By Lee A. Daniels, Special to the NNPA from thedefendersonline.com –
A U.S. Department of Justice report on the New Orleans Police department released last week has described it as wracked by a culture of incompetence and corruption that is “serious, systemic, wide-ranging and deeply rooted” and in need of complete reform.
The city’s police force, which nearly completely collapsed when Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005, has been the subject of multiple city, state, and federal investigation since then. Some of these probes have led to criminal indictments and convictions of more than a dozen officers thus far for unprovoked lethal and deadly use of force against innocent citizens in the storm’s aftermath.
But, this investigation, conducted by the federal agency’s Office of Civil Rights, deliberately did not consider those cases. In one sense, it didn’t need to because, it stated, pointedly, “these serious deficiencies existed long before” Hurricane Katrina struck.
In fact, the department was enmeshed in scandal in the 1990s after a series of criminal convictions of police officers – including the conviction of two for murder – exposed widespread problems. But, its deterioration in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, with a wider national and even international audience looking on, has forced the concerted, multifaceted effort at reform now underway.
New Orleans Mayor Mitchell J. Landrieu, elected in February 2010, last year asked the Justice Department for a “top to bottom review” of the beleaguered police force, one that would help him bring about its “complete transformation.”
Certainly, the resulting document leaves no doubt that a complete transformation is vital. For, believing its prosaic title, “Investigation of the New Orleans Police Department,” it is one of the most damning indictments of an entire police department – and, implicitly, of a city governmental structure responsible for its oversight – in the modern history of policing.
The report states that, bolstered by its unwillingness to adhere to seemingly basic rules and bureaucratic procedures, the New Orleans force indulged in “patterns or practices of unconstitutional conduct and/or violations of federal law” so pervasive and constant that they came to be routine. They include: unwarranted use of force; illegal stops, searches and arrests; rampant discriminatory behavior toward New Orleanians of color, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered citizens; and, often, women who reported that they has been sexually assaulted. Not surprisingly, sanctions against police officers who abused their positions were virtually non-existent.
One of the more striking indications of the depth of the department’s managerial incompetence cited in the report was that its canine unit was so badly mismanaged—the police dogs were so badly trained—that they often attacked their own handlers.
These attitudes and practices made New Orleans itself less safe for its law-abiding citizens, the federal report stated, in part because police officials had often failed to investigate actual crimes and because their behavior produced a widespread distrust of the department among many citizens that inhibited their calling on or cooperating with police officers when they witnessed a crime being committed.
In fact, the report states, New Orleans criminal courts have trouble empanelling juries because so many prospective jurors say they wouldn’t trust the sworn testimony of police officers.
“There is nobody in this room that is surprised by the general tenor and the tone of what this report has to say,” Mayor Landrieu said at a news conference in New Orleans.
He was flanked by Thomas E. Perez, the Assistant U.S. Attorney General in charge of the department’s Office of Civil Rights, and New Orleans’ police chief, Ronal Serpas, and other city and federal officials. The city and the Justice Department will sign a consent decree that maps out specific avenues of reform, which will be overseen by the federal court.
They said that Chief Serpas has already begun making substantive reforms of the department, aided by a revision of some civil service rules to give him more flexibility in hiring, shifting, and firing personnel within it and the report pointedly praises what it describes as “a remarkably strong shared commitment to the City [among New Orleanians] that spans race, class, and neighborhood … [and] provides a strong foundation upon which to transform” the police department.
Lee A. Daniels is Director of Communications for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. and Editor-in-Chief of TheDefendersOnline.