The hardest battle
JOSEPH DANIEL FIEDLER ILLUSTRATION
Time is getting short for Mayor Mitch Landrieu to secure his legacy as the leader who “transformed” the troubled New Orleans Police Department and made the city safe.
In his 2015 New Year’s message to New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu said the city “made headway in rebuilding” the NOPD. The city gave officers a 5 percent across-the-board pay hike – their first pay raise in eight years. The city “also invested nearly $12 million in the federal Consent Decree for better training, equipment and police monitoring.”
But according to NOPD reform advocates, the clock is ticking and both time and money are at issue.
“I am concerned that we may have a rapidly shrinking window in which to effect real, lasting change in this department,” says Mary Howell, a veteran civil rights lawyer.
Howell hopes that Landrieu will “reenergize” the city’s work on the NOPD Consent Decree.
Approved by U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan in 2013, the court-supervised agreement between the Landrieu Administration and the U.S. Department of Justice contains more than 490 paragraphs of sweeping reforms. The pact aims at resolving a DOJ lawsuit by ensuring public safety through constitutionally sound police training, policies and practices.
Landrieu requested a federal civil probe of the NOPD after taking office in 2010.
The feds summarized the grim findings of the nine-month investigation in a letter to Landrieu, dated March 16, 2011.
“The challenges confronting the New Orleans Police Department are serious, systemic, wide-ranging and deeply rooted,” the DOJ letter states, listing allegations of: excessive force, unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests, biased policing and “a systemic failure to investigate sexual assaults and domestic violence.”
Asked if the same “challenges” confront the NOPD today, attorney Howell said: “Yes. The good news is we have a good Consent Decree, a good monitoring team and a good judge. The bad news is we’re four years out since the DOJ findings letter and there’s still a lot that needs to be done. The critical thing needed right now is a sense of urgency.”
President Obama leaves the White House on Jan. 20, 2017. That is less than two years away – or 703 days after Mardi Gras ’15. Mayor Landrieu leaves office in May ’18.
Until then, the Obama DOJ may be the city’s most willing and able partner in Washington for help with improving the NOPD through the Consent Decree.
NOPD reform advocates fear that future presidential administrations will not make civil rights litigation a top priority after the 2016 elections. After the Sept. 11, ’01 terrorist attacks, national security became the top priority at the George W. Bush DOJ. Federal investigations of police misconduct and political corruption in Louisiana were put on the backburner.
Former mayor Ray Nagin (’02-’10) said federal oversight of the NOPD was no longer needed. The DOJ withdrew for several years, ending a monitoring program established during the mid-1990s, after the FBI broke up a cocaine protection operation led by then-NOPD cop Len Davis, now on death row.
Five years ago this Feb. 6, Landrieu was elected mayor on a campaign pledge to turn the NOPD into one of the best police departments in country. The next day, the Saints won their first Super Bowl.
In the celebratory weeks that followed, even reforming the NOPD seemed doable.
Mayor Landrieu appointed Ronal Serpas Ph.D. as Superintendent of the NOPD. Borrowing a campaign catch phrase from mayoral runner-up Troy Henry, Landrieu boasted the city had hired “the Drew Brees of police chiefs.”
On May 5, 2010, two days after his inauguration, Landrieu sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, asking the feds for help with “transforming the NOPD into one of the best police forces in the United States.”
“Nothing short of a complete transformation is necessary and essential to ensure safety for the citizens of New Orleans,” Landrieu wrote: “The police force, the community ... and citizens are desperate for positive change.”
Landrieu invited the feds to investigate the NOPD, adding he had “inherited a police department that has been described by many as the worst in the country.”
The DOJ’s civil probe resulted in a chilling investigative report on police misconduct.
“We asked for it and we got it,” Landrieu later said of the probe. “In March 2011, the Civil Rights Division described a Department that in many ways had lost its way.”
The city and the DOJ hammered out a settlement agreement filed with the court in July 2012. Then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said: “This agreement is one of the most wide-ranging in the Department’s history.”
Of approximately 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S, NOPD was one of “only a handful” that were operating under a DOJ Consent Decree, according to a March 2014 study by the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington D.C.
A recent report to the federal judge overseeing the Consent Decree found “significant deficiencies” persist in key areas of the Police Department: training, supervision and record keeping, to name a few.
“We continued to identify serious deficiencies in the level and effectiveness of supervision we see from NOPD’s sergeants, lieutenants, captains and commanders,” the monitoring team wrote in its fourth quarterly progress report to U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan.
In both NOPD patrol districts and specialized units, the monitors found supervisors failing to review Use of Force reports and video recordings; failure to report equipment malfunctions; and an absence of record keeping.
Amid a public clamor for more police officers and effective detectives, the monitors found serious shortcomings in NOPD training. “The Monitoring Team continues to be seriously concerned with the quality of NOPD’s training program. ... Without effective training by qualified instructors using modern teaching materials, tools and techniques, NOPD’s newest officers will continue to mimic the practices of their predecessors.”
Until recently, NOPD’s Academy screened a 1967 clip from the “Dragnet” TV series. “Sergeant Joe Friday,” played by Jack Webb, lectures a rookie officer on what it means to be a police officer. “The clip reeks of an “us versus them” (i.e., police versus citizen) attitude, which is a highly inappropriate message for any officer – let alone a new recruit,” the monitors wrote.
Howell said the city should focus on better training for police for the next two years. “Bring in someone from outside who has national experience running a top-notch police training program, to train the trainers and help design a curriculum and methodology for every aspect of training ... recruits, rollcall, inservice, FTOs (Field Training Officers), specialized units, etc. We are entirely too isolated and insular, and many of our methods and materials are very outdated. ...We don’t have time to reinvent the wheel.”
Judge Morgan will preside over a status hearing on NOPD training Feb. 26 at 1:30 p.m.