Choice of police monitor for New Orleans postponed

Officials from New Orleans and the U.S. Department of Justice say they need more time to choose a monitor for the sweeping changes to the city’s Police Department, but they do say progress is being made in the process.

The city and the Justice Department asked U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan to extend the deadline for the selection of a monitor until May 15. Both parties were scheduled to meet Tuesday afternoon to choose between the firms of Sheppard Mullin and Hillard Heintze but told Morgan in a joint court filing that they needed more time to make a choice.

Morgan granted the extension but said that if a decision cannot be reached, the court must be notified by 11:59 p.m. May 14 so she can make the choice.

“The parties represent that they are “working diligently to attempt to reach agreement on a proposed monitoring team and are making progress,” the joint filing read. City spokesman Ryan Berni said the city would not have any additional comment on the motion.

In her order, Morgan told the city and Justice Department that if they can’t reach an agreement, they must present her with a memorandum setting forth their arguments in support of one candidate or the other. That memo must be delivered by 9 a.m. May 15 and cannot exceed 20 pages.

Morgan also ordered that any public comments on the monitor selection be filed into the official record by Thursday.

Tuesday’s request came after the city and Justice Department seemed to reach an impasse on the selection of the monitor at their April 15 meeting. City officials appear to have lined up in support of the Hillard Heintze firm, which is headed by former Chicago police Superintendent Terry Hillard. City officials noted the firm seems more committed to “transforming” the Police Department as opposed to simply monitoring whether benchmarks are reached.

One of the positives mentioned in the meeting was that Hillard has experience dealing with the challenges of a major police department and would be able to better interact with New Orleans police Superintendent Ronal Serpas and his staff.

But the Justice Department is in support of the Sheppard Mullin group, largely because federal officials feel the group has more experience actually administering a consent decree. In addition, while Hillard Heintze has been blasted for its choice of local liaisons, Sheppard Mullin has been able to avoid most of that criticism because the group hasn’t selected its local partners.

At the April 15 meeting, several community organizers and local residents expressed disapproval of Hillard Heintze, claiming that its local partners, the Rev. Charles Southall III and Peter Scharf, are either too chummy with Mayor Mitch Landrieu or police. Local attorney Mary Howell also questioned Hillard’s response to torture and abuse scandals among Chicago police, a concern she reiterated in a court filing.

Although she noted that much of that scandal occurred prior to Hillard’s tenure, she questioned the urgency with which he dealt with residents’ complaints and concerns, which would be a part of being a monitor in New Orleans.

Also on Tuesday, local attorney Tracey Washington submitted a letter to Morgan asking that she consider separating the community engagement work mandated by the consent decree from the job of the monitor. Washington heads the Louisiana Justice Institute and helped obtain the consent decree with other community groups.

She claims that both Hillard Heintze and Sheppard Mullin have failed when it comes to orchestrating community engagement, partially because they have not recognized the work done by many groups including her own.

Washington also took a swipe at Community United for Change, a local group that has been a vocal critic of Hillard Heintze and the selection process in general. Washington claimed that group has taken credit for organizing the “People’s Consent Decree,” a community-created document that outlined some of the public’s desires for the police changes.

However, she said her agency did much of the work of organizing the various groups that contributed to that document, and said federal officials would be wise to draw on their expertise moving forward.