Major Reforms Announced for Troubled New Orleans Police Department

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder walks with New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu before he talked about the details of a federal consent decree from the U.S. Department of Justice that will be used to institute reforms in the New Orleans Police Department inside the historic Gallier Hall, the former New Orleans city hall, in New Orleans, La., Tuesday, July 24, 2012.

Photo: U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder walks with New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu before he talked about the details of a federal consent decree from the U.S. Department of Justice that will be used to institute reforms in the New Orleans Police Department inside the historic Gallier Hall, the former New Orleans city hall, in New Orleans, La., Tuesday, July 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)

July 24, 2012
Watch Law and Disorder, FRONTLINE’s investigation into police shootings by the New Orleans Police Department in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The Justice Department and the city of New Orleans today jointly announced sweeping reforms to the New Orleans Police Department, the result of a long-awaited consent decree stemming from investigations into police misconduct in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The reforms aim to transform a culture mired in excessive force, unconstitutional searches and seizures and discriminatory policing, according to a copy [pdf] of the decree posted online. The NOPD has long been plagued by allegations of corruption and brutality, which resurfaced after the storm.

FRONTLINE has been investigating six cases of questionable post-Katrina police shootings for more than two years with our partners at ProPublica and the Times-Picayune. Federal investigations were opened in all six cases; 10 officers were convicted or pleaded guilty in the shootings of six unarmed civilians on the Danziger Bridge and ensuing cover-up, and three more were convicted for shooting civilian Henry Glover, burning a car containing his body and covering up the incident. (One of the convictions was overturned and the two remaining officers have filed appeals.) Another officer was convicted for shooting civilian Danny Brumfield outside the convention center where evacuees gathered in the storm’s aftermath.

The consent decree — which Attorney General Eric Holder described as one of the most wide-ranging in the Justice Department’s history — was filed in court on Tuesday. It includes basic training on how to make stops, searches and arrests, the use of force and policing without bias. Interrogations for homicides and sexual assault will be videotaped.

“These are problems long in the making … and will not be cured overnight,” Holder said at a press conference in New Orleans to announce the agreement. “But with time, and with hard work, I am confident we’re going to see a better police department, and a better New Orleans.”

A court supervisor will monitor the agreement’s execution. In two years, if the department fully complies, it can petition for the agreement to be dissolved in two more years.

Holder said the reforms were moved along in part by new leadership in New Orleans that has worked closely with the Justice Department, including Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who came into office two years ago promising to transform the department. Landrieu appointed a new police superintendent, Ronal Serpas, to help usher in reform.

“This is the most historic day in our history,” Serpas said on Tuesday. “Today is the day forward that will make us the department we want to be.” He said that he had already implemented major changes, including expanding officers’ community outreach, and imposing a strict ban on falsifying police reports. Cameras have been mounted on police cars, and officers are being trained in cultural awareness.

The police department has also cleared an 800-case backlog of sex abuse cases, and uncovered 70 new leads in rape cases that had gone cold, the mayor said. The NOPD has had a history of under-investigating sex-abuse crimes.

Still, officials admitted that total reform will be a slow process. It will also be expensive: Landrieu said the reforms will cost the city about $11 million more per year for the next four or five years. Holder didn’t commit to any federal funding for the program.

The federal government first got involved in New Orleans in the mid-1990s, after a series of shocking scandals in the department, including an officer, Len Davis, who was caught on tape ordering the assassination of a civilian who had seen Davis beat a teenager.

The FBI posted agents within the NOPD’s Public Integrity Bureau with the aim to bring about reform. The program was suspended in 2005 amid the storm. But as reports of suspicious deaths emerged after the hurricane, the Justice Department turned its focus back to New Orleans.

“For too long, the [New Orleans police] department has been largely indifferent to widespread violations of law and policy by its officers,” the Justice Department said in a scathing report last March. The government returned two FBI officers in the department, and began negotiating the consent decree.

The NOPD investigation is one of 17 ongoing investigations into police departments nationwide by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division — “more than at any time in the division’s history,” according to Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas Perez.

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Former Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE

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