NEW ORLEANS (AP) — New Orleans officials asked a federal judge Tuesday to end court-supervised oversight of its police department under a pact negotiated with the U.S. Justice Department a decade ago, after deadly police shootings of civilians following Hurricane Katrina cast renewed scrutiny on the scandal-plagued department.
The city’s motion was filed Tuesday, a day before U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan scheduled a hearing on the status of the agreement. The hearing was set after Mayor LaToya Cantrell and Police Chief Shaun Ferguson publicly called for termination of the pact, describing it, now, as an unnecessary bureaucratic burden on a department that is short on manpower amid pandemic-era boost in violent crime.
“Any systemic violations of federal law were remedied years ago,” according to the city's filing Tuesday. In an accompanying memo, the city's attorneys argue that even if the court finds that the city hasn't reached full compliance with all elements of the decree, “it is undeniable that NOPD has substantially and materially satisfied the constitutional goals of the Decree in good faith, and eliminated the systemic violations of federal law identified by the DOJ’s 2011 investigation.”
Bill Quigley, a civil rights attorney and advocate for police reform, was skeptical of the city's arguments.
“The City says we are fully compliant, or if we are not we are mostly compliant, or if we are not it is not that important,” Quigley wrote in an email. “This is life and death and liberty at stake here. Our community cannot afford to have ‘sort of’ constitutional policing.”
Experts on police accountability have hailed New Orleans' progress under the agreement, one of nearly two dozen such consent decrees in cities around the country. Morgan herself praised the city's progress at a hearing earlier this year. She tempered her praise with acknowledgment of continuing problems, including the short-handed department’s slowdown in recruiting and allegations of wrongdoing by officers who work private duty details. But the department has shown transparency in dealing with such setbacks, Morgan said.
Still, Morgan stopped short of terminating the agreement.
The motion to end the consent decree comes as gunshot deaths and carjackings have increased in the past two years, while the department has dwindled to well under 1,000 people, down from more than 1,300 a few years ago. Cantrell has said the bureaucratic demands imposed by the decree add to the workload on the dwindling force.
Still, some are skeptical that the consent decree is the main problem.
Rafael Goyeneche, the head of local police watchdog organization the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said statistics and reports on police activities will still be needed to ensure the policy and practice reforms imposed by the agreement stick.
“My position is, if you want to lessen the load on the officers, you don’t allow the police force to drop from 1,300 officers to 900 officers,” Goyeneche said in a recent interview.
“The City says it is expensive to comply with the consent decree,” said Quigley. "The community deserves constitutional policing no matter what the cost.”
Police Capt. Michael Glasser, head of the Police Association of New Orleans, a police union, said the detail and redundancy of reporting required by the consent decree are a factor in low morale and a workload that only grows worse as the force dwindles.
Still, Glasser said, other factors are of more concern to rank-and-file officers, including an overzealous “public integrity bureau” — the police internal affairs agency that PANO has accused of, at times, using false information against officers. A slow promotion process is also a bigger worry, Glasser said.
“The consent decree is number three,” he said. “Last is pay.”