City, state, US await ruling on police reform hearing

NEW ORLEANS (AP) – New Orleans’ mayor, Louisiana’s attorney general, the U.S. Department of Justice and a federal judge all are awaiting an appeals court ruling on whether police officials must show up for a hearing this week to discuss progress in the city’s decade-long effort to reform its police department.

U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan ordered the Wednesday afternoon hearing – and participation by the interim police chief and other New Orleans Police Department officials – 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 has said preparation for such hearings diverts time and resources from the understaffed NOPD.

City lawyers said Morgan overstepped her authority when she ordered the hearing. They repeatedly referred to the hearing in Morgan’s courtroom as a “press conference” and they asked the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to “cancel or modify” Morgan’s order.

That 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.

Attorneys for the Justice Department said in a brief on Monday that the appeals court should deny the city’s request and give Morgan a chance to consider the city’s objections ahead of the hearing.

Morgan was expected to weigh in with a brief Tuesday afternoon. It was uncertain when the 5th Circuit would rule.

The legal squabble over the hearing takes place amid a larger legal battle over the future of the reform agreement, known as a “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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