More important than the police superintendent search: Does Mayor-elect Mitch Landrieu have an position on federal intervention in the NOPD?

Should the Department of Justice give Landrieu’s superintendent a chance to implement changes before deciding whether to pursue a civil-rights lawsuit to require criminal-justice reforms?

Or should Landrieu require that his superintendent embrace a consent decree in advance of a potential civil rights lawsuit?

Unfortunately, one can’t really answer yes to both of those questions.

If you believe that the Department of Justice should take a wait-and-see approach and should let the NOPD reform itself with new leadership, then you also believe  that Landrieu’s superintendent should try to convince Justice officials not to sue.

New Orleans was faced with an extraordinarily analogous situation just 15 years ago when Mayor Marc Morial selected Richard Pennington as his police chief knowing that Pennington would be able to work behind the scenes to stave off formal federal intervention. Pennington’s crime-fighting efforts are widely considered to have been a success because, well, crime went down.

That same narrative could play out again if Landrieu’s chief is granted the same freedom that Morial’s was.

The issue is that the story didn’t end very well for New Orleans. Pennington’s reforms only lasted about as long as Pennington did.

Alternatively, if you believe that Mitch Landrieu should demand all potential police superintendents be enthusiastic about implementing a court order , then you can’t also ask the Justice Department to give the new chief a chance before determining whether a federal relationship is required. If the mayor determines that his police chief embrace federal intervention, he’s essentially admitting that the problems within the NOPD require federal intervention regardless of whom he selects.

Should Landrieu accept the principle that only a long-term federal intervention will maintain police reforms beyond his administration, then his police chief cannot spend his or her first few months in office working to appease the Justice Department enough to avoid its oversight.

Neither of these initial questions preclude the new police superintendent from having some say in the specifics of what a potential federal relationship agreement would consist of, whether one is negotiated or court-ordered. There will be plenty to haggle over.

What reforms should federal receivers require of the NOPD? How should progress be monitored? How long should the agreement last? Those are questions that our next police chief can help answer, whether the Justice Department sues to mandate reforms without delay or whether they decide to negotiate a formal federal receivership outside of court.

First, however, Landrieu is going to have to decide whether a long-term relationship with the Department of Justice is to be invited or resisted. Then, he’ll have to find a police chief that shares that view.

Legal linguistics

It’s tough to stay on top of the legal terminology involved in the process of federal intervention. Hopefully this explanation of my current understanding will help you as much as it will keep me from butchering the terminology, as I’m sure I have.

A consent decree is one potential result of civil-rights lawsuit filed by the Justice Department against the NOPD. The consent decree is a court order. A consent decree can be negotiated in that the police department can work with the feds on the details of the settlement, but it would still represent a court ordered mandate even if a settlement is agreed upon without a trial.

Another option is for the Justice Department to negotiate a memorandum of understanding to outline a formal relationship with a police force. This would occur without a lawsuit but would forge a binding partnership to implement and oversee reforms.

With either route, the relationship between the Department of Justice and the local police department derives from the same Clinton-era law granting the Civil Rights Division the power to intervene in police forces demonstrating a “pattern or practice” of civil rights abuse.