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Draining the Swamp 

The report should serve as the first meaningful step toward long-term, systemic reform at NOPD

No one expected the U.S. Department of Justice's (DOJ) 10-month investigation of the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) to turn up anything pretty, but certainly no one could have imagined just how damning it would be. In its summary of the report, the DOJ found reasonable cause to believe local cops engaged in multiple violations of federal law and unconstitutional conduct in a variety of areas. Those violations included use of excessive force; unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests; "biased policing," particularly toward African-Americans, gays, lesbians and especially transsexuals; a systemic failure to provide services for non-English speakers; and a systemic failure to investigate sexual assaults and domestic abuse.

  "For far too long, the New Orleans Police Department failed to adequately protect the citizens of the city," Deputy Attorney General James Cole told the group gathered at Gallier Hall on March 17. "This was a result of its failure to ensure respect for and adherence to the Constitution." Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas Perez said the NOPD's failings were "wide ranging, systemic and deeply rooted in the culture of the department" — encompassing policies, recruitment, training, supervision, paid details, performance evaluations, interrogation practices and more.

  The 115-page report (www.justice.gov/crt/about/spl/nopd_report.pdf), which had been requested by Mayor Mitch Landrieu and NOPD Chief Ronal Serpas, was shocking even for a department known for its dysfunction. Among its conclusions:

  • Mishandling of officer-involved shooting investigations "was so blatant and egregious it appeared intentional."

  • A "significant" number of arrests had "apparent constitutional violations."

  • Officers often use unnecessary force that's "deliberately retaliatory."

  • Sexual assault investigations were "systematically misclassified," resulting in a "sweeping failure."

  • NOPD has "virtually no capacity to provide meaningful access to police services" for non-English speakers. (To his credit, Serpas began working on that problem before the report was issued.)

  And for African-Americans, many of whom have long said the NOPD unfairly targets blacks, the report confirmed their worst fears. Of the 27 instances between January 2009 and May 2010 in which officers intentionally discharged their firearms at people, all 27 of those people were black. "Despite the clear policy violations we observed, NOPD has not found an officer-involved shooting violated policy in at least six years," the report stated. The report also noted "racial disparities in arrests ... in virtually all categories, with particularly dramatic disparity for African-American youth under 17." In 2009, the report said, the arrest rate of black youths versus white youths was a staggering 16 to 1 — a disparity that was "so severe and so divergent from nationally reported data it cannot plausibly be attributed entirely to the underlying rates at which these youth commit crimes." Asked after the meeting if he had a personal message for black New Orleanians who have long been fearful of local cops, Landrieu said, "They were right."

  The report is bound to cause widespread discussion and concern. The important thing for all citizens to bear in mind going forward is the underlying purpose — and ultimate utility — of the report. It must lay the groundwork for curative action by the mayor, the City Council and the police chief — all under DOJ supervision. It's equally important for citizens to recall that Landrieu invited the feds to look at NOPD; he knew NOPD had major problems and he wanted an independent assessment from top to bottom. Now he has it, warts and all.

  The next big step for Landrieu, Serpas and the feds will be drafting a consent decree, which is a binding federal judgment against the city setting forth specific steps — including deadlines and benchmarks — that NOPD must take to correct the problems cited in the report. Overall, the report should serve as the first meaningful step toward long-term, systemic reform at NOPD. Many of the report's conclusions are familiar refrains. What's different now is the presence of a mayor and a police chief who are committed not only to reforming the NOPD but also to institutionalizing those reforms.

  We wish the feds and city officials well in their attempts to drain this decades-old swamp. With federal oversight, we hope the NOPD, in the words of Assistant AG Perez, "earns the trust of the public it is charged with protecting." As the report clearly showed, NOPD has a long, long way to go.

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