NEW ORLEANS — While much of the country is pushing for sweeping changes in law enforcement to combat the deadly combination of systemic racism and police brutality, New Orleans leaders say that seven years under a federal consent decree has made the NOPD a reform leader.
So much so, Mayor LaToya Cantrell is now pushing for federal authorities to wrap up the costly consent agreement.
In a public roundtable conversation Thursday with New Orleans Police Superintendent Shaun Ferguson, Cantrell laid out the case to wrap up the seven-year oversight arrangement.
“We have moved very closely to satisfying that consent decree that comes with some mandates in and of itself. We've spent $55 million if you want to call it what it is,” Cantrell said.
“Get the bear out of our pocket and allow us to meet the needs of our people,” she said.
Cantrell’s strongly-worded request comes at a delicate time for the department. As early as Friday, federal monitors overseeing the consent decree are expected to release the results of an audit of the NOPD’s task forces.
Those pro-active units, a longtime presence in each of the department’s eight police districts, were disbanded by Ferguson last month after task force officers in the Eighth District came under scrutiny for a conversation caught on a body-worn camera.
The camera caught officers discussing how to write a report on a gun arrest that would justify the search of the suspect. The four officers involved were reassigned to desk duty while the department conducts an internal investigation.
Ferguson said Thursday that he is open to keeping them disbanded.
“Should we continue to have task force, or should we look into another way of policing?” Ferguson asked.
Cantrell and Ferguson both acknowledged that oversight by ranking officers remains as a final sticking point in getting the feds to sign off on ending the consent decree, which costs the city about $7 million a year to pay for outside monitors.
“We know that supervision is our top priority in that, and we’re committing to satisfying it,” Cantrell said. “But the end has to come."
Ferguson said the progress inside the department has lifted its reputation as a former cesspool of brutality and corruption to a model for the country, especially with police forces from coast-to-coast under heavy scrutiny.
“This national crisis, as I would call it, this outcry has occurred as a result of African-American men and women being killed at the hand of law enforcement professionals," Ferguson said.
Much of the reform movement has been sparked by protests following the in-custody killing of George Floyd at the hands of four officers in Minneapolis. Several weeks of protests in New Orleans were mostly peaceful.
Ferguson said the NOPD is being looked at by other departments as a role model.
“I would ask that the men and women of the New Orleans Police Department to take a bow,” Ferguson said. “And I ask the city of New Orleans to stick your chest out because you have a department that has been leading the way for Constitutional policing.
Cantrell's said that lifting the consent decree would free up much needed money to make the department even more responsive and accountable, as well as expand alternate public safety programs such as mental health care and youth programs.
Ending the consent agreement would require the city to file a court motion and approval from U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan, the federal judge overseeing the program.
Cantrell said the city is ready to make that move.
“Now is the time,” she said emphatically. “Set the goal. The end of the line. We're going to meet that.”