The Associated Press
Thursday, March 17, 2011; 6:21 PM
NEW ORLEANS -- New Orleans police officers have often used deadly force without justification, repeatedly made unconstitutional arrests and engaged in racial profiling, the Justice Department said Thursday in a scathing report.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu called the report sobering but not surprising, given the highly publicized problems laid bare after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The mayor had requested the review shortly after taking office in May 2010 and said many of the problems outlined in the report were exposed after Katrina but existed long before the storm devastated the low-lying city on the Mississippi River.
The report found that the department has long failed to adequately protect New Orleans residents because of numerous shortcomings, including inadequate supervision and ineffective methods of taking and investigating complaints.
The report's release comes as one former police officer awaits sentencing for a federal manslaughter conviction in a post-Katrina shooting and as others await trial in the separate killings of unarmed civilians. Justice Department officials made no mention of the active criminal cases in their report.
"Even the most serious uses of force, such as officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths, are investigated inadequately or not at all," the report said, referring frequently to the department by its acronym NOPD. "NOPD's mishandling of officer-involved shooting investigations was so blatant and egregious that it appeared intentional in some respects."
It said poor recruitment, bad training, ignorance or disregard of policies that often are unclear contributed to a lack of confidence and even a distrust of the police. That, in turn contributes to a violent crime problem that police have found difficult to control, the report said.
The report says internal investigations are conducted by field supervisors who lack training and that discipline had been meted out inconsistently. These and other problems "render NOPD's system for investigating and responding to allegations of officer misconduct ineffective at changing officer behavior or holding officers responsible for their actions."
Mary Howell, a civil rights lawyer who has frequently represented victims of alleged police misconduct, agreed with the findings.
"You cannot fight crime with a brutal and corrupt police department," she added. "We have had it for years and we have paid dearly for that."
Landrieu and his hand-picked police chief, Ronal Serpas, said reforms already are under way and they welcomed the report.
"There's nobody in this room that is surprised by the general tenor and tone of what this report has to say," Landrieu said at the news conference with Serpas and Justice Department officials, including U.S. Attorney Jim Letten.
Landrieu reiterated a pledge that policy changes and practical reforms would be adopted as a result of the report and enforced by a federal court order he plans to seek jointly with the Justice Department
Serpas, a New Orleans native who served in the department under another reform-minded chief, Richard Pennington, in the 1990s, said policies Pennington put in place improved practices at a time of reported corruption and acts of violence by officers. But he noted Pennington left a decade ago and now a federal court order overseen by a judge would ensure a new round of reforms sticks.
Serpas said he has already dismissed officers for violations of department policy. He is seeking more authority from the City Council and the city's civil service board to promote officers to key managerial positions.
The 115-page report and 16 added pages of recommendations outlined a myriad of problems.
The report said lethal force by police included the firing of guns at moving cars, risking hitting the driver and turning the car into an uncontrolled weapon. It also said inadequately trained dog handlers couldn't keep their dogs from biting suspects who were complying or trying to comply with police orders.
It also said department practice and policy led to the "under-investigation and under-enforcement" of laws protecting women from violence, adding there was evidence of police harassment of gays and lesbians.
And the report raised questions of racial bias.
"NOPD use of force data also shows a troubling racial disparity that warrants a searching inquiry into whether racial bias influenced the use of force at NOPD," the report said.
"Of the 27 instances between January 2009 and May 2010 in which NOPD officers intentionally discharged their firearms at people, all 27 of the subjects of this deadly force were African-American," the report stated without specifying if any - or how many - were fatally wounded.
A review of "resisting arrest" reports documenting use of force over the same period found blacks were the subjects 81 out of 96 times.