NOPD Superintendent Shaun Ferguson takes questions after a federal court hearing on the consent decree. August 17, 2022. (Nick Chrastil/The Lens)

The federal judge overseeing the New Orleans Police Department’s long-running federal consent decree on Wednesday raised serious concerns about the city’s ongoing difficulties recruiting and retaining officers, and ordered additional scrutiny of the department from a team of court-appointed monitors. The directive, issued by U.S. District Court Judge Susie Morgan, came as the city is trying to get the department out from under federal court supervision. 

On Tuesday, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration filed a motion to terminate the nearly 10-year-old agreement — which governs a host of police policies and practices, including the administration of paid off-duty details, the conduct of internal investigations and the rules for making arrests and using force against civilians  — adopted in early 2013 after a U.S. Department of Justice investigation found the NOPD had engaged in “patterns of misconduct that violate the Constitution and federal law.” 

“Far too often, officers show a lack of respect for the civil rights and dignity of the people of New Orleans,” the DOJ found in the 2011 report.

At a hearing on Wednesday, Morgan didn’t make a ruling related to the city’s motion, as the other parties in the agreement have not had a chance to respond, but her assessment of the issues facing the department appeared to signal that she may be reticent to end federal oversight just yet.

“Numerous positions critical to compliance with the consent decree have remained unfilled, sometimes for months,” Morgan said. “This lack of personnel may mean that several provisions of the consent decree have fallen out of compliance.”

Morgan’s concerns that the department may have slid back into non-compliance comes just four months after she praised the department’s progress in meeting most of the goals of the consent decree, saying at the time that she planned to put the department into a two-year “sustainment period” on a path to terminating the court agreement altogether. 

But on Wednesday, Morgan ordered that the federal monitoring team — which is responsible for evaluating the department’s compliance with the consent decree — embed with the NOPD to provide technical support related to recruitment, retention and transparency, among other things, and that the monitors re-audit several areas of the department that may have been impacted by understaffing. Those included crime reporting data, calls for service and response time.

In addition, Morgan said she would continue to hold meetings with city Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert ​​Montaño and the Civil Service Commission — which oversees city personnel. The City Council early this month directed the NOPD to work with Civil Service on a proposal to create more civilian positions in the department to take some of the department’s workload from officers.   

She said the steps were necessary due to the failure of the city and NOPD to develop a “holistic plan” for recruitment and retention.

The NOPD currently has fewer than 1,000 commissioned officers, compared to more than 1,200 when the consent decree took effect in 2013 and more than 1,600 a decade prior, according to police employment statistics compiled by the FBI.  

“I see very little innovation from the city or the NOPD in response to what I see as a city crisis,” Morgan said on Wednesday. “That is why, in a nutshell, I called this meeting.” 

After the meeting, City Councilwoman Helena Moreno, who has been critical of Cantrell and NOPD leadership for failing to come up with a more cohesive plan to address public safety concerns, said it was “disappointing” to hear that the department may be falling behind on consent-decree compliance.  

“It’s never good to hear that some of the issues that we were potentially in compliance with, that now she feels that we could potentially be backsliding,” Moreno said. 

‘Inaccurate statements’

Morgan also blasted what she characterized as “inaccurate statements” made by city officials blaming the consent decree for officers leaving the department. 

Though Mayor LaToya Cantrell wasn’t named, Morgan was likely responding to a a press conference held earlier this month where Cantrell called for an end to the consent decree and said the agreement “handcuffs” officers by “pestering them with punitive punishment and burying them with paperwork that is an overburden.” 

Morgan said that the statements “conveyed the false impression that the NOPDs officers want to revert to the NOPD of old.”

“They don’t,” Morgan said. “Suggesting that officers want the consent decree to end so they can return to policing the way they did before 2013 is wrong, and dangerous” 

In the motion to terminate filed on Tuesday, lawyers for the city argued that the monitors have moved the goalposts on them, and “rendered compliance a completely subjective decision for the United States Department of Justice.” They said that the department has remedied all of its structural issues.  

But on Wednesday, Jonathan Aronie, the lead monitor, told the court that understaffing was impacting a broad range of things related to the consent decree, such as community-oriented policing, the officer assistance program — that provides mental health services for the department — and getting out public reports in a timely manner.

“While this may sound like a paperwork exercise, it’s not,” Aronie said of the public reporting. “It’s what will empower the community to hold the department accountable.”

But Aronie said that the problems “do not appear to be a lack of commitment” from NOPD.

“Just the opposite,” he said. “The NOPD has accomplished things that frankly no one thought possible.”

Aronie said that the monitors would be holding a public meeting in September to discuss and answer questions from the public related the department’s progress, and Morgan said that she would also hold monthly public hearings in her courtroom “until NOPD and the city demonstrate to the court that they have a strong plan to fix the problems.”

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...