Feds say city can work under new law to implement police detail reform

Claims by the city of New Orleans that a new state law stymies plans to reform the off-duty police detail system is a red herring, the U.S. Department of Justice argued in a legal filing this week.

Officials with the agency’s Civil Rights Division urged U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan to instruct the city to move forward with the detail reforms contained in a consent decree that Mayor Mitch Landrieu and federal officials inked almost a year ago.

Since just before Morgan approved the sprawling blueprint for NOPD reforms in January, Landrieu’s office has been trying to get out of it, arguing that the city was blindsided by the potential costs of a separate reform deal targeting the Orleans Parish jail. On Wednesday the city filed its formal appeal to Morgan’s approval of the NOPD consent decree with the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The city argues that the Justice Department “obtained the City’s initial acquiescence to the Consent Decree through ambush.” DOJ’s timing of its deal with Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman on the jail reforms - taking place only after sealing the deal on pricey NOPD fixes - was intentional, the city argues.

Landrieu’s latest attempt to cast doubt on the viability of the detail reforms came last week, when his attorneys argued that a new law authored by state Sen. J.P. Morrell effectively shuts off communication between the city and NOPD over the centralization of police details under City Hall.

Act 94 says the city’s new Office of Police Secondary Employment can interact with NOPD or its officers about detail assignments, but that all other communication must be in writing.

Under the city’s interpretation of the law, it would effectively stall policy talks needed to get the office up and running, prevent the city from maintaining a list of officers interested in detail work and make it impossible to ensure that cops who supervise details aren’t managing higher-ranking officers, among other measures called for in the consent decree.

According to the feds, however, all the new law does is require the office to put that information in writing.

“Contrary to the City’s unexplained assertions,” the feds wrote, the new law, “does not appear to impair the City’s ability to implement any of the provisions.”

The detail reforms were driven in part by a 2011 controversy over a cop-run detail to review traffic camera tickets for the city, as well as a Justice Department report around the same time that labelled the piecemeal detail system an “aorta of corruption.” In the past, cops would set up their own work for events, parties and retail businesses, parceling out work to colleagues in a loose-knit system that critics say breeds favoritism and conflicts, with private detail work sometimes taking precedence over on-duty police shifts.

Under the new system, which the rank-and-file generally oppose, the new city agency will dole out detail shifts, charging an initial $5-per-hour fee to fund the new office.

Morgan has not said how, or when, she will rule on the matter.