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Groups seek to intervenein NOPD consent decree

13th August 2012   ·   0 Comments

A federal judge recent set an Aug. 29 hearing on an agreement the City of New Orleans reached with the Justice Department to overhaul the city’s troubled police department, the Associated Press reported.

U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan’s order July 31 also sets deadlines for those interested in the case to intervene and for the public to file comments on the proposed agreement.

The 124-page agreement is the product of more than a year of negotiations between the city and federal authorities. It spells out a series of strict requirements for overhauling the police department’s policies and procedures for use of force, training, interrogations, searches and arrests, recruitment and supervision. It follows decades of periodic scandals that led to a 2011 Justice Department study that was highly critical of the department.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu heralded the agreement, known as a consent decree, as a blueprint to make the NOPD into a world-class police department, while stressing that many of the reforms called for in the agreement are already being implemented. Attorney General Eric Holder said it represented most sweeping police reforms ever negotiated by the Justice Department.

For all the celebration when the agreement was reached last week, there were skeptics and critics.

Although Justice Department and city officials pointed to numerous public meetings held with community members about the agreement, critics complained that various interests were left out of the actual negotiations. And the attorney for an organization of police officers said officers want what will be required of them more completely detailed.

Morgan’s order will give such critics with another chance to make their feelings known.

Anyone wanting to intervene in the case was given until Aug. 7 to file a motion. Then, those who oppose any such intervention will have until Aug. 14 to file a response. Otherwise, anyone wishing to comment on the case has until Aug. 24 to file up to 20 pages with the court. Then comes the Aug. 29 hearing.

Although the consent decree is an agreement between the city and Justice officials, on paper it is the result of an adversarial procedure. The Justice Department filed a complaint against the city under several federal laws including the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The consent decree, filed the same day, is proposed to address concerns outlined in the complaint.

CUC attorney and Loyola University law professor Bill Quigley told The Louisiana Weekly that the city, federal court and the Justice Department make the most of this opportunity to address problems in the NOPD that date back generations. “It is sort of a once-in-a-lifetime chance for the people of New Orleans,” he said. “We have been facing a very problematic police department for decades. The chance to have a federal court oversight and a federal monitor and to really institute some real, significant is something that’s long overdue and very badly needed.

“If we mess this up, shame on us,” Quigley added.

Judge Morgan said in her order that, although the parties involved have reached agreement, approval of a consent decree still requires careful consideration on whether it “is fair, adequate and reasonable and is not the product of fraud, collusion, or the like.”

The Fraternal Order of Police said last week that it wants to have a say in the shaping of the consent decree reached with the City of New Orleans Justice Department to overhaul the city’s troubled police department.

FOX 8 News reported that the group has asked U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan to allow it to intervene in the matter before the judge signs off on the agreement.

FOX 8 News station reported that the FOP has complained in the past that it was left out of the negotiations and that officers need more details about what will be expected of them.

Others seeking an opportunity to weigh in on the NOPD consent decree included Police Monitor Susan Hutson and the Police Association of New Orleans. PANO, the city’s second-largest police organization, PANO one of at least four groups seeking to influence the reformation of the NOPD.

“These officers on the street can live and die by it and for them not to have a say so or offer their opinion is very dangerous,” PANO attorney Eric Hessler told FOX 8 News.

The Office of Independent Police Monitor (OIPM) and the Police Monitor (IPM), Susan Hutson, filed a motion to intervene in hopes of gaining meaningful involvement in the Consent Decree. “My clients filed this intervention because the People of New Orleans’ mandate to the OIPM may be jeopardized by the proposed Consent Decree Agreement,” attorney John Williams said.

Hutson said last week that she is also concerned that, despite precedents in other consent decree cities that demanded municipal investment in local police oversight, this agreement does nothing to strengthen or support local police oversight. “The New Orleans Consent Decree can ensure that the OIPM is able to meet its mission as mandated by the people of New Orleans and make a lasting impact on policing in New Orleans. However the OIPM needs to have its voice heard. The current document does not perform this vital function. New Orleans is not a city where effective monitoring can occur without local intervention,” Hutson said..

“She has complete latitude. She can say let them in or keep them out, or allow them in to give some input. That’s up to her, she’s a federal judge,” said FOX 8 legal analyst Joe Raspanti.

“This is a brand-new federal judge and from all indications she is taking this matter very seriously,” Bill Quigley told The Louisiana Weekly Thursday. “When you look at the range of people who are trying to intervene — two groups who are effectively saying they want to protect the police and two groups (one citizen group and the independent monitor) who are saying they really want to protect the citizens — I think that’s a good indication of the problem that we face.

“I certainly hope that the judge sees that it would be in the interest of the justice system to strengthen the participation by these interveners but the federal rules on that leave an awful lot of discretion up to the judge.

“I hope that the judge will let us in,” Quigley added. “If the judge doesn’t let us in now, then they’ll go forward for six months or a year and we’ll see whether the police department really turns around. And if it doesn’t really turn around, then I think we’ll be doing this same process all over again.”

In court documents, Community United for Change reminded Judge Morgan of a letter the organization wrote in April 2010 to Attorney General Eric Holder seeking a “probe into the patterns and practices of the NOPD.” The group says it made that point to dispel what it calls the myth that New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who wrote the United States Department of Justice on May 5, 2010, was the first party to seek a federal investigation of the troubled police department.

While the DOJ announced on May 10, 2010 that it would launch an investigation of the NOPD, just five days after the mayor wrote the Justice Department, CUC said in court papers last week that the grassroots organization played a “strategic” role during the federal investigation.

“CUC set up its own meetings for victims, other organizations, and concerned citizens around the City of New Orleans to voice their stories about abuses by the NOPD and their specific hopes for real change,” the group maintained. “Five meetings were held in churches and community centers. Most were observed by U.S. Department of Justice representatives. CUC went on the radio and worked hard to bring people to speak at numerous public forums.”

While those public gatherings provided lots of community feedback about the severity of the problems facing the NOPD, CUC did not stop there.

The organization also reminded federal court officials Tuesday that in November 2010 CUC finalized a 31-page People’s Consent Decree, which outlined critical changes that local residents and grassroots organizations decided to bring substantive, lasting change to the NOPD.

That decree was given to U.S. Attorney Thomas Perez of the U.S. Department of Justice on Dec. 3, 2010, according to Tuesday’s court filing.

Community United for Change attempted unsuccessfully to present its fi People’s Consent Decree and findings to the New Orleans City Council later that December but was not allowed to do so.

CUC penned a letter to the DOJ on March 21, 2011, shortly after the Justice Department released its “Report and Recommendations for the NOPD.” The CUC letter urged the DOJ to include a “strong grassroots monitoring committee” in the proposed NOPD consent decree.

While the CUC says in court documents that it “largely agrees with the factual findings” of the DOJ report with regard to “the abuses, illegalities and injustices committed by members of the NOPD,” the organization also is seeking to “intervene in order to give the citizens of New Orleans, particularly those who have been the victims of the NOPD for decades, a strong voice in these proceedings.”

CUC took issue with at least five issues in the Consent Decree:

1. [T]he “unrealistic reliance on the NOPD to monitor, improve and self-correct itself.”

“Why should anyone be confident that the NOPD can change itself?” CUC asks in the Aug. 7 court papers. “Over the past several decades there have been numerous attempts to reform the NOPD but these attempts have been successfully resisted and evaded by the NOPD. In order to have a real chance to propose and enforce real changes, the consent decree must include the creation of a strong, independent civilian oversight committee constructed by grassroots community organizations which has real power to investigate both individual and systemic complaints and claims of illegal behavior against NOPD.”

2. The removal of political influence in the selection of an NOPD chief by including grassroots community-based organizations on the search committee with decision-making power.

3. Extension of the NOPD consent decree beyond the prescribed four years.

4. Inclusion of a civil rights provision within plans for a recommended Civilian Oversight Committee so that the committee could assist residents who report civil rights, human rights and constitutional rights violations.

5. The addition of a requirement that all police officers be required to be equipped with audio and video recording equipment on their person so that all police stops and interactions with civilians are recorded.

“CUC asks to intervene because the remedies suggested in the proposed consent decree are too little and too weak and not at all likely to force the major transformation needed to make the NOPD a constitutional policing department which respects the rights of all persons,” the court papers conclude. “The DOJ and the City of New Orleans obviously do not agree with the fundamental changes proposed by the CUC. But the interest of the public at large is very important to the creation of a just and lasting decree on such a critical matter.

“Therefore, Community United for Change asks that this Motion to Intervene be granted.”

A community meeting will be held to discuss the consent decree on Thursday, August 16, at 6:00 p.m. at the United Teachers of New Orleans headquarters in the Oak Park Shopping Center, which is located at the corner of Mirabeau and Paris avenues in Gentilly.

A number of people have expressed doubt that the NOPD could be turned around in just four years including attorney Bill Quigley.

“Usually, neither the Justice Department nor the courts want to engage in a really long-term provision of People who have studied the New Orleans Police Department say that the problems have been there for decades and decades and decades, and I think it may take 10 10 20 years honestly to turn it around because that’s the average life of a police officer,” Quigley said Thursday. “You have hundreds of officers who have been on the force for a long time and they’re going to have to be retrained and repurposed. Then a whole new generation of officers is going to have to come in, hopefully with the benefit of new, much-improved training, supervision and leadership.

“It didn’t take us 10 years like this and it’s not going to take us 10 years to undo it,” he added.

“I’m sure the Court and the Justice Department are hopeful that there can be dramatic, permanent change that will happen in a very short amount of time, but look where the city is seven years after Katrina,” Quigley said. “We certainly have made a lot of improvements but we have a long way to go, and why would we expect that a true, fundamental restructuring of the police department would take any less time than that?

“I think the Court, the NOPD, the Justice Department and the mayor are all hopeful, but for those of us that are more realistic, the problems aren’t going to go away in that kind of time period. And I think if the problems don’t go away, then this process is not going to stop.”

*Additional reporting by The Associated Press, FOX 8 News and Louisiana Weekly editor Edmund W. Lewis.

This article was originally published in the August 13, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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