Home » New Orleans police in 11 year power struggle over federal oversight

New Orleans police in 11 year power struggle over federal oversight

by John Jefferson
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The New Orleans Police Department’s progress in complying with an 11-year-old reform agreement has “accelerated dramatically,” a federal judge said Wednesday, but she gave no indication when she would feel comfortable relaxing court oversight of the department.

Judge Susie Morgan’s comments in an afternoon hearing appeared to mark a softening of tensions between the court and Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration. The city has been arguing that the city is now running a constitutionally sound police department and that the bureaucracy and costs it bears in complying with the agreement are an undue burden.

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The reform pact, known as a “consent decree,” was negotiated in 2012 and approved by Morgan in 2013. If followed a harshly critical Justice Department review of the long-troubled police department. after the deaths of unarmed civilians in the chaotic aftermath of levee failures during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Not only has Morgan spurned efforts to end federal oversight, in November she issued a 76-page ruling declaring the city had violated the 2013 reform agreement by failing to fully investigate allegations against a member of Cantrell’s police security team. The mayoral bodyguard was accused of billing the city for time not on police duty, including time spent at a city-owned apartment with the mayor, and while he was serving as a mayoral appointee on a city housing board.

But Morgan held off on punishing the city, noting that a new police chief, Anne Kirkpatrick, was taking over. On Wednesday, Kirkpatrick and other department leaders outlined changes to internal affairs investigation policies. They also sketched out policies being implemented to address shortcomings in response times and investigations of sexual assault and domestic violence calls whenever the shorthanded department’s officers arrive to find that the victim is not on the scene.

Morgan appeared pleased with the progress and, with Kirkpatrick looking on, said cooperation between the department and federal monitors had “improved dramatically.”

But, she added, “I’m not in a position to tell you when the city will enter the sustainment period.” She was referring to a status in which the phasing out of federal oversight would begin.

The vast and complex requirements of the 2013 consent decree filled 120 pages and touched on topics including use of force, investigations of officers’ misconduct and race and gender bias.

As late as two years ago, Morgan had expressed optimism that the city would reach full compliance with the reform requirements within months. But in an August 2022 hearing with city officials and court monitors, Morgan said the department’s dwindling manpower raised doubts about the city’s ability to continue reforms. The department is down to around 900 officers, having lost hundreds in recent years.

Later came the allegations of payroll fraud by Cantrell’s bodyguard, who eventually was issued two letters of reprimand.

The city maintains that it is running a constitutionally sound department and that the cost of paying federal monitors — a 2022 filing said the city had paid more than $14 million — is an undue burden. There has also been criticism of the agreement by police organizations that have cited restrictions on car chases and searches of suspects, along with officers’ fears of stepped-up discipline if they breach even minor regulations.

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