Appeals court puts New Orleans police reform hearing on hold

NEW ORLEANS (AP) – A federal judge’s order that New Orleans police officials show up for a hearing on a decade-old police reform plan is on hold after a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that the judge should try to work out differences with city officials who had argued that the hearing would be a waste of time and resources.

U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan had issued an order setting the hearing for Wednesday afternoon. But the ruling from three judges on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stayed Morgan’s order for 30 days.

Morgan had ordered that the interim police chief and other New Orleans Police Department officials be ready to speak at the hearing, called to discuss progress in the city’s efforts to comply with reforms ordered under an agreement with the Justice Department in 2012.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell objected. And city lawyers said Morgan overstepped her authority when she ordered the hearing, which they repeatedly referred to not as a hearing, but as a “press conference.”

The 5th Circuit Court panel agreed with the city’s argument main argument, finding that the 2012 agreement on police reform did not empower Morgan to order the hearing.

But the panel declined to grant the city’s request for an order canceling or modifying Morgan’s order. Instead, the judges extended a temporary hold on the order for 30 days, “to give the conscientious district judge an opportunity to reconsider her order after adequate opportunity to confer” with the city and the Justice Department.

Justice Department lawyers had argued Monday that Morgan should have a chance to consider the city’s objections to the hearing.

The legal squabble had put the Democratic mayor on the same page as the state’s Republican attorney general, Jeff Landry. “The city is capable of deciding when and how to communicate with the press and public without orders from federal courts,” Landry, who is running for governor, said in a friend-of-the-court brief filed at the 5th Circuit on Monday.

Morgan had been invited to file a brief in the matter but had not done so by the time the appellate panel ruled.

The back-and-forth over the hearing is taking place place amid a larger legal battle over the future of the 2012 consent decree.

That pact followed a harshly critical Justice Department review of the NOPD and its history of periodic scandals. The review was ordered after the deaths of unarmed civilians in the chaotic aftermath of levee failures during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Morgan approved the decree in 2013. It is one of nearly two dozen such consent decrees in cities around the country.

Cantrell contends the city is in compliance with the agreement, which governs policies and practices touching on recruiting, training, use of force, racial bias and other aspects of police work. The Justice Department said in a Friday brief that NOPD still has problems involving dangerous vehicle pursuits, racially biased policing and use of force.

The brief didn’t suggest problems on the level with the post-Katrina shootings by police that left two dead at the city’s Danziger Bridge. But it said a police department review board has fallen behind in investigating use of force. It cited a police officer’s use of a Taser on an unarmed man who had his hands raised and was wanted “only for a municipal summons.”

Morgan has repeatedly praised the city’s progress. But she has expressed concerns that workforce and resource shortages at the police department could undermine reforms. The department has fewer than 1,000 officers – down from more than 1,300 a few years ago.

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