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Federal judge approves New Orleans police reforms

Last Modified: Friday, January 11, 2013 6:18 PM

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A federal judge has approved a sweeping agreement between the Justice Department and the city of New Orleans designed to clean up the city's long-troubled police department, but Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who once strongly backed it, said the city wants to put the brakes on it because of costs.

Landrieu said he asked U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan to delay final approval, largely because the Justice Department has also entered into a potentially expensive separate agreement with the New Orleans sheriff for reforms at the city-funded jail.

Morgan, however, approved the agreement, calling it "fair, adequate and reasonable" in a Friday ruling.

"The Orleans Parish Prison consent decree may cost $17 million, which is not budgeted for this year and would therefore bankrupt the City," Landrieu said in a news release. "If a federal judge ordered the City to pay $17 million, we would need to furlough every City employee, including police officers, for 28 days. It makes no sense to furlough or lay off police officers to give pay raises to prison guards."

"We just can't afford it," said City Council member Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, a member of the council budget committee.

The mayor said earlier that he was unsure of the city's next legal step. He noted 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 separate jail agreement calls for Sheriff Marlin Gusman to provide adequate medical and mental health care and overhaul policies on use of force and rape prevention, among other reforms.

The agreement approved Friday would require the police department to overhaul its policies and procedures for use of force, training, interrogations, searches and arrests, recruitment and supervision.

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

The agreement resolves the Justice Department's allegations that New Orleans police officers engaged in a pattern of discriminatory and unconstitutional activity. Attorney General Eric Holder has said the agreement is the most wide-ranging in the Justice Department's history.

The judge heard testimony about the consent decree at a "fairness hearing" in September. At the time, then-U.S. Attorney Jim Letten called it a blueprint for the "rebirth of the entire city of New Orleans."

Some critics had urged the judge 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. Hedge-Morrell said that is an unnecessary expense, given that the city has Hutson in place with the needed experience and expertise.

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.

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 and includes requirements that no other department has had to implement.

The agreement, for instance, requires officers to respect that bystanders have a constitutional right to observe and record their conduct in public places. It also requires 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.

The Police Department, which has been plagued by decades of corruption and brutality complaints, came under renewed scrutiny following a string of police shootings in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

In 2011, the Justice Department issued a scathing report that said the city's police officers have often used deadly force without justification, repeatedly made unconstitutional arrests and engaged in racial profiling. The Justice Department's civil rights division also launched a series of criminal probes focusing on police officers' actions during Katrina's aftermath.

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