Our Views: Don’t accept ‘new normal’

If you want to find out how law enforcement policy is being made in New Orleans these days, then there’s a good chance that you’ll start at a federal courtroom.

Two federal consent decrees — one outlining reforms at the New Orleans Police Department, and the other detailing required improvements at Orleans Parish Prison — mean that two major institutions of civil society in the city are essentially under the stewardship of federal judges.

That is a startling reality of life in New Orleans right now — or at least it should be startling. If these consent decrees linger indefinitely, then citizens might well come to view them as the prevailing norm. But New Orleans residents must not accept this kind of civic dysfunction as the new normal.

The first step in addressing the issues at the heart of the consent decrees is to realize that the profound problems driving federal intervention raise large questions about the ability of the city to govern itself. That climate of uncertainty can compromise public security and discourage investment in a city still coping with recovery from Hurricane Katrina.

Given the stark consequences of legal stalemate, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman, who are the principal players in answering the consent decrees, have a clear moral obligation to resolve these challenges as quickly as possible.

The consent decrees are proceeding along separate legal tracks, but their issues are intertwined. A panel of federal appellate judges recently ruled that Landrieu must move ahead with the consent decree involving police reforms. Landrieu has said that the city cannot afford to pay for both the court-ordered police reforms and court-mandated improvements to the parish prison. The issue has been complicated by the strained relationship between Landrieu and Gusman.

Landrieu argues that the city shouldn’t have to give the sheriff more money to improve the prison because Gusman isn’t properly managing the prison’s existing resources. Gusman disputes those allegations, although a recent report by the New Orleans’ inspector general pointed out numerous deficiencies in Gusman’s management of the prison. Gusman lost a big round in the court of public opinion in April when a series of inmate-shot videos surfaced. The footage showed prison inmates drinking beer, using drugs and brandishing a weapon and other contraband.

We’re glad that the city’s inspector general weighed in regarding the prison’s management, and we’re even happier that the inspector general’s findings will be reviewed in court as part of ongoing legal proceedings involving the prison consent decree.

The acrimony between Landrieu and Gusman underscores the need for objective analysis, and that’s where institutions such as the Inspector General’s Office and the Bureau of Governmental Research can play important roles.

Federal courts must sometimes intervene to advance basic constitutional protections when state and local institutions fail, but court-ordered remedies should be viewed as expedients of last resort, and not standard operating procedure.

The goal should be healthy local institutions that can govern well through their own moral compass, not the lash of federal decree.