New Orleans — The collapse of an agreement between the city of New Orleans and the Justice Department that was designed to make sweeping reforms to the city’s embattled Police Department may have surprised residents who listened to the rosy platitudes both sides spouted for months. But some locals say they always questioned the need for the agreement and understand why the city is having second thoughts.
The New Orleans City Attorney’s Office is asking a federal judge to void the negotiated consent decree for the New Orleans Police Department citing misconduct by the Justice Department. Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office has declined to elaborate on its lengthy court filing in the matter.
Federal and local officials designed the consent decree to cover every aspect of policing in the city, including use-of-force, interrogations, investigatory procedures and public complaints. It set a timeline for compliance by the city, and established the possibility of punishments if the NOPD failed to improve.
However, the city’s court filing shows that Landrieu is balking at the prospect of funding multi-million dollar reforms in the Police Department and the Orleans Parish Prison at the same time. The consent decree for the parish prison had a similar comprehensive nature but would have been implemented by the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office. Based on early estimates, both reforms could cost the city in excess of $23 million annually, a tough pill for an already strained city budget.
City attorneys also cite new rules governing how officers work paid details and the actions of staffers in former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten’s office as issues.
While the city’s position is not a total surprise given the fact that officials objected to the final agreement last month, the court challenge means that an agreement once praised locally and nationally has now become source of serious contention. It also adds yet another item to the tally of federal deals that have been affected by revelations that Letten’s underlings were commenting on ongoing investigations on a local website.
The Justice Department Friday expressed “disappointment” that Landrieu’s administration has adopted this new position. Dena Iverson, a department spokeswoman, said federal officials have provided the city millions of dollars in grants, technical assistance and other aid. She said the city was involved in negotiations regarding the jail and Police Department and says the recent action only impedes reform.
“We strongly disagree with the city’s motion to abandon the court approved agreement, and we will make our disagreement clear in a formal response to the court,” Iverson wrote in a statement. “Without these consent decrees the criminal justice system in New Orleans will remain broken, a fate neither the residents of New Orleans nor the hard working members of the New Orleans Police Department deserve.”
But Iverson’s contention that the city cannot change course without a consent decree is not shared by everyone in the community. Although Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas declined to discuss the city’s decision in depth, he did say that the mayor has the interests of residents at the forefront of his thoughts and is only raising issues that need to be raised.
Ed Thornton, chairman of Loyola University’s criminal justice department, said he’s confident that Serpas and Landrieu are committed to reform, regardless of federal involvement. While Thornton supported the consent decree, he said he also understands the city’s concerns about cost and about the actions of former federal prosecutor Sal Perricone. Perricone resigned after it was discovered he was using a pseudonym commenting on a local website about cases being handled by the Justice Department. Thornton said the consent decree was probably the most comprehensive reform of a police department ever outlined in this country.
“If the consent decree goes away, I still think there’s enough commitment from the Mayor’s Office and the superintendent to move in the direction the decree was going,” Thornton said. “I really see the NOPD changing irrespective of the consent decree.”
Capt. Michael Glasser, the president of the Police Association of New Orleans, said his group tried to warn the police and city administration that the consent decree was a bad idea from the start. He said it is discouraging that city officials demonized PANO for its concerns but are now echoing many of those same complaints.
“We said all along, ‘It isn’t the change we fear, it’s the manner that it’s being done,’ ” said Glasser, who claimed that many of the changes outlined by federal official could have been done by the NOPD for less money in a more reasonable time frame. “I think we could have avoided all this from the beginning.”
Glasser focused many of his complaints on the proposed overhaul of the city’s paid detail system, which federal officials called the “aorta of corruption” within the department. Landrieu initially championed that overhaul and even created a separate office to oversee “secondary employment.” But Glasser said that move was really a money grab by the city that would have hurt officers who depend on details to supplement their income. Although many have voiced concerns about corruption with the details, Glasser said actual reports of problems are sparse.
“You cannot identify a corrupt practice,” Glasser said.
Rafael Goyeneche III, the president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, agreed with the idea that the new process for governing details needed to be tweaked but said most of the city’s arguments are “disingenuous.” Goyeneche echoed the Justice Department in noting that the city was actively involved in negotiating the NOPD’s consent decree, adding that it doesn’t make sense to scuttle that plan because of issues with a separate consent decree involving the jail.
“To walk away from this thing because of the jail consent decree, to me is indefensible” Goyeneche said. “If they don’t like what’s happening with the jail consent decree, then you address it with the jail consent decree.”
He acknowledged that Landrieu and Serpas inherited a troubled department but said it’s their job to fix it. Goyeneche expressed little confidence in a reform process operated outside of the oversight of an independent agency. He said it appears the city is backing away from reform, and he predicted that New Orleans will lose control of its fate moving forward.
“This is a lose/lose for the city on both fronts. I think both financially, and as well as the thing I think can’t be overlooked, in the eyes of the public” Goyeneche said. “All this is doing is delaying the inevitable.”