NOPD consent decree faces scrutiny in federal court

Published: Sep. 21, 2012 at 8:54 PM CDT|Updated: Sep. 28, 2012 at 8:54 PM CDT
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New Orleans, La. -- The consent decree that Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the U.S. Attorney General praised recently is now under attack in federal district court.

In late July, Attorney General Eric Holder came to New Orleans to announce that the Justice Department and the city had reached agreement on a voluminous consent decree to correct what ails the troubled New Orleans Police Department.

The deal was reached "in order to address and remedy a range of unfair and illegal practices uncovered by the very sweeping United States Department of Justice investigation." Holder said at a July 24 press conference at Gallier Hall.

Now some in the community want a federal judge to put the brakes on giving final approval to the 124-page consent decree.

"We don't believe that this consent decree is truly representative of either being the people's consent decree or the city's consent decree," said Raymond Burkhart III, an attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police.

The FOP, as well as the Police Association of New Orleans, Independent Police Monitor Susan Hutson, and the group "Community United for Change," are urging the judge to give them a say in the consent decree.

Hutson testified that her office has basically been excluded from the consent decree. She wants her office to have a greater role in reviewing complaints against officers.

"We do believe that some of the implications of the consent decree are going to cause some problems for officers when they are involved in use of force," said Eric Hessler, an attorney for the Police Association of New Orleans.

U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan said she will not rubber stamp the consent decree. She said she will not approve it at all if it is "a product of collusion."

"There are so many paragraphs in this consent decree that have a lot to do with the city and the United States government getting together in such a manner as to almost not be [at] arm's length and look like there's some type of collusion, such as messing with the civil service system," Burkhart said.

U.S. Attorney Jim Letten spoke in favor of the consent decree as crafted.  "It will make the city safer for everyone," Letten told the judge.

As written, the consent decree would require higher recruiting standards, ongoing training for veteran officers and new policies on and new policies on how to conduct constitutional stops, searches and arrests.

"We're calling for citizen oversight and we're calling for the police on their person to have audio and video so that we know exactly what they said, what they did," said community activist Malcolm Suber, who was called to give testimony.

FOX 8 legal analyst Joe Raspanti said, at some point, the consent decree must be approved.

"Some people would say it kind of sounds like people sitting in a restaurant and when the gumbo's coming trying to argue how much seafood to put in it. It's a little late in the game for it, it would appear, because everybody's been pounding this thing out for years and now that they finally have, somebody still wants to change it," Raspanti said.

Raspanti said, given what is at stake, the city has a vested interest in getting court approval sooner than later.  "If you keep pushing the envelope they're going to take the control away from us and it's going to be a federally mandated thing, controlled by people not from here," Raspanti added.