A federal judge gave New Orleans Police Department brass a pat on the back during a court hearing Thursday, but U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan warned that much still has to be done before the force can consider itself reformed.
Even as she praised the department, she chided it for failures she saw firsthand on a tour of district stations.
“We’ve had some solid accomplishments, things we’ve actually gotten done, and I want to make sure everyone hears about those,” said Morgan, who is overseeing the implementation of a 2012 consent decree the NOPD signed with the U.S. Department of Justice after a scathing review of what the DOJ called unconstitutional practices.
Among the positive changes Morgan rattled off were a batch of recent promotions intended to lighten the load on supervisors, the creation of a program to offer help to officers in emotional distress, special training for officers to handle situations involving the mentally ill, and newly approved policies on topics ranging from search and seizure to use of force.
Morgan’s comments dovetailed with those of the monitors she has appointed to make detailed assessments of the department’s progress.
Federal monitor Jonathan Aronie said at a public meeting Wednesday night that his team had found “a refreshing, and kind of exciting, change of attitude within NOPD management.”
Seemingly pointing to new Superintendent Michael Harrison, whose tenure as top cop began a little over a year ago, Aronie said he had seen “over the past year or so, far less arguments than we had with NOPD, far less pushback.”
Some residents at Wednesday’s public hearing continued to vent frustrations with the slow pace of reform. Pat Bryant, of the group Justice and Beyond, complained that while the monitors often seem unhappy with the NOPD’s progress, they tend to put a “positive spin” on things by highlighting minor improvements.
The news was not all happy for the NOPD at the court hearing. Morgan said she saw for herself that even with its change in attitude, the Police Department still is struggling to meet many of the provisions in the massive, highly detailed consent decree.
Under the terms of that agreement, the NOPD was supposed to ensure that photo lineups of suspects provided to witnesses are properly arranged and stored, and that interrogations are taped and filed away for safekeeping.
When Morgan visited five district stations in July, she said, she found “serious deficiencies in all those areas.”
“That’s the bad news — that even after I told them I was coming and I came, there were deficiencies,” she said. “The good news is that there have been significant improvements since that time.”
The bulk of the hearing Thursday centered on the NOPD’s hiring and recruitment practices, which were faulted in the initial Justice Department report as unchallenging and unlikely to create a diverse workforce.
An August special report from the monitors found that the officer selection process was still marred by issues ranging from an obsolete multiple-choice test to an interview process that provided little opportunity for the department to get to know officer candidates.
NOPD Deputy Chief of Staff Jonathan Wisbey told the judge that the department is trying to meet the concerns of the monitors, and the watchdogs themselves said the police have been receptive to their criticisms.
Recruiting dovetails into hiring, a major concern for the NOPD as it struggles to try to refill its depleted ranks. Harrison has said he would like to increase the size of each police academy class from 30 to 50 recruits, which would allow the department to put more people in the officer pipeline more quickly.
According to Wisbey, the NOPD has graduated 29 recruits this year, is training another 30 right now and is on track to begin another class in October. That means the department may begin or complete training for roughly 90 officers this year — far fewer than the 150 for which the city had budgeted money.
Morgan did not tip her hand as to whether she will grant the city’s wish to increase academy class sizes, but she did suggest that she could be swayed.
“We hope within the next six months we’ll have big news and major changes,” she said.