Times were grim in New Orleans nine years ago, when a city still reeling from police shootings of civilians in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina entered a civil rights consent decree aimed at bringing the police department up to constitutional muster.
So word that practices have improved enough for the end of court-ordered oversight to be within reach is welcome on multiple fronts.
Monitoring costs taxpayers $115,000 per month, money that Mayor LaToya Cantrell has long argued could be better spent on other needs. But even more encouraging than the potential cost savings are the benefits of better, safer, more modern policing to the city’s citizens.
At a public meeting last week, lead monitor Jonathan Aronie said his team plans to take a good hard look at the NOPD’s most historically troublesome areas, including bias, street stop practices, officer supervision, performance evaluations and community engagement. If they like what they find, the city could be considered in “substantial compliance” with the reform plan by summer.
“This is not in any way a guarantee,” Aronie said. “But we think this is possible. The actual timeline depends on the New Orleans Police Department.”
Since entering the legal agreement, Aronie and his deputy said, the department has made significant improvements in areas such as recruitment and training, and its peer intervention program has become a model for other departments.
More troublesome have been the task force units that Superintendent Shaun Ferguson disbanded in May after monitors called out a pattern of civil rights violations. And during the summer social justice demonstrations, the department was criticized after tactical officers fired tear gas on protesters on the approach to the Crescent City Connection — which, after an internal investigation, Ferguson attributed to departmental failures as well as provocation by a small group of protesters who tried to force their way onto the bridge.
A “substantial compliance” determination by U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan wouldn’t be the end of the saga just yet. Such a finding would trigger a two-year period of lighter and less expensive monitoring.
That would be an important step in the process, one that would hopefully ensure that the department won’t backslide once nobody from the outside is watching quite so closely.
The good news is that the NOPD has come far enough since the bad old days to make its best case. So says an official with the U.S. Department of Justice, anyway.
“Substantial compliance is achievable in the months ahead,” Jude Volek, a special counsel for the department’s civil rights division said last week. “We do believe that the two-year sustaining period is close. We’re on the precipice of getting there.”