Criminal Justice
 

Justice Department confirms consideration of consent decree lawsuit against NOPD

This is precisely why Mayor-elect Mitch Landrieu’s transition task force is generating so much attention.

Yesterday afternoon, Talking Points Memo caught up with Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, who heads the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. He confirmed the feds are considering suing the NOPD to force reform measures under court order and federal supervision.

“The attorney general, myself, the U.S. attorney — we will not leave the New Orleans Police Department until we have addressed the systemic issues and have ensured that the department is operating in a manner that reduces crime and respects the rule of law,” Perez said. “We can, must, and will do both.”

“Criminal prosecutions alone, I have learned, are not enough to change the culture of a police department,” Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas Perez told TPMmuckraker in an interview Monday.

Perez repeatedly emphasized that the Civil Rights Division plans on being in New Orleans for the long haul. “We have a robust and regular presence, a presence that’s getting larger by the week,” Perez said, adding that several civil rights staffers are “de facto living in New Orleans right now.”

“Regrettably, many of the challenges we’re seeing in the Danziger Bridge case — I wish I could say these are problems of recent vintage, but we have had a longstanding presence in New Orleans,” Perez says. “The police department has generated a consistent and steady amount of work for the Civil Rights Division.”

Though these comments are Perez’s most explicit to date, he has not hidden his disgust and frustration with the NOPD.

Perez visited New Orleans last month and was similarly critical. In comments reported in The Times-Picayune, Perez said that all legal options available to the Justice Department were on the table. However, TPM’s new report indicates a more specific consideration of the consent decree option, a power granted to the Civil Rights Division in the 1990s to pursue reforms in local police departments with a “pattern or practice” of civil rights violations.

“It was my hope back then (in the 1990’s when Perez supervised the prosecution of infamous NOPD officer Len Davis, who ordered a witness killed) that that incident of that outrageous character would catalyze sustainable reform. I was mistaken,” Perez said.

Earlier today, Fox 8’s Jennifer Hale caught up with NOPD Deputy Superintendent Marlon Defillo for an interview that will air today as part of her television reports.

Defillo, who has become the public face of the department as incumbent Superintendent Warren Riley’s credibility has cratered, says that the ongoing investigations into the department is not affecting the performance of officers.

“We have professional police officers. It might be in the back of their mind but it’s out of their control. I don’t believe it is a hindrance.”

Yesterday, Marc Morial gave an interview (listen to it here) in which he said that the current situation facing the NOPD was similar to that which faced Richard Pennington, the man he brought in as Police Superintendent under the specter of a federal takeover.

Defillo agreed with that assessment.

“Certainly I think you have a similar situation today,” Defillo said. “At the time when Chief Pennington came into New Orleans, we had a dark cloud over this city and this police department with respect to certain officers involved in misconduct. There was a threat of takeover.”

Defillo noted, however, that Pennington avoided a federal takeover by working with the Department of Justice to institute reforms independent of a court order.

“Chief Pennington went to (then Attorney General) Janet Reno and said ‘give me time to reform this police department,’ and it was allowed,” Defillo recalled.

To fix the contemporary problems with the NOPD, “it will be up to the mayor-elect to find the chief that can do the job,” Defillo said.

Landrieu created an NOPD task force specifically to “initiate the national search for a new police chief who can effectively lead the New Orleans Police Department and reduce violent crime.”

Four members named to that task force quit or were removed after raising concerns over transparency concerns, including deference to the International Association of Police Chiefs, which has been contracted to review applicants to the job, and the power of a committee within the task force that will have additional access to candidates during the eventual interview process. Late last week, Landrieu dismissed the complaints as having grown out of an unhelpful inclination to “throw bricks” and expressed disappointment that the task force members weren’t willing to stick with the process.

I was critical of Landrieu’s comments in a piece I wrote yesterday because it seems to me that Landrieu erred in treating the disagreements over processes on his task force as if it was isolated from the storm that has gathered around the city’s criminal justice institutions. There is politics involved.

Morial’s selection for police superintendent was in part influenced by the desire to avoid an explicit federal takeover. Pennington’s existing relationships in Washington gave him credibility with the Justice Department to negotiate time to implement reforms without a federal mandate.

Is it more difficult to hire a new police chief if a consent decree, and its implicit federal scrutiny, is guaranteed to be in place? Or is there a move afoot to find someone for whom the Justice Department would be willing to grant the same grace period they did for Pennington?

Because Pennington’s reforms so quickly unraveled, or as Morial said, that things have “retrogressed” to the extent they have, the case for a consent decree regardless of whom Landrieu hires seems reasonable.

Perez seems to quite unequivocally regret that the Justice Department missed its opportunity to fundamentally alter the practices of the New Orleans Police Department when they had the chance in the 1990s.

So too, I’m sure, do most New Orleanians.

Landrieu should speak to whether or not he believes a consent decree agreement is appropriate. Are the men and women he is considering for NOPD Superintendent prepared to embrace a federal mandate or will history repeat?

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  • Richard

    A complete takeover is in the works. Landrieu is powerless and his sister the Senator is powerless to stop the feds desire to start from scratch here. When we have 58 officers who will be indicted (*at current count) the only way to bring this organization back to the top is by a complete takeover.