist New Orleans police officers for some off-duty detail work under a new city-run system that many cops revile, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office plans to ask the City Council to allow higher pay for officers to work some events, Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin said Tuesday.
In the meantime, a federal judge agreed last week to let the city put off taking over management of details for Jazzfest, the French Quarter Festival and other major events until 2015, leaving them this year under the officer-run system that existed for decades before scandal and a federal consent decree led to creation of the new system.
The challenges facing the new Office of Police Secondary Employment have come to a head lately as officers have proved reluctant to sign up for at least some of the off-duty work, despite claims by officer groups that cops are desperate for the extra money.
Under an ordinance the City Council approved last summer for the new system, the pay for moonlighting in police uniform runs from $29.33 per hour for a regular officer to $39 for top NOPD brass. In some cases, Kopplin acknowledged, those rates haven’t been enough to entice officers embittered over a city takeover that is mandated under the court-enforced NOPD reform pact.
Among those caught in the crossfire was Parasol’s, the Irish Channel restaurant and bar with big plans for a St. Patrick’s Day block party last Saturday. The cops who for years had worked the party declined to sign up through the new city agency, which posts jobs for all comers in a system designed to be more fair.
The agency then scrambled to supply Parasol’s with officers in time for the event. In the end, the city got approval to pay the officers $40 per hour to do the job, according to an email exchange in which Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Jerry Sneed asked NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas to spread the word.
Parasol’s owner Thea Hogan agreed to the figure willingly, she said. That’s what she paid cops in the past anyway, she said.
“I got a phone call saying no one would sign up for it, because they didn’t feel dealing with the drunk crowd was worth the pay they would get,” Hogan said. “The regular officers who work it every single year, it was their chance to take a stand, to make it difficult, so none of them signed up for it. Years of working with the same officers, you want them. I didn’t realize they were going to do this big boycott thing.”
Kopplin said Parasol’s wasn’t the only customer for which the city has been forced to raise the rate paid to officers on detail jobs.
The office is pressing to recover detail work that has fallen by more than half since Serpas proposed bringing the previously officer-run system under City Hall in 2011. The move came in the wake of a scandal involving an officer-owned business that operated a detail to review traffic camera tickets for the city, plus a U.S. Department of Justice report that described the detail system as the NOPD’s “aorta of corruption.”
Since then, many customers have turned to the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office or other law enforcement agencies or private security companies.
Officer associations, meanwhile, have chafed against the new system. The local Fraternal Order of Police lodge filed suit in federal courtdemanding that the officers receive overtime and other benefits as city employees under the new system, among other changes. That case remains pending.
Raymond Burkart III, a lawyer and spokesman for FOP, said the city’s troubles in fielding off-duty officers show that cops are leery of working for pay that is often far below what they made in the past. Backed by testimony at a recent federal court hearing, Burkart said officers averaged about $35 an hour when cutting deals for themselves with customers.
“They’re finding other ways to make money. For some people it’s not worth the trouble. They don’t trust the system,” Burkart said. “This thing’s supposed to streamline everything, but there are too many questions that can’t be answered.”
Still, Burkart said he was glad the administration is seeking higher officer pay for some detail jobs.
Kopplin said the city is working on the language of a new ordinance to boost pay for details under certain conditions. He said the city has discussed the issue with Justice Department officials and the federal monitor overseeing implementation of the NOPD consent decree.
“In some cases we have done that, because it’s important to both the officers getting work and customers remaining confident in being able to use NOPD off-duty officers,” Kopplin said of the higher pay. “We’re going to introduce an ordinance shortly that will provide for that.”
In the meantime, U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan has approved the city’s timeframe for bringing the major details under the new office. It sets a May 15 date for the OPSE to take over details for festivals, major special events and races like the Crescent City Classic.
By that date, all detail work except for schools will come under the new office. Schools, which have signed yearlong contracts with officers, will come on board over the summer, Kopplin said.
Earlier, the city had set a more ambitious schedule that placed races under the new office by Feb. 9 and festivals by March 23, in time for this year’s Jazzfest and French Quarter Festival. Kopplin said the city decided to slow things down “in the interest of making sure we have a smooth transition.”
Just 171 officers — about 15 percent of the force — have worked jobs under the new city office, which currently has 87 customers, Kopplin said Tuesday. He called those numbers “roughly consistent with the phase-in schedule.”
One thing the city office can’t provide, he acknowledged, is a guarantee to supply officers for events. It’s up to officers to sign up.
Whether officers will conspire to hold out for higher, last-minute pay under a new ordinance remains uncertain. Hogan, of Parasol’s, said the late scramble to secure 10 officers for the block party was a stress.
She had spent thousands of dollars on the event and feared that a cancellation for lack of security would cripple her business. Hogan said she bought a lot of alcohol, including 15 kegs of green beer, and feared the worst.
“It would take me a long time to sell it,” she said. “Who wants to buy green beer if it’s not St. Patrick’s Day?”