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.
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 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.
The confluence of the "live and let live" ethos of the city's multitudinous street revelers and the "live and let die" attitudes of violent street gangs makes New Orleans a difficult and dangerous place to police. That's compounded by the city's long history of tolerance toward vice and poverty – a seamy underbelly only partly obscured by shiny string beads and magnolias.
"It's not coincidence that the American incarnation of the Mafia, or Black Hand, had its inception in New Orleans...," mystery novelist James Lee Burke wrote in a post-Katrina op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. "In Louisiana we love the idealism of Don Quixote, but we have always made room for his libertine, hedonistic sidekick, Sancho Panza."
But problems in the New Orleans police force also diverge in many ways from New Orleans' unique culture. "People who come to New Orleans are always taken aback by how different this place is, but that doesn't excuse the fact that we can't do something about the horrific murder rate," says Dee Harper, a Loyola University criminologist who has studied the NOPD.
Though rank-and-file police officers often take the brunt of criticism, the DOJ report found that the police department's structure also contributes to an unprofessional atmosphere. For example, police officers in New Orleans often put more emphasis on their off-duty detail work than their on-duty work, according to the report. What's more, new Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas said Thursday he was most disappointed in "the significant failure of senior leaders" in the department.
In the mid-1990s, another DOJ investigation found similar problems, but that probe got little support from the police or New Orleans politicians. This time, Mayor Landrieu and Mr. Serpas welcomed the report's findings, agreeing that systemic reform is critical.
Without comprehensive reform, the NOPD's reputation threatens to sink the foundation of law and order in the Big Easy. Public confidence in the police is so low that some potential jurors have told prosecutors they won't serve because they wouldn't be able to trust testimony from New Orleans police officers.
At the same time, Mr. Harper, the criminologist, says he sees "a light at the end of the tunnel," given that the NOPD has begun to make some meaningful changes that are counteracting the department's "cultural inertia" and resulting in rising citizen satisfaction scores, as tallied by community surveys.
For example, he says, the department recently stopped arresting people for possessing small amounts of marijuana, in a bid to reduce the arrest load and free officers to work more serious crimes. The department also recently began requiring a college education for officers to rise through the ranks, a move intended to professionalize the force.
Historic problems in the prosecutors' office and a "don't snitch" mentality in some of the most violent neighborhoods have also played a role in New Orleans' crime and policing problems.
"If you're looking for culprits here besides the police, the system top to bottom has got plenty of room for improvement," says Harper.