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DOJ unveils sweeping NOPD reforms

30th July 2012   ·   0 Comments

Seven years after a series of high-profile murder cases in the wake of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina involving the New Orleans Police Department rocked the nation, the U.S. Department of Justice took steps toward reforming the troubled agency. A federally mandated plan to rid the NOPD of corruption, discrimination, widespread abuse and a frequent use of deadly force will be imposed on the department for at least four years and likely cost the financially strapped city $11 million annually.

Flanked by federal officials and members of the Landrieu administration, Attorney General Eric Holder unveiled the plan Tuesday. Holder, the nation’s first Black attorney general, called the agreement the most wide-ranging in the history of the U.S. Department of Justice and said that it resolves allegations that New Orleans police officers have engaged in a pattern of discriminatory and unconstitutional activity.

The changes come in the form of a court-approved consent decree, an agreement the Justice Department negotiated with the city after releasing a scathing report taking the department to task on multiple fronts in The agreement includes extensive requirements for improved training, better supervision and new technology including cameras in police cars.

“The people of this city should rest assured that together with the Department of Justice, we will fundamentally change the culture of the NOPD once and for all,” said New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who estimated the cost at roughly $11 million a year over the next four to five years.

Landrieu expressed confidence that the agreement will produce “the new NOPD.”

“There is no problem here that cannot be solved,” he said. “We can and we must change, and we now have a clear roadmap forward.”

The agreement spells out a series of strict requirements for overhauling the police department’s policies and procedures for use of force, training, interrogations, searches and arrests, recruitment and supervision.

“There can be no question that today’s action represents a critical step forward,” Holder said. “It reaffirms the Justice Department’s commitment to fair and vigorous law enforcement at every level.”

Landrieu and City Council President Jackie Clarkson both expressed certainty that the council will make the needed budget changes to pay for the plan, while seeking any and all available federal grants to help ease the financial sting.

“It’s a priority,” Clarkson said after Tuesday’s news conference.

At least one community activist challenged claims by the mayor and some DOJ officials that suggest the NOPD has already begun to implement changes. “That’s all song and dance, just political posturing,” said the Rev. Raymond Brown, a longtime community activist who often marched alongside the late Rev. Avery C. Alexander and is also the founder of National Action Now. “None of the changes implemented so far after last year’s Justice Department report on the NOPD prevented widespread abuse of the department’s paid detail program or were enough to save the lives of Justin Sipp or Wendell Allen. We need real, sweeping changes and I don’t know if this city, the NOPD or even the U.S. Department of Justice are committed to making that happen.”

New Orleans police scandals go back decades. In the 1990s, they included the severe beating of a suspect in an officer’s death, and the conviction of a police officer who arranged the murder of someone who filed a brutality complaint against him. It also saw a conviction in a separate case of a killer cop who murdered a fellow officer and two others during a restaurant robbery.

Renewed attention fell on the department after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Spurred by family members of one of the victims of a grisly post-Katrina NOPD shooting that left two men dead and wounded four others, the Justice Department’s civil rights division launched a series of criminal probes focusing on police officers’ actions in the storm’s aftermath.

After the fatal shootings of James Brissette, 17, and Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old disabled man, on the Danziger Bridge, the victims’ families and members of the community sought justice in the local criminal justice system but found none. Even though Jim Letten, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana, had been appointed to that post by former President George W. Bush and was serving the district at the time of the shootings, he showed little interest in prosecuting the cops accused of murdering innocent civilians the Danziger Bridge case, Henry Glover case, Raymond Robair case and several other high-profile cases.

The overwhelming majority of the city’s Black leaders agree that the DOJ probe of the NOPD would not have happened if Dr. Romell Madison, the brother of Ronald Madison, and several others, had not been unrelenting in seeking help from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

The investigations resulted in charges against 20 officers, including five convicted last year of civil rights violations in the deadly shootings of unarmed residents on an eastern New Orleans bridge less than a week after the storm’s landfall.

The officers convicted in the Danziger Bridge shootings were sentenced to prison terms of up to 65 years. Five others pleaded guilty to engaging in a cover-up plot that included a planted gun, phony witnesses and fabricated reports.

Among the agreement’s provisions:

• All officers will be required to receive at least 24 hours of training on stops, searches and arrests; 40 hours of use-of-force training; and four hours of training on bias-free policing within a year of the agreement taking effect.

• All interrogations involving suspected homicides or sexual assaults will have to be recorded in their entirety on video. The department also will be required to install video cameras and location devices in all patrol cars and other vehicles within two years.

• The department will be required to restructure the system for paying officers for off-duty security details, develop a new report format for collecting data on all stops and searches and create a recruitment program to increase diversity among its officers.

• The city and Justice Department will pick a court-supervised monitor to regularly assess and report on implementation of the requirements.

• The city and police department can ask a judge to dissolve the agreement after four years, but only if they can show they have fully complied with its requirements for two years.

The Justice Department has reached similar agreements with police departments in Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Detroit and Oakland, Calif. But the scope of the New Orleans’ consent decree is billed as the most extensive of its kind and includes requirements that no other department has had to implement.

For instance, the agreement requires officers to respect that bystanders have a constitutional right to observe and record their conduct in public places. Its “bias-free policing” provisions, which call for creating a policy to guide officers’ interactions with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents, also are believed to be unprecedented for a police department’s consent decree.

W.C. Johnson, host of local cable-access show “OurStory” and a member of Community United for Change and United New Orleans Front, said the DOJ opted for a court monitor rather than citizen oversight of the NOPD.

“They totally disregarded all conversations that we had about giving the community control over the oversight of the NOPD — they just totally rejected it across the board,” Johnson told The Louisiana Weekly. “There are other cities that have civilian oversight but they rejected it for New Orleans. My guess is that Mitch Landrieu, Ronal Serpas and Mary Landrieu did not want this, so they fed into the desires of the politicians instead of feeding into the desires and wants of the people — the ones who could see all of the mistreatment, disrespect, beatings and even murder. We were just totally disrespected in this regard.”

Last year, the Justice Depart­ment issued a scathing report that said New Orleans police officers have often used deadly force without justification, repeatedly made unconstitutional arrests and engaged in racial profiling. The report also found that the department has long failed to adequately protect New Orleans residents because of numerous shortcomings, including inadequate supervision.

Since the report’s release, the NOPD has been rocked by a number of scandals including reports of racial profiling in the French Quarter during the Essence Music Festival, the release of an email pressuring Mid-City officers to racially profile Black residents or risk forfeiture of opportunities to earn overtime pay, abuse of the department’s off-duty detail program and at least two fatal shootings, one of which involved an unarmed 20-year-old man.

“The consent decree will allow us to move forward together, and will enable the people of New Orleans to have, in the words of Mayor Landrieu, ‘a world-class police department,’” Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday. “It will also resolve the government’s allegations that the NOPD engaged in a pattern of practice that was both discriminatory and unconstitutional and that too often undermined the public’s trust and the city’s efforts to effectively prevent crime.”

Tuesday’s announcement preceded President Barack Obama’s visit to New Orleans by a day. Obama addressed delegates at the National Urban League’s annual conference Wednesday.

National Urban League Pre­sident Marc Morial, son of the city’s first Black mayor and a former New Orleans mayor himself, said that during his time in office he witnessed a rare drop in violent crime amid reforms instituted by then-Chief Richard Pennington in the 1990s.

Morial applauded news of the consent decree.

“It ensures that police reform is not dependent on the leadership of any single mayor or any single police chief,” said Morial, who blamed his successor, former Mayor Ray Nagin, for allowing earlier reforms to die.

Rafael Goyeneche, a former cop and president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said previous efforts to reform the NOPD lacked the teeth and the strong federal oversight of a consent decree. The city will have to spend millions of dollars to implement the reforms, paying for training, equipment and oversight costs, Goyeneche said.

“This is going to be a living document that will shape the future of not just the New Orleans Police Department but of the entire criminal justice system, probably for the next eight to 10 years,” he said. “This is not going to be an inexpensive item for the city to absorb.”

W.C. Johnson said that mainstream media and local elected officials routinely hide the fact that Black grassroots leadership has played a continues to play an active role in bring about NOPD reform.

“You have Blacks who are engaged in civil affairs and they are working tediously to bring about fair and equitable treatment for everyone,” he told The Louisiana Weekly. “It’s difficult for Black New Orleans to get this perception across because the general media suppresses positive images of Blacks doing positive things,”

Johnson said it is “appalling” that the DOJ has continuously allowed the Landrieu administration to give the impression that it is the driving force behind NOPD reforms. “The mayor continues to totally negate Dr. Romell Madison, brother of Danziger Bridge murder victim Ronald Madison,” Johnson said. “This is an injustice that has been perpetuated by the Landrieu/Serpas administration that the DOJ continually allows to go on.”

Johnson says that after two years of bringing together DOJ officials with members of the community whose family members have been victimized by cops, he can only conclude that “the DOJ basically used the Black citizens in New Orleans to help them get a sense of what the problem really was.

“Once they were able to capture that, they decided to dismiss the community from further proceedings and go forward just with the city administration,” Johnson added. “That is an injustice and a disservice both to the Black and white community of New Orleans.”

Johnson was among of number of community activists who attended a meeting Wednesday on the third floor of Gallier Hall with DOJ officials seeking input from New Orleans’ citizenry. Johnson pointed out that there were no copies of the consent decree on hand at the meeting although the feds sought feedback from the activists, the meeting was organized with very little in the way of a warning and held in a location that made it difficult for some members of the community to attend it. Unlike Tuesday’s press conference, there were no copies of the consent decree for those in attendance to read.

Johnson said that the DOJ reached out to Blacks to gauge the severity of the problems at the NOPD but excluded Blacks from being involved in efforts to find solutions. “While I commend them for coming to New Orleans and listening to the issues Blacks face with the NOPD, just because you have identified the problem doesn’t mean you should ignore Blacks when it’s time to remedy the problem,” Johnson said. “You cannot separate the process from the people and then tell them, ‘This is what’s best for you.’ I don’t need anyone coming to tell me what I need to do for me. I don’t need anyone in and telling us in New Orleans what’s best in New Orleans and they’re doing this from Washington, D.C.”

Johnson says he told DOJ officials Wednesday that they should have taken more time and involved New Orleans residents in the resolution process. “I told them that I felt that this consent decree was a rush to judgment,” Johnson told The Louisiana Weekly. “They wanted to tell me how much they put into this, but my response was, ‘How much time did the consent decree take in Los Angeles, Calif.? Or in Cincinnati, Ohio or Pittsburgh?’ We’re talking about two years here. I think we have had the shortest period of any of the consent decrees in finalizing what it was that was going to be adjudicated. I raised the flag that this was a rush to judgment and I believe that there is a political overtone and undercurrent that’s here.

“First of all, there was a rush to put this out the day before the Urban League comes here, the day before the President comes in and the week of the activities of the Urban League convention, which will possibly smother the announcement of the consent decree,” Johnson continue. “This is another political ploy, another political trick, to smother the life’s breath out of the Black community so we continued to be one day late and two dollars short.”

Johnson says he has made copies of the consent decree for some people who may not have access to the Internet and will join others in the community in reading and deciphering its contents before seeking another meeting with DOJ officials.

“Once we go through this consent decree, we will continue negotiations with the DOJ,” Johnson said. “The only difference is we’re taking the gloves off. We’re not going to deal with the DOJ any more with kid gloves. We’re going to treat them just like we would treat any other adversary.”

Johnson said CUC, UNOF and other groups fighting for racial justice and an end to police brutality will continue to call for the resignation of NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas. A caller to “OurStory” suggested Wednesday evening that it may be time to raise the stakes by organizing protests against the mayor and police chief outside some of the city’s finest restaurants.

Mary Howell, a New Orleans attorney who has frequently represented victims of police abuse, cautioned that the consent decree will not be a permanent solution to the department’s longstanding problems.

“Consent decrees have lives of their own, too, and they end at a certain point,” she told The Associated Press. “Everything we do now needs to be geared toward the day when we no longer have that direct federal oversight.”

Associated Press reporters Cain Burdeau in New Orleans and Pete Yost in Washington contributed to this report. Louisiana Weekly editor Edmund W. Lewis also contributed to this report.

This article was originally published in the July 30, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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