Federal monitors overseeing reforms of the New Orleans Police Department are set to unveil their first grade of the department's progress on Friday, issuing the report amid recent statements from city leaders that the six-year-long consent decree should be nearing its end.
For years, those monitors have resisted scoring the NOPD’s performance under its 2012 consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice, which was enacted after a federal report painted the department as poorly trained, sloppy, brutal and corrupt.
Instead, the monitors have preferred to speak about the quality of individual programs, like body-worn cameras and the training academy. But the monitors now say the time has come for a more complete update.
In a hearing at the Loyola University law school, they promise to “provide the public a section-by-section assessment of the state of NOPD compliance.”
The hearing was already being planned before an exchange of letters a month ago laid bare tensions between city leaders and the court-appointed monitors.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell and other city officials said the NOPD considers itself to be in “93 percent compliance” with the consent decree. They asked for a speedy release from the consent decree's strict mandates, and the monitors' $2.1 million per year contract.
The city also objected to carrying the hearing on public-access television.
The monitors wrote back that they were unsure as to how the city came to the 93 percent figure, and that much work still needs to be done. Meanwhile, U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan, who oversees the reform plan, said the public and television crews would be allowed to attend the hearing.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell sent a pointed letter last month to a federal judge and the monitors overseeing the reform push at the New Orleans Polic…
The dueling letters highlighted the sensitive question of just how long the city will remain under the extensive, intrusive and costly reform pact, which went into effect in 2013, the year after it was signed.
City leaders agreed to what the Justice Department at the time called the most comprehensive police reform plan ever created, which outlined the changes that must be instituted at the Police Department in 492 exhaustively detailed paragraphs.
The document called for strict controls over officers' use of force, limits on dangerous police chases, beefed-up misconduct investigations, video-recorded interrogations of suspects, and a wholesale makeover of the training academy, among many other mandates. Morgan has the sole and final say over whether the NOPD has reached its goals.
The city expects that by the end of 2019 it will have spent $55 million on coming into compliance with the plan, including expenses for the monitors, equipment and training.
The lead federal monitor, Jonathan Aronie, has been active in working through the reforms but has not yet provided a comprehensive report on how far the department has come.
A government contracts lawyer at the international law firm Sheppard Mullin, Aronie once served as the deputy monitor overseeing the Washington, D.C., police department.
His 10-member monitoring team holds regular community meetings and appears at court hearings, but most of its work occurs behind the scenes on ride-alongs, station inspections and meetings with the department's brass.
The monitors got off to a rocky start. A rival team vying for the pricey monitoring contract submitted letters from political heavy-hitters like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and won the backing of then-New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
“I was so not enamored by the process, to say the least. And other teams were doing kind of strange things. Some teams were submitting letters from politicians,” Aronie said during a lengthy interview last April.
Morgan chose Aronie’s team in July 2013, citing their experience and public concern over the rival team.
As Arties Manning gasped for air in the courtyard of a New Orleans East apartment complex, Officer Terrance Hilliard’s head was spinning.
“We walked into a department that was really broken,” Aronie said. “We couldn’t even get the data that we needed to do the audits that we wanted to do … I mean, what’s the point of auditing an academy class if they don’t even have a lesson plan?”
The monitors spent their first two to three years reviewing hundreds of new policies and offering advice on modern police practices. There was also the sticky subject of off-duty, paid details, which the Justice Department dubbed the NOPD’s “aorta of corruption” in a scathing 2011 report.
The city’s police officer associations fought against the transfer of control of police details to an office in City Hall. Aronie said he pointed out that the change was mandated in the court-ordered reform plan.
Years into that plan, with the new office receiving positive audits, Aronie said he rarely hears from the police unions. The detail system, once a snakes' den of departmental politics, rarely makes the news, either.
"We have not seen any evidence of any sort of widespread corruption" under the new detail system, Aronie said last year.
There was also early distance from the city and the NOPD. Aronie said he got along well with former Superintendent Ronal Serpas, who oversaw the department from 2010 to 2014. However, he added that “during that early time period, the department generally was pushing back a lot more.”
Nevertheless, Serpas instituted one reform that was not listed in the reform plan but became central to its implementation: body-worn cameras. He ordered that every New Orleans patrol officer be outfitted with a camera, making it one of the first big-city departments to do so.
One controversial, non-fatal shooting was not caught on tape. But looking back, Aronie said last year that he thinks the department’s transition to always-on video was remarkably smooth.
“I would say they reduce misconduct. Not just that, but they drive civility, too,” he said.
Aronie said the entire monitoring team has access to officers’ camera footage and they use it “consistently” to track the department’s progress on the level of individual officers. The footage complements monitors' rides in cop cars.
“I promised when I took the job that I would not monitor from a desk,” Aronie said. “I see mistakes made. I see problems. I see good things, I see bad things — and they all happen right in front of me.”
The same goes for Morgan, according to Aronie. She will visit station houses and talk to district commanders.
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell has selected a veteran cop who once commanded officers in her City Council district as the city’s next polic…
“She’s a very active and intimately involved judge,” he said. “She’s out in the field more than any other judge that I’ve ever known.”
As the years passed, the monitors have appeared more confident in taking strong stances on police practices. A January 2017 report found the department skipping over red flags like drug arrests and failed lie detector tests in its hiring of new cops.
But before the monitors issued their report, they gave the NOPD a heads-up so it could start revamping its recruitment practices.
"What we think is the best way to drive actual improvement in compliance is you find the things that need work, you lock in the corrective action, you test the corrective action, and then you publish the problem, the solution and whether or not the solution worked," Aronie said. "Most of what we do the public doesn't see. It’s like the sausage making, as they say."
In the interview last year, Aronie praised the cooperation he received from then-Superintendent Michael Harrison and described weekly calls among department leaders, the judge, the monitors and the Department of Justice.
Yet the monitors’ close involvement in department affairs led city leaders last month to question whether they were overstepping their authority.
"The consent decree stipulates the court-appointed monitors shall not replace or assume the role and duties of the city and NOPD, including the superintendent. Yet, it appears that the lines have been blurred over the years," officials said.
They even suggested that the monitors have weighed in on city contracts, without elaborating.
Their biggest complaints were about time and money, however. Cantrell, who became mayor in May 2018, expressed her desire to have the reform plan completed as soon as possible.
Other large police departments have lingered under court oversight for years. One agreement, in Detroit, took 11 years to fulfill. Another in Los Angeles lasted for 12 years. It will be up to Harrison’s successor, Shaun Ferguson, to see the process through to the end. Friday’s hearing could provide his first realistic timeline.
By some measures, the department is on its best footing in years. Between January 2017 and January 2019, New Orleans police went nearly two years without fatally shooting someone, which would have been almost unimaginable a decade ago. Meanwhile, last year the city logged its lowest homicide count since 1971.
Yet the monitors have warned that the NOPD still needs to prove its supervisors are effectively overseeing their beat cops, and that those ordinary officers follow constitutional practices when they stop and frisk people on the street.
Last year, Aronie repeated a well-worn phrase of his about what he told police brass when he first came to New Orleans.
“I will be the biggest thorn in your side when things are not right, but ultimately I will be your biggest cheerleader,” he said.
The NOPD reform hearing is open to the public. It takes place at 9 a.m. Friday at the Loyola University College of Law, 526 Pine St.