The New Orleans City Council approved a new set of laws on Thursday that will allow the New Orleans Police Department to deputize some city employees to issue municipal court citations for certain quality-of-life violations.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration, which crafted the ordinances, argued the new powers will facilitate more effective enforcement of certain laws — like illegal dumping, tour guide rules and public obstructions — while freeing up NOPD personnel to deal with higher-priority crimes.
The deputized employees won’t be able to arrest people, won’t have badges, cannot carry firearms and can only use force for self-defense or to protect someone else.
Opponents said they were concerned the city could use the law to crack down on a litany of minor code violations, saddling residents and businesses with fines and fees they can’t afford. Though the employees won’t be able to make arrests, several of the laws carry the possibility of jail time for multiple convictions in court.
Ultimately the effects of the new policing powers will come down to how the city wields them. The laws, in theory, do allow deputized employees to enforce a long list of minor violations, like spitting on the ground, when a garbage bin “does not close to where it is in contact with the rim” or when yard trimmings are placed inside a garbage bin instead of next to it.
But city officials said that won’t happen, and that the goal was not out to maximize fine collections or arbitrarily punish residents and businesses.
“I don’t think anyone in these departments are looking for revenue here,” Michael Pfeiffer, innovation manager for the NOPD’s Professional Standards and Accountability Bureau, told the council earlier this week. “They’re just trying to fix the problem. The fines aren’t even thought about at this stage.”
They said that the focus will continue to be on warning and educating violators, but that they need the citation option to resolve repeat violators who are causing significant problems and simply refusing to get in line.
Councilwoman Helena Moreno was the sole council member to vote against the set of laws, arguing that there still wasn’t enough information to know how the program will work. She pointed out the NOPD still hadn’t finalized the rules that will govern the deputization process.
“I guess as an overall concept I see what the end result is trying to be, but still just do not have enough details as we put this program together,” Moreno said. “I mean, the training hasn’t been put together yet.”
At an October hearing on the laws, Moreno also brought up concerns about how a municipal court citation can snowball into big problems for some people.
“I think we have to be careful because, once again, these are all fees and fines going into Municipal Court. And if you don’t show up to Municipal Court, you don’t pay your fees or fines, then you end up with another ticket and another fee or fine. So my point is we just need to be careful in how we proceed and that we’re going after those who are the continuous bad actors.”
Although she voted against the laws, Moreno submitted an amendment on Thursday that specified that deputized employees cannot make arrests, carry a firearm or use force unless in self defense or to protect someone else. The amendment also requires the NOPD to run background checks before deputizing employees. The amendment passed unanimously.
NOPD drafting final policies
The new law expands an existing part of the city code that allows the NOPD superintendent to deputize security guards as part of a “special police force.” The law passed on Thursday expands that to include civilian city employees.
The NOPD will now be able to deputize employees of the Department of Public Works, Department of Sanitation, the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, the Ground Transportation Bureau and the Mosquito, Termite and Rodent Control Board.
Deputized employees will only be able to enforce an approved list of ordinances specific to each department.
The deputization process will be governed by a new NOPD policy that is currently being written. There will be a public hearing on those rules on Dec. 28, Councilman Jay Banks said. In the meantime, the NOPD released a rough outline for what those rules will look like.
According to that outline, department heads will submit names of employees they want deputized, stating that those employees are in “good standing,” meaning “no outstanding complaints pending, no history of complaints involving vulgar, threatening words or conduct, no issues of inappropriate behavior in the workplace, etc.”
The NOPD will also run a background check through law enforcement databases, after which NOPD staff will make a recommendation to the superintendent, noting “any indications of unsuitability” found in the background check. An outstanding warrant is automatically disqualifying.
The NOPD will prepare a lesson course for deputized employees, “specifically covering the limitations of the deputization authority, prohibitions on use of force, prohibition on carrying of weapons (firearms) during the course of their official duties, penalties for exceeding authority and the process to be used to ‘cite’ an infraction and perfect the citation.”
Complaints related to deputized employees abusing their authority will be communicated to the NOPD and investigated by the department’s Management Service Bureau, according to the rules outline.
During a presentation on Monday, department heads gave the council a broad outline of how they intended to use the new law. Josh Hartley, acting director of the Department of Public Works, said his department will be focused on drainage issues and illegal dumping.
“For the Department of Public Works, our focus is really going to be drainage concerns, flooding, minimizing that,” Hartley said. “We have typical scenarios where a new driveway is built and it blocks a ditch and prevents stormwater to get to a nearby catch basin. We’re also looking at illegal dumping as far as concrete or other chemicals that will get into the drainage system.”
The Mosquito, Termite and Rodent Control Board will also be heavily focused on illegal dumping of tires and other violations related to trash that can cause rodent infestations. Department of Sanitation Director Matt Torri said he will also focus on illegal dumping and debris issues.
There wasn’t a representative from the Ground Transportation Bureau at the meeting earlier this week, but deputized employees of the department will have power to enforce laws that govern tour guides and for-hire vehicles.