Paying for the Consent Decree

Charles Maldonado on the $11 million annual price tag for the NOPD consent decree


Consent Decree
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Independent police monitor Susan Hutson wants her office to have a large role in implementing the DOJ's consent decree for the New Orleans Police Department.

As the City of New Orleans' 2013 budget process begins in earnest, with community meetings in each of the five City Council districts starting this week, there are signs that city departments may be headed into an unusually difficult year.

  In July, Mayor Mitch Landrieu reported the city is projecting $13 million in revenue shortfalls for the current year. Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin already has taken action to address the shortfall, holding back about 4 percent of each department's budget for discretionary spending and requesting about $5 million in cuts.

  In late July, the city added another $11 million to its projected 2013 budget problem. That's the estimated cost of the 124-page, 492-point proposed consent decree between the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD).

  But so far there are only estimates of what items in the agreement will cost the city $11 million a year. Even less clear this early in the budget process is how the additional costs will impact the rest of the municipal budget for 2013, including the budget for the police department.

At a July 24 press conference, where local and federal officials unveiled the proposed consent decree, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder described the agreement as "the most wide-ranging" in DOJ history. The decree, which will not be finalized until an Aug. 29 hearing before U.S. District Court Judge Susie Morgan (at the earliest), calls for overhauls in nearly every corner of the long-troubled police department. It requires rewritten policies on officer use of force, stops-and-searches, interrogations, recruitment, mental health crisis intervention and off-duty paid detail shifts (which will now be called "secondary employment").

  "Is it going to cost more?" Landrieu asked at the briefing, before answering, "About $11 million more per year for the next five years."

  It will mean new personnel, including a staff for the Office of Police Secondary Employment (a City Hall-based office, which had started to take shape even before July 24, that will oversee details), a full-time curriculum director for the Police Academy, an officer in-service training and an IT staff. Add to that new equipment and software (including cameras in all police cars), a personnel "early warning" database to detect patterns of "problematic behavior" among officers, improvements to data storage — and oversight by a federal monitor, who also will have personnel needs.

  The city already set aside $1 million in this year's budget for a yet-to-be hired monitor. Former NOPD Lt. Victor Cazenave is now in his second year as NOPD-DOJ liaison, a $65,000 per year contract position. The California-based firm Lexipol received a $295,000 maximum value contract last December to help develop the new policies DOJ will require.

  Locally, the law firm of Capitelli and Wicker, which provided legal services in NOPD-DOJ negotiations, in July signed a year-long contract extension capped at $100,000 for continued consent decree-related work, according to online city procurement records. The firm's initial 2011-2012 contract came with a $250,000 cap. (Before he became mayor, Landrieu leased law office space from that firm and has long had close personal and professional ties to it. Mayoral spokesman Ryan Berni told Gambit via email that the firm was hired through the city's competitive selection process based on its relevant subject matter expertise, and that the cost was budgeted for in 2012 in the city attorney's office.)

  Berni provided some initial numbers on major consent-decree costs between 2013 and 2017. Of the $55 million, five-year total, three components represent more than $40 million. The largest chunk — $19.75 million — will go to the early warning system deployment. The next highest number — $12 million — will fund setting up and maintaining interdepartmental crime information-sharing programs. The monitor's office is projected to cost $10 million. Other programs are expected to cost far less. The Office of Secondary Employment, which will be funded at least in part by officer fees, is marked down for $2.8 million.

  The DOJ has indicated that grants may be available to offset some items, but no specifics have been made available yet. Ultimately, City Hall (read: taxpayers) is responsible for all additional costs.

  Those new costs will have a huge impact on the budget of an already financially challenged city. The city's 2012 budget — prior to the 4 percent holdbacks announced by Kopplin — included reductions of 5 percent to 10 percent in nearly every department, though fewer than 100 positions were eliminated.

  Asked how the cost to implement the consent decree will affect normal city expenditures or personnel, city officials say it's too early to speculate. "We have basically seen what you have seen, what's coming from the DOJ and the administration. We're going to go through the budget process," said Danielle Viguerie, spokeswoman for Councilwoman at-Large Stacy Head. "We haven't been given any further details as far as the accounting or where the money is coming from or anything like that."

  Regarding the general budget impact, Berni likewise said the city is too early in the process to provide hard numbers. "Like anything else, we're ... looking for federal support. And, like any other item we tack on the budget, we're looking at cuts, reorganizations and investments," he said. "Again, I think it's early, but that's been our budgeting principle since we've been here."

Despite cuts in other city departments, NOPD saw a budget increase of $10 million in 2012, from $109 to $119 million. The consent decree seems likely to push NOPD's budget up again in 2013. Meanwhile, cops worry the increases will come mainly via contracts, services and technology mandated by the DOJ, says Ray Burkart, attorney for the New Orleans Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the largest of the city's three officer associations.

  FOP was one of four parties that went to federal court last week asking to intervene in the consent-decree case. The Police Association of New Orleans, the Office of the Independent Police Monitor and the citizens' group Community United for Change each filed its own motion to intervene. As reasons for intervening, all cited concerns about the effects of the agreement as written, along with demands to be involved in finalizing the decree (which had been negotiated by the city, NOPD and the DOJ).

  "With regard to the budget, our position is, let's prioritize," says Burkart, who was a police officer before becoming an attorney for FOP. "Let's look at what's truly necessary." To FOP, that's manpower, increased recruitment as well as curbing the department's attrition rate to keep the officers NOPD has.

 "We're at about 1,317 today, but that number changes every day," Police Chief Ronal Serpas said in a City Council meeting earlier this summer. "We've lost about 46 or 47 people so far this year at the halfway point."

  The city has reopened its Police Academy, graduating its first class in two years last week. That class had 28 recruits. Burkart worries that the department, burdened with the added costs of the proposed consent decree, will fall further behind in personnel.

  New Orleans Independent Police Monitor Susan Hutson, who wants an official voice and larger role for her office in consent decree implementation, worked for the Los Angeles Police Department's (LAPD) Office of Inspector General from 2007-2010. For her first two years, LAPD was operating under a federal consent decree, which was in force from 2001-2009. That department's experience might make New Orleans officers more optimistic about recruiting efforts, she says.

  "It was always a priority for the city administration in Los Angeles. So they built and built until they got to almost 10,000 (officers)," Hutson says. "It was always a priority that you had enough officers on the street to combat the gang problem out there."

  The NOPD consent decree, as drafted, sets out a strategy for more effective recruitment but doesn't specify a minimum adequate number of officers, Burkart noted. And while it instructs the department to "develop and implement fair and consistent promotions practices," it doesn't mandate more frequent opportunities for promotions. In its March 2011 investigation into NOPD, which foreshadowed the consent decree, the DOJ recommended more frequent promotion exams for officers.

  "None of it. None of it is in there," Burkart says. "And that's what's so troubling about the consent decree."

  Berni says the Landrieu Administration does not intend to pay for these added costs by compromising safety. "I think the mayor's been committed, and we've seen in our budgets a commitment to funding the Police Department — and public safety, for that matter," he says.

  Then there's the issue of spiraling costs, a problem endemic to police departments in other cities that have been under consent decrees. According to media reports from 2000 and 2001, the LAPD's consent decree initially was slated to cost between $30 and $50 million a year. More recent estimates show the actual expenses on the high end of that estimate.

  "Los Angeles reports that it spent approximately $40 million in the first year to comply with the terms of a federal consent decree, and close to $50 million annually for several years thereafter," reads a May 2012 memorandum from the city of Seattle, which was negotiating its own DOJ consent decree. Seattle reached a deal with the DOJ in late July. Its consent decree is estimated to cost $40 million in its first year.

  Despite some ongoing problems, the LAPD is seen as a consent decree success story. A 2011 examination by The Times-Picayune pointed to overall decreases in Los Angeles crime and LAPD uses of force and excessive force complaints. LAPD officials credited the agreement's system of internal checks for the improvements.

  Other cities have seen overages not just in budgets, but also in timing; consent decrees often are open-ended and can last longer than anticipated. Both Oakland, Calif., and Detroit began five-year consent decrees in 2003, and both cities still have them in effect.

  Detroit spent $10 million on a monitor who was discovered to be having an affair with then-mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. The monitor was fired in 2009, and the city is suing the monitor. In Oakland, an April article by The Bay Citizen says the city spent $20 million on monitoring and "hundreds of thousands of dollars to build a crucial computer program that tracks use-of-force and arrest data, [but] the department has now concluded it needs to be replaced." The article notes the Oakland Police Department has lost more than 200 officers since 2009.

  "There could be unanticipated costs," Hutson says. "You have to have cameras in all the cars. So suppose there are some additional technological requirements that will allow the NOPD to monitor that, to have the computers in stations to look at what's going on in the car? Maybe they've looked through all that, figured all that out. I'm just not sure."

  Administration officials do not believe problems in other cities will be repeated here.

  "I would say that we absolutely intend to comply with the consent decree in the timeline," Berni said. "Some of those items continue to cost money as it's formally adopted. For five years, these are the majority of the costs that are mandated under the consent decree."

  Burkart said uncertainty as to final costs was one of the major reasons his group has asked to intervene.

  "What does the federal government care about a state civil service system that doesn't just affect the police?" Burkart says. "It affects the Fire Department and EMS and people in finance. We don't know how much this is going to cost. As a lawyer, I would never advise a client to have that many variables and then bind himself to a judgment, unless I knew all this and had it in writing."

  Berni responded by saying the administration's priority is making long-anticipated changes at NOPD. City government hopes for significant federal assistance, he said, but added, "The mayor made the commitment to transform the Police Department and provide the resources that are necessary to transform the department."

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