A federal appeals court panel on Friday denied Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s bid to scrap court-mandated reforms to the New Orleans Police Department, ruling that the city offered no valid reason to back out of a deal it struck with the federal government more than a year ago to settle civil rights claims against the department.
Neither the online comments of former federal prosecutor Sal Perricone, nor the city’s claim that federal officials ambushed the city by striking a deal for simultaneous reforms at the Orleans Parish Prison, nor questions about potential liability under federal labor law for changes to the NOPD off-duty detail system are valid excuses to overturn the consent decree that will govern NOPD reforms for years, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel found.
The 15-page opinion came as little surprise: The city’s appeal was widely viewed as a Hail Mary. The appellate decision followed a ruling in May by U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan rejecting similar claims by the city. Morgan endorsed the far-reaching NOPD reform package in January over the objections of Landrieu’s office, setting in motion a raft of changes to nearly every aspect of policing on a force that has come to be notorious for questionable and in some cases illegal police practices.
In July 2012, Landrieu and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder proudly announced the 492-point reform blueprint at a joint news conference at Gallier Hall. But just a few months later, Landrieu started chafing, mainly at the $55 million projected cost over five years for the fixes.
Landrieu started angry public and legal fights with both Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman and officials with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. The mayor argued that Justice officials hoodwinked the city by signing the NOPD reform deal while also quietly working with Gusman on a separate reform agreement for the troubled jail system.
The cost of those reforms, which Gusman and the feds agreed to last December, remains undetermined, but it could reach $20 million annually, with the city expected to foot much of the additional bill. U.S. District Judge Lance Africk is expected to rule soon on the size of the city’s tab for the rest of this year.
The appeals court panel found no basis for the city’s gripes, ruling essentially that the city was trying to play dumb.
Chief Judge Carl Stewart and Judges Jacques Wiener and Eugene Davis cited a cost estimate that Gusman sent to the city in July 2012, just days before Landrieu agreed to the police reform package. Gusman at that point estimated a $45 million price tag to comply with federal demands — nearly double the city’s current annual cost for inmate care.
The appeals court agreed with Morgan, who found “patently false” the city’s claim it was unaware of the potential impact of the inmate lawsuit that led to the jail-reform deal.
Drafts of the jail consent decree circulated as early as October 2011, the court found, and an attorney for the city had participated in the negotiations leading up to the jail reform deal.
According to the judges, “the record clearly demonstrates that the city was fully informed of the likely cost of complying with the OPP consent decree well before it signed the NOPD Consent Decree and urged the district court to approve it.”
A spokesman for Landrieu’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Attorneys for Landrieu had also argued that the police reform pact could add unforeseen costs by burdening the city with overtime wages under the new city-run detail system for off-duty police work. The appeals panel rejected that argument, along with the claim that Perricone’s involvement in early negotiations for the police reforms tainted the whole agreement, given the caustic online commentary that was later revealed to be his, in some cases including harsh criticisms of police and NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas.
Perricone had put his name into the hat for police chief before Landrieu ultimately chose Serpas. He also coined the phrase “aorta of corruption” in connection to the NOPD detail system — a phrase that later appeared in a scathing Justice Department report on the police force.
The appeals panel noted, however, that one of Perricone’s online aliases, “Henry L. Mencken1951,” was exposed publicly months before Landrieu agreed to the police reforms.
“More aliases and postings were revealed after the NOPD Consent Decree was signed,” the ruling states. “Even now, however, the city does not identify any way that it was prevented from ‘fully and fairly presenting its case.’”
In a separate order Friday, the same three-judge panel upheld Morgan’s ruling that the Fraternal Order of Police, an officers’ association, and Community United for Change, a group that advocates for police reform, lack standing to intervene in the case.
Morgan ruled that the FOP had been given “ample opportunity” to provide input into the consent decree and that Community United for Change’s intervention “would not significantly assist the court.”