Independent Police Monitor Susan Hutson and Deputy Monitor Ursula Price sit down with The New Orleans Tribune to talk about everything from the case review of the Wendell Allen shooting investigation to needed resources for the office, from the challenges and successes they have experienced in fulfilling the mission of the OIPM to what they see as the dire need to become a truly independent, adequately funded agency that operates freely—not under the umbrella of the Office of the Inspector General (OIG)—an office with which the relationship with OIPM has been strained at times.
by Anitra D. Brown
The 60th anniversary of the brutal murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till. The 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights March. The 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent levee failure that has forever changed New Orleans.
Then there was another less noted milestone. This year, 2015, also marks the fifth year anniversary of the establishment of the Office of Independent Police Monitor in New Orleans and Susan Hutson becoming the first ever to lead it. A graduate of Tulane University Law School, Hutson has defined the role of an objective proctor of police activity in this city. Still, the observance might have slipped right by us here at The New Orleans Tribune had it not been for the stinging report her office issued regarding the shooting death of Wendell Allen. In that report, NOPD was blasted for initially failing to discover and then exhibiting an unwillingness to collect the “integral video evidence,” which proved that officers’ accounts were inconsistent with what happened and that they failed to identify themselves upon entering the house. In fact, even after fully knowing that Wendell Allen was unarmed, they focused their efforts on determining how a gun found in the home, nowhere near where Allen was shot, got there—no doubt a twisted last-ditch attempt to deflect from their own missteps.
The report also pointed out problems with the search warrant and recommended discipline against officers that provided inconsistent testimony as well as the homicide investigators who failed to collect the video evidence captured by an officer’s body camera.
To be sure, the release of the report on the Wendell Allen case is a strong reminder that the Office of the Independent Police Monitor does indeed exist in New Orleans—and more importantly—that its leader is not at all afraid to stand up, tell the truth and be, well, independent.
Shortly after the Allen report was released, The New Orleans Tribune sat down with Hutson and Deputy Monitor Ursula Price, who is in charge of community outreach, for a conversation about the findings of the review of the Allen case and much more as it relates to the work, role and challenges of the Office.
ANITRA BROWN: I’ll start with congratulations for the work your office has conducted regarding the review of the Wendell Allen case. To be honest, for The Tribune, it was a two-part reaction. First, “no duh.” Of course, there were problems with this police shooting of an unarmed young man in his family’s home. That was directly followed by “it’s about time,” meaning that while we weren’t shocked, it was refreshing to see the truths and realities of those problems printed with candor. Still, I do have a question as it relates specifically to the Allen case and to the office in general. The report is released; and immediately I am thinking, it’s been more than three years since that shooting. Now correct me if I am wrong; but that’s an awful long time, isn’t it?
SUSAN HUTSON: Oh, no…it is.
AB: Why? What kinds of challenges does the Office of the Independent Police Monitor face that creates that sort of lag? Maybe this is my naivety, but I would imagine that if folk were cooperating, we should be able to get reports on such incidents in less time than three years.
SH: It is a combination of things. There was a fight about us getting access to the documents; and that took a lot of wrangling and negotiation for us to actually get the voluminous police files. We had to get the inspector general involved and deal with the chief of police, all just to get us access to the documents. But the case was still open then. The DA had not made any decision about what he was going to do, so we couldn’t do anything. We’re not allowed to write reports about investigations that are still opened. So the criminal side of the investigation ended in early 2013. Then, the DA’s office took it and did their thing. I think the criminal case ended in August of 2013 when the officer plead. Now NOPD has to open an administrative investigation. That has never been done before—a thorough and complete investigation. What it is supposed to be is a debriefing about what happened, how it happened, policies, procedures and training, what went right, what went wrong; and if something was wrong, who gets held accountable. They didn’t look at those things before. The Public Integrity Bureau would just eyeball it and say, “Okay, either it was a violation or it wasn’t”.
So this was the first case in which they actually went through that entire administrative process. Well, they didn’t actually complete it. As we tell in the report, they missed some things. But this was the first time they even attempted; and that ended in August 2014. So we got the information and started working on it. But I don’t have full-time bodies here. That side of the office—all the way down—is the inspector general. They have two divisions, the audit division and the inspection division. And those people work on, I think, two reports a year. That’s not how it works down here. We have to do whatever. It’s all hands on deck. Responding to the (officer-involved) shootings—about 20 to 25 a year. Taking complaints—a little under 100 a year—and all the time it takes to deal with the complainants and dealing with PIB on those complaints, trying to monitor the cases so that we don’t have a poor outcome that we have to write a report about. And then it’s too late to do anything.
AB: All of that leads me to another question in order to clarify the role of the office in terms of investigating cases like the Wendell Allen shooting. If your office doesn’t get to report anything until after the DA makes a decision and after NOPD is done with its administrative investigation doesn’t that kind of negate a major reason for having an independent police monitor—which would be to provide independent oversight and assurances of fairness and exactitude during the processes.
SH: We investigate the investigation. That’s what we do. We call those “case reviews”; and we don’t really have the bodies just sitting here doing that. We got really lucky. We had a volunteer who came in every day to review this case, and now she’s gone.
URSULA PRICE: She just happened to be a highly-trained professional who was in between jobs. Normally it would have taken a lot longer to work with (law) student volunteers to get quality work out of it.
SH. Yes, so we really lucked into that. But, you asked me something else…oh, no, we don’t have investigatory powers over normal things. We just don’t. We’d love to, but we don’t. So we investigate the investigation; but we also monitor it. That was key in this case. We were there within an hour or two of that shooting going down. And even though we didn’t get immediate access to the scene, we got a lot of access. My deputy Simone Levine went to the police station. Actually we needed a little help from the OIG to do it, but we monitored the interviews of the officers. That’s where we found that critical piece of evidence, which was the video tape. And that’s also where we stopped all of the involved officers from sitting together in a room and talking. What does that remind you of? Danzinger—the officers all got together and had their little meeting, right. So here we are, years later and (officers involved in a shooting) are there in a room together. It’s completely inappropriate. You would never allow witnesses in a (civilian) homicide to do that. So why would you allow that in this case. We were able to break that up. They got to talk for a while; but they didn’t get to finish talking. That, I think, is critical because they were all about to be interviewed that night. So we broke up the opportunity for them to discuss what happened and perhaps taint each other’s testimony.
AB: Okay, so case reviews are just one part; and there is monitoring during the processes.
UP: And that monitoring piece is really important when it comes to monitoring uses of force, complaint intake, interviews, and specific cases. There are a lot of people involved in police reform in New Orleans. There is no other entity that is consistently physically present and watching these processes.
SH: And people don’t realize it because we can’t write reports about it because we are monitoring all of the time. That’s what is frustrating. If I had the bodies, we could do both. But monitoring is so critical, especially in shootings, which are our top priority. Maybe the public can tell us if we’re right or wrong. Do you want more reports or do you want us to be there to see what’s going on? I have—well I had—more staff this year than I have had in the five years the office has been here. Usually, there are three people. This year, for little more than a year, I had five people. Now, that is five people to look at 1,100 and all those things going on.
AB: I think the public would agree that the work of this office is important. Let’s talk resources. You’ve said repeatedly that you don’t have enough—staff, budget. What does your office need to work as effectively and efficiently as the people of New Orleans deserve.
SH: If you look at the Office of the Consent Decree Monitor, they have 10 to 12 people working there to oversee the implementation of the federal consent decree. What I have said consistently from the time I got here is that I needed at least 10 people to get this work done. I need everybody I have right now; and everybody has a specific role. But then I need people here. I need an investigator. We actually have investigatory powers over the Office of Secondary Police Employment. We got those in 2013. I have no investigator. No money was provided for that. We also need an investigator, someone with police experience, to review the use of force complaints. We have a lot more cases to be reviewed in that arena; but I need someone who knows police tactics, training, that kind of thing to make recommendations.
We need an auditor. In 2013, we started working with the inspector general on a report about warrants. And warrants tell you almost everything you want to know about a police department. Through this complaint process, we looked at about eight or nine search and arrest warrants; and we found that information being put into these warrant affidavits to give to the judge was either factually incorrect or omitted very important details. It was very problematic. That is a constitutional issue—probable cause. So we started to look at that, and we were working really well with the inspector general’s audit division when he decided that it was going to hurt his relationship with the district attorney’s office and told us to stop.
There’s an issue with the warrant in the Allen case. That’s one of those cases where we said “Wait, there’s a problem.” But if I had that auditor we could conduct those types of assessments.
UP: So just zoom out for a minute, and think about these warrants, right. Now had that warrant affidavit (accurately reflected) that the person they were looking for did not live at Wendell Allen’s house, they probably wouldn’t have been able to go into that house. There are tons of people affected every day by these warrants.
SH: So we need an auditor. We need a data analyst. If you look at our ordinance, it’s all about analyzing data. We don’t have anybody to do that. We tried again to work with the inspector general’s data analysts. He has two or three people who can analyze data. I have none. And he broke that up when we were (analyzing) stop and frisk. He tried to take over our report and change our findings—all kinds of stuff. So we need our own.
UP: And also counsel.
SH: Yes, we need counsel to enforce our access to things, to protect our rights and make sure we can get what we need. We need counsel for all kinds of things—open records requests and to actually enforce our ordinance. So there are some challenges as there are in everything.
AB: So, what I am hearing is that there is a lot this office needs.
UP: And that’s just staff. We need adequate funding. We need to be in a space that is conducive to what we are trying to do.
AB: Right. I imagine that many of the individuals that have complaints are not anxious to walk through a secured federal building. I mean I am sure I am in pretty good standing, and I was like you need to see what?
UP: We meet a lot of people in the CC’s across the street because they don’t want to come up in here. But it’s also that there are still a lot of people that don’t know there is a police monitor because we are not visible in that way. We are behind gates, in a fortress.
AB: I suppose there are many New Orleanians that understand and know that the Office of the Independent Police Monitor is here to in fact serve the needs of the citizens through its mission and responsibilities. Then there are many who maybe have not made that connection. I mean, they know you exist; but don’t really know that you are here for them, that if they have a complaint and don’t feel comfortable going to PIB at NOPD, that they can come here. So talk to me about your efforts to spread that message to the community.
UP: So my outreach is not as robust as I would like it to be because I am juggling roles; but one thing that we are proud of is that we have a really solid Rights & Responsibilities curriculum. We have delivered it to various youth groups. But we regularly do it at the day reporting center at the jail; and we’ve done it at the evening reporting center for youth. So we are reaching the folk that are likely to have contact with the police. We do it regularly at Liberty’s Kitchen; and we just established relationship with City Council to start doing it at some community centers. Hopefully, very soon, we will have a grant for software so that the curriculum will be available on the web for people to access. We also do a outreach, speaking at neighborhood association and community meetings. Right now, we do that by request; but I hardly ever turn down a request.
We also talk with officers quite a bit. We meet with their police associations. Right now, our mediation coordinator is at roll call at one of the districts doing a little outreach, talking to officers about our mediation program. What I have asked for and have not been able to receive is a budget for actual advertising and printing.
SH: We’re having to choose between putting together a really valuable “Know Your Rights” pamphlet for the public and training my staff. Does that make sense? We need both. Meanwhile the Inspector General spends $91,000 to have someone come and do a surprise inspection on us? How does he get away with that?
AB: (Laughter) I am always surprised at the stuff Ed Quatreveaux gets away with.
SH: $91,000—do you know what we could do with that? Man, we would show out.
UP: That’s the equivalent of almost 20 percent of our budget being spent to have someone come do a review based on standards we’ve never heard of.
AB: So, one way of addressing your challenges would be making this office independent of the Office of the Inspector General. As I understand it, that is something you want to see happen.
SH: Absolutely. We keep asking for that. We have asked the Council to take it up. If it needs to go to a vote of the people—whatever it takes—we want to get this done.
AB: Well, I want to know if there are other cases that your office is still reviewing. I can think of one in particular. Just a week after Wendell Allen was killed, there was Justin Sipp.
SH: Yes, tons. Remember this is the first one we completed. So, Justin Sipp—we’re, in fact, reviewing that now. We have a lawyer that has volunteered his time to review that case. But (NOPD) still doesn’t have the administrative side complete. They keep going back and forth on that. First they said they were going to complete it. Then, they say they’re not. Just complete it, and do it right.
But when that one comes out, it’s going to be just as important because there are lots of things that went wrong. Why were those boys stopped to begin with? That’s the big question. What did the officers know at the time that they stopped them? There is only one thing that they knew—two young Black men driving in a car. There were no violations that they observed. Remember, they are coming from opposite directions, so how did you see that taillight? A lot of questions that need to be answered in that one.
UP: I have quite a few complaints that need to be reviewed that I think people would be interested in seeing. I have a sexual assault case that was supposed to be a part of the larger review of sexual assault cases. I have some domestic violence cases…
AB: How many cases right now?
UP: We take about 100 complaints (a year), and we review about 25 either because people request it or because we notice an issue.
SH: That’s the thing we don’t get to do enough of that we need to do—the case reviews—because they are so time-consuming.
UP: We also have this work we do here called criminal liaison. A lot of our complainants are crime victims who more than wanting to have an officer disciplined just want to see that crime against them investigated; and they want their rights honored in that respect. So we do a lot to try to help crime victims navigate that system.
SH: Especially homicide—the families of people that have been killed. We’re always shocked that we have to intervene and help in that. You would think those are the victims that you want to help. I understand (police) are overburdened, but (the families of homicide victims) are one of our biggest groups of users.
UP: And it’s not about not being able to reach your detective. The issues are a lot deeper and focus on the approach to the investigation. I got a call from a family where one of the boys in the family was killed, and the police ended up searching their house and confiscating some of the personal items from their house.
AB: Well, we’re talking about a department—and yes, I understand that policing is hard—but we are talking about a department that just stopped in recent years disseminating for publication the arrest records of murder victims, which was done for what other reason than to besmirch their character and suggest somehow that they deserved…
SH: …That their lives did not matter a bit.
UP: Oh, this is just an aside, but did you see that Crime Stoppers billboard?
SH: Which one?
UP: The Crime Stoppers billboard that said “Innocent Man Killed.”
SH: The pizza delivery guy, right? (Editor’s note: Michael Price who happened to be White, was a local pizza delivery driver killed earlier this year in the 6100 block of N. Roman St., in the Ninth Ward.)
UP: I have never seen a Crime Stoppers billboard so aggressively assert the innocence of a crime victim before.
AB: But that’s it. That’s exactly it. (A pause tendered with some head shaking.) Okay, it’s been an interesting five years full of challenges. But some progress and success, too, right? I mean this Wendell Allen report has been a bright light, indicating that yes, this office makes a difference. Talk to me about other signs of success, positive change and progress.
SH: This report highlighted changes we’ve been able to make. For instance, back in 2012 homicide was still investigating these types of cases. That is the same unit that did Danzinger and Glover, all those things and handled them inappropriately. And we said you have got to take it out of their hands; it’s got to be a specialized unit. And (former Supt. Ronal) Serpas agreed and created the Force Investigations Team. They just started operating when (the Wendell Allen and Justin Sipp) cases went down, so they were not in control of those cases. But they are now. And that is a much better scenario for the public because they are not out there working with other officers day-to-day to solve crimes. They are by themselves, and they are being trained on how to handle these cases appropriately.
UP: As someone who was in New Orleans before the OIPM and after, I can say that Susan has done a tremendous amount of work to establish the office itself. Our ordinance was extremely vague. She got an MOU with NOPD that made it clear what kind of information we have access to, our duties and powers. She’s been able to define those boundaries in really significant ways because it was up in the air for minute. There was a lot of compromise that went into establishing this office; and at one point it looked like we were just going to be a complaint intake center. But Susan was actually listening to the people about what their needs were and she did the work she had to do to be there to protect their civil rights. As far as institution building goes, she has established a great foundation for this office so that it can go on to be something significant for this community.
SH: We’ve pushed the limits. We really have, I think, made as much as we can out of what we had. But we have strengthened some relationships. NOPD wants us at a lot of things now. They called us out for Officer Daryle Holloway. That wasn’t a use of force issue. It turned out to be a misconduct issue. And Chief Arlinda Westbrook in the Public Integrity Bureau—she has really opened doors to us. (Editor’s Note: In June 2015, Officer Holloway was shot dead by a domestic assault suspect as he transported him to jail. The suspect, Travis Boys, escaped, but was later captured and arrested on charges of first degree murder. Subsequently, Officer Wardell Johnson, who responded to the original domestic assault call involving Boys, was suspended and arrested on charges of obtsruction of justice, malfeasance in office and theft resulting from his attempts to leave evidence at the scene of the assault. Johnson also threw other evidence away.)
UP: It’s not just NOPD. We’re working across the criminal justice system. We’ve started monitoring autopsies so that people can trust the cause of death rulings. We’re working with the DA, the city attorney. Everybody has their own stake in this, but I feel like Susan is doing a great job solidifying our role in the criminal justice system.
SH: And that is different than in other cities where the police monitor just deals with the police. Here we deal with everybody. But we listened to the people and what they wanted from this office.
AB: So what’s next?
SH: Independence is really at the forefront. I really feel that we are at a breaking point right now, where either we are going to succeed or be beaten down into some auxiliary role. Are we going to be an independent strong entity or not? A decision needs to be made.
AB: You know what? I should I have asked this first. It’s 2010 when you take this job. So you know about Danzinger. You know about Henry Glover. I mean long before that there were a number of horrific incidents in NOPD’s relatively recent and distant history—Antoinette Frank, Lynn Davis. I have got to ask, what made Susan Hutson say “Yes, I’m coming to New Orleans to be the police monitor”?
SH: At first, I said, “no way.” Look, I was in law school here when Adolph Archie was killed. But I started talking to folk and they said, “There is a new mayor. The DOJ is in town. Things are changing.” They started persuading me. So I thought yes, where else could you do more good than in New Orleans if you can make it work. (Editor’s Note: In the Spring of 1990, a Black man, Adolph Archie, was accused of killing a White officer, Earl Hauck, during a shootout. Archie was also injured. The police transported Archie to the hospital to find angry officers there. There were also officers broadcasting death threats against Archie over police radios. The officers decided not to enter the hospital; but, instead taking him to another hospital, which was department policy, they drove him to Hauck’s police station. Once there, officers claimed there was a struggle with Archie and that he slipped and fell. By the time Archie got to a doctor, he had been beaten severely. His death was ultimately called a “homicide by police intervention” by the coroner’s office.)
AB: Anything I haven’t asked that you want people—specifically our readers—to know?
SH: The only thing I would say, Anitra, is that this report on the Wendell Allen case is the first of its type; but it won’t be the last. This is just the start of us being able to fulfill that promise to the community. This is what the community wants. You’re going to get it, and there’s more to come.
The Office of the Independent Police Monitor is located in the Federal Reserve at
525 St. Charles Ave.