Consent Decree

Some questions and answers

Joseph Daniel Fiedler illustration

On the morning of July 26, 2012, Mayor Mitch Landrieu stood in a hallway of the federal courthouse between two of the biggest cases litigated this year in New Orleans. In one courtroom, Federal Judge Susie Morgan would preside over the first public hearing of United States of America v. City of New Orleans (12-1924) and its proposed Consent Decree. The decree is a plan filed jointly by the Landrieu Administration and the U.S. Department of Justice on July 24 to resolve a civil rights lawsuit by reforming the troubled New Orleans Police Department.

In the courtroom across the hall, a hearing of another high-profile case is underway. The case is Vilma v. Goodell (12-1283), the “Bounty-gate” scandal-defamation suit brought by Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma against National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell.

The litigation is a reminder that Landrieu’s election in February 2010 was overshadowed the next day by the Saints historic Super Bowl victory over Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. Three months later, Landrieu introduced newly inaugurated NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas as the “Drew Brees of police chiefs.”

Since then, Serpas has been struggling to: reform the department of 1,295 officers and 248 civilian-support staff; reduce a chronically high violent crime rate in a city of 344,000; and ensure the safety of thousands of tourists each year, including visitors to the Super Bowl here Feb. 3, 2013.

Much of the police department’s future may depend on the effectiveness of the Consent Decree. To wade through it, I have proposed a few questions, and some answers.

The Landrieu-Serpas administration is now in the “third quarter” of the mayor’s first four-year term. How can the Consent Decree help protect the city? The murder rate remains stubbornly high despite the administration’s commendable focus and its “holistic” approach to drugs, crime and violence. Serpas’ “honeymoon” as a reformer was endangered when three police subordinates were implicated in a paid detail scandal, though the city Inspector General exonerated the chief. The administration is at odds with two police groups – the Police Association of New Orleans and the Fraternal Order of Police – over the administration’s plans to “reform” civil service. Against that background, the Consent Decree requires NOPD to “fundamentally change” policing in New Orleans by: protecting the constitutional rights of citizens; increasing safety and security; and “increasing confidence in the NOPD.”

Sounds like familiar reform rhetoric. What is different? This plan has the force of law. The decree aims to resolve a number of alleged patterns and practices of “unconstitutional conduct” at the NOPD, detailed in a DOJ report published in March 2011. The 129-page decree requires the city and the NOPD to adhere to a court-supervised timetable for implementing sweeping changes, from the way cops use force, conduct searches, seizures and arrests, to establishing a department-wide “health and wellness program.” A DOJ attorney recently told Judge Morgan that NOPD officers will “soon know [the Consent Decree] backwards and forwards.”

Frankly, it reads like a bureaucrat’s boring “to-do” list. It is hard to imagine cops reading this stuff on the trunk of a police car. It is tedious reading for such a critical document – especially for a city with a high illiteracy rate among its English-speaking population alone. Instructional comic books and graphic art would be a more engaging way to reach both the public and the police.

Also, the feds keep harping on the NOPD’s “dangerously limited” capacity for communicating with Latino and Vietnamese people in the city. By the end of October, the federal court website on the case still provided free copies of the Consent Decree – but in English only.

From what I’ve seen on TV news, the decree pits two police groups against the ACLU, left-wing activists – the usual police critics. Not true. The plan – a “stronger” role for the city’s Independent Police Monitor – has received support from mainstream civic groups such as Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans and founding chairman Ruthie Frierson. In addition, advocates for victims of rape and domestic violence have filed disturbing letters about police practices with the court. Mary Claire Landry, director of the federally funded New Orleans Justice Center, told the judge that the handful of detectives who investigate domestic violence are “pulled” off those cases during Mardi Gras and other “high-tourist” events. “We believe this [practice] keeps victims in danger and promotes a perception in the community that these cases are not a priority.”

Didn’t the NRA file a civil rights suit against the city and NOPD after Hurricane Katrina but didn’t seek to intervene in the Consent Decree or even comment on the feds’ plan to implement “constitutional policing” in New Orleans? The National Rifle Association filed a federal suit on behalf of thousands of New Orleans members after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. The suit accused then-Mayor C. Ray Nagin, NOPD Chiefs Eddie Compass and Warren Riley and St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain Jr. of violating the Second Amendment rights of citizens, by allegedly seizing “lawfully possessed firearms.” Strain was later released from the suit. The city agreed to a court-supervised plan to return the seized weapons and claims against Nagin, and the top cops were dismissed (NRA et al v. Nagin et al, (05-04234)). To date, the NRA remains absent from debates over “constitutional policing” at NOPD.

Any good news in all of this? Much of the Consent Decree concerns proper “Use of Force.” There is anecdotal evidence that plenty of NOPD supervisors would have little trouble complying with the new federal standards.

“Anecdotal evidence” – such as? Remember “Lady Godiva?” During the mid-1990s, veteran NOPD Sgt. Frank Vaccarella convinced a naked woman high on crack to leave the Mid-City offices of Mary Howell and D. Majeeda Snead, two respected civil rights lawyers with experience in police misconduct litigation. The office gave the intoxicated woman shelter after several menacing-looking men tried to lure her into a van. Vaccarella arrived as other NOPD officers were discussing taking the woman by force. The sergeant nixed the idea. Unwrapping a piece of candy (butterscotch) that resembled a “rock” of crack, Vaccarella persuaded the woman to peacefully leave the law firm and take a police car ride to a hospital for evaluation. With a piece of candy, a lone NOPD sergeant restored law and order, captured the imagination of the public and presaged the “Use of Force” section of the proposed Consent Decree today some 15 years later.

The NOPD agrees to ensure that the officers use non-force techniques to effect compliance with police orders whenever feasible; use force only when necessary, and in a manner that avoids unnecessary injury to officers and civilians; and de-escalate the use of force at the earliest possible moment.

In 1997, Vaccarella shot and killed a Tulane University student, apparently high on drugs, who police said lunged at the officer with a broken beer bottle after attacking a woman and trying to choke a stray dog in the Tremé area. A state grand jury investigated. No charges were filed against Vaccarella.

He retired from the NOPD in 2007.

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