Justice Department aims to help overhaul New Orleans police force

With a public image smeared by corrupt officers and poor community relations, the New Orleans Police Department tries to shed its negative past.
By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 1, 2010

The people fanning themselves in the crimson pews of the Evening Star Missionary Baptist Church had leveled these accusations before. Stories of the police targeting and "executing" their sons, of tiny bags of crack planted by the police in a baby's diaper, of a mentally ill man cooking breakfast when he was fired on by a SWAT team's worth of guns.

The difference this time was that they thought someone was listening. Seated in the front pew was Roy Austin, a deputy assistant attorney general at the Justice Department, invited to the city by a desperate mayor and to the meeting by an even more desperate community. His presence is part of an unprecedented effort to remake the scandal-plagued New Orleans Police Department, whose already bad reputation was left as battered as the city it was charged to protect after Hurricane Katrina.

In the five years since the storm, the department's standing has worsened. Eager for a turnaround, the newly elected mayor did something nearly unthinkable for someone in his position: He called in the feds.

"I have inherited a police force that has been described by many as one of the worst police departments in the country," Mayor Mitch Landrieu wrote in a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. earlier this year. "The police force, the community, our citizens are desperate for positive change."

Since the federal agency's arrival here, 13 police officers have been indicted in connection with the killing of civilians, and more are likely to follow. But rooting out corrupt officers is only part of the goal, because "doing that alone will not be enough to bring about the systemic reforms that are necessary to transform the department," said Thomas E. Perez, head of the Justice Department's civil rights division.

"The president and the attorney general are personally invested in the success of the New Orleans Police Department," Perez added. "I've seldom seen a situation where we're being invited in . . . and that in and of itself gives me optimism that we can succeed."

Top-to-bottom overhaul

At least a dozen Justice experts have been dispatched to New Orleans to assist with a top-to-bottom overhaul aimed at strengthening the department's ability to police itself, Perez said. They have applauded some of the changes instituted by the new chief, who was installed by Landrieu and has hired a civilian to head the internal affairs office and adopted a no-tolerance policy toward officers caught lying.

Officials hope the efforts will improve the relationship between police and the community, especially members of the city's black majority, which was strained before Katrina but took on crisis proportions afterward. Some killers have probably been wrongly acquitted because juries don't trust the police, Perez said. At the same time, the city's homicide rate has risen to the highest in the nation.

Not surprisingly, the most high-profile indictments so far have involved officers accused of heinous crimes during the tumultuous and lawless days that immediately followed the storm.

In June, five officers were charged in connection with the death of Henry Glover, whose burned body was found in a car near a police station shortly after the storm. Another six were indicted a few weeks later in the killing of two unarmed civilians on the Danziger Bridge.

Also disturbing have been the alleged coverups. Federal prosecutors say Glover was shot by a police officer and his body was burned to hide the crime. In the Danziger case, two supervisors are believed to have fabricated witnesses and planted a gun to protect the four shooters, and an additional five officers have pleaded guilty to conspiracy in the case.

On Thursday, authorities announced that another two officers had been charged in the beating death of a man in the Treme neighborhood before Katrina. More charges could follow.

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