Stephanie Grace: Asst. Attorney General Tom Perez dug in on consent decrees

These days, the saga over the how to reform the New Orleans Police Department and Orleans Parish Prison often seems to boil down to a battle of wills between Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Sheriff Marlin Gusman.

Landrieu, once an enthusiastic participant in the NOPD federal consent decree, now says the department is healing itself, faults the U.S. Justice Department for demanding costly changes to both agencies at once, and insists the sheriff has enough money to raise standards. Gusman, who signed a separate consent decree that states that OPP is rife with civil rights violations — although he says it’s not — claims he can’t fix the problems that do exist unless the city pays up.

Yet there’s a third major player in the situation, one who is just as willful as they are. By all appearances, Thomas Perez, the Justice Department’s assistant attorney general for civil rights, and the instigator of both consent decrees, is dug in too.

His department’s stance is simply expressed in a recent court filing. “Where constitutional violations exist in two city-funded institutions, the city is obliged to remedy both,” attorneys for the federal government wrote. “The mere fact that the city must pay to implement the prison decree does not render the NOPD decree invalid or in any way unfair.”

Such language comes as no surprise from an official who speaks reverently of the nation’s civil rights statutes and the federal government’s obligation to enforce them.

When I interviewed Perez last spring for a profile in the Brown Alumni Magazine, he came off as someone who means it. The interview focused more on broader issues than on New Orleans, but whether the topic was housing, voting rights, treatment of immigrants or disabled people, or police and jailer practices, he came off as a true believer.

Perez’s portfolio may be broad, but law enforcement is a priority. During his tenure, the Civil Rights Division has launched probes into the constitutionality of police practices around the country, and its docket includes a long list of corrections cases.

New Orleans is very much on his radar as well. During an earlier stint as a Civil Rights Division staff attorney, he’d been involved in the notorious case of Len Davis, the New Orleans cop who ordered a hit on a woman who had accused him of brutality, in the mid-1990s. When he returned in 2009, he was struck by the lack of progress.

“Danziger was blowing up right when I got here, and I was aware of what was happening. I had been here once before — everyone who lives in New Orleans, you say the name Len Davis, everybody knows who that means. I was particularly frustrated with New Orleans because we’d been there before.”

In addition to pursuing the consent decree, his division prosecuted the Danziger Bridge shootings and Hurricane Katrina-era cases against rogue cops.

It also secured a settlement with St. Bernard Parish over policies limiting rental housing for African-Americans, and pursued allegations of discrimination against Latino students in the Jefferson Parish schools.

“There are a multitude of civil rights challenges in New Orleans,” he said. While he said the area is “not necessarily unique,” he said his lawyers “do have an acute familiarity with the various hotels in New Orleans.”

Predictably, Perez’s activist approach has earned mixed reviews.

President Barack Obama thought enough of his work to nominate him to be labor secretary. In announcing the cabinet-level appointment in March, Obama noted that Perez is the child of Dominican immigrants, and said he’d made protecting the promise of America and creating a level playing field “the cause of his life.”

Many Republicans, though, view him as an ideologue. Among them is U.S. Sen. David Vitter, who threatened to block his nomination because Perez sued Louisiana for allegedly not making sure that public assistance agencies help clients register to vote. Vitter claims the department was less-aggressive in enforcing the law requiring states to purge dead voters and ineligible felons from the rolls. Perez’s nomination to the new post cleared the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on a partisan vote, and awaits full Senate action.

Less predictable were Perez’s problems with fellow Democrat Mitch Landrieu . When asked last spring about the souring of relations, Perez took a long, clear-eyed but ultimately hopeful view.

“The reform process is never easy, and culture change is never easy. It takes time, it takes persistence and it takes a plan. And we have a good plan. We will be persistent. We have good people,” he said. “We’re going to be in New Orleans for as long as necessary to reform the department and not a day longer. I expect it will take years.”

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.