New Orleans Police Chief Ronal Serpas has a new plan to boost morale in the department, but how he went about paying for the superintendent’s new challenge coins raised questions and now the chief is trying to clear up any confusion.
There’s no question morale is an issue inside the NOPD, with the controversy over paid details, manpower issues and a scathing report issued earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Justice.
It’s why Chief Serpas says he decided to do what he says has been done in every other department he’s worked for; reward officers for a job well done with a shiny reward.
“I find they’re very helpful in creating good morale,” says Serpas. “People like having them, they laugh about them. One officer once told me he had so many coins, he could play a poker game. They’re very good at building morale, and have been around for a long time and I like them.”
In February, Chief Serpas ordered 2000 of the challenge coins.
Documents show the department paid $11,322 to a company called Symbol Arts. That payment was listed as an expenditure to the state drug asset forfeiture fund.
At a little under $6 apiece, those are pretty expensive poker chips.
It is important to note that as this story was breaking, it became immediately obvious that this expenditure was in violation of state law regarding the use of asset forfeiture funds. Demonstrating a little bureaucratic initiative, this enterprising police chief switched the payment from the state forfeiture fund to his own private slush fund that he’d had the foresight to fund using forfeitures he’d taken to federal agencies for processing. From Matt Davis at The Lens:
Two hours later, an administrator at the police department emailed City Purchasing Officer Nat Celestine, asking him to cancel the purchase order. Celestine canceled the purchase four minutes later, according to an email exchange supplied by Braden to The Lens.
Braden said use of state funds to purchase the coins was an “administrative error,” and that federal asset forfeiture funds would be used instead.
Since the federal forfeiture laws and DOJ protocol allow such federally “equitably shared” funds to be used for virtually any purpose, Chief Serpas has virtually unlimited ways in which he can use forfeiture funds to enrich himself and other officers who can bring in the dough while circumventing the state and local laws that might otherwise bind his conduct.
Such conduct is entirely foreign to the process of democratic governance. It is difficult to impossible for voters or state authorities to hold their law enforcement to the public mandate when law enforcement is able to create and spend their own budget as they please. Although this is a rather benign manifestation of corruption, one might consider that there are prosecutors, sheriffs, and police chiefs around the country who have built what are functionally their own private SWAT teams and who routinely deny the authority of their local elected authorities in the maintenance and provision of these armed forces.