By Kevin Litten, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
With the departure of New Orleans Police Chief Michael Harrison imminent, two City Council members said in interviews that they’re growing nervous that his departure could mean it could take longer for the NOPD to exit from a consent decree that has pulled on city finances since it was put in place in 2013.
There have been no clear signs that could happen, but City Councilman Jason Williams said Harrison’s departure injects an uncomfortable level of uncertainty into a process city officials have long hoped would start winding down within two years. That’s because Harrison was seen as a steady hand in implementing the reforms called for in the consent decree, issued by a federal judge in response to systemic civil rights abuses within the police department.
“I wish we could’ve done everything we could to keep (Harrison) on until the consent decree was lifted. I don’t see how we can’t expeditiously move beyond that without him at the helm,” Williams said. “We’re going to be spending a lot more money because we’re going to have someone new who’s going to have to demonstrate commitment to meeting the consent decree.”
Federal monitors have praised Harrison’s leadership and vision for the department, and Williams worries monitors could press pause as they evaluate the next chief.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell is expected to announce her pick police chief on Monday. It will be an internal hire, which will give that person an edge on being familiar with various aspects of the consent decree.
In a statement, Cantrell spokesman Beau Tidwell said the mayor anticipates a “smooth transition in leadership which should in no way affect our consent decree progress.” Tidwell also made the point that the successes on the consent decree were not just the work of Harrison.
“The progress that has been made by the men and women of the NOPD as we approach substantial compliance is one element that made this transition possible,” Tidwell said.
Cantrell is committed to selecting a chief who “unequivocally is dedicated to building upon the reforms achieved by the department,” he added.
City Councilwoman Helena Moreno has expressed confidence in the department moving forward on the consent decree because of Harrison’s work and placement of top leaders, but she said it’s hard not to have thoughts about how the change will affect the consent decree.
With the city approaching a two-year final monitoring phrase under the decree, it highlights “how important it is to bring somebody to take over who has been part of (Harrison’s) leadership team so we can keep moving in the right direction,” Moreno said.
Harrison’s departure comes as Cantrell, Williams and Moreno are questioning various elements of the decree, mainly its cost. The increasing tension was evident in a written exchange between city officials and federal monitors made public Thursday (Dec. 10). A letter all three elected officials signed revealed the decree has cost the city more than $55 million. It points out that the city is picking up all costs for the federal monitors, “some of whom fly in monthly,” terms that the Landrieu administration agreed to at the time.
The letter goes on to complain that “the city’s questions about certain matters … are often met with disdain.”
A request in the letter that the city be advised of meetings with the monitors ahead of time and copy the city attorney’s office on correspondence was denied by lead monitor Jonathan Aronie, who said it could “risk creating a chilling effect on NOPD and city personnel.”
Aronie also wrote that while the city maintains it has reached 93 percent compliance with the decree, Aronie wrote that “substantial work needs to be done.”
Norm Stamper, the former chief of the Seattle Police Department, which is also under a consent decree, said that it is not uncommon for people who don’t like elements of the consent decree to see a leadership change as an opportunity.
“They’ll say, ‘This is our opportunity to dismantle the consent decree, it’s our opportunity to undermine it,’” Stamper said. Monitors will watch for that and likely apply a “litmus test” to any new chief, asking if they “are fully on board,” he said.
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said he was doubtful about whether a new chief could slow progress. The department has already made so much progress, “it shouldn’t matter who the chief is,” he said.
“The real test is not going to be whether they are in substantial compliance,” Goyeneche said. “The real of tale of the tape is going to be five years after (the monitors) leave, when the government isn’t watching.”