Two proposed measures to increase the oversight power of the New Orleans Office of the Independent Police Monitor have been dropped by the City Council, according to Councilmember JP Morrell. The first was a budget increase and the second was an ordinance to expand the office’s authority to investigate, audit and access documents from the New Orleans Police Department.

Morrell, who last year said he would work to pass the measures in the short-term, told Verite in a statement that he was now “committed to considering this matter at a future date this term,” which doesn’t end until 2026.  

Independent Police Monitor Stella Cziment asked for the two measures last year, arguing that the office needed to expand and prepare for the end of the NOPD’s decade-long consent decree with the federal government. 

The Office of the Independent Police Monitor is tasked with providing civilian accountability over the police. But its role has been overshadowed since the consent decree began a decade ago and a group of court-appointed monitors took the lead in overseeing the NOPD. 

Cantrell has been pushing hard in recent months to end the consent decree. And whenever that happens, the monitors will leave town and the OIPM will take over as the primary oversight body.

Morrell’s office told Verite that the measures were dropped mainly due to a November resolution from the New Orleans Ethics Review Board, which oversees the Independent Police Monitor, cautioning against them, as well as disagreements between Morrell and the OIPM over how much power the office should have. 

Another factor, his office said, was the OIPM’s refusal to comply with a request from him and Councilmember Joe Giarrusso to investigate allegations regarding the relationship between Mayor LaToya Cantrell and a former member of her security team, NOPD Officer Jeffrey Vappie. 

A report last year by Fox 8 found that Cantrell and Vappie spent more than 100 hours inside a city-owned apartment, when Vappie was both on and off the clock. Vappie has since been removed from the security detail and is under an internal NOPD investigation into potential payroll irregularities related to those visits. 

Because the investigation involves the mayor, Morrell and Giarrusso argued that the NOPD, which reports to the mayor, had a conflict of interest. They wanted OIPM to take over the investigation, but the OIPM said it didn’t have enough staffing to take it on.

“That would have been an opportunity for the OIPM to show leadership and initiative,” said a statement from Morrell’s Director of Communications Monet Brignac. “The OIPM adamantly refused to step in as an impartial third party. Generally speaking, it’s hard to advocate to give a department additional authority when that department doesn’t maximize the authority it already possesses.”

Cziment declined to comment for this story.

OIPM requests increase to budget and authority

The OIPM received $1.17 million in Cantrell’s initial 2023 budget draft. Cziment wanted the council to raise it to $1.76 million. She said she would use the money to more than double the office’s staff and launch new initiatives including a public-facing police misconduct database, a complaint hotline, greater data analytics capacity and a bigger overall oversight role. 

“Simply put, our community and all the partners we work with deserve better from us, and we want to make that happen,” Cziment told the City Council during budget hearings in November. 

At the time, council members seemed convinced by Cziment’s argument.

“At some point we will exit the consent decree,” Morrell said at the meeting. “I think it’s important as a council for us to invest in building you up.” 

Cziment said that for the same reasons, it was vital for the council to pass a proposed ordinance to give the OIPM greater legal authority to collect data, issue subpoenas and access NOPD information. 

The draft ordinance would also exempt the OIPM from public records requests if the office determines that complying “could endanger any person’s life, physical safety, or property, or could lead to retaliatory acts.” Cziment said that was vital to keeping sources safe and to protect whistleblowers. 

Funding for most city departments is determined by the City Council on a year-to-year basis. But three agencies focused on government accountability — the OIPM, Ethics Review Board and the city’s Office of Inspector General — have guaranteed funding set in the City Charter, which acts as a local constitution. The aim of the law is to allow those agencies to challenge government officials without fear of being defunded. 

Currently, the charter guarantees the OIPM a minimum budget equal to .16% of the city’s general fund budget, which amounted to $1.2 million in 2023, $500,000 less than what Cziment says her office needs. Cziment said the council should, for the first time, fund her office above the minimum requirement.

But in November, the Ethics Review Board passed a resolution stating that the OIPM’s independence could be threatened by having the council determine its budget, and that any budget increase should come in the form of a charter amendment.

The Ethics Review Board’s executive administrator and general counsel, Dane Ciolino, told The Lens last year that while Cziment’s office “clearly needs more money … the board thinks that any additional funding shouldn’t come on an annual basis where [Cziment] has to crawl on her hands and knees for money, because then the people giving the money can ask for something in return.”

The council cannot change the charter to raise OIPM’s minimum funding on its own. Charter amendments need to be approved by Orleans Parish voters through a ballot measure 

In light of the board’s opinion, Morrell told The Lens in November that he would temporarily put both measures on hold, but that he would work to pass them in the short-term in 2023 and consider putting forward a ballot measure.

“A robust OIPM is a number one priority for me,” Morrell told The Lens in November.

But now, Morrell says the push for OIPM’s increased budget and powers is on hold indefinitely. 

Brignac told Verite that “it’s not a priority given we’re not moving forward with the ordinance.”

In a second statement from Brignac said, “Councilmember Morrell’s position on this matter remains consistent and has not changed. There is ample time to continue to consider this matter.” 

The Vappie connection 

After the FOX 8 story about Cantrell and Vappie published, the NOPD launched an internal investigation. But that didn’t satisfy Giarrusso and Morrell, who in November asked the OIPM and the federal consent decree monitors to partner and jointly take over the investigation.

“The NOPD cannot be allowed to handle this matter fully and internally because of the inherent conflict of interest,” their letter said. 

A day later, the federal monitors declined the request. Their letter said that it wasn’t part of their job to investigate specific officer misconduct, and that the OIPM didn’t currently have the staff to do it. It did say that both groups would watch the investigation closely and watch for potential bias. 

OIPM stayed true to that promise. It released a report agreeing with the council members’ conflict of interest concerns. Last month, it issued a letter warning the public that a tape of an interview of Vappie, recorded as part of the NOPD’s investigation into the scandal, was leaked. 

But nonetheless, the refusal from the OIPM and monitors to take on the full investigation rubbed both Morrell and Giarrusso the wrong way. 

Giarrusso told Verite that while he wasn’t heavily involved in the decision to drop the budget increase and powers ordinance, he agreed with Morrell’s concerns. 

“I think JP’s point here is well taken, which is that if the OIPM cannot take on more responsibility, then why are we increasing the budget to do work that it says it’s not capable of doing,” Giarrusso said.

When explaining why she wanted to increase her office’s budget and powers last year, Cziment fully acknowledged that the office doesn’t currently have the resources to do everything the public wants and expects. That was the very reason she wanted the council to pass those measures. 

Giarrusso said that since Morrell dropped the initiative, he wasn’t aware of any other council member coming in to pick up the effort.

“I’m not sure anyone else is going to pick up the mantle,” Giarrusso said.

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Before joining Verite, Michael Isaac Stein spent five years as an investigative reporter at The Lens, a nonprofit New Orleans news publication, covering local government, housing and labor issues. During...