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My Year As A New Orleans Consent Decree Insider

The Crescent City is in the final stages of a multimillion-dollar federal police reform process. Here‘s why it and other programs like it fail to achieve real reform.

A New Orleans police officer keeps an eye on Mardi Gras revelers on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter.Getty Images

In 1994, two years after a jury acquitted Los Angeles Police Department officers for the videotaped beating of Rodney King, sparking the LA riots, Congress granted the Department of Justice authority to take police departments to court to force them to adhere to constitutional policing practices.

These cases are typically resolved through consent decrees, which mandate reforms overseen by federal judges and third-party compliance experts. Today, 1 in 10 Americans is policed by a force that completed or is undergoing a federal court-supervised reform, in some cases more than once.

In 2017, the Trump DOJ initiated a review of all reform agreements, then announced strict criteria proposed agreements had to meet in order to receive approval. Since then, the DOJ has not pursued any new court-ordered reforms (this year, however, a federal judge approved  a new consent decree agreement between the State of Illinois and the City of Chicago to reform its police.) But House Democrats and many criminal justice reformers and civil rights attorneys insist that consent decrees remain the best way to hold police departments accountable, providing long to-do lists for departments to carry out such as rewriting use-of-force policies and ensuring that officers have reasonable suspicion that a crime was committed before stopping people.

New Orleans, one of 14 cities with police currently operating under federal supervision, began implementing its consent decree in 2013. Law enforcement officials and a team of court-appointed independent monitors say that since then, improvements like body-worn cameras, data-driven compliance systems, and community policing have led to a “remarkable” transition from a notoriously corrupt and violent force to one that is nearly in full compliance with the consent decree.

Police killings spark consent decree interest 

In 2016, I became interested in consent decrees after seeing national politicians tell residents who took to the streets to protest high-profile police killings—in Staten Island, Cleveland, Baltimore, and Ferguson, Missouri—that the federal government would transform their police departments. 

I wanted to investigate whether these agreements were as effective as leaders promised, and as an anthropologist, I wanted to do so up close. So I canceled my plans to teach at a California university and took a research year to travel to New Orleans to write about its consent decree process. 

Just days after Baton Rouge, Louisiana, police killed Alton Sterling, in July 2016, I arrived in New Orleans. Sterling’s killing set off protests that elicited a paramilitary response and, later, claims that law enforcement violated the rights of protesters. 

From July 2016 to July 2017, I worked as a consent decree auditor to research and write about police reform. I told New Orleans Police Department officials—including the compliance chief, Danny Murphy, and Matt Segraves, who later managed the audit unit—that I was also independently researching and writing about consent decrees, and I planned to publish what I learned. 

I watched as police officials and the third-party contractors overseeing court-ordered changes worked together to obstruct real change. I observed how selective metrics, scapegoating low-level officers to deflect blame from high-ranking officials, suppressing unfavorable audit reports, coaching officers scheduled to undergo third-party audits, and ignoring obvious conflicts of interest and wrongdoing by officials allowed misconduct to remain unchecked.

Segraves made it clear to me on my first day that compliance staff and the police we audited were “all on the same team.” “That’s important to know,” he added. Indeed, our performance evaluations—on which I received the highest possible score—measured us on whether we got along with police in the precincts we audited.

Moreover, many of the audits we conducted were of programs that were created and managed by compliance officials, such as certain community meetings and outreach events that compliance managers took the lead in organizing for each precinct. As I observed, some of these meetings seemed made to appear as if the officers and supervisors had planned them and were carrying them out while we assessed their performance.

As an auditor, I helped design and carry out audits under the direction of Murphy, Segraves, and NOPD Commander Otha Sandifer. I helped review paperwork and video culled from body-worn cameras, police vehicles, and interrogation rooms. I spoke with police officials, supervisors, and low-level officers alike. I attended community meetings, academy training sessions, meetings and inspections with third-party auditors and others involved in the consent decree reform, outreach sessions with school students, and a status hearing with the federal judge in charge of the consent decree. And on my own time, as a journalist and an anthropologist, I conducted numerous interviews with criminal justice advocates and organizers, criminal defense attorneys, patrol officers, and others in the police department and across New Orleans who were involved in or affected by changes that the consent decree brought to police. 

Now, as New Orleans’s consent decree winds down, two NOPD officials who led its implementation, former Superintendent Michael Harrison and Murphy, have been hired by the Baltimore Police Department. Harrison is commissioner, and Murphy is deputy commissioner  of its Compliance Bureau, in charge of implementing Baltimore’s consent decree. There is good reason to believe they will follow the playbook they devised in New Orleans: carrying out small reforms and creating the appearance of improvement while preventing larger, structural changes.

Here’s why I think that New Orleans’s consent decree, and others like it, are failing to achieve substantive reform.

When you design the metrics, anything counts as success 

Police consent decrees are overseen by court-appointed criminal justice experts, including former police chiefs, private attorneys, and academics. These experts audit compliance with reform agreements and advise police on how to make changes. Consent decree monitoring is big business. Teams of expert monitors, often based outside the cities where they oversee police, bid for what can be multimillion-dollar contracts. In New Orleans, where the cost of the consent decree is approximately $55 million and rising, a joint committee of city and federal officials chose a monitoring team led by Jonathan Aronie, a partner in the Washington, D.C. office of the corporate law firm Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton. 

These monitoring teams work with officials like former New Orleans police commissioner Murphy and his boss Harrison to develop metrics that assess the department’s progress. But as Murphy liked to say, quoting a member of the Sheppard Mullin team, “you manage what you measure.” In New Orleans, Murphy and Harrison teamed up with compliance auditors and the Sheppard Mullin experts to focus on quantitative metrics. The compliance “scorecards” Murphy created report the percentage of police districts and units fulfilling audit standards constructed from the terms of the decree.

But the design of many of the metrics allowed police to check boxes rather than demonstrate real improvement. For example, New Orleans’s consent decree obligates the police to improve its relationship with the city’s Black majority and other communities that the DOJ found the department was illegally targeting. One metric I saw auditors and monitors use to assess progress was the provision that precincts had to show auditors two photographs per month depicting officers interacting with city residents. I examined these photos, and could not decipher how they could be used as evidence that police were gaining people’s trust. When looking at the photographs, which included children and teenagers, it appeared to me that some of those who appeared in them may have been unaware of the right to say no when asked to stand next to an officer and smile. They certainly seemed unaware that police officials and consent decree monitors would use the images to claim that the NOPD is improving community relations.

Another metric used to determine trust building is whether police district precincts are holding regular public meetings. But in the dozens of these meetings that I attended, people spent most of the time griping that there were not enough police, or that officers were not sufficiently aggressive toward young people or Section 8 renters and did not prioritize “quality of life” crimes. No one asked about police bias or abuse. Residents who mistrust police—the people with whom the department was supposed to build trust under the consent decree—largely did not attend. 

I also witnessed the department allow misconduct that didn’t appear in audit measures go unaddressed. One incident involved a police department intelligence unit that seemed to be stalking police critics online, emailing at least one “officer safety” notice to the entire force that both the Sheppard Mullin monitors and compliance staff received and ignored. The email said one critic of law enforcement sympathized with anti-police violence in the wake of Alton Sterling’s killing. It also noted that the Black male activist had not violated any laws “yet,” but nonetheless shared his photo, address, Social Security number, and a copy of his driver’s license.

Compliance Bureau and internal investigations staff with the Public Integrity Bureau also informally tracked the Public Integrity Bureau’s own chief on department time. I watched staff  find and share a picture of the chief standing next to the Rev. Al Sharpton at a Baton Rouge rally demanding accountability in the Sterling shooting. Such communications allowed police to target their critics, something the consent decree was meant to prohibit. But nobody tracked such conduct, and neither the police nor the Sheppard Mullin team devised any metrics that would enable them to.

Focus on ‘bad apples’ absolves leaders

Under the consent decree, Sheppard Mullin monitors and New Orleans police introduced multimillion-dollar compliance systems sold by private companies like Axon (formerly Taser) and Sierra-Cedar. But the systems, along with new policies and protocols, ended up pinning the blame for wrongdoing on low-level cops and their immediate supervisors. This emphasis on finding the “bad apples” at the bottom allowed senior police leaders to evade responsibility for harmful behaviors. 

Policing by algorithm 

INSIGHT, the commercial “early intervention” software implemented in New Orleans in 2016, is supposed to identify problem officers before they can commit serious acts of wrongdoing. The program automatically emails frontline supervisors when their officers exceed a specific number of public complaints or use-of-force incidents, among other things. But INSIGHT functions to a large extent according to what an officer’s peers do. If an entire unit is particularly violent, for example, or elicits a high number of public complaints, INSIGHT will determine that each officer in the unit is acting within the unit’s norms, and it will not flag them.

Programs like INSIGHT are good at ensuring that individual members of a unit behave alike but not necessarily ethically. INSIGHT allows police to set a fixed number of violent incidents that officers may be involved in before the software flags them; it does not prevent officials from deciding any level of violence or other problem behavior is acceptable as long as it’s not an outlier. Sierra-Cedar, which sells early-warning software to police departments, made sure that its customers—law enforcement leaders—and the decisions they make are never wrong.

Body-worn cameras

Body-worn cameras have also been hailed as a solution to root out misconduct in New Orleans. Though not required by the consent decree, both police officials and Sheppard Mullin monitors boasted that they had created a policy to require officers to wear and activate body cameras. “We have a policy that states we have to turn them on for all required calls for service and other citizen-involved contacts during investigations,” Murphy, the former New Orleans compliance bureau leader, told a local TV reporter three years after the cameras were purchased. “We started in the 80s, but by doing monthly [audit] checks, we quickly got up to 97 percent and have been over 97 percent for the past year.”

Like INSIGHT, the body-worn camera policy that the police wrote with Sheppard Mullin experts focuses only on low-level officers. The policy applies only to “uniformed officers who answer calls for service,” exempting most higher-ranking officers, even if they detain suspects by force and in uniform. While at police headquarters, I witnessed numerous instances where higher-ranking officers’ questionable behavior could not be viewed after an incident because they were exempt from wearing cameras.

For officers who do wear cameras, these only have to be activated when interacting with the public, not when they are talking to one another. This is problematic because footage of officers discussing an incident can reveal important evidence. I watched multiple videos in which higher-ranking officers instruct patrol officers to turn off their body-worn camera before they spoke. In one case, I watched video of a horse-mounted officer whose rank exempted him from following the camera requirement order another officer to turn off his camera after the officer refused to arrest a subject because he believed there was no probable cause. Knowingly arresting a suspect without probable cause is a crime and the order to turn off a body-worn camera during a discussion about probable cause is troubling. Yet, this was allowed under the department’s policy.

Private police details

Hundreds of New Orleans police are detailed to private employers, including neighborhood associations, companies like the French Market Corporation, and the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. They are also exempt from wearing cameras.

In theory, officers detailed to private employers do not perform police functions, only “guarding” duties such as keeping watch outside a shop. In reality, police working details patrol large swaths of the city, and their actions are often indistinguishable from the work of a regular police patrol. In 2011, the DOJ said that private details represent the “aorta of corruption” in the New Orleans Police Department.

The consent decree reforms established a special office to address problems with police detailed to city businesses, funded by a portion of officers’ private pay. This office was supposed to assign officers to different details, rather than allow them to sign contracts with businesses and then hire other officers to work with them. This was meant to prevent lower-ranked officers from undermining the department’s hierarchy by having hiring power over higher-ranked officers. But it did nothing to address a bigger problem: Corporations can pay to operate the levers of police power.

I witnessed numerous instances of private patrols harassing French Quarter street sellers, so the French Market Corporation and other businesses that paid into these patrols could monopolize the historic neighborhood’s tourist market. Once, I heard that a New Orleans police officer issued a ticket to a street poet selling custom-written poems to tourists. I looked up the incident and indeed, the officer issued the ticket. When I searched for body-worn camera video, I discovered that none existed. Upon further investigation, I learned that the officer—who was in uniform, performing a police patrol duty and not guarding a business—was detailed to a private patrol. He was neither issued a camera, nor required to videotape the encounter.

I searched records for other officers similarly detailed to privately operated police patrols and found numerous instances of them issuing tickets for “quality of life” crimes such as blocking sidewalks. These were thinly veiled attempts to remove homeless people and artisanal sellers from the Quarter, so they did not disturb tourists or divert business from its shops and “street markets” such as the French Market, an open-air market near the banks of the Mississippi River.

Police officials and Sheppard Mullin monitors did not prevent police from working these details. Nor did they address the problem that officers on private patrols are not subject to regular compliance controls such as the body-worn camera policy. 

Stop and frisk 

The Sheppard Mullin team and police officials emphasized that officers must articulate lawful reasons for stopping and searching people and making arrests. Patrol officers were informed on what counts as “reasonable suspicion” to stop a person on the street or in a vehicle, or what is required to have probable cause to arrest a person. The consent decree went even further: It forbade the department from selectively enforcing the law based on race, even in a legal manner.

But police officials and the Sheppard Mullin monitors largely replaced this requirement with a narrower one. Frontline officers must articulate, in writing, a race-neutral and/or other protected-class neutral reason for stopping, searching, and arresting suspects. Monitors then measured if officers’ language about their intent revealed psychological biases, instead of determining if the department was actually disproportionately enforcing the law. Like body-worn cameras and INSIGHT, this policy shifted responsibility from supervisors to  patrol officers.

As I learned while assisting the police in designing and carrying out compliance audits, frontline supervisors were encouraged to “send back” stop, search, and arrest cards. Officers were required to fill these out to document their lawful justification whenever they stopped and frisked someone or made an arrest. Officers essentially got to fill out another card if they did not initially articulate a legal justification for a stop and search or arrest. And defense attorneys were given access to only the final drafts after they were approved by supervisors, not the initial reports.

The compliance metrics, then, focused not on who police were stopping, searching, and arresting, but how effectively patrol officers are writing justifications for what they have done. Even when I worked on a program to elicit focus group feedback about whether they thought officers were treating people fairly during stops, I was told by both police officials and Sheppard Mullin monitors to make sure that the focus group participants did not address why officers were at a location stopping someone (or who sent them), just what they did once there. 

Focus groups were delayed several times by police and Sheppard Mullin monitors’ concerns about what participants would see.  But while under development, Sheppard Mullin experts and police officials told me to inform future participants who would watch one of the proposed videos—police body camera footage of a Black male police confronted for sitting on a stoop—that there had been drug activity observed either in the area or at the house whose stoop he sat on, justifying the stop. No one who advised me to say this knew if it was true. They just did not want the public to question stop and frisk or the police leaders who deployed officers to carry out the practice. Later, Sheppard Mullin monitors and Sandifer suggested censoring many of the body-worn camera videos proposed for the focus groups because they did not want the public to watch officers making questionable stops.

Both the editing of officers’ justifications for stops and ensuring that the public did not question their rationale allowed the NOPD to deploy its officers and assign them tasks that resulted in selective policing of certain communities, which is forbidden by the consent decree.

According to one criminal defense attorney I spoke to, who requested anonymity due to his need to regularly interact with New Orleans police and prosecutors, the consent decree’s focus on training officers to articulate legal reasons for stopping, searching, and arresting people ultimately helps prosecutors and police cover up their actions while making it difficult to uncover police bias and misconduct. 

Use of force

Police must “wait out” a suspect who is resisting them and not use force to gain their compliance, according to the consent decree. This requirement is part of an effort to clamp down on the NOPD’s long history of excessive force, which includes the beating death of a mentally disabled resident of historic Black neighborhood Tremé and the killing of a man wrongly suspected of looting after Hurricane Katrina.  But under the consent decree requirement, officers must only wait suspects out “when feasible based on the circumstances.” Murphy also tried to winnow that vague language down even further by insisting to me that the phrase “when feasible based on the circumstances” is open to officers’ interpretation.

Replacing the police reform industrial complex

New Orleans’s consent decree process is the product of a police reform industrial complex in which police officials, government attorneys, and contracted experts collude to help cities avoid root-and-branch police reform. The consent decree funnels millions of dollars in public money to private companies and contractors, bolstering police budgets and private coffers.

Meanwhile, there are cuts to other city agencies, some of which offer alternative, nonpunitive solutions to the social and economic ills that drive crime and incarceration.

The consent decree also diminishes patrol officer unions’ power. Police unions are often blamed for enabling misconduct, but they can also prevent police leadership from punishing frontline workers to divert attention from policies that may be the real sources of persistent wrongdoing.

Instead of pursuing consent decrees, cities should explore alternatives to police for many things they do. And to rein in police, reformers may have a better chance of success working with local partners rather than outside entrepreneurs. New Orleans, like many cities with police operating under consent decrees, has a local independent police monitor, Susan Hutson. The City Council created Hutson’s office in 2010, around the same time the Justice Department negotiated the consent decree, with local civil rights groups like VOTE NOLA among her biggest supporters. Unlike the Sheppard Mullin contractors, Hutson’s office will continue to operate once the federal monitor leaves. And Hutson’s office is a public entity, subject to public records laws and directly accountable to New Orleans residents.

The consent decree process has shut Hutson’s office out of reform. For example, while publicly boasting of NOPD’s transparency, Sandifer directed an assistant to send an email to compliance staff that forbid us from sharing any information with Hutson: “Per Commander Sandifer, any request made by the Independent Police Monitor (IPM) relatively [sic] to New Orleans Police Department must be approved by him. No one shall request information pertaining to the function of the police department or its manpower without prior approval.” This email appears to have been in response to Hutson informing Superintendent Harrison that when they met in the spring of 2017, she learned he hadn’t been honest with her in a previous meeting about police being unable to access data she sought.

Other cities whose police have operated under consent decrees have also seen local police reformers shut out. In Portland, Oregon, city officials, a federal judge, and the Justice Department replaced city residents serving on a monitoring team with paid professional monitors. In Cincinnati, city officials and the DOJ replaced its third-party monitor after he clashed with the police union, citing a reimbursement for trip preparations and other expenses purportedly  allowed under his contract among evidence that he needed to go.

The failures I witnessed in New Orleans have implications for police reform nationwide. NOPD superintendent Harrison and compliance chief Danny Murphy are now remaking the Baltimore Police Department in the wake of scandals involving high-profile units like the Gun Trace Task Force, which sold drugs, robbed people, and even planted guns and drugs on them. The department continues to struggle with Internal Affairs investigations; the consent decree monitors recently said it displayed  “inexcusable negligence” when it threw out misconduct cases after Internal Affairs allowed them to expire. 

Lead New Orleans monitor Aronie of Sheppard Mullin was a member of the team monitoring Washington, D.C.’s police reforms before winning the New Orleans contract; he previously went into business with Christy Lopez, who went on to become a DOJ official overseeing New Orleans’ reform for the Feds, to unsuccessfully bid to monitor Prince George’s County, Maryland’s police consent decree. And experts working for Aronie have been at the center of some of the federal government’s biggest police overhauls as third-party monitors and police officials, profiting handsomely; one monitor, Judith Dangerfield, even received a job with the city of New Orleans after monitoring its police for Aronie. Aronie’s experts have consulted, spoken, and written widely about their work, presenting it as a model for effective reform. If the DOJ returns to the business of federal police reform, these are the people who will likely be at the center of any new consent decrees.

It is too early to tell what Baltimore’s reformed police department may look like. But there is reason to believe that Harrison and Murphy may guide that city’s consent decree in a manner comparable to the process in New Orleans. In June, Harrison introduced a body-worn camera policy that gives him one week to decide whether to release footage after a police shooting, longer than had been standard practice in Baltimore before Harrison and Murphy arrived.  “A similar policy was in place when I led the New Orleans Police Department,” Harrison said, “and I found it to be extremely effective for everybody involved.”

Those who are genuinely fighting to change how America’s cities are policed should put their energy and resources into supporting local police oversight offices like Hutson’s. Let federal consent decrees recede into the past: They are deeply flawed and profit-driven, and they do not have a place in a future involving real reform.