Friday, March 18, 2011

New Orleans police department a symbol of the city's dysfunction

As our attention remains riveted on the unfolding tragedy in Japan, a recently completed report from the U.S. Department of Justice reminds us that the people of New Orleans are still feeling the impacts from Hurricane Katrina.

The report also shows that social impacts may be at least as significant if not more enduring than the environmental consequences natural disasters. (GW)

New Orleans Cops Faulted in Report

By Evan Perez
Wall Street Journal
March 18, 2011

A Justice Department probe of the New Orleans Police Department has found a pattern of misconduct including the use of excessive force and illegal stops and searches. The findings released Thursday are expected to bring greater federal oversight of the troubled department.

The report was based on a 10-month investigation conducted at the invitation of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, and follows years of controversy surrounding alleged police-involved killings of civilians in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. About two dozen current and former officers are under investigation or have been charged in nine separate shootings following the 2005 storm that flooded much of the historic city.

The Justice Department said its probe indicated there were violations of federal law and certain constitutional provisions. That finding was expected to form the basis of a court-supervised agreement—called a consent decree—between the city and the Justice Department to improve police performance.

Black residents bore the brunt of the abusive practices, according to the report, which alleged widespread racial profiling and discrimination. In the 27 instances between January 2009 and May 2010 in which city police officers intentionally fired their weapons, every one of the civilians involved was African-American, the report said.

Justice Department lawyers also looked at examples of police using force to detain suspects who resisted arrest and found 81 of the 96 cases involved blacks.

New Orleans's population was 60% black in 2010, down from 67% in 2000, according to the census. During that period, the city's population fell to about 344,000 from about 485,000.

The police force was a little over 50% black for the entire period, according to University of New Orleans researchers and the Louisiana Justice Institute, a nonprofit, civil rights group. New Orleans police couldn't be reached to confirm the figures.

The report said the department did little to discipline its officers, despite abundant evidence of policy violations. In the past six years, no officer involved in a shooting was found to be at fault.

Mayor Landrieu said the report would put the force of the federal government behind changes the city is making to improve crime fighting and prevent abuse. "The findings are sobering and the challenges ahead are daunting, but we will do whatever it takes to make this right," Mr. Landrieu said.

"We want to be an organization that protects and serves," said Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas, who has been making changes since arriving last year. "We have seen progress in the last 10 months and our employees are rising to the challenge of rededicating themselves to professionalism and service," Mr. Serpas said.

The New Orleans police department has long been a symbol of the city's dysfunction, federal and city officials say. "Today's findings should serve as a foundation not only to rebuild the police department, but to help restore the community's trust in fair, just and effective law enforcement," said Deputy Attorney General James Cole.

The probe is the third federal intervention involving the city's police in three decades. Each time, the city has promised to make changes. New Orleans New Orleans leaders said this time they would get it done.has the nation's highest homicide rate, and officials say it can't get back on its feet until law enforcement is effective and trusted.

At the root of the trouble, federal officials say, is a culture of corruption and poor discipline. The report identified constitutional violations including instances of racial and ethnic profiling, discrimination against gays and systemic failure to investigate sexual assaults and domestic violence.

The report also described ways the police systematically shielded their own. For years, the police department had a practice of temporarily reassigning to the homicide division officers who had been involved in police shootings, the report said. Under department rules, any statements those officers made to homicide investigators were then automatically classified as "compelled," and therefore couldn't be used in investigations or prosecutions.

Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's civil-rights division, cited as a problem the department's unregulated system allowing officers to work in private security, outside of their police working hours. He called it an "aorta of corruption," because officers, including supervisors, relied on each other for the extra work.

Read the Justice Department report.

Write to Evan Perez at


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