Two years after a federal judge started the clock on a wide-ranging overhaul of the embattled New Orleans Police Department, the city is making lurching progress toward constitutional police practices, at least on paper, according to a court-appointed monitor overseeing the changes.
Jonathan Aronie, who heads up the team of monitors keeping tabs on the NOPD, told an impatient crowd Tuesday night at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center that he’s seeing more enthusiasm about the changes lately inside the NOPD. He suggested a less combative stance under new Superintendent Michael Harrison, who in August replaced Ronal Serpas as the city’s top cop.
“We have seen a relatively recent change in attitude and momentum within the Police Department,” said Aronie, the lead monitor with the Washington, D.C.-based firm Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton. “The attitude is important ... and we’re seeing less pushing back and resistance, and we’re seeing more looking for ways to fix things.”
Aronie and deputy monitor David Douglass faced a skeptical response as they offered guarded optimism about the department’s progress in developing new policies for use of force and other key areas under the demands of one of the nation’s most expansive federal consent decrees.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder signed the 492-point plan in July 2012. U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan endorsed it in January 2013, setting in motion a series of deadlines, many of which the department has failed to meet, according to previous reports from the monitoring team.
Those reports suggested foot-dragging by the NOPD in rewriting key department policies.
“We have been extremely frustrated (but) we are beginning to see an improved process. I expect we will see faster approval of new policies,” Douglass said. “It’s a priority and a focus, but it’s a big job.”
The monitors also said they saw progress at the Police Academy in the past few months after they reported it was plagued by inadequate or nonexistent lesson plans, poor teachers and weak leadership.
Aronie said the monitors also are keeping a close watch on a proposal to reduce the educational requirement for police recruits. They are demanding evidence that the move wouldn’t amount to lower standards as the NOPD presses to build back a force that has seen its manpower dwindle by 30 percent in five years.
He also said the monitors are teaming with New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s office to systematically review the NOPD’s classification of crimes in 2014 and measure possible downgrading.
The public forum came on the heels of the team’s latest quarterly report, issued in December, which offered a mixed assessment of the NOPD’s progress toward compliance with a reform deal that is expected to cost the city $55 million over its first five years.
Morgan ultimately will decide when the city has done enough to break free from federal oversight — a move considered to be at least several years away.
The monitors’ latest 69-page report found continuing problems in the Police Academy; a “troubling failure” by the NOPD to follow its own policies on recording and investigating police use-of-force incidents; a failure to keep track of whether interrogations at district stations were recorded; and little progress in developing a plan to de-escalate potentially violent encounters with the mentally ill, among other problems.
It also cited “serious deficiencies in the level and effectiveness of supervision we see from NOPD’s sergeants, lieutenants, captains and commanders.”
Aronie said Tuesday that the recent scandal involving lapses in the NOPD’s handling of reported sex crimes pointed to serious questions about supervision over the handful of detectives who Quatrevaux’s office found had failed to document investigations into more than 1,000 sex crime reports assigned to them over three years.
Stung by the criticism, the city responded in late December with a 22-page defense to the federal judge. The city cited several accomplishments in meeting the mandates of the consent decree, including the full launch last year of a compliance bureau charged with drafting new policies.
The city also claimed “great progress in revitalizing and revamping its process of training and personnel development,” including installing a new commander at the academy.
On Tuesday night, Aronie said the team was “frankly impressed” with the changes at the top of the academy.
The city, in its report, disputed the monitors’ suggestion that the NOPD “may be tolerating higher than necessary levels of force.”
The city also chalked up lapses identified by the monitors in the NOPD’s handling of photographic lineups and interrogations as largely paperwork issues that the department was resolving.
While that remains to be seen, residents Tuesday night questioned why Morgan has yet to sanction the city for the NOPD’s failures to meet the mandates of the reform pact.
“We can’t just keep saying we’re making an effort. Making an effort means our rights are still being violated. It means bad policing is still going on,” activist Malcolm Suber said.
“How are you going to teach these old dogs new tricks? There’s no way we can transform this Police Department with the same old folks in charge.”
Rudy Mills, of Hollygrove, suggested the monitors simply canvass the neighborhoods to identify and root out bad cops.
“Make a list and get them out of the way. That doesn’t take no science. Just go to Hollygrove and go down to Third and Danneel,” Mills suggested.
Aronie said Morgan has scheduled four open federal court hearings this year, starting with a pair on training and supervision.
In the meantime, he said, the judge has taken the NOPD to task behind closed doors for its failures.
Several residents said that wasn’t nearly enough.
“Why can’t the judge take over an unconstitutional Police Department and run it?” asked Pat Bryant of the advocacy group Justice and Beyond.
“We need speed.”
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.