Mayor Mitch Landrieu earlier today announced in unequivocal terms that he wants the Justice Department to be actively involved in the reformation of the tormented New Orleans Police Department.
Landrieu, standing beside more than a dozen community leaders, said at a news conference that he wants the Justice Department to come in and do an assessment of the NOPD and the criminal justice system.
Landrieu said he anticipates that the federal assessment would eventually result in a consent decree, a move that could mean federal oversight for the troubled department.
“It is clear that nothing short of a complete transformation is necessary and essential to ensure safety for the citizens of New Orleans,” Landrieu wrote in his letter to Holder.
This represents the mayor’s clearest statement on the possibility of federal intervention. He is not interested in negotiating a half-loaf relationship with the Justice Department to appease anybody associated with the incumbent regime. He wants the Civil Rights Division to use its authority to sue the department to mandate reform measures under court order. While the city may negotiate the terms of a settlement once that lawsuit is filed, there would be very little wiggle room once that consent decree is on the books.
Landrieu’s open invitation to the Department of Justice might diffuse some of the political tension out of his forthcoming decision the next police superintendent. Regardless of whether Landrieu picks NOPD veteran and Nashville Chief Ronal Serpas or progressive Bay area star Ronald Davis, a federal monitor would essentially guarantee the cooperation, transparency and accountability of NOPD leadership.
Skeptics theorize that Landrieu’s announcement is part of a plan to get in front of whatever opposition may arise from the selection of Serpas, whose long NOPD career and familial ties raise questions about his interest in confronting parochialism on the force. In fact, The Lens has a report published just today probing Serpas’ daughter’s connection to an officer implicated in ongoing federal civil rights investigations
During the mayoral campaign, every candidate – including Landrieu – was adamant that the next NOPD superintendent be selected after an exhaustive national search, something easily interpreted to be shorthand for reflecting the popular desire for a completely clean break from the checkered NOPD tradition.
Serpas boosters say that his work as Morial-era chief Richard Pennington’s top deputy proves his legitimacy and success as a reformer. Nonetheless, the possible selection of Sepas will yield criticism.
The question now is whether Landrieu’s announcement today was cynical or not. Was today’s press conference a designed smokescreen for his potentially divisive selection of Serpas? Or, was Landrieu boldly announcing the first step in an unprecedented progressive overhaul of the criminal justice apparatus?
That isn’t to assert as if I had a crystal ball that Serpas is incapable of leading an overhaul of the department. But it is hard to deny that the selection of Serpas would represent much more of a continuation of the criminal justice establishment than would the choice of Davis, whose apparent crime-fighting philosophy would represent a far more radical break from the status-quo.
Either way, Landrieu’s welcoming attitude toward a Department of Justice consent decree should provide some genuine satisfaction to all of those who have fretted about the sorry state of the NOPD. A federal intervention all but guarantees a massive NOPD reform initiative.