A top member of a federally appointed monitoring team that oversees the New Orleans Police Department expressed confidence Thursday (Feb. 2) that any outside law enforcement agencies brought in to beef up patrols during Mardi Gras would abide by the terms of a long-running federal consent decree governing the department.
Deputy Consent Decree Monitor David Douglass said that upon first hearing the city’s plan, he had concerns that outside agencies could circumvent the terms of the reform agreement. But interim police Superintendent Michelle Woodfork assured him officers from around the state are being “brought in to man the barricades” and that’s it. They will be directly partnered with and supervised by NOPD officers along the parade routes, he said, and any major incidents that arise will be handled by NOPD officers.
Douglass, who is based in Washington, D.C., was in town for a public hearing on the consent decree before U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan. Douglass said he will review any briefing materials provided to outside agencies by NOPD and that his team will be present throughout Mardi Gras to ensure the consent decree is being followed.
“I feel comfortable they have a good plan to manage these outside agencies and we will be here to make sure it all goes according to plan,” Douglass said in an interview. “I am not concerned about it.”
Douglass did not address a similar proposal passed by the City Council on Thursday that calls on the police to ink agreements with non-NOPD law enforcement in New Orleans — such as university police departments and the Levee Board District Police — to help bolster NOPD’s ranks on a long-term basis.
Facing a staffing shortage at the New Orleans Police Department that last year forced the city to shorten traditional parade routes, the city announced a plan last week to recruit help from outside sheriffs’ offices.
To that end, the city entered into a cooperative endeavor agreement with the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office to recruit and manage deputies from outside law enforcement agencies to work Mardi Gras details. At a cost of about $1 million, the plan calls for between 100 and 200 deputies from sheriff’s offices across the state to help the NOPD patrol parade routes between Feb. 10 and 21.
The plan raised questions as to whether these outside agencies would be required to abide by the terms of the NOPD’s federal consent decree, adopted 10 years ago to ensure that the department — which has a well-documented history of abuse and corruption — would police the city in accordance with constitutional standards.
The consent decree is supposed to apply to agents of the city and the NOPD, though in the past, outside law enforcement agencies — even one that was brought in to police New Orleans under direct contract with the city — have not been subject to the reform agreement.
And in this case, Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson’s office has provided a buffer between the city and the outside agencies being brought in for Mardi Gras.
At a press conference this week announcing the new strategy, Mayor LaToya Cantrell said the city and the NOPD would “ensure that everyone is on the same page relative to policy, procedures.”
Woodfork said at the same press conference the arrangement was reviewed by the city Law Department, the mayor’s chief administrative officer and she expected it would also be reviewed by the consent decree monitors.
“I think it’s going to be perfectly fine,” she said.
But a template contract to be used to ink agreements with outside agencies does not require deputies from other departments to follow NOPD policies.
Under the terms of the 2013 consent decree, those policies — covering everything from constitutional stops and searches to off-duty detail procedures and high-speed chases — have been developed and implemented over the past decade with approval from the U.S. Department of Justice and the monitoring team overseeing the NOPD.
Rather than demanding they follow those mandates, the contract says the out-of-town officers must abide by the policies and procedures of their home agencies and general standards of conduct for law enforcement officers.
There is one notable exception. Detailed deputies will be required to wear body cameras, following NOPD policy for its officers. The city is providing OPSO at least $50,000 to secure the cameras.
Sheriffs that provide deputies for the Mardi Gras details will be freed from all liability, the contract states. The Orleans Parish sheriff will defend them from any “claims for damages for injury to person or property caused by the fault, negligence or intentional conduct of the participating” deputies when acting under the terms of the agreement.
Louisiana State Police: ‘The Consent Decree does not apply’
New Orleans has a history of bringing in outside law enforcement agencies to supplement NOPD patrols and allowing them to operate under their own rules.
The city enlisted the Louisiana State Police for assistance in 2014 after a mass shooting on Bourbon Street that left one dead and nine injured. About 100 troopers helped patrol the NOPD’s 8th District — which includes the French Quarter and surrounding areas — alongside the NOPD which, like today, was short-staffed at the time.
In 2015, voters in the French Quarter approved a new sales tax to provide a long-term funding source for the deployment. A cooperative endeavor agreement, signed by then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu and then-State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson prior to the vote, provided that the troopers’ 8th District patrol plan would be determined in conjunction with the NOPD and would be based on NOPD needs.
The federal consent decree and NOPD policies place strict limitations on the use of stops and seizures, car pursuits, and Tasers by New Orleans officers, but the agreement was silent on the consent decree and city policy, allowing the troopers to work under their own department’s regulations. Controversy soon followed.
Troopers were accused of using excessive force and falsely arresting a visiting high school student in 2015. The student, Lyle Dotson, filed a lawsuit in which his attorneys with the MacArthur Justice Center in New Orleans said the failure of the city to ensure State Police abided by the consent decree undermined its stated intentions and, as a result, “failed to ensure constitutional law enforcement standards.”
In their complaint, Dotson’s attorneys contended that the troopers were acting as agents of the NOPD and should be bound by the consent decree. When they tried to submit the consent decree and the NOPD policy manual as exhibits, attorneys for the State Police objected, arguing that the agreement applied solely to the NOPD.
In a 2018 ruling, Morgan, the same judge who is presiding over the consent decree, agreed. She wrote that the exhibits could not be admitted as evidence because they were immaterial to the case. “The LSP is not a party to the Consent Decree, and the Consent Decree does not apply to the LSP,” Morgan wrote.
The State Police settled the case in 2018 for an undisclosed amount. They said it was a “business decision” and “in no way an admission of liability.”
In 2017, state troopers engaged in a high-speed chase that started near the intersection of Canal Street and Rampart Street. over a suspected stolen license plate and ended in New Orleans East in a deadly crash. A 2-year-old and a man were ejected from the car, both dying from their injuries. A third man in the fleeing vehicle fatally shot himself on the scene.
Witnesses criticized the State Police for engaging in a chase that endangered the people in the car as well as bystanders, according to a Times-Picayune story.
Such a pursuit would not be allowed by the consent decree, which only permits officers to engage in vehicle pursuits if there is reasonable suspicion the suspect committed a crime of violence and their escape would endanger the community. “Pursuits for property offenses, misdemeanor offenses, traffic, or civil infractions are prohibited,” the decree states.
That same year, state police arrested a hospitality worker, Zachary Terrell, for drug possession. He claimed they used a Taser to knock him off his bicycle then stomped his head and dragged him across the asphalt. Again, under the consent decree, the troopers’ actions would not be allowed.
Under the consent decree, officers should only use Tasers on someone fleeing if they committed a serious offense, and represent an imminent, physical threat to others.
Terrell, who was also represented by the MacArthur Justice Center, filed a lawsuit in which he accused the State Police of failing to be “able to articulate, let alone follow, basic policing tenets such as the application of constitutional standards that form the basis for ‘reasonable suspicion’ or ‘probable cause’ in a pedestrian context.”
The MacArthur attorneys again brought up the consent decree and the agreement with the city in their complaint.
U.S. District Court Judge Wendy Vitter dismissed Terrell’s case as he had already pleaded guilty to resisting arrest which legally prevented him from pursuing an excessive force lawsuit. Vitter did not address the consent decree in her ruling.
Post-Mardi Gras plans
The strategy of using non-NOPD officers to bolster the city’s police presence may be expanded after Mardi Gras ends. The New Orleans City Council on Thursday passed a resolution ordering the city to work on signing agreements between the NOPD and roughly a dozen other law enforcement agencies that operate in the city, including the Levee Board District Police and various university police departments.
“At this point, we need all the help we can get,” Councilman JP Morrell said at a January committee meeting. “They could be a tremendous asset in helping us address the short manpower we have at the NOPD.”
The resolution says that those non-NOPD agencies would be able to “provide preventative patrols and respond to non-violent calls for service.”
According to Morrell and Councilman Oliver Thomas, the city tried to do a similar thing in 2015 using legislation Morrell sponsored as state senator. The bill created the Law Enforcement Management District of Orleans Parish, which includes the heads of law enforcement agencies operating in the city. It was created to encourage the agencies to cooperate more closely and craft agreements to share policing duties. Although the city signed agreements with some agencies, including the Tulane Police Department, Morrell said the city never signed agreements with many over compensation issues and concerns about the NOPD’s consent decree.
“That whole situation sort of fell apart,” Morrell said.
Thomas said he didn’t see why the consent decree should be a roadblock for the effort.
“I don’t know why the consent decree stood in the way before,” Thomas said.
“I don’t know why the federal judge, especially given our shortage and the amount of violence, would stand in the way of those plans,” he added, referring to Morgan, though she previously ruled in the Dotson case that the consent decree only applies to the NOPD.
But at least one council member is concerned about supplementing regular police patrols with agencies that do not provide the same training or follow the same policies as NOPD.
“I think if we’re asking [outside agencies] to enhance the role of the police, then they need the requisite training that our NOPD officers have,” Councilman Joe Giarrusso told Verite. “Because what you don’t want and can’t have is a bunch of cowboys following a different police policy than the NOPD.”
But even if outside officers are briefed and ordered to follow NOPD rules, there are limits to how effective that can be. The enforcement mechanisms when an officer violates those policies often rely on internal NOPD disciplinary processes. The NOPD could not, for example, fire an officer from a different police agency.
“Expecting that someone from an outside parish will be subject to NOPD discipline seems like a reach,” Giarrusso said.
Giarrusso added that staying in line with NOPD policies wasn’t just a matter of appeasing the NOPD’s consent decree monitors. He said it can have a real effect on public safety.
“NOPD in my view, the last couple of years, has avoided these major instances around the country, like with George Floyd or Tyre Nichols,” Giarrusso said. “And I think part of that is because of the training they have and because we’ve spent money on them too. I think part of my big concern is making sure this training and supervision are so incredibly important.”
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