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As one of two finalists bidding to oversee a sweeping effort to reform the scandal-scarred New Orleans Police Department under a 2012 federal consent decree, Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton has a lot going for it.

The partner leading the firm’s proposed independent monitor team, Washington, D.C., office co–managing partner Jonathan Aronie, served as the deputy monitor for Washington, D.C.’s police department under a similar consent decree a decade ago. Two other Sheppard Mullin lawyers set to work alongside Aronie have watchdog experience of their own. Most importantly, perhaps, the Los Angeles–based Am Law 200 firm has the backing of U.S. Department of Justice representatives on the 10-member committee set to decide Tuesday whether the assignment—worth at least $7.2 million over the next four years—should go to Sheppard Mullin or Chicago-based security consulting firm Hillard Heintze.

What Sheppard Mullin doesn’t have, at least as of Monday, is much local support—either on the selection panel or within New Orleans more broadly. In the end, that lack of local support— which is, in part, by design—could wind up working to the firm’s benefit.

Citing the ongoing nature of the selection process—which, based on a last-minute request by city officials, could drag on for at least another two weeks—neither Hillard Heintze nor Sheppard Mullin would discuss their respective proposals with The Am Law Daily. In a written statement, Aronie, who joined Sheppard Mullin from Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson in 2003, said, “For a number of reasons, a significant segment of the citizens of New Orleans have lost faith in their police department’s ability to reform its practices in the absence of independent guidance, support, and supervision. An experienced, objective, independent monitor will play a critical role in giving the citizens a good reason to have that faith.”

The scope of the challenge facing whichever firm takes on the monitor’s job is captured in both the consent decree and a damning Justice Department report that preceded it. That report, released in March 2011 following a lengthy federal investigation, laid bare a dysfunctional and corrupt agency plagued by, among other things, a reliance on racial profiling; the rampant use of excessive force; pervasive discrimination based on race, gender, and sexual orientation; a failure to investigate serious crimes; and an overall lack of accountability at all levels.

“Far too often, officers show a lack of respect for the civil rights and dignity of the people of New Orleans,” the report’s executive summary stated. “While the majority of the force is hardworking and committed to public safety, too many officers of every rank either do not understand or choose to ignore the boundaries of constitutional policing.”

Unveiled last July, the 122-page consent decree [PDF] is a far-reaching blueprint for cleaning up the troubled department and improving public safety. To Mary Howell, a civil rights attorney who has represented plaintiffs in claims against the police department, the consent decree represents “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to deal with what has been an intractable problem for decades." The independent monitor’s job, in essence, is to ensure that that opportunity isn’t squandered by outlining concrete steps the department must take to remedy its ills, establishing mechanisms for measuring progress, and conducting regular compliance reviews and audits.

The initial field of those seeking the monitor assignment included 12 firms and a smattering of prominent public safety names such as former New York City police and fire chief Howard Safir and former FBI Director Louis Freeh, who fronted a Pepper Hamilton proposal. Fulbright & Jaworski submitted a bid in conjunction with Houston-based BDO Consulting. After winnowing the field to five contenders, the selection conducted a round of interviews before identifying Sheppard Mullin and Hillard Heintze as the finalists.

In its proposal, which the firm described as a “good gumbo,” Sheppard Mullin estimated that its services would cost the City of New Orleans approximately $7.9 million over the four-year life of the contract and capped the amount it would charge at $8.9 million. Those estimates were based on 25,000 hours of work at reduced hourly rates of $425 for senior attorneys, $350 for junior attorneys, and $100 for paralegals.

In addition to Aronie, other Sheppard Mullin attorneys identified as part of the firm’s monitor team include labor and employment partner Tracey Kennedy and government contracts, investigations, and international trade partner Peter Morris, who were involved in previous monitoring engagements involving, respectively, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

The firm’s outside police experts, meanwhile, include Theron Bowman, a former Arlington, Texas, police chief and Robert McNeilly, the chief of police the Elizabeth Township, Pennsylvania, who once headed Pittsburgh’s police department when it was under a federal consent decree. University of Texas at Arlington criminology professor Alejandro del Carmen, who has researched racial profiling, is also part of the Sheppard Mullin team.

While obviously not as lawyer-heavy as the Sheppard Mullin proposal, Hillard Heintze relies heavily on big-city police bona fides in making its pitch for the job. Beyond cofounder and former Chicago police superintendent Terry Hillard, the firm’s team includes former police chiefs of San Jose, California, and Boston. Hillard Heintze team members’ past engagements include assisting with an audit of the King County, Washington, sheriff department’s internal operations and serving as the interim inspector general for the Metra, a commuter rail line in northeast Illinois.

Hillard Heintze has distinguished itself on the question of cost, capping its fees at $7.2 million—the lowest bid among the 12 originally submitted—and estimating that its team will put in roughly 35,000 hours of work for that sum, compared to Sheppard Mullin’s 25,000-hour estimate.

The two proposals differ in one other key area: While Hillard Heintze has already named local figures as potential members of its monitoring team, Sheppard Mullin has declined to do so until after the contract is awarded.

Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, says that firms face a "delicate balance" in picking local partners in such a context. Reaching into the community from the outset may engender resentment from others who feel they are being left out of the reform process, while holding back can kindle concerns that locals will play only a limited role. "Obviously, you need locals involved," Levenson says, "but the whole point of the consent decree is that locals weren’t able to clean up the problem."

Both finalists are discovering that peril lies on either side of that balance. And though Sheppard Mullin has been criticized for declining to include local partners in its proposal, Hillard Heintze has become more of a lightning rod after choosing to tap a pair of New Orleans natives that some city residents say are too chummy with either police leaders or Mayor Mitch Landrieu, whose administration is now trying to vacate the consent decree while at the same time trying to see its preferred monitor candidate installed in the job.

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