The New Orleans Police Department continues to navigate its way through a federal consent decree. Credit: Charles Maldonado/Verite

New Orleans Police Department officials told a judge Wednesday (Nov. 9) that the agency has made significant progress in ending discriminatory policing practices, one of two areas in which the NOPD has remained deficient over the course of a nearly decade-long federal reform agreement, according to a team of court-appointed monitors. 

City leaders have in recent months chafed at the requirements of the 2013 decree, filing a formal request to exit the agreement in August and arguing that the department has reached and maintained full compliance. But the U.S. Department of Justice — the plaintiff in the 2012 federal lawsuit that led to the consent decree — has maintained in legal filings that the city still needs to demonstrate full compliance with those requirements, even as attorneys with the federal department on Wednesday concurred that the NOPD has strengthened its policies and practices toward bias-free policing.

“Over the last several years, NOPD, with technical assistance … has made many fundamental changes to address the violations we saw in our investigation,” Mehveen Riaz, a Justice Department attorney, said during the hearing.

U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan made no move during the hearing to sign off on NOPD’s compliance in the arena of bias-free policing, though she praised all parties in their collective efforts to ensure the police agency abides by the agreement.

“Let’s just keep working together and we’ll make it through this,” Morgan said.

NOPD officials gave updates on the department’s progress in the area of bias-free policing, including efforts by the force to train recruits on LGBTQ awareness and engage with the city’s LGBTQ community, and to train interpreters and otherwise accommodate people with limited English proficiency. 

NOPD Compliance Manager Matt Segraves outlined the preliminary results of an internal audit for 2021 that found no racial, gender or other major disparities in terms of people who were patted down or handcuffed by police. The NOPD audit also looked at traffic stops, using a “veil of darkness” analysis — comparing daytime and nighttime stops — to see if officers stopped minorities more often during the day, when they could more easily identify their race, age and gender. That analysis found disparities in 2016 but no other years.

In another analysis on uses of force, Segraves said the department found no broad disparity, but did locate disparities in firearm pointings in 2021, though he did not elaborate. Segraves said the officer who was responsible for both of the firearm pointings deemed unjustified among the 100 or so such incidents that year had been fired.

One immersive anti-bias tool the department has implemented is the Virtra 300, a virtual reality simulator that creates policing scenarios for trainees, then recreates those scenarios with just one change — the race or gender of the person the officer is interacting with, said Capt. Precious Banks. 

Bias-free policing is one of two areas the court-appointed monitor has said the force has yet to be “in the green” on. The other category is stops, searches and arrests. 

Jonathan Aronie, the lead consent decree monitor, said spot audits across the department — requested by Morgan earlier this year following concerns that the city was backsliding — were ongoing, though preliminary results suggested the city has maintained that progress in many places.

“It’s looking great, looking like NOPD will continue to honor all of its commitments and continue to do a great job,” Aronie said.

A decade of court oversight

New Orleans entered the consent decree in 2013, three years after the Justice Department began investigating the city’s police department for unconstitutional patterns of misconduct — part of a larger Obama-era effort at police reform across the country.

In New Orleans, federal investigators found among the police department’s failures “blatant and egregious” mishandling of police shootings; unjustified stops, searches and arrests; discriminatory treatment of LGBTQ individuals; and “seriously deficient” sexual assault investigations.

The subsequent court-enforced oversight agreement spans virtually every aspect police operations, requiring NOPD to address problems ranging from its use of force and interrogation policy to how it handles misconduct complaints and recruit training.

The city has made significant progress on most of those areas in recent years, as Morgan and the court-appointed monitoring team have acknowledged.

In August, Mayor LaToya Cantrell sought to exit the consent decree, with the city’s attorneys arguing in court filings that the department had fixed its major problems and “been engaged in constitutional policing for more than two years now.” At that time, the city also blamed the consent decree for the police force’s understaffing and declining morale, claiming the federal enforcement was bogging down officers with “punitive punishments and overbearing paperwork,” as one news release stated.

Cantrell has also discussed the cost of the consent decree, noting in 2020 that the city had spent $55 million on the oversight agreement. (Cantrell also made her first failed bid at ending federal oversight that year.)

The consent decree calls for the city to be in full compliance for two years before the agreement can be terminated. But the parties disagree if the city has even reached that milestone, let alone sustained it for two years.

Justice Department attorneys countered last month that the city hasn’t proved sustained compliance with the agreement. And they said city didn’t follow procedural rules when it made its latest termination request, federal authorities said.

In the court monitor’s most recent formal report, released in 2021, the city was found to be out of compliance with several of the consent decree’s seventeen elements, “including critical sections such as those addressing stops, searches, and arrests, and bias-free policing,” as the Justice Department recently noted.

Morgan hinted at the two-year horizon as she addressed a little-discussed requirement of the consent decree, a Police-Community Advisory Board for each of the departments eight districts. The citizen-led groups are meant to engage with and advise officers at a community level.

Representatives from two of the boards told Morgan their community groups were thriving, though Aronie said other districts are struggling with their boards.

“Citywide support, that’s the key,” said Lori Campbell, president of the 4th District’s board in Algiers. “If we won’t get that, we won’t move the needle.”

“This is something we need to get in place, get them strong and vibrant, so when the two-year sustaining period is over, the [Police-Community Advisory Boards] will be there to work with the police department,” Morgan said.

Following Wednesday’s hearing, the monitoring team was scheduled to hold a community meeting at the Ashe’ Cultural Arts Center. Another community meeting was scheduled for Thursday at the East New Orleans Regional Library.

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Michelle Liu

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