Judge reviews N.O. police reform blueprints

Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Details of a sweeping agreement to clean up the troubled New Orleans Police Department were heard Friday by a federal judge who must approve the reforms, some of the widest ranging ever negotiated by the federal government.

U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan did not rule at the end of Friday's "fairness hearing," saying she wanted more time to review the testimony and evidence given regarding the agreement between the city and the Justice Department.

The court-supervised agreement, spelled out in a 124-page document, would require the police department to overhaul its policies and procedures for use of force, training, interrogations, searches and arrests, recruitment and supervision.

U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said the consent decree is a blueprint for the "rebirth of the entire city of New Orleans."

"It will make the city a safer place for everyone," he told Morgan.

Some critics are urging Morgan to order some changes to the agreement.

Susan Hutson, the city's independent police monitor, said the consent decree should give her office a larger role in the reform process. The agreement calls for picking a different, court-supervised monitor to regularly assess and report on the department's adherence to the requirements.

"We want to be of service to you as you monitor the NOPD," Hutson told Morgan.

Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas later testified that he believes the consent decree is a needed tool to reform the police department.

"What this police department needs more than anything and what this community needs more than anything is the independence of your court," Serpas told Morgan.

Lawyers for two groups representing rank-and-file officers expressed concern that the consent decree could chip away at civil-service protections, may force officers to work longer hours without overtime pay and would bar officers from using pepper spray. Sgt. Christopher Landry, a supervisor for the NOPD's firearms training unit, told Morgan that pepper spray is useful because it can subdue suspects without injuring them.

The judge also heard testimony from Jasmine Groves, whose mother, Kim, was gunned down in 1994 by a drug dealer at the direction of a New Orleans police officer, Len Davis. Kim Groves had filed a brutality complaint against Davis, who was sentenced to death for the killing.

"My family has lived through the horror of what it means to have a police department that is out of control," Groves said. "Maybe if there had been a consent decree in 1994, my mother would still be alive today."

Mayor Mitch Landrieu has estimated the city will pay roughly $11 million annually for the next four or five years to implement the reforms.

The consent decree would resolve the Justice Department's allegations that New Orleans police officers have engaged in a pattern of discriminatory and unconstitutional activity.

The agreement would require all officers 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.

All interrogations involving suspected homicides or sexual assaults would have to be recorded in their entirety on video. The department would be required to install video cameras and location devices in all patrol cars and other vehicles within two years.

NOPD also would be required to completely restructure the system for paying officers for off-duty security details, develop a new report format for collecting data on all stops and searches and create a recruitment program to increase diversity among its officers.

The Justice Department has reached similar agreements with police departments in Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Oakland and Detroit. But the New Orleans consent decree is broader in scope than the others and includes requirements that no other department has had to implement.

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