Federal court monitors assigned to assess reforms at the New Orleans Police Department were set to discuss problems with the agency’s internal affairs bureau at a consent decree hearing Wednesday (June 21), but much of the meeting instead focused on one particular issue: the high-profile investigation into Officer Jeffrey Vappie, a former member of Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s security detail.

Appearing before U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan by videoconference, Jonathan Aronie, who has served as lead consent decree monitor for a decade, said the problems his team found in the four-month investigation into Vappie point to broader problems in the NOPD’s Public Integrity Bureau, saying that if the bureau couldn’t  thoroughly investigate a highly politicized misconduct claim, the public can’t be confident that it is handling other investigations properly. 

During his presentation, Aronie expressed confusion, exasperation, and disbelief about the NOPD and the city’s response to the allegations against Vappie, accusing the NOPD of ignoring serious claims of misconduct revealed in reporting by Fox 8 News. According to Aronie, that includes potential payroll fraud — a crime — due to the number of on-the-clock hours that Vappie spent alone with Cantrell inside a city-owned apartment and questions as to whether he was actually working during that time.  

Far short of payroll fraud, the department ultimately found that Vappie committed two minor policy violations. 

Aronie said his team also identified significant shortcomings and “blatant violations” of the department’s 10-year-old federal consent decree, including failure to investigate all allegations against Vappie and failure to consider all the evidence. He said it was “alarming’” to see how the department handled the case. 

Attorney Charles Zimmer, representing the city and NOPD, said the consent decree was meant to address excessive force, discrimination, and other constitutional violations. He said it was never meant to govern officers acting as bodyguards unless they choose to make an arrest.

Zimmer criticized the monitoring team for an “unprecedented” level of engagement in the Vappie case, something that he said never happened in previous internal affairs probes involving shootings and constitutional challenges.

“The only thing different about Officer Vappie is that he works for the mayor,” Zimmer said.

In November, Fox 8 published an investigative report, using surveillance footage, showing that Cantrell and Vappie spent significant amounts of time together in a city-owned apartment in the Upper Pontalba Building in the French Quarter. 

The report hinted at a possible romantic relationship between the mayor and the officer, an allegation later made explicit by Vappie’s wife in a divorce filing.

Fox 8 showed that over the 45-day period it reviewed last year, Vappie spent more than 100 hours inside the apartment. The story, and follow-up reporting, raised questions about whether Vappie, who was on the clock and billing the city for much of that time, was actually working. 

PIB opened an investigation into Vappie. That was completed in March, but few details about its outcome were made public until last week, when the report by the monitors criticizing the lack of thoroughness of the internal probe was released in court filings. 

At the hearing, Aronie said the consent decree says all complaints should be broadly construed, but PIB truncated the scope of the complaints related to Vappie. That decision, he said, prejudiced the investigation, analysis and discipline. That decision also feeds into a longstanding narrative of favoritism and nepotism within PIB, he added. 

According to the recently released monitors’ report about the Vappie case, despite repeatedly telling members of the monitoring team that PIB would investigate all potential misconduct allegations against Vappie — including payroll fraud — investigators only seriously looked into lesser policy violations. (In an affidavit submitted to New Orleans federal court last week, the lead PIB investigator on the case said he “considered” looking into a payroll fraud charge but quickly dismissed it, concluding there was no evidence to support it.) 

NOPD said the initial “complaint” alleged a violation of a departmental policy against officers working too many hours in a single day. 

That “complaint” came in the form of a Nov. 8 media request from Fox 8 detailing its reporting prior to airing its first story, Aronie noted. 

“Nobody can read this and think it doesn’t allege potential payroll fraud,” he said of the letter from the news outlet.  

He noted that Fox 8’s coverage showed that Vappie spent many hours alone in the apartment with Cantrell, changed clothes while there, and spent time there both on and off duty. In addition, he sometimes left the apartment late at night after spending hours in the apartment, leaving Cantrell alone to walk to her car, suggesting that he was not spending time in apartment because of any credible threat to the mayors safety

In their report, the monitors said that investigators did not “aggressively pursue” interviews with essential witnesses, such as Cantrell and former NOPD Superintendent Shaun Ferguson. 

The report also accused the department of shielding its investigation from the monitoring team — despite language in the consent decree requiring it to share investigations into serious misconduct allegations. 

Again claiming the initial complaint was limited to a minor policy violation, the department has said that there were no allegations of “serious” misconduct as outlined in the court agreement. 

Investigators found that Vappie committed three NOPD policy violations: working more than 16 hours and 35 minutes in a 24-hour period, spending large amounts of time alone with Cantrell outside of his normal tour of duty and attending two meetings of the Housing Authority of New Orleans’ governing board — a post he was appointed to by Cantrell — while he was on duty. 

The department ultimately rejected the first of those violations after determining that the additional hours Vappie worked were authorized. Interim NOPD Superintendent Michelle Woodfork last week issued Vappie two letters of reprimand for the sustained violations, The Times-Picayune reported

The monitors concluded that the city’s handling of the Vappie investigation violated several provisions of the consent decree as well as NOPD policy. 

PIB backsliding, monitors say

Beyond the problems found with the Vappie investigation, the consent decree monitors say that PIB has backslid on progress made toward requirements set by the decade-long, court-enforced federal agreement compelling the city to meet constitutional standards of policing.

In their May report focusing on the bureau, the monitors wrote that PIB is “at the heart of the NOPD’s ability to prevent misconduct, build trust among its officers, and build community trust.” 

The shortcomings raised by the monitors’ report, though “eminently remediable,” could pose another setback for the police department as Cantrell’s administration continues to attempt an exit from the consent decree, the oversight of which has cost the city millions of dollars. The mayor has in the past blamed the consent decree’s standards for the police force’s understaffing and morale problems.

A survey of NOPD officers released in 2022 found that “overly punitive discipline/restrictive policing policies/overreach by the PIB” was the number one reason cited for why officers find employment elsewhere, though it is unclear from the survey results whether the officers complained about departmental policies adopted as a direct result of the consent decree.

Sparring with U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan, who oversees the consent decree, city and police officials also refused this spring to attend a court hearing and a public outreach event on the department’s progress complying with the agreement, a decision backed by a federal appeals court in April.

The city last year submitted a motion to terminate the long-running consent decree. Earlier this month, Morgan scheduled oral arguments on the motion. That hearing is set for June 28. 

The consent decree requires the city to be in full compliance for two years before the agreement can be terminated. Though the city has maintained it has reached that standard, the Justice Department in an April filing argued that police officers were still using unjustified force, engaging in dangerous pursuits and failing to justify pat-downs, per recent audits, indicating NOPD is still out of compliance with key parts of the consent decree.

The monitors’ report on the PIB found that the bureau is taking too long to wrap up investigations, and also mishandled investigations into multiple instances of officers grabbing subjects by the neck or throat area (such neckholds are prohibited in NOPD policy). And though the monitors ascertained in 2020 that the bureau was “in the green,” a designation indicating enough compliance to warrant less monitoring, by the time a 2022 audit was released, the PIB had held constant on about 20 areas and improved in two more but regressed on a dozen other elements.

Notably, the monitors also observed that “the level of cooperation the Monitoring Team is receiving from NOPD has gone down recently.”

“This non-cooperation cannot continue as it is harming the Department’s ability to achieve compliance with its Consent Decree obligations,” the monitors wrote. “It also is degrading the public’s perception of the NOPD’s commitment to constitutional policing.”

In NOPD’s response to the report, the department contested several of the monitors’ findings and said it had moved into compliance in other areas following the audit period.

“Under the current administration, the New Orleans Police Department will work in partnership with those who genuinely seek to help NOPD operate at its maximum capacity and potential,” the response reads.

This story has been updated to include testimony from the June 21 court hearing.

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Before coming to Verite, Richard A. Webster spent the past two and a half years as a member of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network. He investigated allegations of abuse against the Jefferson Parish...

Michelle previously worked for The Associated Press in South Carolina and was an inaugural corps member with the Report for America initiative. She also covered statewide criminal justice issues for Mississippi...