Saturday, January 12, 2013

0 Mayor Landrieu fails in bid to halt pending NOPD reform deal

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I tell you this: If we go to court, I'™m pretty sure that consent decree will be a lot smaller than it is today." - Mayor Mitch Landrieu

Mayor Mitch Landrieu tried in vain on Friday to slam the brakes on one of his most ballyhooed achievements -- a deal last summer with federal officials to instill sweeping reforms in the New Orleans Police Department. Instead, U.S. District Court Judge Susie Morgan entered the NOPD consent decree anyway, over Landrieu's objections.

In an interview on Thursday, Landrieu did an about-face on the police agreement, saying he couldn't sign it with the specter of having to pay the tab for proposed fixes at the Orleans Parish jail. That deal, a separate proposed consent decree, could do "catastrophic damage" to the city budget, he said.

Attorneys for the city told Morgan on Friday morning that the city refused to sign a final version of a federal consent decree that Landrieu and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder proudly announced last summer at Gallier Hall.

But the judge ignored it, leaving Landrieu unsure whether he has any recourse to reverse the decision. According to Morgan's ruling, the city has said it plans to seek relief from her judgment. The city must file a motion by Jan. 31.

At a groundbreaking ceremony for a $130 million redevelopment of the old Methodist Hospital campus into a not-for-profit hospital on Friday, Landrieu said he was disappointed with Morgan's decision but thought it might be a done deal.

"What is concerning me is that the relationship the Justice Department has now engaged in with the sheriff has a gun to the city's head," Landrieu said. "I'm not happy with the situation. I want to think about it over the weekend."

In the interview with|The Times-Picayune on Thursday, the mayor lashed out at the Justice Department, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman and even the federal judge who is slated to decide how much the city must pay for the jail reforms.

They are to blame, he insisted, for the politically bitter prospect that Landrieu appeared resigned to confront: a call for a higher taxes or else a major cutback in city services. Landrieu said he felt particularly betrayed by the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, which negotiated both the police and jail agreements.

Landrieu also said that his relationship with Gusman, which has been cordial in public, is about to get ugly.

"We haven't had an antagonistic personal relationship, and we still don't unless this forces us to get angry at each other, which I'm sure it will," Landrieu said. "And I hope we make up after it's over. But we're going to have the fight."

The proposed prison reforms include increased training and better pay for sheriff's deputies, better mental health care for inmates and quicker reporting of incidents in a jail notorious for violence, death and escape.

Over the past seven years, 38 inmates have died in the prison facilities. Escapes, particularly from the temporary "tents" set up after Hurricane Katrina, are commonplace.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu talks with Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman at the groundbreaking ceremony for the intake processing center for Orleans Parish Prison on Sept. 1 2011 John McCusker, The Times-Picayune  

Gusman wants another $17 million in "interim funding" for the fixes, on top of the $22 million he now receives from the city under a 1969 consent decree that set a per-diem rate for inmate care.

Under state law, the city must fund inmate care, although it legally has no say over how the jail is run. The city also pays more than $10 million for the sheriff's office's medical costs, insurance, workers compensation, fuel and court services, according to city figures.

Gusman, the Justice Department and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which brought the inmate lawsuit that spurred the proposed jail consent decree, are pressing the city in court to pony up. According to Landrieu, U.S. District Judge Lance Africk has indicated that he's inclined to side against the city on the money issue.

The final figure is slated to be decided at a trial scheduled for April. Anything close to $17 million would cripple a city facing deep fiscal woes, the mayor said. He argued that it could compromise public safety by spurring cuts to law enforcement and other emergency personnel.

Landrieu said Thursday that he refused to commit to the $55 million projected cost of the police consent decree -- including $7 million budgeted for this year -- while the specter of the jail bill looms.

The city, he said, intended to move forward with police reforms, with or without the federal government. Still, Landrieu said he hoped someday to finalize the deal, in part to foster public confidence in the changes at NOPD.

"I'm completely and totally committed to reforming the police department, but my job is to protect all of the taxpayers of New Orleans," Landrieu said. "And that is going to require me right now in these federal matters to say we're stopping, because it's not clear anymore."

The police agreement is a 492-point blueprint for a wide range of changes on the force -- from how private police details are run to how cops do searches; from when and how they can use force to how the department collects data and makes it public.

The deal was worked out over several months of intense negotiations, with projected costs attached to each item. Many of the reforms, including changes to police details, are well underway, said NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas.

Morgan and both sides negotiated several changes to the agreement that Landrieu said would cost more - and which he seemed to think opened the door for the city to back away. But the amended consent decree that Morgan signed on Friday included only grammatical corrections and other minor points, suggesting Morgan abandoned any significant changes to push the agreement through.

The city wanted a similarly detailed cost analysis for the jail decree. Landrieu claims the feds weren't interested, and he called the Justice Department "schizophrenic" in its approach to the city and the two consent decrees.

"We said, 'Let's sit down with all of the data and work with you in a similar process," he said. "It was flat-out rejected."

In court filings, the Justice Department hotly disputes the city's claim, saying the city "was invited to participate at every stage of the proceedings; the fact that it chose not to in some instances does not mean it was excluded."

The Justice Department declined to respond directly to Landrieu's barbs, instead issuing a news release praising the judge for her "careful attention to this matter."

"The deficiencies within NOPD that the Department of Justice identified during its extensive investigation continue to plague New Orleans," said Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez.

"Time is of the essence. We look forward to the immediate implementation of the agreement, and stand ready to work with all stakeholders in New Orleans to continue the reform process."

What's clear from the dispute, however, is a meltdown in relations between the mayor's office and the agency just six months after Landrieu and Holder touted a cooperative spirit in reaching the police pact.

Now, the mayor says he believes the police deal may have gone too far. On Thursday, before Morgan signed the agreement, Landrieu challenged the Justice Department to prove the constitutional violations it claims the NOPD needs to fix.

"I tell you this: If we go to court, I'm pretty sure that consent decree will be a lot smaller than it is today," Landrieu said. Were the consent decree to be trimmed back, it would likely reduce the city's price tag for implementing it as well.

Absent taxes, the proposed jail reform costs could force major city layoffs, month-long furloughs for city workers or deep cuts in city services, said the city's chief administrative officer, Andy Kopplin. For instance, furloughing the city's entire workforce for 28 days would make up the missing $17 million, he said.

Landrieu said Gusman, with a new jail now under construction, has failed to justify why any of the reforms demand more cash. In legal filings, Landrieu has refused to weigh in on whether conditions in the jail are unconstitutional.

"I can see where this train is headed," Landrieu said of the hefty potential cost.

"I don't want this to catch anyone in the city by surprise. We're headed for a cliff. It could threaten in a real way the tremendous progress we've made in the recovery."

Landrieu suggested he would apply heavy political pressure to Gusman, who has been pressing to add jail beds beyond the 1,438 that the City Council has so far approved.

"Unless and until we get the whole thing done with the sheriff -- and now I mean the whole thing: How many jails do we need? How many state prisoners do we have? -- I can't put the city at risk," Landrieu said.

"I'm not going to keep going back to the people of the city, nickel- and dime-ing 'em. I'd like to be able to just tell 'em."

What the city must pay now is governed by state law and the old consent decree, which currently sets the per-diem at $22.39 per inmate per day. In addition to pulling the city into the federal civil rights lawsuit over the jail fixes, Gusman also is asking a different federal judge -- who supervises the old consent decree -- to increase the inmate per-diem by $5.48.

The higher per-diem alone would up the city's tab by more than $5 million per year based on current inmate figures, even without the new jail consent decree.

Gusman argues that the dollar figure hasn't increased in a decade, and he's forced to subsidize the jail with "several million dollars" from revenues from the civil sheriff's side.

The proposed consent decree, which Gusman came to grudgingly, just highlights the funding shortage, Gusman said.

Echoing the city's legal filings, Landrieu suggested that Gusman has misspent money. He pointed to a new kitchen warehouse facility for the jail that he said was overbuilt -- it can feed 8,500 prisoners, at least three times what the jail holds, he said. He also grumbled about fuel costs for deputies that are second only to the NOPD, and wondered why the sheriff needs horse and motorcycle squads.

Landrieu claims the sheriff has failed to provide any detailed budget figures to the city, including revenues from civil sheriff duties.

Gusman, who once made similar complaints about Sheriff Charlie Foti when Gusman was the city's chief administrative officer -- disputed that claim, as well as Landrieu's argument that the city was unaware of the need for more money for the jail.

Gusman said he's been pressing the city for years to adequately fund the jail, and said Landrieu has been aware for years the jail needs more money.

"I've opened my books. I don't have any secrets. Everything is out there," Gusman said. "The issue is not about quote 'complying' with the consent decree. It's about us being able to get quality personnel and retain them and to pay the medical costs that have gone up. All that stuff has gone up," he added.

"This isn't anything new. This might be just an attempt to try to divert the issue."

Gusman said he wasn't aware that his rapport with Landrieu was about to turn sour.

"I was surprised to hear our relationship is going to get bad. I think he's trying to do his best to protect the city's budget, but this is part of what they have to deal with."

Landrieu suggested that Gusman was diverting money that could be spent on the jail into other, extraneous areas, saying the sheiff is primarily a jailer and shouldn't task the department with law enforcement duties.

The sheriff's office also guards the courthouse, while the civil side delivers court subpoenas, oversees foreclosure sales and does various other tasks.

Ironically, the city has frequently invited Gusman to participate in news conferences and other events touting law enforcement initiatives.

Landrieu reserved his harshest criticism for the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division and Deputy Assistant U.S. Attorney Roy Austin, who helped negotiate both deals.

He called the Justice Department "a kind of rogue agency."

"You have a Justice Department that is confused with itself and in some instances schizophrenic. You have one side of the Justice Department that says, 'Get on the ground, work hard and get rid of criminals.' The other side says 'don't,'" Landrieu said. "One of them says 'we'll give you money,' the other says 'pay money.' One of them says 'I'm part of the president's cabinet; we want to reduce taxes on the middle class.' The other part of it says, 'We really don't care where you get the money, that's your problem, go tell it to the judge.' And I'm bucking up. I'm saying stop."

Katie Schwartzmann, director of the Louisiana office of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the mayor is barking up the wrong tree.

She noted that the center filed its lawsuit in April and the Justice Department, which has issued a pair of scathing reports on jail conditions, only joined in later.

"It's not like these problems just dropped out of the sky. The residents of New Orleans have been pushing for reform of the jail and reform of the police department for years," Schwartzmann said.

"Those asks have been very public. People were losing family members. The truth is, the city has not monitored where its money is going in the jail for years, and now it's going to be monitored because people have been killed and raped in the jail."

Schwartzmann said the jail decree was "moving forward regardless" of the Justice Department. She acknowledged that some of the jail fixes may not require more money, but that staffing shortages do.

"That's weird for him to say that," she said of Landrieu's attack of DOJ.

"This case was driven by New Orleaneans. It's not just the federal government coming in. That's the mayor's constituency also," she said. "These problems have been highlighted for years and nothing's happened."

A spokesman for the local Fraternal Order of Police lodge, which represents cops and was shut out of the police consent decree talks, said the city should have fought it from the get-go.

"It insults the judicial system that they are trying to pull out of the decree at the last minute because they say they can't fund it when they had the opportunity to get a commitment for money earlier," said Raymond Burkart III, "or at least bring the government to trial so they could get a fair judgment."

Civil rights attorney Mary Howell, a longtime advocate for police and jail reforms in the city, worried that the bad blood could stall progress at a pivotal time.

"It's not a question of trusting any administration. It's beyond any individual who's in office. You've got to have the oversight from the court and from an independent monitor," Howell said of the city's trouble-plagued criminal justice system.

"I'm hoping some of the fury and the frustrations will calm down a bit. This is one of those brief moments in history where we have an opportunity to fix this."

Staff writer Laura Maggi contributed to this report.


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