TOPICS > Politics

Citing Corruption and Abuse, Feds Mandate Major Reform for New Orleans Police

July 25, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
The Department of Justice announced sweeping reforms for the New Orleans Police Department. The mandates are meant to resolve issues such as unlawful arrests and the use of deadly force without cause. Gwen Ifill discusses the future of the NOPD with Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez and NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas.

GWEN IFILL: For years, the New Orleans Police Department has labored under a long shadow of misconduct, investigations, charges and criminal convictions. Now the city has agreed to major reforms.

New Orleans now faces a sweeping federal mandate, to reform a police department plagued by corruption and abuse for decades.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: This consent decree will allow us to move forward, and move forward together, and will enable the people of New Orleans to have, in the words of Mayor Landrieu — and I quote him — a world-class police department.

GWEN IFILL: U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder formally outlined the deal yesterday, an agreement Mayor Mitch Landrieu estimates will cost roughly $11 million a year to put in place. Landrieu said it will fundamentally change the culture of the New Orleans police once and for all.

What the public wants is respect and freedom to live in their street. And what the police need is that exchange, is the information to root from the street the people who have destroyed others' quality of life. So, it is a perfect win-win situation. And good police departments get that. And we're going to get it.Chief Ronal Serpas, New Orleans Police Department superintendent

The planned reforms include mandatory training for officers in the use of force, routine stops and searches and bias-free policing, new standards for recruiting to increase diversity on the force, and videotaping of interrogations involving suspected homicides and sexual assaults. The department must also install video cameras in all patrol cars.

ERIC HOLDER: This consent decree belongs to the entire community and includes ideas that were brought to us by community members, front-line officers and experts alike.

GWEN IFILL: That extensive review grew in part out of actions taken by police after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005. But it also tackles a culture of misconduct years in the making.

Last year, the Justice Department reported that, in the storm’s wake, officers often made unlawful arrests, engaged in racial profiling and used deadly force without just cause.

ERIC HOLDER: The New Orleans police engaged in a pattern or practice of conduct that was both discriminatory and unconstitutional, and that too often undermined the public’s trust and the city’s efforts to effectively prevent crime.

GWEN IFILL: Criminal charges were brought against 20 officers after Katrina. In the most notorious case, six unarmed civilians were shot, two fatally, at the Danziger Bridge. Last April, five of the officers involved were sentenced to prison terms of up to 65 years.

For more, we’re joined by Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas Perez and New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas.

Welcome to you both, gentlemen.

Mr. Attorney General, Assistant Attorney General, what does this consent decree tell us about the history of the New Orleans Police Department and about its future?

ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL TOM PEREZ,: Well, the history was the department, as we discovered in our review, was broken in many respects.

And these problems predated Hurricane Katrina. Anyone in New Orleans knows the name Len Davis, a police officer in the mid-’90s who was horrific and is frankly on death row for the crimes that he committed. And so we peeled the onion to its core. We found systems problems across the board. That was then.

And now we fast-forward to today, where we have a comprehensive blueprint for sustainable reform, a blueprint that was developed in partnership with Chief Serpas, with the mayor, with the front-line police officers and with the community. And it’s the most sweeping blueprint that we have ever developed.

And that’s why, while the problems are deeply rooted, the solutions are there. And I come to this task with immense optimism, because the ingredients for sustainable reform are in place. And they include leadership. They include community engagement. They include so many other things that are present.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s — Superintendent Serpas, let’s talk about that leadership question, which is, if you have known that a lot of these problems have been percolating for some years, what about this decree will change what you do now?

RONAL SERPAS, New Orleans police superintendent: Well, I think it’s very important to point out that, working with the attorney general, Mr. Holder and his staff, particularly, Mr. Perez, we have been able to find solutions to long-term systemic problems.

The New Orleans Police Department is not as bad as it was and it’s not as good as it’s going to be. We have been taking steps aggressively in the two years during the Landrieu administration and my administration to ensure that we have started to fix those fundamental things that should have been fixed years ago.

Now, taking the consent decree on top of that, the people of New Orleans can have confidence that with the strength of the federal court, the changes we make will not go away a successive administration of mayors or police chiefs, as is the case between 2005 and 2010, when things really began to come off the wheels in the worst possible ways.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you this. Will this guarantee that the city has the $11 million a year it’s going to actually put these kinds of new plans in place? Over four years, that’s $44 million, a lot of money.

RONAL SERPAS: That’s a very fair question.

What a consent decree can do — and this is why the police officers will embrace it over time as they understand it — is it can help them get the resources that they needed all along. And the mayor has committed to the citizens of New Orleans that the police department’s reform is the number one priority to advance safety, economic development, neighborhood quality of life.

I think we’re not going to have a problem doing that. We have to do it. And I think we should do it.

TOM PEREZ: You know, when you talk about the cost, it’s a very fair question. The costs are undeniable, but the benefits are priceless.

When you are reducing crime, when you are enhancing public confidence in law enforcement, and when you’re ensuring constitutional policing, you then reduce tort liability. That’s a significant reduction in costs for the city. Perhaps most importantly, when you’re saving lives, that’s priceless.

GWEN IFILL: Does that mean the federal government is going to kick in to help pay for…


TOM PEREZ: Well, we have already provided seven figures in technical assistance to the department, because we have a vested interest in the success of this enterprise.

GWEN IFILL: Now, New Orleans is not the only city that you have taken this sort of action in. What is the track record for success and how much does transparency matter in a case like this?

TOM PEREZ: We have a very good track record for success. And I think the best example that inspires and informs our work is in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles had systemic problems in the ’90s. We were able to work collaboratively with them and demonstrate that, while culture change is hard, it can, indeed, happen. It did happen. And if you look at the independent studies in Los Angeles, crime went down, respect for the police department went up and the quality of policing went up. And I think the same thing can happen here.

GWEN IFILL: Superintendent Serpas, Mr. Perez talks about the culture, changing the culture.

One of the pieces of this, which is unique to New Orleans, was this detail system where people could basically make a lot of extra money on the side. And this is something which this decree would basically outlaw. There must be some pushback on that. It is taking money out of people’s pockets.

RONAL SERPAS: Well, it’s going to be a healthy change.

I have been a change — speaking of change, I have been a change agent police chief four times. So it does take a long time to get culture aligned with demand and respect. The paid detail system, moonlighting, some people call it, the private employment of public police, had gotten out of control in New Orleans and had been unchanged for 50 years.

The practices had not changed substantially for 50 years. We’re going to move to a model that is followed across the nation, so that the value of the public employment — private employment of public police doesn’t usurp the control and command of the police department.

In New Orleans — finally, in a very simple statement, in New Orleans, far too many people owed allegiance to the paid detail, or moonlighting, and didn’t owe allegiance to the police department. We’re going to fix that. That is an easy fix, I think, as far as technically.

And the police officer on the ground will not feel much different. The barons of large details will feel a difference. And they shouldn’t have existed to begin with.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you this, Mr. Superintendent. How do you restore trust? That’s a far more difficult and unquantifiable idea when you’re just — not just money, not just new rules, but actually restoring trust between the people who are being policed and the police themselves.

RONAL SERPAS: I think it’s perfectly clear that we see a lot of evidence in New Orleans from survey data and from my personal walking in the streets.

The people of New Orleans want us to be successful. They need their police department to be successful. And every police officer worth their salt who has worn a police suit more than a day knows this. It is the information-sharing that makes you a successful cop, a successful detective, a successful police department. And that is what the exchange value is.

What the public wants is respect and freedom to live in their street. And what the police need is that exchange, is the information to root from the street the people who have destroyed others’ quality of life. So, it is a perfect win-win situation. And good police departments get that. And we’re going to get it.

I am completely confident that we will implement this consent decree. Mr. Perez and his team have been wonderful to work with. And we will make New Orleans a safer place. There’s no question in my mind about this.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Perez?

TOM PEREZ: And you mentioned transparency before, and that is a key to moving forward and earning the trust of the community.

There are a number of provisions in this agreement that are going to make the New Orleans Police Department truly the people’s police department, more data collection, doing regular surveys to measure the level of community confidence, making sure that the people are, indeed, involved. And I think that’s very important.

Community policing, this is a basic concept that Chief Serpas is implementing. And so I do come here today with my eyes wide open. Culture change does take time, but I come here with a lot of optimism that Chief Serpas, Mayor Landrieu, the remarkably — the dedicated men and women of the police department and the community are committed to this.

GWEN IFILL: Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas Perez, and Superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department Ronal Serpas, thank you both very much.

TOM PEREZ: Thank you.

RONAL SERPAS: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: You can read the full 124-page agreement between the Justice Department and the New Orleans police on our website. We have also posted the 2011 federal report showing evidence of widespread corruption.