City’s new police detail system goes on trial

Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s top lieutenant took the witness stand in federal court this week to defend the city’s controversial new management system for off-duty police security work.

Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin pictured the new agency to coordinate police details as something like an online dating service, helping cops hook up with businesses and events seeking eligible men and women in police blues.

“It facilitates that in a fair way consistent with the consent decree,” Kopplin said Wednesday, referring to the wide-ranging Police Department reform pact that Landrieu and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder signed in 2012. “It’s a voluntary arrangement for officers who want to do that work.”

To local police organizations, however, the Office of Police Secondary Employment is destroying perfectly good marriages left and right, forcing officers who have worked the same off-duty jobs for years to abandon them. The virtual guarantee of that work, they argue, was a selling point when officers signed on to a force that pays lower salaries than most law enforcement agencies in the South.

The local Fraternal Order of Police lodge is fighting the city and the U.S. Department of Justice over the change to an age-old system in which cops crafted their own deals for off-duty jobs ranging from weddings and block parties to security at stores, road races and major festivals.

At issue in the trial: whether the city illegally stymied legitimate contracts between the cops and their customers, and whether the City Council leaped over the Civil Service Commission in the summer when it voted to set pay rates and other rules for the off-duty detail work.

The U.S. Department of Justice insisted upon a centralized system to coordinate and track the police details under the consent decree, after referring to the old officer-run system as the NOPD’s “aorta of corruption” in a 2011 report.

Kopplin fended off repeated suggestions from FOP attorney Raymond Burkart III and Eric Hessler, a lawyer for the Police Association of New Orleans, that under the new office the officers are really working as city employees.

The lawyers cited the office’s power to revoke a cop’s ability to work details, as well as a policy that says police districts may backfill security details with an on-duty cop if an off-duty officer goes AWOL.

However, Kopplin repeatedly testified that nothing about the office changes the long-standing legal arrangement between cops and their customers.

“Clearly, secondary employment is off-duty work,” he said. “They are off duty. They are working for a third-party employer. They are not working for the city.”

The finding that cops’ second jobs amount to a city employment relationship could come with a hefty price tag for the city in overtime and pension benefits, although U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan, who has thus far resisted challenges to the consent decree, noted that those questions are not part of the trial this week. If police persuade the judge that the city wiped away valid contracts, another trial would be held to decide whether it had a bona fide reason to do so.

The Civil Service Commission is siding with the officers, arguing that pay rates for off-duty details should be set by the officers.

Kopplin’s appearance came on the first day of the trial of the police groups’ challenge to the new detail system. Much of the early testimony centered on the usually informal agreements between cops and their customers that have long guided the detail work.

Meanwhile, current and former officers, as well as the private businesses that hire them, suggested the push to get the office — initially created in 2012 — up and running has not gone smoothly.

The new office, for instance, passed on coordinating security work for the NBA All-Star Game festivities next week. And, according to Billy Ceravolo, who recently retired as an NOPD captain and now heads security for the Sheraton Hotel, the office couldn’t guarantee it would send him off-duty cops during Carnival.

“I’d prefer to have NOPD officers there, and I’d prefer to have someone guarantee they’ll be there,” Ceravolo said.

Providing officers for the All-Star Game didn’t work under a staggered schedule spelling out how the detail office will bring on different types of business, Kopplin said in a statement.

“OPSE has a current implementation timeline and it is sticking with it. In accordance with that timeline, OPSE chose not to coordinate any details for the 2014 NBA All-Star Game,” the statement said.

Even so, NOPD officers won’t miss out on the off-duty jobs. The NBA details instead will be coordinated through the NOPD’s special events section, Kopplin said.

As for Carnival, “OPSE is coordinating and scheduling officers to work Mardi Gras-related events that correspond with the implementation plan,” Kopplin said.

Under that schedule, Carnival krewes, social aid and pleasure clubs, and festivals are among several categories that won’t fall under the new detail office until late March, when the vast majority of an estimated 1,000 details are slated to be coordinated by the new office.

Among the concerns for John Cummings, who runs the Sugar Mill event center on Convention Center Boulevard, is losing a group of officers who are familiar with the operation. Under the consent decree, cops must rotate out of most off-duty details after a year. Cummings said his arrangement with Capt. Frederick Morton, a plaintiff in the FOP lawsuit, appears to be dead with the new office taking over.

“Every event requires a man in blue with a gun,” Cummings said. But he said he may be forced to switch to a different color, possibly sheriff’s deputy green, to avoid training and retraining newly assigned NOPD officers.

“We need people who know how to treat people who have been drinking,” Cummings said. “The main problem is not knowing who’s coming. You don’t know who’s coming to dinner. And security is important.”

Morgan rebuffed an attempt by Burkart, the FOP lawyer, to force Kopplin to justify why officers who work details at banks, schools, medical facilities and designated major events will be exempt from the one-year rotation rule.