ZURIK: Lopsided investigations and inconsistent punishment alleged within NOPD’s Public Integrity Bureau
NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - The public integrity bureau is the branch of the NOPD responsible for investigating complaints against officers. Some say the outcome of those investigations boils down to who you know. They say while some officers receive strict punishments for minor infractions, others have dozens of complaints against them, and only receive a slap on the wrist.
In April 2022, FOX 8 requested information on all PIB investigations into Sergeant Michael Stalbert. Documents from the NOPD show since 2007, Stalbert has had at least 25 separate complaints of potential misconduct investigated. Allegations included violating rules of moral conduct, performance of duty, neglect of duty, and others. In 12 of those investigations, the PIB sustained the violations Stalbert was accused of. He was exonerated in nine, and a handful were still pending at the time of the request. For the 12 instances where the violations were sustained, Stalbert was suspended for a total of 14 days.
One of the cases investigated by PIB involved Stalbert and Lieutenant Kim Lewis Williams showing up at the home of a civilian crime lab worker and demanding he comes with them to take a drug test.
In September 2020, Karl Von Derhaar tried to take a brief leave of absence from his job at the NOPD Crime Lab. Von Derhaar says he had voiced concerns about poor working conditions in the lab and a lack of standard procedures. He says he complained several times about the lab conducting faulty testing, which he said could make an innocent person look guilty.
On September 3, 2020, Von Derhaar was in his apartment with his girlfriend and their young son, when Stalbert and Williams showed up, claiming to be there for a wellness check.
Body camera video from a third officer on the scene captured the exchange between the officers and Von Derhaar. The video started at 5:20 p.m. before the officer exited his vehicle. Eventually, an apartment complex employee walked the three officers to Von Derhaar’s door and knocked. Von Derhaar answered about six minutes into the video.
Stalbert: “Karl, how you doing?”
Von Derhaar: “I’m doing good, I actually don’t want to talk.”
Stalbert: Alright, well, you need to talk to me alright? You have to at this point.”
Von Derhaar wasn’t dressed to leave his apartment, but the video shows Stalbert walking into Von Derhaar’s home, and ordering him to get dressed.
Stalbert: “You have shorts on?”
Von Derhaar: “I have underwear on.”
Stalbert: “OK, myself and these officers are going to come in and escort you, make sure you put some pants on.”
Von Derhaar: “Escort me where?”
The entire incident happened in front of Von Derhaar’s young son. Nine minutes into the video, Von Derhaar’s girlfriend emerges from a bedroom where she had been working to see what was happening.
Girlfriend: “Who opened the door?”
Von Derhaar: “They did, or I did, then they forced themselves into the apartment.”
Stalbert: “I explained to Karl, I want to respect your house as well as your family…”
Girlfriend: “He’s in his drawers.”
Girlfriend: “He’s in his drawers!”
When officers showed up at his home, Von Derhaar had already requested a short leave of absence. Stalbert claimed he showed up because he was worried Von Derhaar might hurt himself. Despite saying he didn’t want to go, Von Derhaar followed orders and got dressed.
Eleven minutes into the video, the body camera recorded a conversation between Von Derhaar and Lt. Kim Lewis Williams, where Williams insisted Von Derhaar needed to come with them to the NOPD’s Public Integrity Bureau, the internal watchdog of police misconduct.
Williams: “We’re concerned about your well-being. Um, yea, you can talk to them at PIB and you can express whatever you’re dealing with as far as the crime lab or whatever. At this point, we’re just concerned about your well-being.”
Von Derhaar: “So, I’m not under arrest?”
Williams: “You are not under arrest at all.”
Von Derhaar: “So I don’t have to go?”
Williams: “Karl … I just got off the phone with the PIB [they] said you need to come to their office.
Von Derhaar: “But I’m not under arrest, so I can go back to my house?”
Williams: “You’re not going to jail.”
Von Derhaar: “Then I can go back to my house?”
To coax him into the back of a waiting police unit, the officers forced Von Derhaar to go on the clock, claiming he was now being paid and had to report to work. Twelve minutes into the video, Stalbert tells Von Derhaar he’s been ordered to take a drug test for work.
Stalbert: “So Karl, you’re being ordered by PIB; you’re now on a clock, you’re being paid; you’ve been ordered to come and take a drug test and a urinalysis, blood, and alcohol test at PIB. The reason why we are doing this is because of your behavior.”
Despite Von Derhaar’s offer to quit on the spot, the body camera video shows the officers insisting he had to go with them.
Von Derhaar: “So what if I quit right now, do I still need to go?”
Kim Williams: “You still need to sign the paperwork.”
Stalbert: “At PIB, you still gotta go to PIB.”
The video shows officers wouldn’t let Von Derhaar access his phone, and eventually patted him down, made him get in the back of a police unit, and drove him to PIB.
Von Derhaar believes the entire incident was because he voiced his concerns about how the crime lab was operated.
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“I felt humiliated, violated,” Von Derhaar said. “I think he came because I mean, I was making these … complaints at work about how things were going, how they weren’t doing the proper testing, and I think they just wanted to get rid of a problematic employee.”
The NOPD investigated officers Michael Stalbert and Kim Lewis Williams for their conduct during the incident. The Public Integrity Bureau found Stalbert violated several NOPD policies, including professionalism, abuse of position, and moral conduct rule, for unauthorized entry of an inhabited dwelling. The NOPD found he unlawfully entered a property, was unprofessional, and improperly used his position as a supervisor.
However, when it came time for discipline, Von Derhaar says Stalbert received a slap on the wrist. The only recommendation in his disciplinary report was some training.
Von Derhaar says his case highlights some of the inconsistencies in the PIB.
“It seems like PIB kind of, you know, weaponizes itself against some officers. And then other officers, like you said, kind of just get a slap on the wrist. And, you know, while other officers suffer, it seems like, and I don’t know how, how he hasn’t been punished… He was even found to have illegally came in my apartment and everything, you know, and nothing’s happened to him. I feel like I’m the one who’s being punished, and I didn’t do anything wrong,” Von Derhaar said.
The PIB investigation also found wrongdoing by Kim Lewis Williams. The investigation recommended an 11-day suspension. It’s unclear if Williams ever served that suspension.
Stalbert is now under federal criminal investigation for separate violations. The FBI sent him a target letter alerting him that charges would be likely. The federal investigation is connected to Stalbert not showing up for detail shifts in the Fairgrounds neighborhood, and sometimes working off-duty detail shifts and duty shifts at the same time. FOX 8 uncovered those allegations in our Attention to the Details investigation.
Attorney for the Police Association of New Orleans, Eric Hessler, says other NOPD officers might have lost their jobs if they had one incident like Stalbert had with Von Derhaar.
“Some officers could have been fired for doing just that, some officers probably would have been fired for doing that. But the fact of the matter is, for a disciplinary system to work, and to be respected, it’s got to be fair, and this system that was employed by the NOPD was anything but,” Hessler said.
Hessler has represented hundreds of officers under investigation by the Public Integrity Bureau. He says investigations and sanctions are unfair and inconsistent. FOX 8 requested exit interviews for more than 100 officers who left the force in 2022. Many had complaints about PIB. Hessler also says PIB is the most common reason he hears for officers quitting.
“I think for a majority of the officers that are leaving, that is a primary concern, and that’s supported by the NOPD’s own surveys,” Hessler said. “The unfairness is pretty obvious. It has … in the past, been very obvious that different officers get treated differently for doing the same things.”
Hessler says the outcome of PIB investigations often boils down to who the officer in question knows, and who their friends are within the department.”
Hessler isn’t currently involved in Von Derhaar’s case, but in a separate case, defended Officer Jonathan Mykulak in an investigation that could have cost Mykulak his career. During a 2020 arrest, as Mykulak was preparing to handcuff a suspect, the suspect took off, diving into his car and reaching under the front seat.
During a scuffle, Mykulak deployed his taser and restrained the driver. Hessler says following the arrest, Mykulak was commended for his conduct, as he and his partner both believed the suspect may have been reaching for a gun.
However, during a use of force investigation that followed the arrest, the investigating officer, Kevin Burns, made a false statement about something the suspect said during the scuffle.
“He alleged a quote that the alleged victim of a use of force incident said, ‘you’re on my neck and I can’t breathe.’ That implies that the officer is using his knee to cut off the breathing, the airway, of a suspect, which is an extremely harmful allegation when you’re investigating an officer for use of force. The fact that it never even happened is certainly egregious,” Hessler said.
Despite body camera evidence showing the suspect never said, “You’re on my neck,” Burns’ investigation claimed Mykulak used unauthorized force. Hessler says he challenged the ruling and showed the suspect never said what Burns alleged. Burns wasn’t punished for the discrepancy but was eventually promoted to Captain.
In another case, Hessler says PIB tried to get around its own rules. PIB typically has 60 days to investigate a complaint or ask for an extension. In August of 2019, someone filed a complaint against Commander Octavio Baldassaro. But in November of 2019, emails show former NOPD Captain Sabrina Richardson hadn’t yet initiated an investigation. However, Richardson claimed in PIB documents that she was assigned the investigation on January 27, 2020, more than five months after she received the initial complaint.
Hessler believes the date discrepancy was Richardson’s attempt to make it appear she hadn’t missed the deadline.
“Well, clearly that was the motive and the intent … And I did believe it was illegal and against the law. And I did make a complaint,” Hessler said.
Hessler says he’s seeing signs that the problems of the past might change under the new head of the PIB Keith Sanchez and interim NOPD Superintendent Michelle Woodfork.
However, for Von Derhaar, any changes are too late. Once at the drug testing facility in September 2020, he says he was led to believe the only way he could go back home was to resign on the spot, so he did. He recently got his personnel file from the department. It says he resigned under investigation, which he says makes it nearly impossible for him to get another government job.
“I’ve tried to find other jobs in forensics. But, you know, I’ve had interviews like four or five and I haven’t gotten any jobs. And I always wonder like, is that because I decided to say something, just to speak up about it? I feel like trying to defend myself has been more problematic than just not saying anything at all. Yeah, it’s been hard.” Von Derhaar said.
The file also claims he resigned 13 days after he was forced from his home, not the same day. He is now involved in a civil rights lawsuit against the NOPD.
FOX 8 reached out to the NOPD for an interview and asked specifically about the cases involving Stalbert, Burns, and Richardson. NOPD public information officer Reese Harper sent a statement that reads, “The New Orleans Police Department’s Command Staff has been restructured under the leadership of Superintendent Michelle Woodfork. One of Superintendent Woodfork’s core objectives is to be fair to all members of the New Orleans Police Department. As we continue to progress forward, the department will be consistent in producing equitable results.”
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