When he was a candidate for mayor in late 2009 and early 2010, Mitch Landrieu talked about negotiating a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to overhaul and permanently reform the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD). Last week, Landrieu and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, along with other local and federal officials, unveiled a consent decree that one high-ranking DOJ official called "unprecedented in scope and nature." Based on allegations laid out in the 12-page complaint the feds filed in connection with the consent decree, nothing less than history-making constraints on NOPD would suffice. The complaint read more like an indictment, and for good reason.
In March 2011, DOJ presented a lengthy report on its investigation of NOPD's policies, procedures and practices. The report exposed systemic constitutional violations, ranging from use of excessive force; unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests; biased policing; failure to provide effective policing services to people with limited English proficiency; and a failure to investigate sexual assaults and domestic violence. The report also noted NOPD's failures in such areas as officer recruitment, promotion and evaluation; training and supervision; community oversight; and, of course, the corrupted and much-abused "paid detail" system.
Many of these ills were well-known long before the DOJ report, and to his credit Landrieu started addressing them shortly after taking office. Holder noted as much last week. The difference is that the reforms already initiated by Landrieu and NOPD — along with many more demanded by DOJ — will now have the full force of a federal court order behind them. They cannot be amended or ignored by the whim of the next mayor or police chief. Going forward, the reforms will be institutionalized and regularly reviewed by U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan and a soon-to-be-named independent monitor to make sure they are fully and faithfully implemented.
The reforms include:
• Higher recruiting standards and more rigorous training for all officers. This includes 40 hours of use-of-force training; 24 hours of training on stops, searches and arrests; and four hours on bias-free policing — all within the first year.
• Stronger policies on constitutional stops, searches and arrests.
• A 16-hour limit on the number of hours worked in a 24-hour period (including details), and a 24-hour total limit on the number of hours worked on paid details per week.
• Moving management of the paid detail system outside of NOPD.
• Additional training for and reporting of use of force.
• Training for cultural awareness and community engagement.
• Better technology to improve constitutional policing and accountability measures, including in-car cameras to monitor officer conduct in relation to misconduct, use of force and bias-free policing.
• A comprehensive analysis of all NOPD policies and procedures.
The monitor will be chosen jointly by the city and DOJ in the coming months. Once in place, the monitor will file quarterly public reports to the judge; the city will have to file status reports every six months — and publish annual reports on data the consent decree now requires NOPD to collect and make public. The agreement also requires the city to create a Crisis Intervention Team of specially trained officers who will respond to calls involving individuals in mental distress. In light of recent state cuts to area mental health services, this is a critical component.
The duration of the consent decree is open-ended, but by its own terms the intense federal scrutiny will remain in force for at least four years. By then or at any time afterward, if NOPD can show that it has committed no violations for two consecutive years, the judge may ease or lift the decree's terms. If NOPD fails to remain trouble-free, however, the judge can extend the federal oversight — and impose penalties.
In virtually every respect, the consent decree uses a heavy-handed approach to address longstanding problems at NOPD. In light of NOPD's history, this approach strikes us as necessary. More than 10 years ago, as he was leaving office, then-Mayor Marc Morial reflected back on the significant reforms that his police chief, Richard Pennington, brought to NOPD during his stint as the city's top cop. His only regret, Morial said at that time, was that he did not institutionalize those reforms. Morial's concern was well-placed; Pennington's reforms were quickly undone by the Nagin administration, and New Orleans paid a heavy price.
Last week's consent decree brings to NOPD not only a far-reaching set of badly needed reforms, but also the kind of institutional permanence that will enable them to take root and make a lasting difference.