Louisiana Spotlight: Losing and winning in federal court

By KEVIN McGILL

Associated Press

He lost two court battles last week, but New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu may yet come out a winner politically.

On Wednesday, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the Landrieu administration’s latest attempt to back out of, or at least delay, a police reform plan that could cost the city an estimated $50 million over the next few years. The plan is embodied in an agreement reached last year with the Justice Department.

Landrieu once heartily embraced that plan — until a separate consent decree was announced in December between Justice lawyers and Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman to reform the Orleans Parish Prison. The potential cost of both could mean big problems for the financially strapped city, Landrieu argues, blaming the jail’s problems on Gusman’s management.

Police scandals — biased law enforcement, corruption and police brutality that has at times reached lethal levels — have tended to crowd jail scandals out of the news over the years. But the jail’s problems are just as noxious: inmate deaths from inadequate medical care and suicide, unsanitary conditions, sexual assault, the mixing of the violent and the vulnerable behind bars.

They prompted U.S. District Judge Lance Africk to label the lockup “a stain” on the community when he approved the jail pact over the city’s objections on Thursday.

In handing the city its second defeat of the week, Africk made it clear he was unimpressed by Landrieu’s arguments, voiced by city lawyers that the improvement plan for the city-funded jail would could force New Orleans to cut services and possibly lay off police, endangering public safety.

“The court is well aware of New Orleans’ high homicide rate and budgetary constraints, but the evidence shows that violent crime is endemic within OPP as well. OPP inmates, and particularly inmates with mental-health issues, leave the facility more damaged, and perhaps more dangerous, than when they arrived,” Africk wrote.

The 5th Circuit was no less dismissive of the city’s arguments for delaying implementation of the police reform plan.

“The city’s motion fails to address, let alone satisfy, the requisite strong showing of a likelihood of success on the merits of its appeal,” the appeals court panel said.

Even as the jail debate was heating up, the University of New Orleans released poll numbers based on a survey of 552 residents in February and March that showed Landrieu with an approval rating of 70 percent — high for any politician entering his fourth year in office, especially one who has presided over tax and fee increases, budget cuts and a stubborn crime problem. The approval extended into the black community for the white mayor: 67 percent giving him high marks.

The Police Department’s longstanding problems provided him with his first such opportunity when he first took office in May 2010. He immediately invited the officials from the Justice Department to come in and help with an overhaul of the police department.

True, they were no doubt coming anyway. But Landrieu seized the moment then, and he can now argue that he’s begun important steps to reform the department, while trying to keep the feds from breaking the city’s bank.

And he may yet get some court victories.

A hearing that begins Monday in Africk’s court will deal with financing of the jail reform plan. It will give Gusman a chance to press his case that the city inadequately funds the jail, and Landrieu a chance to continue pressing the case that Gusman’s management is the problem.

Kevin McGill is a reporter for The Associated Press in New Orleans. His email address is kmcgill@ap.org.