Justice Department aims to help overhaul New Orleans police force

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 1, 2010; A03

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.

Frank DeSalvo, a lawyer for officers in the Glover and Danziger cases, said that his clients are innocent and that the police department is not corrupt. Still, he said, the rank and file welcome the Justice inquiry.

"I don't think New Orleans police officers are opposed to that as long as it's done honestly and fairly. And the truth is, they will be infinitely better off if we can get good, solid, fair, consistent leadership" in the department, he said.

Still, the indictments have dealt a blow to the morale of beat officers who patrol some of the nation's most dangerous streets. Several interviewed said they were eager to move past Katrina, which, rather than exalting the heroic efforts of many officers during a time of extraordinary need, has elevated the profile of the city's worst elements. The department's reputation has been so sullied that it has been the subject of critical articles across the country and television shows such as HBO's "Treme."

"All those officers and leaders who were going up to Baptist hospital flooded up to their necks, no one's ever going to remember that anymore because of what [some] officers, who've admitted what they've done, did at the Danziger Bridge," said Ronal W. Serpas, the department's new chief, speaking from a conference room at police headquarters. "It's stunning. It reads like a bad novel. It's just horrible."

To residents, many of them black, who have long complained of systemic abuse by police, the actions thus far by the Justice Department have brought a measure of relief and vindication. Katrina, they say, simply shone the national spotlight on their everyday reality.

In one notable case in the 1990s, 10 officers were indicted in connection with a cocaine operation, and one of them was sentenced to death for ordering a hit on a woman who had filed a brutality complaint.

Community hearings

Frustrated with what they viewed as the city's inaction on police brutality, community activists organized hearings this year, including the one at the Evening Star church. They videotaped the sometimes emotional testimony, in which parents described opening body bags that contained their dead children and pointed at necks and foreheads to describe entrance and exit wounds.

"They say the old are supposed to die first," Patricia Anderson said into a microphone next to the piano. "How come these days it's the kids that die first? And the cops are going to jail more than the kids?"

Toward the back sat Norris Henderson, an advocate who knew most of the stories by heart. He knows that some sound outlandish, but over time, he said, some of the worst have proved to be true. Many were detailed in a series written by ProPublica, an investigative journalism nonprofit group, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

"To make a claim like that, people's like, 'Come on, get real,' " he said. "Now, because of the revelations, they think, 'Holy smokes.' They have to second-guess themselves. Because now, the proof is in the pudding."

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