Criminal Justice
 

Adorable: Mitch Landrieu’s first little transparency flap

Monday, Danatus King of the New Orleans NAACP resigned from Mayor-elect Mitch Landrieu’s transition task force on crime citing transparency concerns. He is dissatisfied with Landrieu’s decision to keep from the public the names of all but the handful of  finalists for police superintendent.

My colleague Steve Beatty was thinking this could prove problematic last week:

Even before the local NAACP president dropped off of Mayor-elect Mitch Landrieu’s team to select a new police superintendent because of a lack of openness with the names of candidates, The Lens was asking how to get the list of applicants, with no luck.

Only yesterday, after King’s resignation, did the Landrieu team respond at any length to the Lens:

To promote transparency, Transition New Orleans strives to follow the procedures of the Louisiana Open Meetings law, though it is not required to do so by law. By following these principles, the transition effort has achieved unprecedented involvement from community members.

Our goal is to find the best candidates for police chief. The process follows the national best practice which provides confidentiality to applicants during the early phases of the search. This makes sense because chances are that the best police chief in the country is employed right now.

The point is not that Landrieu is violating any law. Rather, the point is that Landrieu set up a task force to give the community a voice in what the mayor-elect says will be the most important decision he makes, the selection of a new police superintendent. If the public and task force are kept from knowing about the overall applicant pool and if the public and task force might only have purview over a list of semi-finalists, then it wouldn’t appear that the public and task force have any real stake in the process.

I’m not sure that the public or a transition task force designed for public input should even be involved in the police superintendent selection process in the first place. If the mayor thinks this is the most important decision he’ll make, and if he really believes that publicly disclosing the names of applicants or potential applicants would be detrimental to his ability to court good candidates, then perhaps this is a decision that he should be making largely in private.

There is nothing legally preventing him from doing that, from simply selecting the police superintendent he wants. In other cities and at the federal level, big executive appointees have to be confirmed through the legislative branch. This provides an opportunity for the public and their representatives on City Council to vet the selection and puts the mayor in the position of having to pick someone capable of earning the council’s support. But it basically empowers the mayor to pick the person he thinks is best for the job.

The New Orleans City Charter does not provide any oversight authority on executive personnel matters so there is an even lesser legal hurdle, or rather, no hurdle at all, for Landrieu to simply decide on the candidate he likes best. Perhaps it is admirable that Landrieu is attempting to provide some nominal oversight through the task force. But Landrieu is really just trying to provide the perception of transparency when he is just going to pick someone he wants.

If that’s indeed the case, he should just have said from the get-go that the decision is one that he needs to take on by himself and proceeded in making that decision. Or he could have instructed his task force to come up with the community’s criteria for the next top cop without giving them any responsibility – real or symbolic –  in what is ultimately his choice.

Instead, we have a largely substance-free community input and task force beauty pageant that, to me, has been of little to no value for the public or for the mayor-elect.

The other problem for Landrieu is that we don’t really know how much further the NOPD has to fall or how many more Jim Letten press conferences there are going to be. Can prospective police superintendents be assured that all of the shoes will have dropped on the NOPD? Can prospective police superintendents be certain that the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice won’t slap them with a consent decree agreement as soon as they arrive in town? Does requiring prospective police chiefs to embrace the idea of working under the thumb of the Justice Department overly restrict the pool of willing candidates? Has that prospect made it harder for Landrieu’s task force concept to operate as he originally envisioned?

The prospect of Justice Department action against the entire NOPD is also something of a problem for King of the NAACP, who should have filed a class-action lawsuit against the NOPD years ago. In Pittsburgh, the local NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union chapters did just that, and soon after the Department of Justice joined with them, resulting in a consent decree agreement that helped change the culture –  at least in the medium term – of the Pittsburgh Police Department in the late 1990’s.

That the Department of Justice could very well be considering legal action to mandate civil rights reforms at the NOPD under court order without the prompting of any prominent local organizations should be pretty embarrassing to those local organizations. Perhaps counter-intuitively, King’s symbolic role on the transition precludes his ability to actually influence how the next police superintendent would operate by demanding from the outside, in his role as leader of a major civil rights organization, that reforms to be codified by the Justice Department in a court order.

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