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Feds slam New Orleans police over excessive force, racial profiling

New Orleans police officers used excessive force, failed to investigate crimes against women and gays, and engaged in racial profiling, the US Justice Department says in a scathing report.

By Staff writer / March 18, 2011

Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, standing at podium, speaks at a news conference at Gallier Hall in New Orleans, Thursday, March 17, to announce the findings of a US Department of Justice report into the New Orleans Police Department that was requested by New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu when he entered office.

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Long synonymous with corruption, the New Orleans Police Department received a scathing review by the US Department of Justice Thursday, which detailed a litany of police abuses that DOJ investigators deemed commonplace enough to be considered institutional.

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They range from officers using unjustified force, failing to investigate crimes against women and gays, underreporting crimes, and engaging in racial profiling of young black males – putting the city's police force near the top of the list of America's most troubled law enforcement agencies.

New Orleans has every issue that has existed in our practice to date, and a few that we hadn’t encountered,” said Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s civil rights division, in a Thursday press conference.

IN PICTURES: New Orleans five years after Katrina

In addition to issuing the report, the Justice Department said that, under terms of a new consent decree, a federal judge will for the first time have oversight of the NOPD, in a bid to force better compliance with policing standards.

To curb police corruption that worsened after hurricane Katrina in 2005, Mayor Mitch Landrieu wants to take advantage of an upswell of community activism and concern. But some residents say the police department won't be reformed unless New Orleans confronts the conditions that police officers in this quasi-Caribbean city face every day. An insouciant attitude toward real societal problems in part contributes to the problems at the police department, they suggest.

"The police in New Orleans very much have a laissez-faire attitude," says Julie Smith, the New Orleans-based crime author. "And I think it has to do with the whole way they were brought up, the way we all are here. They're products of the city as much as any of us are."

The Justice Department report faulted the police force's recruitment and training, and identified crime-reporting procedures that repeatedly glossed over serious crimes or omitted them altogether. Investigators also found that New Orleans police officers often use deadly or physical force (such as baton strikes, pepper spray, punches, and arm twisting) when it's not warranted, and even in "retaliatory" ways. Investigations of such cases tend to be cursory and incomplete, the DOJ said.

Racial profiling is also a problem, the DOJ found. For every 16 blacks arrested, one white person was arrested, it noted. Even the city's canine units are out of control, with some of animals behaving so aggressively they had bitten their handlers, the report found.

The investigation did not include cases of post-Katrina police criminality, in which 20 city police officers face trials for a variety of serious crimes, including murder.

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