Criminal Justice

Coalition wants intervention from feds in NOPD; Landrieu position is still unclear

Earlier today, more than two dozen organizations signed onto a letter addressed to Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, the head of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. The letter calls on the Department of Justice to intervene in local police departments guilty of civil rights abuse, to sue the NOPD and to obtain a consent decree.

“Our local police, elected officials, and local federal agencies have sat silently for years – complicit in the brutality of NOPD ineptitude, mismanagement, corruption, and abuse of power,” it reads.

“For years there has been a pattern or practice of conduct by law enforcement officers of the New Orleans Police Department that deprives persons of rights, privileges, and immunities secured and protected by the Constitution and laws of the United States. The recent, shocking revelations resulting from the eight ongoing federal criminal civil rights investigations of New Orleans police officers have confirmed the problems in the New Orleans police department are deep and systemic.”

The Department of Justice in 1994 was granted the authority to intervene in local police forces in order to force civil rights reforms through a pre-negotiated agreement with the municipality or by suing the department and obtaining a consent decree from a judge that would mandate reforms.

Perez said recently that the Justice Department is seriously considering exercising those options to deal with the glut of civil-rights cases pending against the NOPD. Mayor Mitch Landrieu was asked about the prospect of a consent decree during a wide-ranging interview with the Gambit just before taking office.

“I’ve told the justice department that I’m happy to partner with them. I’m not interested in a hostile take-over. I don’t think that would be in the best interests of the city, and it wouldn’t be in the best interests of the Police Department.”

Landrieu talked instead of a “cooperative relationship” with Justice in which the NOPD agrees to mandate changes and the DOJ provides additional resources.

“[Y]ou can sit around the table and create a document that spells out very clearly who’s supposed to do what… [Y]ou can file a piece of paper in federal court that basically holds all of our feet to the fire, and it requires the citizens of New Orleans to do certain things as well.”

Landrieu’s response seems to indicate he is interested in pursuing a memorandum of understanding or cooperative endeavor agreement with the Department of Justice.

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. Consent decrees can be negotiated, in that the police department can work with the feds on the details, but it would still mean a court-ordered mandate even if the parties don’t go to trial.

Landrieu seems to be saying that he would prefer Justice to hold off on a lawsuit and instead work out a binding memorandum of understanding or cooperative endeavor agreement.

But the next exchange with the Gambit confuses that interpretation.

In some ways, wouldn’t a consent decree make the task of cleaning up NOPD easier? Because with a federal judge’s order, you cut through civil service and lots of other red tape.

I think it will. That’s why I intend to do it.

Because the distinction between a consent decree precipitated by a federal lawsuit and a cooperative agreement is not made clear in the context of the interview, it is completely unclear which option Landrieu prefers. However, he makes it fairly plain that he is ready to accept the hands-on involvement of the Department of Justice in the NOPD.

The specific benchmarks he hopes to set forth with Justice are far from clear. Similarly murky is how the near-certain role of the Department of Justice will influence his selection for Police Superintendent, now narrowed down between the up-and-coming Ronald Davis from East Palo Alto and Nashville chief and NOPD veteran Ronal Serpas.

The coalition letter to Perez, however, does not mince words about the role the Department of Justice must take, regardless of who Landrieu selects to lead the NOPD.

We also know that changes in the NOPD cannot come by simply hiring a new police chief. We recognize Mayor Mitch Landrieu may well have his own ideas concerning needed innovations for NOPD. But one person, however well intentioned, cannot fix this problem. Any assumption that the hiring of a new police chief will solve the problems in the NOPD ignores our city’s history of struggle to reform the NOPD and simply placates those calling out for real reform, while adding salt to the wounds of those of us most likely to be victimized by brutal and/or corrupt police. We need a solution that addresses the systemic nature of the problem.

For whatever ambiguities still remain about Landrieu’s specific views of the reforms needed at the NOPD and his choice for next NOPD superintendent, it is apparent he largely agrees with that sad indictment of department and the need for a federal commitment.

The coalition of signatories, organized by the Louisiana Justice Institute, includes Safe Streets/Strong Communities, Silence is Violence, the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Council, the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, the Loyola Law School Community Justice Clinic, V.O.T.E., Puentes NOLA, SCLC, and many others. You can read the letter here.

It is expected that Landrieu will name his choice for police chief late this week or early next.

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