Federal judge postpones NOPD consent decree hearing, after Mayor Cantrell bars city employees from participating

Published: Mar. 28, 2023 at 5:05 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Mayor LaToya Cantrell barred city employees from speaking at public meetings regarding the New Orleans Police Department’s consent decree, drawing a swift rebuke from U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan on Tuesday (March 28).

Cantrell lashed out at the continued federal oversight of the police department -- which will reach 11 years in July -- in a statement that claimed continued participation in the public progress reports posed a drain on high-ranking city and NOPD personnel.

“These meetings require the attendance and attention of a range of public safety personnel who must depart from their daily duties to prepare for a court presentation on live television,” Cantrell said in her statement. “Despite our objections, these public events continue to be held and continue to represent a drain on the time, resources and ability of the NOPD to perform their job duties.

“Therefore, in the interest of supporting the efforts of Superintendent (Michelle) Woodfork to further strengthen the integrity of the command structure at NOPD, and to focus the city’s attention on public safety, I am not authorizing any city employee to speak on the city’s behalf in these public meetings without my express permission.”

Morgan responded Tuesday afternoon with a court order postponing the consent decree public presentation scheduled for Wednesday morning at Loyola New Orleans Law School.

“This morning, the city, through a letter from counsel and in a statement issued by the mayor, notified the court that the city will not send employees to speak at this event,” Morgan wrote. “The city’s communications asserted that participation in these hearings is not a consent decree requirement. The court disagrees.

“Public transparency and accountability are core elements of the consent decree that have been recognized and embraced by the court, the monitor, the Department of Justice and the city. Nevertheless, after careful consideration, in light of the city’s refusal to authorize its personnel to participate, the hearing will be rescheduled for a public court hearing in the near future.”

It was unclear what Cantrell hopes to gain from crossing swords with the federal judge. Morgan alone is empowered to determine when the NOPD has achieved sufficient compliance to begin a two-year wind down from the federal oversight.

“A good piece of advice for lawyers and litigants: Don’t spit in the eye of a federal judge,” attorney and Fox 8 legal analyst Joe Raspanti said. “They waited until the day before the hearing that was going to be set at Loyola Law School to say, ‘We’re not coming, Judge, because you don’t have power over certain things we think you want to talk about.’

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Throughout the history of the consent decree, Morgan has scheduled a series of public hearings or presentations allowing federal monitor Jonathan Aronie and his team to update the court and community on the police department’s progress toward compliance with the directives aimed at achieving and maintaining constitutional policing in the city.

Personnel from the NOPD and city attorney attend the sessions, often making their own PowerPoint presentations asserting additional progress before the judge and monitors. Rarely have more than 1-3 presenters from the NOPD or city been asked to present or answer questions from the judge at the sessions.

“This action will not slow down any part of the NOPD’s efforts to demonstrate compliance with the consent decree and does not represent any change in that continuing effort,” Cantrell said in her statement. “To the contrary, the time saved will free resources to maintain focus on that very effort.”

Zurik: Vappie’s return to Mayor Cantrell’s protection detail scuttled, NOPD federal monitor says

At a March 7 public meeting, Aronie responded to a question submitted by Fox 8′s Lee Zurik by confirming that he intervened when someone from City Hall attempted to get NOPD officer Jeffrey Vappie reinstated to Cantrell’s security team last December. The reassigned officer still was under internal NOPD scrutiny for potential payroll fraud and timesheet irregularities detailed in Zurik’s “Outside the Office” investigation.

“These public meetings have frequently veered into territory and subject matters that are not part of the consent decree or NOPD’s constitutional policing,” Cantrell complained Tuesday in her statement.

Woodfork issued a statement later Tuesday claiming the idea to stop participating in the hearings was hers.

“After learning that some of the items on the agenda for the public meeting scheduled for Wednesday were not within the parameters of the consent decree, I offered to have NOPD participate and report on the progress being made in meeting the goals set forth in the consent decree and future efforts. Unfortunately, that offer was declined,” Woodfork said in her statement. “As such, I made the decision that this meeting was not an appropriate use of police resources as its focus was not on the consent decree compliance and the path forward.”

Raspanti said, “It would appear that the Superintendent of Police is falling on the sword for the mayor -- her boss -- and she has to do what she has to do, I guess. But I don’t think challenging a federal judge, by anybody, is a good idea.”

Morgan, in her court order, appeared unmoved by the mayor’s reasoning.

“The court expresses its disappointment at the city’s last-minute decision,” Morgan wrote. “It is the court’s sincere hope that the NOPD continues to commit to providing the support and resources necessary for it to achieve and sustain compliance under the consent decree and to public transparency.

“The court assures the public that it has heard its requests for transparency and accountability and assures the public that open hearings and meetings will continue, so that it will continue to be informed of the NOPD’s progress toward consent decree compliance.”

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