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Kevin McGill


NextImg:U.S.: Unjustified force, bias still plague New Orleans police

NEW ORLEANS — Unjustified use of force, dangerous vehicle pursuits and racially biased policing continue to be problems for the New Orleans Police Department, the U.S. Justice Department said in a Friday court filing, opposing the city’s move to terminate a decade-old court-backed reform agreement.

The city has made progress in turning itself around, Justice Department lawyers said. “But progress towards compliance is not the same as full and effective compliance that has proven durable,” Friday’s court filing said.

The pact, known as a “consent decree,” was negotiated in 2012, after a harshly critical Justice Department review of the long-troubled police department. It came after the deaths of unarmed civilians in the chaotic aftermath of levee failures during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan approved the decree in 2013. It is one of nearly two dozen such consent decrees in cities around the country.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration now is trying to get the city released from the agreement, which governs a wide array of issues, including recruiting, training, discipline and use of force. An independent monitor keeps track of the police force’s compliance with the reforms.

Cantrell, a Democrat, has argued that the bureaucratic demands imposed by the agreement add to the expense and workload on an understaffed police force. And she has said that most of the reform requirements have been met.

But, while lauding the city’s efforts at compliance, and its self-reporting of problems, the Justice filing said there is still work to be done.

“NOPD’s own files, along with the Monitor’s reports, reveal that the City is out of compliance with key sections of the Decree,” the filing said. “NOPD officers have used unjustified force, engaged in dangerous pursuits, and failed to justify pat-downs.”

Friday’s filing did not site examples of unjustified, deadly police gunfire, such as the post-Katrina shootings that left two dead at the city’s Danziger Bridge. But it said a police department review board has fallen behind in investigating officers’ use of force.

“When the Review Board did conduct hearings, the findings were troubling,” the filing said. “According to the Office of the Independent Police Monitor, the Review Board determined that 17 of the 28 serious uses of force by NOPD officers in 2021 - 61 percent- were not justified.”

The filing specifically cited a police officer’s use of a Taser on an unarmed man who had his hands raised and was wanted “only for a municipal summons.”

The police department’s own assessment of bias in its enforcement found that white drivers were less likely to be asked to get out of their cars during traffic stops, the Justice Department said.

New Orleans has the opportunity to seek changes to the consent decree, according to the Justice Department.

“Because the City can obtain the relief it seeks by simply filing a motion to enforce its interpretation of the Consent Decree, it cannot show that complete termination of the Decree is appropriate, let alone required,” Justice Department lawyers said.

Morgan, who continues to oversee the reform effort, has repeatedly praised the city’s progress. But, in recent months, she has expressed concerns that workforce and resource shortages at the police department could undermine reforms. The department has fewer than 1,000 officers - down from more than 1,300 a few years ago.

Friday’s filing by the Justice Department comes as Morgan and Cantrell’s administration continue a legal back-and-forth over public hearings related to the decree.

Morgan cancelled a public meeting about the reform agreement at a local university last week after Cantrell said she wouldn’t allow police officials to speak there, saying preparation for the meeting was a needless drain on police time and resources.

On Monday, Morgan followed up with an order that interim police Chief Michelle Woodfork and other officials appear at a hearing in her courtroom next week. She said they should prepare to provide information on issues, including the Alternative Police Response program, a plan to improve police emergency response by using non-officers to handle some types of nonemergency matters.

On Thursday, the city asked the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to cancel Morgan’s order. The city’s motion repeatedly refers to next week’s hearing as a court-ordered “press conference.” It said that in ordering the hearing, Morgan overstepped the authority she has as the judge overseeing the consent decree.

A 5th Circuit panel on Friday put off an immediate ruling but did put Morgan’s order regarding the meeting on a temporary hold. The panel ordered the Justice Department to respond to the city’s motion by noon Monday.