Judge holds N.O. to terms

A federal judge Thursday refused to let the city of New Orleans out of a potentially expensive agreement to reform its troubled Police Department.

A spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu said the city is appealing U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan’s decision to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

City officials last year reached the agreement with the Justice Department. Known as a consent decree, it called for sweeping changes in police practices and policies.

Landrieu had invited Justice officials to investigate the scandal-plagued department soon after he took office in 2010. And he initially hailed the agreement as a much-needed document to guide reforms and put them into law.

But he later tried to put the brakes on the agreement. He said a separate agreement the Justice Department reached in December with Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman to clean up the city’s violent and unsanitary jail could force layoffs or cuts in services in the financially strapped city.

Among the city arguments rejected by Morgan was the claim that the city was kept in dark about potential costs of fixing problems at the jail, formally known as the Orleans Parish Prison.

“The City’s argument that it had no knowledge of the potential cost ramifications for the OPP Consent Decree at the time it signed the NOPD Consent Decree is patently false,” Morgan wrote. She said the city received word as early as July 19, 2012 — several days before the city signed the police consent decree — that the sheriff intended to request $22.5 million in additional spending.

Also rejected was the city’s argument that the agreement should be vacated because former U.S. Attorney Sal Perricone was involved in negotiations. Perricone resigned last year after it was disclosed that he had posted anonymous comments on a newspaper website, in which he made negative comments about public officials, including Landrieu and Police Chief Ronal Serpas. The actions undermined the negotiations, the city argued.

Morgan said the city continued in the negotiations after Perricone was exposed, and has not shown how the agreement would have been altered had he not been involved.

“The Court remains convinced that the Consent Decree is a fair, adequate, and reasonable solution for transforming the NOPD into a world class police force,” Morgan wrote.

The 124-page police consent decree spells out a series of strict requirements for overhauling the Police Department’s policies and procedures for use of force, training, interrogations, searches and arrests, recruitment and supervision.

Among the requirements: All officers are to receive at least 24 hours of training on stops, searches and arrests; 40 hours of use-of-force training; and four hours of training on bias-free policing within a year of the agreement taking effect. All interrogations involving suspected homicides or sexual assaults will have to be recorded in their entirety on video. The department also will be required to install video cameras and location devices in all patrol cars and other vehicles.

Since trying to put the brakes on the agreement in January, Landrieu and Serpas have stressed that the city already has implemented many elements of the consent decree, including changes in the homicide bureau, the K-9 unit, sex crime investigations, use-of-force investigations and policies governing the way officers are hired and paid for private, off-duty security details.

The city budgeted about $7 million for this year to begin complying with terms of the changes in the Police Department, where decades of scandal include the shootings of unarmed civilians in the law-and-order meltdown after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The police reforms could cost in the neighborhood of $50 million over the coming years. Big-ticket items in the budget for this year include $1.4 million to begin equipping all patrol cars with cameras, $1.2 million for new computer equipment and $2 million for a monitor’s office that will make sure the police are toeing the following the pact.

While fighting the police consent decree in Morgan’s court, the city has been arguing that another federal judge, should reject the agreement between Gusman and the Justice Department.

The Landrieu administration, citing one estimate in a court filing, says it could add $22 million annually to the $30.5 million the city already turns over to Gusman to house roughly 1,600 city inmates. The costs would cover medical services, higher pay for deputies and a larger jail staff.

Meanwhile, administration officials have publicly questioned Gusman’s ability to run the jail, noting the recently released video of unabashed drug use and the brandishing of a loaded handgun in a cell. The video was made in 2009 in a now-closed building on the jail complex. Gusman has defended his administration of the jail, while saying the federal agreement will help improve conditions there.