City, DOJ reach no consensus on police consent decree monitors

New Orleans officials and the federal Department of Justice reached little consensus at a three-hour meeting Monday on who should oversee a sweeping change of the New Orleans Police Department, but several local residents and community groups maintained their opposition to a firm allegedly supported by city officials.

Representatives from the city and from the Justice Department ended a public vetting of the two groups interested in serving as a monitor for the city’s pending federal consent decree by deciding to hold additional private meetings before possibly making a final decision April 30. The two finalists for the position are a team spearheaded by the Sheppard, Mullin, Richter and Hampton law firm of Washington, D.C., and the Hillard Heintze team led by former Chicago Police Superintendent Terry Hillard.

Neither group was present Monday, but a smaller committee with local and federal representatives will be contacting the two groups in the coming weeks to seek information. The selection committee has until the end of the month to make a recommendation to U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan on which firm should be the monitor.

Monday’s delay came despite the Justice Department expressing its clear preference for the Sheppard Mullin group. Federal officials touted the group’s prior experience either monitoring consent decrees or implementing them. Echoing comments made when Sheppard Mullin was selected as a finalist earlier this month, Attorney Stephen Parker said that given the complicated and complex nature of the New Orleans agreement, prior experience should be mandatory.

“This is the largest and most complex civil rights consent decree … It’s not one where you get on-the-job training,” Parker argued.

However, the city appeared to prefer selecting the Hillard Heintze team as the next monitor. Although city officials said they came into Monday’s meeting just looking for information, they had several rebuttals prepared for criticisms of the Hillard Heintze group’s proposal and pointed critiques about Sheppard Mullin. Attorney Erica Beck said the city is particularly enamored with Hillard’s inclusion on the team. As the former leader of a big city department with a serious violent crime problem, Beck argued that Hillard understood the unique challenges in New Orleans. His group would focus on “transforming” the police department, not just filing reports, she said.

“Our vision for this consent decree is not a lot of lawyers arguing,” Beck said.

City officials also referenced a letter submitted by Hillard Heintze that shows the group’s fee would be slightly more than $7 million compared with $7.9 million for Sheppard Mullin.

But during the public comment segment of the meeting, another of the Justice Department’s recurring critiques of the Hillard Heintze group was driven home. Roy Austin, the deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights, said that federal officials have received numerous complaints about the group’s alleged lack of independence. Attorney Emily Gunston noted that if residents don’t trust the monitor’s independence, the entire reform is doomed.

“This to the city can have a potentially corrosive impact on implementing parts of the decree,” she said.

Residents and community groups have accused the group of lacking independence because of the selection of the Rev. Charles Southall III and Tulane University criminologist Peter Scharf as the local members of the group. Critics said that Southall is too cozy with Mayor Mitch Landrieu, having done the invocation at the mayor’s inauguration and donated to Sen. Mary Landrieu’s campaign. Local NAACP President Danatus King said he is concerned with both groups but finds Hillard Heintze completely unacceptable. Deirdre Lewis, a member of Communities United for Change, peppered the entire discussion with derisive comments about Southall.

“You are the mayor’s right-hand man,” said Lewis, who stressed that city’s residents want the status quo challenged. “(Southall) is not going to stand up to the mayor.”

In addition, questions were raised about where Scharf’s loyalties lie when it comes to police change. Local resident Norris Henderson pointed out that Scharf provided Lt. Robert Italiano with a sample defense in the high-profile Henry Glover case. The Algiers man was shot to death by a police officer, and his body was burned by another. Italiano, who was accused of being involved in the cover-up, was eventually acquitted.

Henderson said Scharf’s inclusion in any group monitoring police would be laughable and questioned the entire monitor selection process.

“We need to have the people directly impacted by the police in here,” he argued.

However, Rev. Patrick Keen called the attacks on Southall and Scharf unfair, mainly because Sheppard Mullin has failed to identify who would serve as its local liaison. Federal officials tried to tout the group’s flexibility in making a choice later, but city officials and Keen argued that it meant that the public would not have a chance to vet those partners. Deputy Mayor Judy Reese Morse noted that residents have to compare a proposed process for finding local support to actual people. Without a true comparison it is much easier to attack Hillard Heintze, Keen argued.

“It seems to me there’s not a good balance,” he said.

However, even without Southall and Scharf, local attorney Mary Howell raised concerns about Hillard’s suitability as a monitor. She said that when information was revealed about Chicago police torturing more black men over two decades to gain confessions, Hillard’s top aide squelched those findings. When community members asked Hillard to take further action, he refused, she said. Howell called that refusal to take action troubling given New Orleans’ history.

“We’ve had a terrible problem with that in our police department … That is a deep, deep issue here in our department,” said Howell, arguing that New Orleans can’t waste this opportunity to change. “This is a once in lifetime opportunity.”

The monitor selection process continues despite the city’s opposition to the implementation of the consent decree given its cost, and the cost of another consent decree involving the troubled Orleans Parish Prison.