NOPD vehicles parked outside the 1st District Police Station. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The Orleans Parish Ethics Review Board passed a resolution last week stating that the city should increase the minimum guaranteed funding for the Office of the Independent Police Monitor (OIPM) before the City Council grants it additional investigative powers and responsibilities, in order to ensure that the office maintains its independence. 

The resolution was a response to the City Council considering an ordinance to expand the OIPM’s investigative power, as well as the OIPM’s request for a significant budget increase for 2023, according to the ethic’s board’s executive administrator and general counsel, Dane Ciolino.

Councilman JP Morrell, who is sponsoring the ordinance, told The Lens that although he remained committed to the budget increase and ordinance, he was going to put them both on temporary hold as he worked with the ethics board to allay their concerns. 

“With the plethora of scandals we’ve had at the NOPD, with their scandals and mismanagement, a robust OIPM is a number one priority for me,” Morrell said.

Ciolino told The Lens that the board was supportive of the OIPM’s request for a bigger budget, and that there were no objections to the council ordinance to give the office subpoena and audit powers. But he said that it was important that the office’s higher budget was permanently enshrined in the city’s home rule charter, rather than decided on a year-to-year basis.

“Her office clearly needs more money,” Ciolino said. “But the board thinks that any additional funding shouldn’t come on an annual basis where [Independent Police Monitor Stella Cziment] has to crawl on her hands and knees for money, because then the people giving the money can ask for something in return. It’s fairly simple.”

The OIPM has a guaranteed minimum budget set in the city’s Home Rule Charter, which acts as a sort of local constitution. The charter has similar minimum budget provisions for two other independent oversight bodies — the ethics board and the Orleans Parish Office of Inspector General. 

Unlike normal laws, the city charter can only be changed through a popular vote of Orleans Parish residents. That means the city has no choice but to fund those offices at the minimum level every year, which in theory is supposed to protect those offices from being politicized by the elected officials in control of the annual budget. 

Currently, the charter says the city must fund the OIPM with a minimum of .16 percent of the city’s general fund budget. The office historically has been funded at that minimum level. In Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s draft 2023 budget, the office is once again set to get that minimum — roughly $1.2 million.

But at a recent budget hearing, OIPM director Stella Cziment told the City Council — which has final say over the budget — that her office needed more. She made a formal request for the council to increase her budget to $1.8 million. 

Cziment told the council it was vital 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.

“The reality is that everyone, including the federal monitor, is under the impression that as the department goes out of consent decree into maintenance, that the independent police monitor will assume a role similar to theirs to continue oversight,” Morrell said. 

That increased role is also the reason Morrell introduced an ordinance to give the OIPM more legal authority to collect data, issue subpoenas and access NOPD information. 

That ordinance, along with Cziment’s request for a budget above the minimum required amount, led to a discussion among the ethics board.

“The board found out that Stella was asking for funding from the City Council,” Ciolino said. “Some members had some concerns that raised independence issues… I don’t think the board has any problem with the ordinance or additional funding, but they just don’t want to put her in a position to ask for it.”

Ciolino said that as the office inherited more responsibilities, including those in Morrell’s ordinance, the office would need more money. But he said the office shouldn’t rely on the council’s discretion to raise their budget above the minimum level. 

“We don’t want her to have to beg for it,” Ciolino said. “This has never happened before, this is a hypothetical, but suppose the council wanted the independent police monitor to look into the mayor’s bodyguards and says, ‘Look, we want you do that, we want you to commit to do that or else we won’t give you, you know, $500,000 in funding, you’ll have to lay people off.’ “ 

Charter amendment and short-term alternatives

Morrell said he didn’t necessarily agree with the ethics board’s concerns about independence, but that he respected the role of the ethics board and would take their points seriously. 

“I don’t doubt their sincerity in trying to protect the integrity of the office,” he said. “I am open to compromise but I think there’s a level of fundamental disagreement in that regard.”

He said that he didn’t think that annual council funding would pose a serious threat to the office’s independence or invite undue political pressure. And he said that the council could make a non-binding pledge to fund the OIPM moving forward through a normal ordinance.

Ultimately, though, he agreed with the ethics board that the only way to fully allay those concerns of independence and guarantee funding is to pass a charter amendment. That would require the council to vote to create a ballot initiative, and then approval from New Orleans voters. 

“The only way to achieve the iron clad independent revenue stream would be a charter amendment,” Morrell said.

Morrell said that he had only just begun working with the ethics board to address their concerns, so couldn’t say for sure whether a charter amendment would go before voters next year. But he said that he was trying to find ways to pass the higher budget and ordinance in case that can’t be done in the short term.

“There’s not a guarantee that voters in this environment will pass a charter amendment to give more money to anyone right now,” Morrell said. 

He said that it was important to shore up the OIPM’s authority and budget in the case that, for whatever reason, they can’t get a charter amendment passed in the short term. 

“The city is going to have to front that cost until we can get a secure revenue strategy,” Morrell said. “If [the ethics board] agrees that yeah, this is a stop gap toward a larger charter amendment, then we can free up that money to expand the IPM’s ability to do things. But that’s kind of a work in progress.”

He said that in an initial conversation with an ethics board representative, they seemed sympathetic to that argument.

“Once we had that conversation they were like yeah, that’s kind of right,” Morrell said. 

The Lens didn’t attend the ethic’s board meeting in which the resolution was passed. And Ciolino said there was no recording of it. But he said Cziment was present and spoke at the meeting.

“She didn’t object to it,” Ciolino said. “I mean she didn’t ask us to do this. I mean she just wants the extra funding right now. So I think she has some concern that this might slow up her immediate funding needs. So I’m not sure she completely embraces it right now. You’ll have to ask her that.”

Cziment declined an interview for this story but sent The Lens a brief statement in response.

“This ordinance is another step towards accountability within the police department,” the statement said. “Timely, comprehensive, and critical investigations of NOPD leadership will ensure that all NOPD employees are held accountable to the same policies and standards as envisioned by the Consent Decree. This ordinance not only expands the OIPM’s investigatory and subpoena abilities, but it also ensures necessary protection to those who anonymously report alleged police misconduct to our office.”

Morrell agreed that the ordinance was vital for cementing the OIPM’s role protecting both the public and rank and file officers. 

“Over the last three years morale has gone below the basement because even the officers themselves have no faith the debarment is going to be fair and unbiased when it’s pursuing investigations,” Morrell said. “Because you’ve heard it over and over again, there’s a perception that if you’re in the cool club, you can get away with murder, and if you’re a regular officer and your tie is crooked, you might be facing a two-day suspension.”

He said that from his conversations with the OIPM, the office wants to take on a bigger role, but doesn’t have the funding or authority to do it. That, he said, makes his ordinance and the budget increase necessary.

In response to a request for comment, NOPD spokesperson Gary Scheets sent a statement.

“To our knowledge, the proposed ordinance regarding the Independent Police Monitor was deferred,” the statement said. “We were told there were amendments to that ordinance, but despite being asked, the author has declined to share the new language with us. It is therefore impossible to provide any sort of perspective on something we have not been allowed to review.”

Morrell’s office said that the amendments hadn’t actually been approved for the ordinance yet, but it sent The Lens a redlined version showing what those amendments would do. The amendments would reduce the OIPM’s investigative powers in certain situations. The original ordinance language gave broad powers for OIPM investigations and audits. The amended version specifies that those powers are “limited to investigations of the Superintendent of Police and Deputy Chiefs of the NOPD and Captains of the Public Integrity Bureau.”

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...