When U.S. Department of Justice investigators released a damning report about the New Orleans Police Department in 2011, they said the closest its Training Academy came to hands-on instruction was screening the movie “Crash” as part of a diversity lesson.

On Thursday, as federal monitors and police commanders hailed progress at the revamped academy during a court hearing, two officers showed the federal judge overseeing NOPD reforms the right way to handcuff a suspect.

U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan watched as Officer Randall Knight cuffed Sgt. David Duplantier in her courtroom. Knight said a technique by which a suspect’s thumbs are turned upward can prevent him from reaching for a hidden gun.

With Duplantier safely in custody, Morgan issued an order.

“You can release him now,” she said, to laughter from the audience.

The point of the demonstration was to show how deeply the academy has been transformed under the Police Department’s 2012 reform agreement with the federal government, known as a consent decree.

Thursday’s hearing was the latest in a series of regular updates on progress under the reform plan. Court-appointed monitors gave the new academy high marks, though they stopped short of claiming that it has come into full compliance with the requirements of the consent decree.

Only a few months ago, the watchdogs said that as of late 2016, progress at the academy was "slow."

But the quality of teachers, the depth of instruction and even class scheduling have all undergone accelerating transformations over the past year, according to Jonathan Aronie, the monitor appointed by Morgan to oversee the reform agreement.

Instructors — who have received additional training of their own — now use hands-on scenarios like the handcuffing demonstration or simulations of high-speed pursuits to indoctrinate recruits and refresh veterans.

Aronie and other officials also praised the opening this year of a renovated and expanded academy building on Paris Avenue. The structure was refurbished at a cost of $3 million.

As recently as late 2016, many classes at the academy lacked approved lesson plans. Over the past year, the monitors have worked closely with academy teachers to finalize a full slate of teaching plans, Morgan said.

Aronie said the academy has been the subject of “dramatic improvements.”

“While there is yet work to be done, the energy I have seen over the last 12 months gives me great confidence the academy will continue on its current path,” he said.

Aronie’s pronouncement is good news for Police Superintendent Michael Harrison, who has set a goal of coming into full compliance with the federal consent decree by May, when Mayor Mitch Landrieu's term ends and Harrison could be replaced. The upgrading of the Training Academy is one of the major hurdles left to fulfilling the reform agreement.

However, there are still dozens of areas big and small where the force needs to prove to the judge that it has mended its ways.

Jonas Geissler, a U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division attorney, said it was “premature” to declare that the academy had met its goals.

One group that does seem to be offering support for the changes at the academy is NOPD officers themselves. When the DOJ released its 2011 investigation, it said that nearly 80 percent of officers believed training for recruits needed to be improved, and only 24 percent said they had enough opportunities for training.

Now officers make unsolicited comments to federal monitors during ride-alongs that the academy has changed for the better. One officer wrote an email to Training Academy Cmdr. Chris Goodly last month thanking him for the changes.

Veteran officer Charles Hoffacker said he was expecting a letdown when he attended his most recent in-service training.

“In truth most officers, including myself, tend to think of in-service as a negative and a distraction from our day-to-day duties as investigators,” he said. “I was wrong, and it quickly became apparent that there was a tremendous difference between this year’s in-service than in previous years.”

Morgan did not make any larger pronouncements about the NOPD's compliance with the consent decree. However, she smiled throughout much of the hearing.

“It’s obvious to me that the New Orleans Police Department and the city of New Orleans have shown that they value the academy,” she said.

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

msledge@theadvocate.com | (504) 636-7432