Louisiana Republican’s interference with New Orleans police reform foreshadows Trump backlash

Police and local leaders have been making progress in New Orleans for five years.

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, seen here hugging Mike Pence on the campaign trail in 2016, is destabilizing the progress New Orleans has made in restoring police accountability and citizens’ trust. CREDIT: AP Photo/Max Becherer
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, seen here hugging Mike Pence on the campaign trail in 2016, is destabilizing the progress New Orleans has made in restoring police accountability and citizens’ trust. CREDIT: AP Photo/Max Becherer

Ask the leaders of the New Orleans Police Department how their joint reform efforts with federal officials are going and they’ll tell you the city is already far better off just five years into the process.

But broach the same subject with conservative elected officials in the state, and you will apparently get a very different answer.

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry recently derided the reform project as “hug a thug” policing — a remark that appears to have riled the judge in charge of enforcing the Obama-era consent decree between New Orleans and the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division (CRD).

“There have been some people who have criticized the vehicle pursuit policy in the press, but the NOPD’s policy is the current best practice in the nation, and it’s been adopted for a very good reason, which is because it keeps from endangering the lives of citizens,” Judge Susie Morgan said Thursday at a hearing.

It is at least the second time Morgan has hit back at Landry’s interference in the city’s reform push, the New Orleans Advocate reports. The first was during a private conference in chambers with lawyers for the city and the CRD, where the Advocate says she “[took] the city’s side.”

Landry isn’t just antagonizing the general idea of police reform. He’s managed to land on the wrong side of the NOPD brass. Deputy superintendent Daniel Murphy “cited with pride a New Orleans Crime Coalition poll in September that found the highest level of public approval ever measured for the NOPD” at Thursday’s hearing and “suggested that was due to the consent decree,” according to the city paper.

Landry’s tilt with Murphy and other city leaders foreshadows similar conflicts that are likely to arise around the country as President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions consolidate power over law enforcement policy.

Sessions is not a fan of consent decrees as a tool. Both men cling to the ideological precept that police officers are almost never guilty of doing anything wrong. When wrongdoing does arise, the new regime in Washington believes, it should be treated as an isolated incident, rather than as a reason to bring cops and community leaders together to discuss the culture of a given department’s relationship to the people it serves.

Landry has much more in common with Sessions and Trump than he does with New Orleans cops. A one-term congressman elected in the 2010 Tea Party wave, Landry lost his re-election bid after redistricting and landed back in state politics. Landry epitomized the radical tilt of the national GOP in that era, dabbling in casual Islamophobic conspiracy-mongering and using his platform to argue against greater inclusion of the LGBT community in public life.

Now, as his state’s top law enforcement officer, Landry is happy to play johnny-come-lately in the New Orleans police reform effort. The city’s consent decree was agreed to in 2012, after about 16 months of investigation, discussion, and deliberation by CRD staff working in concert with police, city leaders, and community members.

Consent decrees are not haphazard things. The changes they mandate are designed with flexibility. Feds, locals, and courts work in concert and in an iterative fashion to achieve bespoke change with maximum buy-in, rather than imposing cookie-cutter solutions from afar. It doesn’t take much negativity to upset their delicate balance, as the case of Ferguson, Missouri illustrates.

The consent decree process bows to local expertise even as it insists that national principles embedded in the Constitution be upheld by the men and women society entrusts with guns and badges. In New Orleans, that process began while Landry was off in Washington claiming Barack Obama was trying to give Muslims special treatment at airport security checkpoints. He is now inserting himself into a complicated ongoing reform effort which the directly-affected parties agree is going well, and making the road rougher than it needs to be.

Such interference probably makes Trump administration hearts swell with pride. Sessions gave clear signals during his confirmation hearing that he sees little value in the department-wide investigations that make New Orleans-style reforms possible. Trump embodies a simplistic version of old-school law-and-order rhetoric which 175 of the nation’s top police officers — including David Brown, who headed the Dallas Police Department during last summer’s awful ambush — recently told him is counterproductive.

Together, the two can wield federal power to fuel a backlash against the 20 consent decrees which the Obama DOJ established in cities around the country.

Events at Thursday’s court hearing in New Orleans seem to hint that reform has taken root there after five years of hard work. But similar efforts in other places are more fragile, more subject to interference from the new right-wing posse in Washington.

In Chicago, for example, Obama’s CRD staff barely managed to complete its investigation before the White House changed hands — leaving every possibility that Sessions will simply put their report in a drawer and defer to his boss’s stated ambition to “send in the Feds!” A crackdown is not what Chicago needs, according to the findings of the CRD investigation. But with Trump’s itchy Twitter fingers and Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s help, it may be exactly what Chicago gets.

The situation is similarly fragile in Baltimore, where the final consent decree of the Obama era was unveiled just days before Trump took office. The city’s top cop praised the agreement and the years-long collaborative process that produced it. Less than two years after the suspicious death of Freddie Gray and the ensuing riots, Baltimore is just beginning to walk the road New Orleans has been on since 2012.

Given time, and continued earnest effort from the federal attorneys who are party to the deal, the city can expect to see the same kind of uptick in public trust of police that the NOPD’s Murphy praised in court on Thursday.

But it’s no sure thing that Sessions and Trump will maintain the project, there or anywhere else.