New Orleans to seek end of police department reform pact

August 4, 2022 GMT
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell holds a press conference with New Oreleans Police Department Superintendent Shaun Ferguson at City Hall in New Orleans, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022. New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell says the city will ask a federal judge to end a 2013 reform order that led to nearly a decade of court-ordered oversight of the city's police department. (Sophia Germer/The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate via AP)
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell holds a press conference with New Oreleans Police Department Superintendent Shaun Ferguson at City Hall in New Orleans, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022. New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell says the city will ask a federal judge to end a 2013 reform order that led to nearly a decade of court-ordered oversight of the city's police department. (Sophia Germer/The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate via AP)
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell holds a press conference with New Oreleans Police Department Superintendent Shaun Ferguson at City Hall in New Orleans, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022. New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell says the city will ask a federal judge to end a 2013 reform order that led to nearly a decade of court-ordered oversight of the city's police department. (Sophia Germer/The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate via AP)
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New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell holds a press conference with New Oreleans Police Department Superintendent Shaun Ferguson at City Hall in New Orleans, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022. New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell says the city will ask a federal judge to end a 2013 reform order that led to nearly a decade of court-ordered oversight of the city's police department. (Sophia Germer/The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate via AP)
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New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell holds a press conference with New Oreleans Police Department Superintendent Shaun Ferguson at City Hall in New Orleans, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022. New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell says the city will ask a federal judge to end a 2013 reform order that led to nearly a decade of court-ordered oversight of the city's police department. (Sophia Germer/The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate via AP)

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — New Orleans officials will ask a federal judge to end a decade of court-ordered oversight of the city’s police department, Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced Thursday, saying a 2013 reform pact is now an unnecessary bureaucratic burden on the understaffed force.

The reform agreement, embodied in a court document called a consent decree, was welcomed by department critics when it was negotiated during former Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration. Recurring scandals involving corruption or questionable use of force had plagued the department for decades and were exposed anew amid shootings of civilians in the chaotic days after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.

But the agreement reached with the U.S. Justice Department had its critics as well, including police officer representatives who said it hampered police work. Over the years, police organizations have cited restrictions on car chases and searches of suspects, along with officers’ fears of stepped up discipline if they breach even minor regulations.

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Cantrell and Superintendent of Police Shaun Ferguson have been under increasing pressure to deal with violent crime even as the city police force shrinks. Depletion of the ranks began under Landrieu as he cut city spending after inheriting a large deficit from his predecessor. That decline has continued to the point that the department, which had 1,300 officers, now has fewer than 1,000 in Cantrell’s second term.

Ferguson and Cantrell announced plans to seek the consent decree’s end at a news conference where they also touched on other plans to boost morale as well as retain and recruit officers, including an initiative to speed up promotions and relax some uniform and dress code restrictions.

Rafael Goyeneche, head of local police watchdog organization the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said the announcements appear to mark a belated recognition by city officials of the need to not only recruit with higher pay but also retain officers with pay increases. He said the city had been too slow to promote officers to senior status — which carries an increase in pay.

Goyeneche was skeptical that ending the consent decree would solve the paperwork problem cited by Cantrell. Statistics and reports on police activities will still be needed to ensure the policy and practice reforms imposed by the agreement stick.

“My position is, if you want to lessen the load on the officers, you don’t allow the police force to drop from 1,300 officers to 900 officers,” Goyeneche said. “We allowed the department to shrink to the level that the workload became unmanageable.”

In April, U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan and court-appointed police monitors praised the department’s progress and said the city could be declared in full compliance with the consent decree this year, which would lead to a two-year wind-down of oversight.

Morgan tempered her praise with acknowledgment of continuing problems, including the short-handed department’s slowdown in recruiting and allegations of wrongdoing by officers who work private duty details arranged through the department. But the department has shown transparency in dealing with such setbacks, Morgan said.

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Cantrell said the decree is no longer needed.

“They know how to police constitutionally,” she said of the current force. “They’re models throughout the United States of America.”

In an interview earlier this year with The Associated Press, University of Nebraska-Omaha Professor Emeritus Sam Walker, an expert in police accountability, cited New Orleans as an example of a federal consent decree that worked.

“Back in 2012, it was one of the worst departments in the country, but they’ve made enormous progress,” Walker said.