Under Attorney General Eric Holder’s watch, the U.S. Justice Department has begun to fundamentally reshape the way crime and punishment are dealt with in New Orleans.
Though it may be too soon to say whether reform efforts at the New Orleans Police Department and Orleans Parish Prison will have lasting consequences, there is no minimizing the role that Holder’s agency has played in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina.
Prompted in part by the notorious acts of police misconduct that followed the storm, federal investigators “peeled the onion to the core,” uncovered systemic problems with the NOPD and stepped in to take a direct role in cleaning things up.
Now, a federal consent decree between the city and the Justice Department serves as a blueprint for improvements under Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration. Holder himself came to New Orleans in 2012 when the decree was announced, calling it the most “wide-ranging” reform effort in the department’s history.
A similar agreement with Sheriff Marlin Gusman over conditions at the local jail followed shortly thereafter.
That agreement gave hope to inmate advocates who have been complaining about dire circumstances at OPP for decades. But it also caused strain on the city’s budget, since money for improvements will come mainly from the city’s general fund.
It even prompted Landrieu to try to pull out of his agreement on the NOPD, claiming Holder’s department had lured the city into both consent decrees without being up-front about the costs, which the federal government will not help bear.
Today, both consent decrees continue to reverberate through city politics. The mayor and the sheriff continue to fight over how much cash the jail needs, and the City Council continues to hear debate over certain aspects of police reform.
Changes governing the off-duty security jobs that officers work for extra money remain a consistent flashpoint. The consent decree calls for assigning those shifts through an office in City Hall, rather than having officers manage them by themselves, but the reorganization has caused officers to lose some of the work to competitors — an unintended consequence with big implications for a department that is desperate for more recruits but short on money to improve base salaries.