New Orleans police deal OK'd; city wants changes
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- A federal judge has approved a sweeping agreement between the Justice Department and the city of New Orleans designed to clean up the city's long-troubled Police Department, but the city wants out of at least some of its provisions.
U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan approved the agreement Friday. However, she noted that the city planned to file a motion seeking relief from the judgment. The reasons were not spelled out, and neither the mayor's office nor attorneys for the city returned calls for comment Friday afternoon.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu had invited Justice Department intervention in the department soon after taking office in 2010 and had sought the agreement as a way of putting reforms into law. But throughout months of negotiations, he had expressed concerns about the potential costs.
Morgan's approval comes after the New Orleans sheriff reached a separate, potentially expensive, consent decree to improve conditions at the city-funded prison. City Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, a member of the council's budget committee, said that was a factor.
"Part of the problem is that we have this consent decree going on at the same time with the sheriff," Hedge-Morrell said.
"We just can't afford it," she said.
The jail consent decree calls for Sheriff Marlin Gusman to provide adequate medical and mental health care and overhaul policies on use of force and rape prevention, among other reforms. The city isn't part of the Justice Department's deal with Gusman. City officials said in October that Gusman had requested nearly $40 million for the jail, an amount they said would have a crippling effect on the city.
As for the Police Department consent decree, Morgan's ruling on Friday said it is "fair, adequate and reasonable."
The court-supervised agreement would require the Police Department to overhaul its policies and procedures for use of force, training, interrogations, searches and arrests, recruitment and supervision.
Landrieu has estimated the city will pay roughly $11 million annually for the next four or five years to implement the reforms. Morgan's order said the city has committed adequate funding.
The agreement resolves the Justice Department's allegations that New Orleans police officers engaged in a pattern of discriminatory and unconstitutional activity. Attorney General Eric Holder has said the agreement is the most wide-ranging in the Justice Department's history.
Morgan heard testimony about the consent decree at a "fairness hearing" in September. At the time, then-U.S. Attorney Jim Letten called it a blueprint for the "rebirth of the entire city of New Orleans."
Some critics had urged Morgan to order some changes to the agreement. Susan Hutson, the city's independent police monitor, said the consent decree should give her office a larger role in the reform process.
The agreement calls for picking a different, court-supervised monitor to regularly assess and report on the department's adherence to the requirements. Hedge-Morrell said that is an unnecessary expense, given that the city has Hutson in place with the needed experience and expertise.
Lawyers for two groups representing rank-and-file officers expressed concern that the consent decree could chip away at civil-service protections, may force officers to work longer hours without overtime pay and would bar officers from using pepper spray.
The Justice Department has reached similar agreements with police departments in Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Oakland and Detroit. But the New Orleans consent decree is broader in scope and includes requirements that no other department has had to implement.
The agreement, for instance, requires officers to respect that bystanders have a constitutional right to observe and record their conduct in public places. It also requires officers to receive at least 24 hours of training on stops, searches and arrests; 40 hours of use-of-force training; and four hours of training on bias-free policing.
The Police Department, which has been plagued by decades of corruption and brutality complaints, came under renewed scrutiny following a string of police shootings in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
In 2011, the Justice Department issued a scathing report that said the city's police officers have often used deadly force without justification, repeatedly made unconstitutional arrests and engaged in racial profiling. The Justice Department's civil rights division also launched a series of criminal probes focusing on police officers' actions during Katrina's aftermath.
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