Wearing a red fez, an elderly African-American man stood up to address the court-appointed policing experts, dispatched from Washington D.C. to the public hearing at the Norman Mayer Library on Gentilly Boulevard.
He likened the long-troubled New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) and the feds to a family where the government is the strict parent. "Once you leave the room, it'll be like 'bad children,'" the man said, referring to the NOPD. Many among the 40 people in attendance nodded or murmured in agreement.
"If the city and the police department don't change, we'll be right back," answered Jonathan Aronie, a lawyer and lead monitor for the Office of the Consent Decree Monitor. Aronie and the three experts addressing the crowd were sent to New Orleans by the Washington D.C. law firm of Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton. The library meeting was one of two public forums last week designed to give the public an opportunity to respond to the monitor's second quarterly report on the consent decree plan.
Steve Parker, a lawyer for the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), told the crowd, "We are suing the city," referring to the feds' civil complaint against the NOPD. The lawsuit alleges a "pattern or practice of excessive force, unconstitutional searches and seizures, and discriminatory policing." If conditions at NOPD deteriorate after the consent decree is implemented, the DOJ will return, Parker said.
Tasked with overseeing a sweeping plan to improve public safety in New Orleans and instill public confidence in the NOPD via "constitutional policing," the court-appointed team of experts reports to a federal judge — and to the public through quarterly reports and occasional hearings.
Last August, U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan appointed Sheppard Mullin as consent decree monitor after the city and the DOJ were unable to agree on a watchdog for the NOPD reform plan. The city will pay Sheppard Mullin $1.95 million for the first year of the four-year consent decree.
Over the past few months, the monitors have reviewed NOPD data for compliance with the consent decree and department regulations. Aronie told the audience, "The police department has made some progress but the police department has a long way to go." He commended NOPD's leadership for its cooperation in providing the monitors with access to data, information and individual officers and employees. "We have met a good number of officers that want change, the kind of change" recommended in the report, Aronie said. The team also has met "some" officers who don't want the consent decree reforms.
Much of the monitor's recent report covered the first quarter of 2014 — a period in which the NOPD reported a 38.8 percent increase in violent crime from the same time the previous year. There were 31 murders in the first three months of this year, down from 43 killings at the same time in 2013. Armed robberies were up 64.5 percent, and assaults were up 34 percent, according to the NOPD reports.
"Reducing the number of murders on the streets of our city is a top priority and we are continuing to make significant progress," NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas said in a June 10 statement. Reported rapes shot up 64.5 percent in the first quarter of this year, which the chief says is evidence of increasing confidence in the police Sex Crimes Unit: "These statistics continue to show that more victims are coming forward than ever before and that people believe our department can and will get these offenders off the street."
The veracity of NOPD crime statistics is also under review by the monitors. Serpas says hiring more recruits to the current force of 1,049 officers is a "big part of the solution" to the crime problem. But the monitors report found a number of flaws in NOPD recruiting and training programs. "We were not pleased with the training program." Aronie said. "We saw a lack of lesson plans. ... A good teacher has a lesson plan."
"I can tell you what we're going to have to do is train them all again," veteran civil rights lawyer Mary Howell told the audience. NOPD started a new recruit class of 32 future officers on May 27, the same day the monitors issued their report. Judge Morgan will review the NOPD reform plan in July.