NEW ORLEANS -A federal judge Friday approved a long-awaited consent decree to reform the New Orleans Police Department, but the far-reaching and expensive agreement is already running into objections by the city.
Buried in the “order and reasons” issued by U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan is a note that the city intends to seek relief from the 123-page agreement.
“The City has informed the court that it intends to file a motion seeking relief from the judgment entered in connection with this order under the Federal Rules of Procedure,” Morgan wrote.
The parties to the consent decree gathered in Morgan’s chambers today to finalize the agreement, but according to multiple sources, objections by the city were set in motion before the ink was dry on Morgan’s signature.
“The judge signed the consent decree, but under very, very difficult circumstances,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said. “It’s not a done deal.” (See Landrieu's full statement)
The agreement was initially launched with an upbeat Landrieu inviting the U.S. Justice Department to investigate and intervene to reform the long-troubled police department. But a lot has happened since May 2010 when Landrieu hailed the first steps of federal intervention.
Tense negotiations dragged on for months. The Justice Department focused on a wide range of reforms, including better training and equipment to decrease brutality and harassment complaints, reform the paid detail system, and implement curbs against racial profiling.
But even as the city has entered its second round of seeking proposals for an outside monitor to shepherd the process, city officials have become concerned about the price tag, estimated at $55 million over about five years.
With negotiations nearing completion for a separate consent decree to oversee reforms at Orleans Parish Prison, the cash-strapped city reluctantly earmarked more than $7 million for 2013 to meet the federal demands.
Landrieu said the ongoing negotiations the Department of Justice and the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office regarding a consent decree with the parish jail has caused a strain on the city.
"They (the U.S. Department of Justice) have a gun to our head on the sheriff's consent decree and that's going to threaten the financial viability of the police consent decree and that consent decree," said Landrieu. "Until I'm sure we can pay for both them, given what may be coming down the pipe, we're going to have to work very close with the Department of Justice, that, in my opinion, has really compromised their integrity in the last couple of months in the city."
Landrieu said Judge Morgan signed the NOPD consent decree, but "under very, very difficult circumstances." He said he asked Judge Morgan to not to force the city to sign the consent decree Friday because of questions of ability to city to pay for both consent decrees. Judge Morgan declined.
Landrieu questioned the Justice Department forcing the city to pay for both consent decrees at the same time, sometime he said wasn't originally negotiated.
"This is going to get more difficult sooner, not easier," said Landrieu.
The Fraternal Order of Police, which represents about 1,000 officers, has lodged objections to the consent decree from the early stages. An earlier motion by the organization to be party to the consent decree was denied.
Spokesman for the FOP, Raymond Burkart III, said the federal litigation has now become a costly and morale-busting “disaster” and the city should consider backing out and going to trial.
“Frankly, it would have been cheaper and we probably would have gotten some federal money out of the fact of being taken to trial by the federal government and showing that you put those reforms in place already and you don’t need a government takeover,” Burkart said. “This is a disaster. It’s a disaster for the taxpayers, and it’s a disaster for the men and women of the New Orleans Police Department.”
Even with the future of the agreement suddenly in legal limbo, Landrieu vowed that the city would unilaterally go forward with reforms on its own. He said the department has implement 47 percent of the recommended reforms already.
Judge Morgan set a deadline of Jan. 31 for the city to file its objections. The deadline for any response to those objections is Feb. 15.