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Letten optimistic consent decree will survive controversy

Jim Letten takes questions from reporters before giving a speech downtown. Jim Letten takes questions from reporters before giving a speech downtown.

New Orleans, La. — When Mayor Mitch Landrieu and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder eagerly announced last July they had struck a deal for overhauling the scandal-plagued New Orleans Police Department, few people would have predicted the current state of affairs.

Landrieu now publicly criticizes Holder's Department of Justice, blasting the costs of the mandated reforms for the NOPD and the subsequent changes for the Orleans Parish Prison as being too expensive for the city's budget.

It is a rift that former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten was asked about Tuesday before he spoke to a crime watch group. Until his recent resignation as U.S. Attorney, Letten was deeply involved in the consent decree process.

"Quite frankly, there are a lot of monetary demands on the city.  They're enormous," Letten stated.

Implementing all of the terms of the consent decree for the NOPD carries a price tag of $55 million, officials have said.  Jail reforms could cost $17 million.

"Between the two consent decrees, you could almost bankrupt the city or criminal justice system," said Tulane criminologist Peter Scharf.

Dr. Scharf has monitored the NOPD for decades. He does not shrink from the position that the department needs reforms, given its history of having rogue cops over the years.

"They got involved in dope deals, they worked in topless bars, they could blow an .07 blood alcohol [level] and still be working, so they needed some work. The NOPD was, including [the] Danziger and Glover [cases], a work in progress," Scharf stated.

And Scharf said there are questions of whether the public will have full faith in the consent decree because of Sal Perricone, the former Assistant U.S. Attorney.  He resigned in disgrace over inappropriate comments he posted online, but also had a big role in crafting the consent decree before he stepped down as a federal prosecutor.

"This whole issue of legitimacy, you know, there is a huge issue with Sal Perricone.  He was the prime contact with the Civil Rights Division.  He brought a lot of information," said Scharf.

Police unions and some members of the community have said the consent decree signed last week by a federal judge lacked enough of their input. 

Still, Scharf would not go so far as to say that Landrieu made a mistake by calling in the Justice Department to evaluate NOPD and recommend changes.

Meanwhile, Letten remains optimistic that the consent decree will not unravel.

"There's a great need to achieve these things.  So my money, my money, is on this process because of Mitch [Landrieu], because of Ronnie [Serpas, NOPD superintendent], because of the men and women of the [DOJ] Civil Rights Division because they're all brilliant folks.  My money is on them making this work for everyone," Letten said.

Scharf said the city cannot ignore the problem staring it in the face each day, namely violent crime.  "Also the cancer of corruption.  yYou have two cancers, and which one will kill you first?" Scharf stated.

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