Mayor LaToya Cantrell sent a pointed letter last month to a federal judge and the monitors overseeing the reform push at the New Orleans Police Department, questioning whether the monitors have spent too much and overstepped their authority, court records show.
The monitors responded with a letter of their own, praising the department’s progress but rejecting the city’s claim that it is in “93 percent compliance” with the consent decree, its 2012 reform agreement with the federal government.
Although the letters nominally concerned the date of the next court hearing in the consent decree case, and whether it would be televised, they include detailed wrangling over the pace of reform at the NOPD.
U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan ultimately said the hearing will be held Jan. 25 at Loyola University, with television cameras allowed.
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The exchange of letters, which was filed into the court record Thursday, draws back the curtain on previously hidden friction between the monitors and the city.
It also offers insight into Cantrell’s thinking about the consent decree as she picks the city's next police chief — a process that is expected to conclude Monday, with an internal candidate getting the nod.
Cantrell told WWL-TV on Thursday that she thinks the city will soon hit “substantial compliance” with the consent decree, which would begin a two-year period of relaxed monitoring.
“We have made tremendous gains under this consent decree, and we are nearing substantial completion,” she said. “My choice will keep us moving in the right direction, but making us even better than we've ever been.”
On Wednesday, Police Superintendent Michael Harrison — who also signed the city’s letter to Morgan, along with City Council at-large members Jason Williams and Helena Moreno, and City Attorney Sunni LeBeouf — denied that the back-and-forth signaled a testy relationship.
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“I wouldn’t say that there’s tension,” Harrison said. “I would say that we want to make sure that we’re focusing on items that, No. 1, are on the consent decree and relative to the consent decree. (That’s) so that our focus allows us to move faster to reaching compliance.”
Lifting the consent decree is a top goal for Cantrell, as it was for Mayor Mitch Landrieu before her.
Morgan, who oversees the monitors and the consent decree, has never revealed when she thinks the department might reach its goals, however.
During his tenure, Landrieu worried about straining municipal coffers to fully comply with both the NOPD consent decree and a still-active one to reform the city’s violent, understaffed jail. At one point Landrieu even tried, unsuccessfully, to back out of the NOPD document.
Cantrell’s letter said she is committed to carrying the consent decree into the end zone. But it suggests that she shares some of Landrieu’s concerns about its cost.
The city’s Dec. 6 letter shows that she is eager for a resolution. The cty officials wrote that the Police Department is “ripe” for a determination that it is in compliance with the lengthy and detailed consent decree.
By their accounting, they said, the Police Department is at “93 percent compliance” with the document's requirements.
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The city also detailed at length how much the reform effort has cost New Orleans taxpayers.
New Orleans has spent about $10.3 million to pay the monitors and their team, “some of whom fly in monthly, at the city’s expense,” the letter said. With other costs factored in, such as more intensive training of officers and new equipment, the city expects it will have spent $55 million on the consent decree by the end of 2019.
The city said it had found it difficult to “manage the monitors’ billing and associated costs in a manner which ensures that they are only working on consent decree constitutional policing related issues, and not on NOPD and/or city management related matters — which NOPD and/or city personnel should handle exclusively.”
Those lines have sometimes “blurred,” the city’s letter said.
The letter also said that city officials object to the monitors “exercising authority” over certain contracts and deployment patterns. But the letter didn’t elaborate, and Cantrell spokesman Michael Tidwell said the mayor’s office had no comment when asked for more information.
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Lead federal monitor Jonathan Aronie hit back at the city’s claims with a Dec. 13 letter of his own, saying that his team has hewed closely to the consent decree’s 492 paragraphs, which lay out the terms of engagement between the city and the monitors.
“As I believe the city knows by now, the monitoring team remains impressed by the progress the NOPD has made to date,” Aronie said. “It is a testament to the hard work of the men and women of the department and to the commitment, discipline and forward thinking of the department’s current leadership. Nevertheless, the basis for your statement that the department is ‘at 93 percent compliance’ is unclear.”
He said the Police Department must still prove that it operates without racial or gender bias, that it works effectively with the community, that supervisors evaluate subordinates properly and that beat cops follow the law during street stops.
The monitors have also highlighted worries with lagging response times in particular neighborhoods as well as the handling of some domestic abuse calls.
“While we cannot say, based on our monitoring, that the department will be in full and effective compliance in those areas in the 'very near future,' we certainly agree the department’s overall progress to date has been admirable — especially considering the department’s slow start,” Aronie’s letter said.
Aronie rejected a request to have the City Attorney's Office copied on all correspondence with the NOPD and city personnel.
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He said blocking the monitors from having "frank and candid" direct discussions went against the terms of the consent decree and would "would risk creating a chilling effect on NOPD and city personnel."
Despite Aronie’s caution, Harrison said this week he was “confident” that the NOPD early this year will be given a definite timeline for when it will be found in substantial compliance with an agreement whose comprehensive scope was unprecedented when it was approved six years ago.
The progress toward compliance on Harrison’s watch helped land him on the radar of Baltimore officials grappling with their own consent decree.
Harrison on Monday accepted Mayor Catherine Pugh’s offer to be Baltimore’s new top cop. He is expected to begin in an acting capacity next month while awaiting full approval from the Baltimore City Council.
It remains to be seen whether the discord evident in the letters, which had previously gone unreported, will complicate his approval process in Baltimore.
Despite the strained tone of the letters, Morgan made it clear that she has a high opinion of Harrison after his move to Baltimore was announced. She said Tuesday that his appointment as NOPD chief “marked a turning point in the (agency’s) progress toward compliance with the consent decree.”
Federal judges rarely make such statements outside the courtroom.
Harrison this week sounded optimistic about his chances of winning the Baltimore council’s backing.
He noted that one agency took a dozen years to comply with a consent decree that was less complex than the NOPD’s.
While he didn’t name that agency, it appeared he was referring to the Los Angeles Police Department, which took about 12 years to reach compliance with a consent decree approved in 2001, in the wake of a corruption scandal that ensnared the LAPD’s anti-gang unit.
“I think the entire goal and message of (the city's letter) is: Let’s get to a point where we can know where we are, and agree where we are, (and) create the pathway and the execution plan to get this out and get us to a compliance so we can tell the world this great success story," he said.