DOJ spars with neighborhood security districts over cost

The two largest neighborhood security districts in New Orleans are locked in a tussle with the U.S. Department of Justice over how much they should be paying the city for the police officers they rely on for beefed-up patrols on their streets.

Justice Department officials claim the Lakeview and Mid-City security districts aren’t paying the full cost, forcing all city taxpayers to foot some of the bill for a police presence that doesn’t reach most of them. Just how much money is at stake remains the subject of ongoing debate among the districts, the DOJ and the City Attorney’s Office.

The districts defend their contracts, under which the Mid-City district paid the city $1.1 million last year and the Lakeview district paid more than $500,000. Unlike officers working off-duty details, NOPD members working for the districts are considered to be putting in on-duty overtime hours.

Leaders of both districts said they buy police cars for the officers to use, along with paying their overtime rates, and that tickets the officers write on the job result in fines that feed into the city’s coffers.

The feds counter that the districts fail to pay enough to cover gas and vehicle maintenance, workers’ compensation and liability insurance costs for the extra officers.

Spreading any of those costs citywide raises concerns that the districts’ deals unfairly siphon money from the public as a whole, compromising the principles of equal protection and bias-free policing that underpin many of the NOPD reforms contained in a federal consent decree that Mayor Mitch Landrieu and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder signed almost two years ago.

District leaders see a simpler motivation — money — with the DOJ threatening to force them to deal with the new city agency that manages off-duty police details if they want to keep their cops.

Both districts have balked at having their added police presence dictated by the new Office of Police Secondary Employment. They fear they would have to spend more under the off-duty pay rates set by the City Council and that they would lose experienced police coordinators who know the districts’ residents and their crime trouble spots.

A similar threat faces a handful of other security districts that now use off-duty New Orleans cops, such as for enhanced patrols in the Fair Grounds area, where the racetrack agreed to fund more cops as part of a deal in the mid-1990s to add several hundred slot machines to the track.

OPSE has struggled to fill some off-duty details amid lackluster interest among police officers.

The security districts, meanwhile, say they were never part of the problem — alleged cronyism and corruption — that the new detail office was supposedly created to erase, and they fear their patrols will be left short.

Among the 25 neighborhood security districts in the city, Lakeview and Mid-City are the only ones that use on-duty NOPD cops to boost their patrol levels. The two areas total 27,000 residents, and, according to a report last year by Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s office, they see much swifter police response times for their money.

In Lakeview, where the population in the security district is 11,800 and mostly white, property owners pay a relatively low $110 annual fee for the added policing. Police response times in the area are 35 percent faster than elsewhere in the 3rd District, the IG’s report said.

In Mid-City, a bigger, more diverse district with 15,500 residents, response times were 20 percent faster than in the surrounding areas of the 1st and 3rd NOPD districts, the report found. Residents there pay $200 a year.

“We’ve been working with DOJ and the city to try to sort through this. We’ve proven without a question that we contribute to the city of New Orleans not only in fees. The tickets we write, the arrests we make, end up being fines,” said Freddy Yoder, of the Lakeview Crime Prevention District, which is at the front end of a 10-year contract with the city.

“We have contributed much more to them than they have ever given to us,” he said. “All of this is going to depend on what direction DOJ decides to go. As it stands right now, we’re trying to cooperate with them.”

At a public forum last week on the NOPD consent decree, Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Parker challenged the idea that the two security districts are paying enough, or that they are protected by their deals with the city.

“Our position is, a federal court order trumps a city ordinance,” Parker told the audience. “We’ve got to get those taxing districts to pay their own freight.”

Jim Olsen, chairman of the Mid-City Security District, disputed the idea that the extra police presence amounts to a premium service exclusively for the district.

The district bolstered its police presence by more than 37,000 patrol hours last year, he said, or about 100 hours a day on average.

“The issue that’s been presented by the DOJ is that it’s not fair we have additional security in this area,” Olsen said. “We don’t stop people at the border and say, ‘Do you live here? You can’t come in.’ We provide a comfortable, safe and secure community for everybody in the New Orleans area. People come in from Lakeview, Gentilly, Hollygrove and get the same level of security people who live here do.”

Landrieu’s office did not respond to a request for comment about the actual cost of providing the heightened police presence in the two neighborhoods. However, spokesman Tyler Gamble said the two districts are not required to go through the OPSE because their agreements with the city predate the consent decree. He said the city is working with the districts to determine how they should operate “moving forward.” All other security taxing districts that use off-duty NOPD officers “should be using OPSE to coordinate details,” he said.

More than Lakeview, the Mid-City district appears ready to strike a bargain with the DOJ, although it’s still unclear how much more the district would pay, said the group’s attorney, Lee Reid.

Whatever the changes, Olsen said, one thing is clear: “We’re not a detail. I will not entertain that concept at all.”

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