In New Orleans, an unprecedented push for police reform

LaTrell Washington, one of 25 recruits at the New Orleans Police Academy, said what everyone was thinking when she addressed her class at their graduation ceremony this month.

“Mistakes have been made before our time,” she said. “We are here to change the image of the New Orleans Police Department.”

The cadets are the first to graduate under a new mayor and a new police superintendent who have done something that for this city is unprecedented. This spring they invited the Justice Department to help them clean up a police force that many think had crossed the line from petty corruption to brutality and murder.

“I have inherited a police force that has been described by many as one of the worst police departments in the country,” Mitch Landrieu wrote to Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. two days after becoming the city’s mayor. Now, he said, “nothing short of a complete transformation is necessary and essential to ensure safety for the citizens of New Orleans.”

The response from Washington has been almost unparalleled, its scope not seen in the nearly two decades since Washington targeted the Los Angeles Police Department after the Rodney King beating and riots. A team of prosecutors, civil rights attorneys, FBI agents and other officials has come here not only to investigate individual officer misconduct, but to recommend reforms to win back the public’s trust in their police.

Sixteen current and former officers have been accused this year of charges including murder, assault and covering up misconduct. Five have pleaded guilty. The former police superintendent stepped down and other high-ranking officers have left.

Among those charged are six current and former officers and sergeants in what has come to be known as the Danziger Bridge case, in which two civilians were shot and killed and four others wounded as they tried to cross the bridge after Hurricane Katrina five years ago.

“Just because they wear a uniform, they think they rule the city,” said Marie Parque, longtime owner of the Pearl Restaurant and Oyster Bar on Canal Street. “Some of them are evil. It was murder on that bridge. They won’t clean themselves up.”

Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s civil rights division, sent in his special litigation section to examine allegations of excessive force, unconstitutional searches and seizures, racial profiling and other “related misconduct.”

At the same time, Perez said, federal prosecutors working with the U.S. attorney’s office in New Orleans continue to pursue other cases of possible criminal misconduct.

But one assistant U.S. attorney with experience prosecuting cops predicted that the Washington lawyers would have a hard time gaining convictions.

“You’re in front of judges you haven’t practiced before,” said the prosecutor, who asked that he not be identified because he is still with the Justice Department. “You’re trying to deal with local rules and local trial practices you don’t know anything about. And some of the local judges will be hostile about Washington coming in, and a lot of the police aren’t going to like you either.”

The police force in New Orleans has long been associated with petty corruption and the frustrations of trying to keep the peace in a city where many of the bars never close, gang membership runs high, the summer heat is relentless and the racial dimension can be polarizing.

When Adolph Archie, a black man, shot and killed white Officer Earl Hauck in 1990, Archie was allegedly beaten to death by other officers.

Officer Antoinette Frank was sentenced to death in 1995 for killing three people, including a fellow officer, in a restaurant holdup.

The police reputation was further tarnished by what happened during and after Hurricane Katrina. In addition to the bridge shootings, officers were caught after the storm beating a man they thought was intoxicated in the French Quarter, and joining in with looters who ransacked stores.

But the efforts by the mayor and the police superintendent he brought in, Ronal Serpas, appear unprecedented.

Police squad room meetings are now held at City Park, where community members are invited to learn about recent crime trends in their neighborhoods and how the police are fighting them.

“The purpose is to provide some real transparency,” said Deputy Superintendent Kirk Bouyelas, the chief of detectives.

The department installed an independent civilian monitor who works with the city inspector general’s office with wide latitude to investigate allegations of misconduct.

“You look at the indictments and the behavior was just so outrageous, and customer service is not good either,” said Susan Hutson, the monitor. “The real problem is that you call the police and a lot of times they don’t write reports and they don’t dust for fingerprints and sometimes they even take the people who called them to jail. So people don’t feel like the police are on their side.”

But turning around a police department can take time, especially in New Orleans, where many are still hurting from Katrina.

“There’s a collective sense of relief that the old guard is gone,” said Marjorie Esman, executive director of the Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “But whether that translates to a collective sense of optimism, it’s too soon to know.”