A federal judge Monday (April 7) dismissed a lawsuit challenging the city’s new system of police off-duty paid details, siding with Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration.
The new policy is a major piece of a wide-ranging consent decree between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice.
In her ruling, U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan rejected claims by two police associations and the New Orleans Civil Service Commission that the city’s takeover of police off-duty work violated civil service law by setting officer pay rates and trampled on the rights of officers to enter into private contracts with businesses.
Morgan is overseeing implementation of the consent decree aimed at overhauling the police department. The court order requires the creation of a new office outside of the department to manage details, which were famously described by federal authorities as the “aorta of corruption” in the department during negotiations over the consent decree.
Critics said the old system, in which officers managed the details themselves, did not treat all officers fairly and could lead some to devote more time and attention to off-duty assignments than their regular jobs. There were also concerns that officers’ coordinating details for a fee created problems within the NOPD’s chain of command.
The ruling comes as the mayor’s new Office of Police Secondary Employment is slowly taking control over management and scheduling of most details, except for those involving schools and special events.
In her 15-page ruling, Morgan rejected claims that the new office was impairing contracts.
During a three-day hearing in February, Sgt. Walter Powers Jr. and Capt. Frederick Morton both testified their details were governed by contracts. However, the judge disagreed, noting Powers had not coordinated any details in several years. Morgan also wrote that “there was no credible testimony” that either Morton or his customer, John Cummings, owner of the Sugar Mill event venue, were legally obligated to hold up their end of the contract.
“There can be no impairment, unconstitutional or otherwise, of nonexistent contractual rights,” Morgan wrote.
Morgan also found that there was no evidence that the officers working details were a “business enterprise” that the government would be competing against. She additionally ruled that because officers voluntarily sign up for off-duty shifts, their pay rates do not fall under the jurisdiction of civil service, which only governs on-duty pay.
The Landrieu administration praised the ruling as a sign that the city has been implementing the consent decree’s detail reforms correctly.
“This ruling makes it clear that the City properly established the Office of Police Secondary Employment and justifiably enacted the Council ordinances related to officer pay,” City Attorney Sharonda Williams said in a statement.
The police associations, meanwhile, said they plan to continue fight the new system. They complain the standardized detail rates, which start at $29.33 an hour, mean a pay cut for many officers, and the decrease in available details hurts their potential to earn. Those problems, the police organizations say, are also hurting the department’s ability to retain officers and recruit new ones to a force that has shrunk by more than 22 percent since 2010.
“Although we appreciate all the hard work and patience put into this case by our legal team as well as the Department of Justice’s legal team and the court’s hard work on this case, we simply believe the court’s ruling legally and factually is incorrect,” said Raymond Burkart III, an attorney and spokesman for the local Fraternal Order of Police lodge.
Eric Hessler, an attorney for the Police Association of New Orleans, echoed that. “We’re disappointed with the decision but as this case progresses and as the OPSE further develops their policies, we think that we’ll have another opportunity to challenge the office’s creation.”