Unclassified Positions and Reform in the #NOPD

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Recently, I wrote about the New Orleans Police Department’s request to the New Orleans Civil Service Commission for the creation of 16 new unclassified jobs in the NOPD.  The NOPD made its pitch at the February 20, 2017 meeting of the Civil Service Commission and it received some media attention here and here.  The Civil Service department opposed the creation of these unclassified positions, referring to the request as “unprecedented.”  After hearing from the NOPD, myself, on behalf of the FOP, Capt. Mike Glasser, PANO, Lt. Keith Joseph, BOP, and a few others, the Civil Service Commission took no action to allow the Civil Service Department to complete its work and put the matter on the agenda for the March meeting (March 20 if anyone wants to accompany me on behalf of the FOP).

I do not intend to re-post my argument against the creation of the unclassified positions, but for those who have not had the chance to read this article or my letter to the Civil Service Commission in this regard, the Civil Service Rules, which have the force and effect of law, require that in order for a position to be considered unclassified, the job’s responsibilities are not appropriate for anyone in the classified service and should not be performed by anyone in the classified service.  Furthermore, someone serving in an unclassified position must have policy-making authority which is not subject to further review or modification.  Finally, the Civil Service Commission is required to audit the position regularly to make sure that it is still not fit for the classified service.  As both Superintendent Harrison and myself made a point of saying, unclassified positions are the exception to the rule in a merit-based system of employment like Civil Service.

Currently, there is no “Commander” position, really.  There is a “Commander” assignment.  The Commander assignment, which must be filled by someone holding the rank of Police Lieutenant or higher, comes with a special rate of pay.  While I am unaware of anyone actually pushing this particular issue, the NOPD stated that one of the reasons we need to reconsider this special rate of pay is that a special rate of pay does not confer any grant of authority.  So, the question is does a Police Lieutenant in the position of Commander have the authority to issue orders to a Police Major?  While I am unaware of anyone pushing this issue, there are reasons to reconsider the use of a special rate of pay for commanders.  The majority of people assigned to Commander positions are in the rank of Police Lieutenant.  Police Lieutenants are non-exempt employees.  That means they should make overtime like all other non-exempt personnel under the FLSA.  However, they do not get overtime.  They are currently being treated as exempt employees.  While their pension is controlled by their actual rate of pay, terminal leave is paid to these individuals based on their Civil Service classification.  Finally, it is just an abuse of the special rate of pay provisions.  This special rate of pay scheme was put in place in 2011 after the Civil Service Commission told then Superintendent Serpas that he could not have 16 unclassified Police Colonel positions.

So, if the positions were not fit to be unclassified in 2011, what has changed that would make them appropriate today?  Well, while not answering the preceding question, Superintendent Harrison said that Department of Justice report which led to the current Consent Decree indicted the prior leadership “had largely acquiesced to wide-spread abuses by officers at all ranks.”  Superintendent Harrison went on to praise the accomplishments of individuals currently in the position of Commander.  Finally, the Superintendent insisted that it was critical that he be able to “swiftly replace leaders who are not performing to standard.”

What is exceedingly clear from the arguments made by Superintendent Harrison is that the NOPD has some good leaders in the position of Commander and that Commanders are performing the jobs previously held by officers in the classified service and that Commanders do not have the type of policy-making authority that is not subject to further review or modification.  What is clearly lacking is any logical connection between the existence of the Commander special rate of pay and any of the accomplishments of the folks holding those positions.

During the meeting, Commissioner Stephen Caputo, the newest member of the Civil Service Commission, noted that on several instances in my letter to the Commission I stated the position of Commander had been historically held by Police Captains and Police Majors.  He then asked if I was advocating for the status quo, or doing things as they have always been done.

My response was that I was not arguing for the status quo, but that the Civil Service Rules require that the job responsibilities be unfit for performance by anyone in the classified service.  History shows us that prior to 2011, the job responsibilities were performed by employees in the classified service.  Nothing has changed to make the jobs unfit for the classified service.

That does not mean that we have to maintain the status quo.  For example, the NOPD has the longest working-test period for employees.  Working-test periods, otherwise known as probationary periods, are set at 6 months in the Civil Service Rules with a maximum of 1 year.  The NOPD has 1-year working-test periods across the board.  That means that if someone is promoted to the rank of Police Captain and is unable to meet expectations, they can be demoted to their prior classified position — for just about any reason.  Generally speaking, if someone is incapable of performing a job, that incompetence will reveal itself within a year.  My point is that before we go shopping for a new toolbox, maybe we should make sure that we are making the best use of the tools we already have.

Civil Service Commission Chair Michelle Craig said that the Commission wanted the opportunity to examine best practices.  While the idea of “best practices” aggravates me to no end, I was fascinated by Superintendent Harrison’s reply that NOPD was re-writing the best practices and, therefore, what they are doing is the de facto best practice.

In today’s environment of instant gratification, we have to be able to point out real-time problems to demonstrate why these ideas that run contrary to the civil service philosophy should be avoided.  That is an impractical demand.  However, make no doubt about it, it is coming.  There will be a discriminatory application of the “Great Place to Work Initiative,” if there hasn’t been one already.  The creation of 16 unclassified Commander positions, would eventually prove problematic.

The first merit-based civil service system can be traced back to Imperial China and Emperor Wen of Sui (AD 605).  It wasn’t until the 1940’s that Louisiana embraced the civil service system.  Even then, it was repealed in 1948 and re-established in 1952.  Since then, more than a few changes have been made to how civil service systems are administered.  However, the idea of a merit-based system of employment utilizing objective standards and competitive testing has persisted.

So, while I am not advocating doing things as we did them in 1992, I am advocating the maintenance of the underlying set of guiding principles which have served us well for a long time.  We don’t have to throw the baby out with the bath water.  We don’t ditch democracy just because there is a more efficient way to administer the Department of Education.  The New Orleans Civil Service Commission has taken some steps recently which are downright scary.  The “Great Place to Work Initiative” dismissed important civil service principles relating to promotions and competitive exams.  Of course, the NOPD would point to successes of newly promoted sergeants or lieutenants as if that is the result of the new system in some way.  If you are thinking they wouldn’t do that, that is exactly what they are doing with the Commander position.  Granting the NOPD 16 unclassified positions to replace the special rate of pay for Commanders would be counter to the underlying fundamentals of the civil service system.  Does that mean it has to be done the old way?  No.  It just means it shouldn’t be done the way the NOPD has proposed.

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