Last July, Mayor Landrieu was on hand to announce a consent decree between the U.S. Justice Department and the City of New Orleans in a lawsuit that alleged widespread abuses of basic civil rights by the New Orleans Police Department. “Now, after more than two years of work, the consent decree is done,” Mayor Landrieu remarked at the time.
Well, perhaps not quite done. Apparently, Mayor Landrieu didn’t consider the fact a consent decree might be reached with respect to the city’s other constitutional abomination, Orleans Parish Prison. That’s exactly what happened. Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni argues that “both the prison and NOPD consent decrees cannot be paid for at this time without raising taxes or laying off or furloughing employees.”
This is why, after failing to stall the implementation, the city filed a motion to vacate the consent decree late last month. In its motion the city raised various specious arguments, including the unforeseen cost of both consent decrees (which sure as heck should have been foreseen) and the taint from nasty missives left on Nola.com by disgraced former assistant U.S. Attorney Sal Perricone (whose unethical online proclivities were exposed before the consent decree was reached). Essentially, the city threw out whatever it could, and it wasn’t much.
(Disclaimer: Readers should be aware that Sal Perricone’s conduct has not been formally adjudicated at this time. Although I stated that his conduct was “unethical,” this was my opinion only. The final word ultimately rests with the Louisiana Supreme Court.)
Thus, the conventional wisdom is that Landrieu is fighting a losing battle, only slightly delaying the inevitable implementation of the consent decree he once championed but now depicts as unnecessary and overly expensive.
The question then becomes: If, as predicted, Landrieu’s Hail Mary pass sails unceremoniously out of bounds, what’s next? Well, he’ll have to actually pay for the consent decrees. Although the city benefits from some grant money from the federal government for criminal justice, Landrieu failed to secure any meaningful commitment from the feds for the cost of compliance in negotiations over the consent decree. That means we’re the ones who are going to be footing the bill. It’s just a question of whether Landrieu is looking at higher taxes, spending cuts, or both.
On this point, Landrieu is hemmed in on all sides. Taxes have increased slightly during his tenure as mayor and spending has been slashed in most departments (the NOPD excluded, of course). Worst of all, it is still fresh in everyone’s mind how Landrieu recently foisted massive sewerage and water rate increases on the citizens of New Orleans.
Accordingly, Landrieu is staring down an unpopular decision. Given his background, it would appear likely that he will shoot for tax or fee increases at least as a part of any plan to pay for the consent decrees. That said, even if he relies solely on spending cuts, it will still be a bitter pill for many to swallow.
Given this Catch-22 situation, it’s obvious that Landrieu’s strategy in trying to vacate the consent decree is shameless. It’s a calculated attempt to appear reluctant or forced, thus shifting the inevitable flak to the federal government. Landrieu knows what’s coming and he wants to be able to claim that he tried to stop it, to turn the narrative from “the consent decree is Landrieu’s baby” to “the consent decree is the devil spawn of the Department of Justice and Sheriff Gusman.” You and I are being set up to blame somebody else.
Ultimately, however, Landrieu cannot escape blame for this. He knew, or should have known, how much the consent decree would cost, and he should have anticipated that the DOJ would settle with Gusman in the near future and recognized the potential costs of that. If, in this context, the cost of implementation was such a sticking point, Landrieu should have either budgeted for it or refused to settle without a greater financial commitment from the federal government.
In the absence of a planned financial remedy (or the infeasibility thereof) Landrieu should own up and tell the citizens of New Orleans that the consent decree may be expensive and force some hard choices, but it’s worth it. He should say that the NOPD is broken and that the consent decree is an essential roadmap to reform.
That’s a message I’d be receptive to, particularly if Landrieu argues that it’s up to the NOPD to internalize these costs while still keeping up its level of service to the citizens of New Orleans. The NOPD’s constant claims of underfunding are belied by ever-increasing budgets and high per-capita police spending levels. Landrieu has tried to argue in the past that NOPD staffing is more than adequate; he needs to say so again and hold the department’s feet to the fire.
Instead, Landrieu is attempting to ravel the entire deal, a deal designed to protect us against police abuses. It won’t work and it’s wrong. The consent decree is a reality and we need a mayor who will consistently stand behind it, not engage in a dubious display of buyer’s remorse.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.