U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan, who oversees an epic plan to reform the New Orleans Police Department, marks her fourth year on the bench March 28. Three of those years include managing the NOPD Consent Decree (Case No. 2:12-cv-1924) and honoring a promise she made to the United States Senate.
In the fall of 2011, skeptics on a Senate panel to confirm her judicial nomination by President Obama eyed Morgan’s history of campaigning for Senator Mary Landrieu.
As judge, Morgan promised senators, “I will base my decisions only on the facts and the law without regard to personal opinion.”
On March 28, 2012, the Senate confirmed her nomination as judge for the 13-parish Eastern District of Louisiana (New Orleans).
A major test of Morgan’s promise to the Senate came in January 2013, from Mary Landrieu’s brother, Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
The mayor announced the city wanted to withdraw from the New Orleans Police Department Consent Decree, which the city and the U.S. Department of Justice filed jointly six months earlier to avoid a DOJ lawsuit alleging civil rights violations by the NOPD.
Landrieu alleged the DOJ waited until he signed the NOPD Consent Decree in July 2012 – then stuck the city with additional costs of a separate federal Consent Decree to reform Orleans Parish Prison.
A judge for less than a year, Morgan rejected the mayor’s motion to withdraw from the NOPD reform plan, calling the city’s allegation of a DOJ double-cross “patently false.”
The city appealed.
The Fifth Circuit upheld Morgan’s ruling (Case No. 13-30161).
For months, Landrieu rarely spoke of the Consent Decree publicly, until a scandal rocked the NOPD sex crimes unit in May 2014, hastening the exit of his hand-picked chief, Ronal Serpas Ph.D.
Today, the Landrieu administration cites a record of effort to comply with the NOPD Consent Decree, as the administration campaigns for voter approval of a public safety tax on the ballot April 9.
In a campaign statement earlier this year, the administration said, “The city has fully funded the five-year, $55 million Consent Decree for better training, equipment and police.” The city also purchased 628 body worn cameras (BWCs), the most auspicious legacy of the Serpas era and an accountability tool championed by Judge Morgan.
Voters anxious to make more informed decisions April 9 about funding NOPD’s progress should consult the detailed and fairly impartial reports of Judge Morgan’s Consent Decree Monitoring Team.
“Patience” and Police
In 2011, Donna Sue “Susie” Morgan, a native of Winnsboro, Louisiana, told the Senate confirmation hearing she would demonstrate “patience and respect for others,” indicating patience is also a virtue found in judicial temperament.
To no one’s surprise, the judge’s patience has been tested by NOPD’s uneven record of compliance with the 492 reforms of the Consent Decree.
“The pace of progress in implementing the Consent Decree has not been fast enough for my liking … especially on things that should have been easy,” Morgan said at a public hearing May 21. “They have to make progress especially in the areas of custodial interrogations and photo lineups.”
In July, Morgan appeared in person at NOPD stations – joining her court-appointed Monitoring Team on their monthly audits of Consent Decree compliance with photographic lineups, interrogations of suspects, police supervision and camera use.
After her tour, reform picked up in one problem area: “six-packs,” the police practice of showing six photographs to victims and witnesses.
The Consent Decree requires meticulous recordation of “six-packs” used as evidence as well as constitutional protections for both the suspect and the integrity of the criminal investigation.
Should you ever witness a crime serious enough to merit viewing a police “six-pack,” remember these Consent Decree requirements:
• “No officer who is involved in the investigation shall participate in administering the photographic lineup;”
• Whoever administers the photo lineup “shall not have any knowledge” of which photograph depicts a suspect in the investigation;
• “Eyewitnesses shall be admonished that the suspect might or might not be present in the lineup;”
• The NOPD is required to “document any statements made” by witnesses and the identities of other people present for line-ups.
In early 2015, all eight districts failed to implement an “effective form” the NOPD Homicide Division developed for meeting Consent Decree requirements on cataloging line-up information.
Judge Morgan’s July tour and her remarks in open court last May provided an “impetus” at NOPD for “substantial compliance” with Consent Decree requirements for witness identification, the monitors said in an October 2 report covering the first half of 2015.
“Since May 2015, nearly every police district has made significant progress in this area,” the report states. “Indeed, as of July 2015 – three years after the City and the DOJ signed the Consent Decree, nearly every district and unit had reached substantial compliance. And some units are at 100 percent compliance.”
The NOPD continues to struggle with in-custody interrogations, largely due to the absence of a quality interrogation room camera system, monitors say.
Alerted to multiple camera problems, officers began using their body-worn cameras (BWCs) to record interrogations, a creative short-term solution. Most districts continued making multiple errors even with BWCs, including not properly logging BWC recordings; “not being able to retrieve recordings when asked,” and “placing items in front of the camera that affect the video and audio.”
Monitors say the tough Sixth District showed the NOPD can achieve camera compliance “simply by paying attention to the details.”
“The Sixth” also made “considerable progress” on another critical reform, supervision, and should be considered a “model” to help other NOPD districts improve compliance.
The Consent Decree is not about “checking off boxes” but “constitutional policing.”
Consider the caught on-tape shooting and attempted murder of Tulane University medical student Peter Gold, who stopped the gunman from kidnapping a woman in the Irish Channel November 20.
A suspect allegedly confessed.
The crimes occurred in the Sixth District, where officers led by Captain Ronnie Stevens are earning a “model” reputation at federal court for their constitutional handling of “six packs” and suspects.