Consent decree here….
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and local officials will announce Tuesday in New Orleans a wide slate of reforms in the New Orleans Police Department, ending months of negotiation over the most far-reaching federal consent decree of its kind in the country, according to a source with knowledge of the negotiations. The 125-page agreement, which a federal judge must endorse, will serve as a road map for change in the city’s long-embattled police department. The federal oversight mandated by the agreement will stick for at least four years, to be overseen by a monitor and a federal court judge, the source told The Times-Picayune.
Under the terms of the deal, the NOPD will be forced to address numerous deficiencies, most of which the U.S. Department of Justice highlighted last year in a withering critique of virtually every aspect of the force.
In order to break away from federal scrutiny, the agency must be free of violations for two consecutive years, the source said. If the NOPD fails to do so, a federal judge can extend the oversight or impose other penalties.
The decree dictates changes big and small, from policy tweaks to administrative reconfigurations and more. Among the changes outlined in the decree: how cops must conduct traffic stops, searches and arrests; how they examine officer use of force; and how they interrogate citizens. Unlike now, officers will be required to audiotape and videotape every suspect interview, the source said.
In addition, the federal order mandates changes to the NOPD’s troubled system in which officers work off-duty, paid security details for private interests. The city and the department previously announced changes in the details system, creating an oversight agency within City Hall, a move that aligns with what is required under the decree, the source said.
Mitchell Rivard, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice, declined to comment when contacted by The Times-Picayune on Monday. U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, who oversees the eastern district of Louisiana, also declined to comment.
A spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu did not return a call for comment.
NOPD spokeswoman Remi Braden declined to comment. She said police Superintendent Ronal Serpas was out of town Monday.
“We’re not confirming anything about the consent decree, and we can’t discuss the consent decree,” she said.
New mandates for NOPD
For months, City Attorney Richard Cortizas and his subordinates have negotiated aspects of the decree with the federal government, including members of the Justice Department and Letten’s staff.
Some of the more contested changes include investigations into the use of police force and implementation of a new system of police details that Landrieu outlined in late May.
Investigations into police shootings and other use of force will be taken out of the homicide division and directed to a new team, which will report to the department’s Public Integrity Bureau, the source told The Times-Picayune.
Among other consent decree mandates, according to the source:
The NOPD will need to have Spanish and Vietnamese translators available to handle emergency calls and complaints.
New policies concerning the identification of suspects.
Changes to how the agency investigates, handles and reports sexual assaults and domestic violence, a move aimed to prevent the inappropriate police downgrading of these crimes.
The formation of a crisis intervention team and protocols regarding interactions with mentally ill people.
A system of performance evaluations and promotions for cops.
With exceptions for cops working private details for banks, schools, hospitals and churches, officers will be rotated out of steady work for private clients after a year, in a move to clamp what the federal government described as an “aorta of corruption” in the detail system.
The NOPD has previously unveiled, or hinted at, some of the changes to be covered in the decree. For example, Serpas has talked of the NOPD’s “force investigations team,” which handles police shootings. Also, the agency has worked to increase translators among its ranks.
Expensive changes ahead
The Justice Department was given the authority in the 1994 Violent Crime Control Act to investigate the “patterns and practices” of law enforcement agencies with apparently systemic problems.
These probes became increasingly common during the administration of President Bill Clinton. But at the time, not all police agencies under Justice Department scrutiny found themselves under a court-ordered consent decree.
For example, while the Justice Department informally watched over reforms instituted by former NOPD Superintendent Richard Pennington after a period of intense turmoil in the mid-1990s, no legal action was ever taken against the agency.
Historically, decrees have forced police departments to overhaul their policies and change the way they report crime, use force and address race and community relations. Officers are forced to police in ways that don’t violate the rights of citizens, and they must document everything along the way.
More than a dozen cities — including police departments in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Los Angeles — have gone through this process. Their experiences show that wholesale reform is hard and expensive, often costing millions for oversight, new technology and training.
The price for New Orleans is expected to run several million dollars a year. All of it, except for a pool of money from fees paid by police officers who work details, will be borne by the city, the source said.
City leaders ‘went to sleep’
The Justice Department announced a wide-ranging civil rights investigation into the NOPD in May 2010, just days into Landrieu’s tenure.
Landrieu had invited the Justice Department to New Orleans and welcomed the probe, though it’s clear the investigation would have taken place regardless. Meanwhile, federal officials applauded the mayor, noting that the city’s cooperation would help streamline the process. In other cities, mayoral administrations and police departments have fought similar Justice Department probes, stretching out the process and costing millions.
Federal investigators held public forums in New Orleans, pored through police records, sat in on NOPD meetings and rode along with patrol units.
Their findings were released in March 2011 in a scathing, 158-page report that lambasted the department. The report found that NOPD officers routinely violate citizens’ constitutional rights in myriad ways, from using excessive force to conducting illegal searches and discriminating against minorities.
While acknowledging that the NOPD had made some reforms, the Justice Department portrayed the NOPD as deeply, broadly dysfunctional, noting that the “basic elements of effective policing” have been absent for years here.
Federal officials declared it the most wide-ranging inquiry of its kind to date, pointing to findings that ranged from problems with way cops work private details while off-duty to the often-slipshod investigations of shootings by police.
The federal report alleged that the NOPD had been indifferent to widespread violations of the law by its officers. For example, the NOPD has not found a policy violation in any officer-involved shooting in the past six years, despite evidence to the contrary, according to the report,
The assessment concluded with a list of more than 160 recommendations for reform.
At a news conference announcing the federal report, Landrieu criticized earlier city officials and those who allowed the NOPD to crumble.
“The leadership in this city went to sleep, ” he said. “People stopped paying attention to the day-to-day hard work it takes to keep a government running. We lowered our expectations. We didn’t have good accountability measures.”
He and federal officials vowed that a consent decree would make the NOPD a world-class police force.