NEWORLEANS- After months of meetings and two rounds of public bidding, two firms are being considered for the position of monitor over the troubled New Orleans Police Department.
But the City of New Orleans and the U.S. Justice Department appear locked in a battle over which firm will be awarded a lucrative contract and serve as a key point person in overseeing mandated police reforms.
The feds are pushing one firm: Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, of Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, the city appears smitten with Hillard Heintze of Chicago.
The monitor and their team will assess the NOPD's compliance with a consent decree and report back to a federal judge. They work under a contract lasting at least four years, and costing at least $7 million.
In a public hearing this afternoon, city and federal officials aired grievances over each other's respective choice, finding little to agree on.
The Justice Department appeared ready to choose a monitor today, whereas the city viewed this hearing as more of a fact-finding mission. Yet, the two sides don't even see eye-to-eye on some of the facts surrounding the consent decree.
And early into the meeting, it became clear the city and the feds shared different views on the role of the monitor.
In general, the city views the monitor as someone working with the police department.
'Our vision for this consent decree is not a lot of lawyers arguing over the legal technicalities of the document before the court,' said Erica Beck, an assistant city attorney. 'We really see it as this transformative change that occurs on the ground with the police department and the community.'
'Where I see a bit of a major, fundamental and philosophical difference is with respect to the lead monitor,' Beck said. 'We as the city do see the importance of having a former police chief who understands what it means to run a police department.'
For that, the city believes Terry Hillard, a former Chicago Police Superintendent, is the person for the job. His team includes Arnette Heintze, a Baton Rouge native and former Secret Service agent, as well as other former police chiefs and law enforcement experts.
The Justice Department believes the best monitor can expertly audit, analyze and assess police operations. The feds want someone with extensive experience, who can act as a referee between the different agencies and interests.
The Justice Department says the Sheppard Mullin team, which has monitoring experience and a broad roster, is the right choice. The team includes a former deputy monitor of a police consent decree in Washington, D.C., as well as a former Pittsburgh police chief who served under a decree.
Stephen Parker, of the Justice Department, noted that the NOPD consent decree is the largest, most complex civil rights decree over a police force in history. As for the monitor position, Parker said: 'It's not one where you get on the job training.' He noted that Hillard Heintze lacks legal and academic expertise, as well as experience assessing police compliance.
For several hours, the feds and city officials took aim at each other's selection, picking apart the bidder's resumes and expertise.
Meanwhile, citizens and community leaders expressed exasperation.
'We want constitutional policing in this city at any and all costs,' said W.C. Johnson of Community United for Change. 'We don't want this to be a rush job. We want it done right.'
Community United for Change sent a letter to city and federal officials, as well as the judge, calling the city's supposed candidate, Hillard Heintze, vastly under-qualified and politically tied to Mayor Mitch Landrieu. They noted that one of the firm's local liaisons, Rev. Charles Southall, gave Landrieu's election invocation and that his business has received mayoral funds. Another local liaison, criminologist Peter Scharf, has been critical of aspects of the decree and once worked as an expert and wrote a report for a cop charged with covering up a police murder.
Justice Department officials heard these claims 'from a broad swath of the community' and thought it a black mark.
But city officials shot back, raising the specter of questionable ties from the Justice Department's selection. A city representative asked for more information on members associated with Sheppard Mullin, its relationship to DOJ officials and any payments they may have received from the feds.
The Sheppard Mullin proposal had yet to list any local liaisons as part of its consent decree package, a point that city attorneys and community members found disheartening.
Critics also noted that Sheppard Mullin failed to apply in the first round of bidding for the contract, and that DOJ officials involved in the decision-making process are listed as references in its proposal.
Danatus King, head of the local NAACP, told the officials that the community needs to have a role.
'What you heard today is that the community has a great deal of concern about this process and particularly as to where we are at now. What is being described as the city's candidate, versus the Department of Justice's candidate.'
Civil rights attorney Mary Howell questioned how the city's input on the selection can carry the same weight as the Justice Department in light of the fact that the city is currently in opposition to the decree and is seeking to have it withdrawn. Howell also questioned Hillard's background and tenure as Chicago police chief, noting that several high-profile police torture cases took place there.
Later, Rev. Patrick Keen, pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Central City, lambasted the feds choice, saying the Sheppard Mullin team had little monitoring experience.
For now, the feds and the city will seek additional information from each of the two finalists. More discussions will commence. And the next public hearing is scheduled for April 30. If the two sides can't agree on a monitor at that point, the matter will be presented to U.S. District Court Judge Susie Morgan, who is overseeing the consent decree.