The forces of police reform were strong in 2012, when the New Orleans Police Department signed a wide-reaching agreement with the federal government to correct the department's sometimes brutal and slipshod ways.
But the winds have shifted as that plan, called a consent decree, nears its five-year anniversary in July. The very notion that policing in the U.S. needs reform has come under attack, especially since the election of Donald Trump as president.
However, U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan and an attorney with the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division mounted a broad defense of the department’s reform effort at a court hearing Thursday in New Orleans.
Morgan voiced approval as an NOPD deputy chief ticked off a list of reforms — from body-worn cameras to internal audits and revamped Police Academy classes — that the department has implemented so far.
“Who would have thought four or five years ago that the NOPD would be a model for the country on many of these issues? But that’s what happened,” the judge said.
Morgan stressed that there is still much work to do, however. She has yet to set a timeline for the end of federal supervision.
Meanwhile, the sometimes halting nature of the Police Department’s progress was underscored last month by a report from her court-appointed monitors, who found that the force has hired dozens of recruits with red flags in their backgrounds.
Drug use. Arrests. Domestic abuse reports. Failed lie-detector tests.
Even on that topic, however, Morgan said she is convinced that the department is righting itself. Deputy Superintendent Daniel Murphy told the judge that police are hiring more background check investigators, giving them more training and adding more layers to the review process for new cops.
“The monitors did not have to come up with a corrective plan. The Police Department did,” Morgan said. “The department knows best what the problem is and how to fix it, and we appreciate that.”
Murphy cited with pride a New Orleans Crime Coalition poll in September that found the highest level of public approval ever measured for the NOPD. He suggested that was due to the consent decree reforms.
Morgan offered particular praise for the new policies on use of force and vehicle pursuits that the Police Department put in place in December 2015. Officers are now required to file a report whenever they point a gun at civilians, and they are restricted from vehicle pursuits of suspects in nonviolent crimes.
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry slammed those as “hug-a-thug” policies in an interview last month. He also has deployed his own small task force, made up of officers from suburban parishes, to patrol the streets of the city.
Landry claimed that New Orleans officers have been hamstrung from making the kinds of pursuits that his agents did on Dec. 2, when they chased two armed robbery suspects across the Crescent City Connection.
After Landry made those remarks, Morgan called attorneys from the Attorney General’s Office into her chambers on Jan. 12. At the hearing Thursday, she seemed to reference Landry’s statements as she addressed the courtroom.
“There have been some people who have criticized the vehicle pursuit policy in the press, but the NOPD’s policy is the current best practice in the nation, and it’s been adopted for a very good reason, which is because it keeps from endangering the lives of citizens,” Morgan said.
One of the monitors whom Morgan has appointed to oversee the reform process declined to comment on what happened behind closed doors Jan. 12. But he indicated that Morgan has taken the city’s side in the dispute.
The city's sheriff, its district attorney and the head of one of its two main police unions …
“We think that the city and the City Attorney’s Office and the police chief and the mayor took a very smart position on this,” said Jonathan Aronie, the lead monitor. “The position that we’ve seen them articulate is a good position.”
Aronie said both sides have been in “productive” talks to come up with an agreement on the Landry task force's role that will be agreeable to Morgan.
Beyond the dispute with Landry, the larger question looming over the consent decree process in New Orleans and in other cities — such as Baltimore, which signed an agreement just before Trump took office — is what will happen as the U.S. Department of Justice changes leadership.
Under former President Barack Obama, the Justice Department instituted 15 consent decrees with police agencies across the country. Jeff Sessions, who was sworn in as Trump’s attorney general on Feb. 9, has repeatedly criticized consent decrees for limiting aggressive policing.
On Thursday, the old Justice Department was still represented in court, in the form of Civil Rights Division attorney Emily Gunston. She said the Police Department’s raft of new policies make her feel like she is “dealing with a completely different Police Department” than in 2012.
“I just want to remind everybody of how far we’ve come in terms of where we are now and (where we were) when we began the investigation,” Gunston said.
Gunston said that as the Justice Department investigated the NOPD in 2011, in the wake of infamous incidents like the Danziger Bridge shootings, the Police Department could not even find reports on some incidents in which officers shot civilians.
She said the department has since improved its record-keeping, which “really changes the game in terms of the NOPD’s ability to know what their officers are doing.”
“It’s night and day, I’d agree,” Morgan replied.
Gunston’s boss, former ACLU lawyer Vanita Gupta, left office with Obama. Trump has yet to nominate her replacement as head of the Civil Rights Division.
Despite the shifts in Washington, D.C., there were no notes of discord Thursday from the parties involved in the consent decree process. Aronie, the monitor, said that he has yet to hear of any new orders coming from Washington.
"I don’t know what the new administration’s focus will do to consent decrees not in place yet, but we have no indication that there’s any change in view here," Aronie said. "I don't see any change here in New Orleans."
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