NOPD Superintendent Shaun Ferguson speaks at a Thursday, June 18 press conference at police headquarters. (Nicholas Chrastil/The Lens)

Amid national and local calls to defund the police following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and after receiving strong criticism over the decision to use tear gas on protesters approaching the Crescent City Connection earlier this month, the New Orleans Police Department Superintendent Shaun Ferguson held a press conference on the fifth floor of NOPD headquarters Thursday to tout reforms the department has made in recent years. 

“We are here to inform our city, our communities, of their New Orleans Police Department’s accomplishments thus far,” Ferguson said. “While there is much work to be done there is much that we should be proud of.” 

Ferguson said that on the national level, the NOPD is on the forefront of reform efforts.

“People are calling for a wholesale change of what policing looks like in America,” said Ferguson, “but in New Orleans we are well ahead of the curve when it comes to effective police reform and a commitment to constitutional policing.”

The department has been under a federal consent decree since 2013, meant to bring it into compliance with constitutional standards for policing. The consent decree came in the wake of widely reported allegations of officer misconduct in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — including the police killings of Henry Glover, James Brisette and Ronald Madison — and an investigation of the NOPD by the U.S. Department of Justice. The Justice Department investigation, released in 2011, found that the NOPD had engaged in “patterns of misconduct that violate the Constitution and federal law,” including racial profiling and the use of excessive force. 

“We’ve come a long way since the unfortunate Danziger Bridge tragedy,” said Ferguson on Thursday. “Our people were confronted then with the absolute need for reform and change, and reform that yields results. The New Orleans Police Department has delivered those results.” 

The NOPD and the Mayor’s office have been recently touting the department’s compliance with the national #8CantWait campaign, started by the organization Campaign Zero. That campaign advocates for police departments to adopt eight use of force policies that the organization argues would reduce harm caused by police departments— including a ban on chokeholds, a de-escalation requirement and a duty to intervene when an officer sees a fellow officer using excessive force.

Earlier this month the department claimed in a tweet it had adopted six of those eight protocols — excluding a provision that officers issue a warning before shooting, along with exhausting all alternatives before shooting. Then, days later, Mayor LaToya Cantrell tweeted that the department was in compliance with all eight. At the press conference on Thursday, Ferguson said that in fact the department was in fact in compliance with all eight, and the first tweet was a mistake.

But the reforms proposed by the #8CantWait campaign have been criticized by many as being insufficient and a threat to more comprehensive change. Human Rights Watch, for instance, issued a statement arguing that “officials in the United States responsible for police policy and practice should reject a new campaign called #8CantWait that proposes only minor and ineffectual changes” and “instead adopt meaningful reforms that will ensure police are held to account and reduce the police footprint.”

Campaign Zero itself acknowledged on the #8CantWait website that the campaign “unintentionally detracted from efforts of fellow organizers invested in paradigmatic shifts that are newly possible in this moment,” and apologized. 

Some local organizations seem to agree with the assessment that broader change is needed.

The Orleans Parish Reform Coalition (OPPRC), which held a rally recently to defund the police, has said its demands will broadly reflect a platform called #8toabolition — a response to #8CantWait — which include policy proposals intended to shift resources away from policing and incarceration. The platform calls for defunding and demilitarizing police, removing police from schools, freeing people from prisons and jails, and investing in housing and healthcare.

Sade Dumas, the Executive Director of OPPRC pointed to recent actions by the NOPD that she said undermined the notion that having specific policies was enough to reform the department.

“With #8CantWait —  New Orleans already follows six of those eight,” she told The Lens. “But we’ve had problems revealed in just the last month, from the 8th District scandal, to the checkpoints, to the tear gas. So we can’t rely on the system to fix itself. We actually need to reform the whole thing, starting with the budget.”

The NOPD has the largest operating budget of any city department. In 2020, it is around $194 million — about 17 percent of the overall city budget. But the city is expecting a significant shortfall due to revenue loss due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We know that the city is in the middle of a budget crisis because of COVID,” Dumas said. “With that budget crisis, we don’t want cuts to come from housing. We don’t want cuts to come from things that keep us safe. We want those cuts to come from NOPD.”

At a virtual forum on police reform hosted by the Urban League on Tuesday, Mayor LaToya Cantrell said that the investments people were asking for by defunding the police are already taking place. 

“The investments, when you talk about defund police, we are making those investments, in people,” Cantrell said. “You know, the first city to invest in an early childhood education. Under my administration, the first to create a Mayor’s Office of Youth and Families, streamlining assets or resources going to use, going directly to families.”

At the press conference on Thursday, Ferguson said that the department was already short on funding, and they had already cut millions of dollars in overtime. 

“It would be a big blow to us,” Ferguson said of calls to defund. “Because you’re looking at well over 80 percent of our budget, our finances, is personnel.”  

A number of other groups have also asked the city to reduce funding for NOPD in the 2021 budget. 

In a letter to the City Council following the tear gas incident, the MacArthur Justice Center, the Orleans Public Defenders, the ACLU of Louisiana, among several other organizations asked the council to pass a resolution “committing to sharp reductions in law enforcement in the City’s 2021 Budget (including terminating the City’s contracts with non-NOPD law enforcement agencies) and redirection of those funds to housing, health care (including community- based mental health services), income support, living wage employment, community- based violence prevention programs, education, youth programming, and youth Employment.”

“Budgets are moral documents,” Dumas with OPPRC said. “We can see how our elected leaders prioritize our well being based on how they vote on the budgets and where they allocate those funds. So if they really care about their constituents, they need to show that through the budget.”

Public facing database

The New Orleans City Council was also discussing potential police reforms at its regular meeting on Thursday. Council members passed a non-binding resolution urging the creation of a public database maintained by the city’s Office of Independent Police Monitor, which tracks and evaluates officer discipline, department policies and uses of force by police. The resolution suggests that such a database could include disciplinary records, use of force reports and policy violations for individual police officers.

The resolution is only an official statement of support, however, and does not provide more funding to the Office of the Independent Police Monitor. Councilwoman Helena Moreno asked Independent Police Monitor Susan Hutson whether her office currently has enough money in its budget to build the database.

“We do not,” Hutson said. “We have been slowly working on the database as our budget allows.”

The office gets roughly $1.2 million from the city’s general fund. Hutson said it would take at least $150,000 “to really get it going.” But she said that $250,000 would be better in order to create a more user-friendly, accessible database. She said that the investment would also lead to cost savings for her office by making their own records easier to access internally as well.

Asked about the proposed database at his Thursday press conference, Ferguson said he still needed to review it. 

“We have a great relationship with the Independent Monitor,” Ferguson said, “It’s just a matter of what more should they have access to. And that’s something that is in progress right now.”

Reporter Michael Isaac Stein contributed to this article.

Nicholas Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...