NOPD vehicles parked outside of an old city jail building. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The Office of the Independent Police Monitor asked the City Council at a Wednesday budget hearing for a 50 percent budget increase above what Mayor LaToya Cantrell proposed in her 2023 draft budget. The plan, if approved by the council, would more than double the office’s spending from $690,000 in 2022 to $1.76 million in 2023. 

“This is going to be a first for us. We are coming before City Council and we are going to be asking for additional money,” Independent Police Monitor Stella Cziment told the council.  “Simply put, our community and all the partners we work with deserve better from us, and we want to make that happen.” 

Cantrell released a draft 2023 budget last week. But it is ultimately up to the City Council to approve a final budget. The council is holding department by department hearings this month to determine if it wants to make any adjustments to Cantrell’s initial proposal. 

According to Cziment’s presentation, the additional funding would help the office more than double its staff and take on a number of initiatives, including a public-facing police misconduct database, a complaint hotline, greater data collection and analytics capacity and a bigger oversight role over the city’s Office of Police Secondary Employment. That office coordinates the hiring of NOPD officers for private details and over the last year has been embroiled in allegations that officers were misusing the system, leading to federal and local investigations.

Cziment said that it was especially important to start beefing up the office to prepare for if and when the NOPD is released from its long-running consent decree with the federal government. The NOPD entered a consent decree in 2012 after an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice found a litany of civil rights abuses and unconstitutional practices within the department. 

Since then, a federally appointed monitoring team has taken the lead on NOPD oversight. But the city has been pushing hard for an end to the consent decree. When that happens, Cziment said, the Office of the Independent Police monitor will have to take over many of the police accountability roles currently played by the federal monitors.

Council members didn’t clearly indicate whether they would approve the OIPM’s budget request, but several seemed sympathetic to the pitch, especially the argument that the OIPM needed to prepare for the potential end of the consent decree.

“As we leave the consent decree, our citizens will want to know there is an independent monitor overseeing operations,” Councilman Eugene Green said.

Councilman JP Morrell agreed, and said that having a well funded OIPM could be an important factor when the federal monitors are considering releasing the city from the consent decree. 

“I think it’s important as a council for us to invest in building you up,” Morrell said.

Cziment said that the office has always been funded at the minimum amount required in city law — .16 percent of the city’s annual general fund. In 2022 that amounted to $1.04 million. But the office only spent roughly $690,000, according to OIPM documents.  

Deputy Police Monitor Bonycle Sokunbi said the lower-than-expected spending was largely due to vacancies and changes in leadership. The former head of the office, Susan Hutson, was elected as Orleans Parish Sheriff in late 2021 and took office in May. Cziment added that they’ve had trouble filling other current positions, but planned to work with the Civil Service Commission to raise salaries and change qualification requirements to help hire. 

Cantrell’s 2023 draft budget once again proposes funding the OIPM and the minimum level — $1.17 million. The OIPM, however, is requesting the council approve a budget that’s roughly 50 percent larger — $1.76 million.  

“We have big plans,” Cziment told The Lens after the meeting.

Cziment said that money would be used for several priorities. The first would be growing the staff from 6 to 14 employees. New hires would include data auditors and police misconduct investigators. Cziment said it was important for the office to start collecting its own data, rather than that produced by the NOPD, to start answering big questions about the state of New Orleans policing. 

“We really need the ability to answer larger, bigger questions about policing,” she said. “Where is it successful? Where is it struggling? And how can it improve? And we can’t do that unless we have a data and auditing team.”

The money would also be used to increase the office’s auditing and investigative capacity with new technology. Once again Cziment stressed that the office needed to start beefing up its capacity if it wants to be prepared to sustain the level of oversight being provided under the consent decree.

The money would also be used to create a 24-hour hotline for people to make complaints about police misconduct or abuse, as well as other methods of getting public input, including remote complaint intake sites, expanded office hours and public forums. The office would also expand its mediation program for handling disputes between officers and the public. 

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...