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NEW ORLEANS — From a poster above Yvette Thierry’s desk, a couple dozen grainy faces, most of them black, look down over the papery detritus that threatens to overwhelm her office at Safe Streets, Strong Communities. The group was formed after Hurricane Katrina to fight for reform of the city’s criminal justice system. Thierry points out a few individuals, including relatives of Ronald Madison, who was gunned down by police on the city’s Danziger Bridge in 2005, and a couple whose only child, Adolph Grimes III, was shot to death by officers on Jan. 1, 2009. And there is Rebecca Glover, whose nephew Henry Glover was shot by a policeman after Katrina. When his brother and a passerby sought help from several other officers, they were beaten, and the wounded man was driven away by the police. Most of his remains were eventually found in a burned-out car a few blocks from a police station. “We’re still trying to figure out what they did with his skull,” says Thierry.
Such examples of post-Katrina police violence brought national attention to the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD). Safe Streets, Strong Communities and many local activists used these cases to press for investigation and an overhaul of an institution that has long had a poor reputation, particularly among the city’s majority African-American population. In 2011 the U.S. Department of Justice issued a damning 158-page report on the NOPD that found “deficiencies that lead to constitutional violations span[ning] the operation of the entire department.” In 2012 the NOPD and the Department of Justice signed a consent decree — essentially a long list of reforms the NOPD must institute, under the watchful eye of a law firm hired to monitor progress over five years.
Similar instances of federally mandated oversight have been enacted in other cities, including Cincinnati; Los Angeles; Oakland, Calif.; and East Haven, Conn. On Wednesday the mayor of Albuquerque, N.M., asked the Department of Justice to step in. But New Orleans is an especially challenging case that could test the federal government’s power over local police departments. Three years after the Justice Department’s report, some of the community activists who requested a federal intervention are expressing fears that the resistance of the mayor and the police department could undermine reform efforts.
“We’ve been told by [Attorney General] Eric Holder that [Department of Justice officials] aren’t going anywhere until they get it right, but we have a part to play too,” says Thierry. “We have to hold their feet to the fire and make sure they don’t get lackadaisical on their job. We’ve always had to fight for everything we’ve got in this city since Katrina.”
The New Orleans consent decree is the most comprehensive agreement the Justice Department has ever reached with a police department. It addresses officers’ treatment of and interactions with the transgender community, requiring that all citizen must be referred to by the pronouns they identify with. Canine unit policies were made more rigorous because the dogs were so poorly trained that they regularly attacked their handlers. The decree also requires a more community-oriented policing approach and engagement with neighborhood groups. And perhaps most significant, it mandates a complete overhaul of the NOPD’s standards regarding use of force.
Our police department is really, really out of control.
mother of Steven Elloie, who was beaten by police
“We’ve had so many different issues with the police, my friends and family don’t trust [them],” says Theresa Elloie, whose son Steven was beaten in his bar in 2006, shocked with a Taser multiple times while handcuffed and then jailed for resisting arrest and battery of an officer. Steven Elloie was eventually cleared of all charges. “Our police department is really, really out of control.”
It was because of the frequency of cases like Elloie’s that New Orleans activists wrote to the Justice Department in March 2009 to request federal intervention. With investigators on the way, local authorities initially seemed amenable to the concept. Upon taking office in 2010, Mayor Mitch Landrieu wrote a letter to the Department of Justice asking for the assistance that was already coming. He wrote, “I have inherited a police force that has been described by many as one of the worst police departments in the country.” (An NOPD representative declined Al Jazeera America’s interview requests for this article.)
But by the beginning of last year, Landrieu was trying to get the agreement voided in court, insisting that the cost was too much for the city to bear when paired with another Justice Department consent decree, which mandates reforms in the nightmarish New Orleans Parish Prison. (Experts have declared it unsafe.) The courts rejected the mayor’s request.
Landrieu challenged the Department of Justice and community groups during the selection process for the NOPD’s monitor. The mayor’s choice was a law firm headed by a former Chicago police superintendent accused of turning a blind eye to the torture of suspects, which was adamantly rejected by the Department of Justice, Thierry and other activists. Landrieu lost that fight too. (The mayor’s office had not responded to interview requests by publication time.)
Consent decrees have been most effective at mandating police reform where local authorities have been willing partners, as suggested by numerous accounts gathered in a recent Police Executive Research Forum report. The remedy is less clear if local authorities decide not to cooperate. The Oakland Police Department is also under a consent decree, albeit one that wasn’t instigated by the Department of Justice, and it has resisted comprehensive changes since 2003. Last year it was thought the Oakland police department would be put into receivership (essentially a judicial takeover of the department), but the judge backed away from that unprecedented step.
“There was this possibility of receivership, but nobody knows what that really means … [and] Oakland still has a completely dysfunctional department,” says Samuel Walker, author of “The New World of Police Accountability.” “If you don’t have the full support of the mayor, city council and important parts of the community in these kinds of situations, there are no easy answers.”
New Orleans is caught in a bind familiar to cities across the United States. Its tax base is inadequate to deal with many of the needs of its citizens, and the federal government’s commitment to urban aid is dramatically lower than during the peak of such efforts, in the 1960s and 1970s.
The city’s inability to provide necessary services is keenly felt by the police. Even though roughly 60 percent of the general budget is devoted to public safety, police officers’ pay rates have long been so low that they regularly work second jobs to bring home a middle-class income. The result is a tired and overworked police force; a recent national study found that officers who reported a sleep disorder were far more likely to show “uncontrolled anger toward suspects.”
The city also suffers from inordinately high violent crime rate, with a murder rate more than twice as high as that of major Northern cities like Chicago and Philadelphia. The NOPD feels both besieged and underappreciated, creating a bunker mentality in a city already notorious for its insularity.
Since World War II, only two police chiefs have come from outside the NOPD’s ranks. “The mind-set here is, we don’t need outsiders to help us come in and conduct our business,” says Norris Henderson, executive director of Voice of the Ex-Offender, an advocacy group for formerly incarcerated people and an exonerated prisoner.
But advocates say change is possible. In the early 1990s, amid a federal investigation of the police department for pervasive corruption, Marc Morial ran for mayor on a platform of police reform, won the election and chose an outsider as his police chief, Richard Pennington. He quickly took steps to change the department, getting officers out of patrol cars and onto the streets and requiring strict discipline within the department. Within a year of his hiring, civil rights complaints to the FBI fell by 28 percent, and by the end of his tenure, police brutality complaints were at an all-time low.
In Los Angeles, efforts to overhaul the department under a Justice-imposed consent decree were proved viable in Los Angeles, where William Bratton led the once resistant department to meet most of the requirements. Citizen satisfaction with the LAPD is higher and use of force substantially lower than at the beginning of his tenure.
It’s sort of like during Reconstruction. White Southerners knew at some point those U.S. troops were going to leave and go back north.
professor, University of Texas at Austin
By contrast, Landrieu did not use his mandate after taking office in 2010 to overhaul the department. He appointed as police commissioner Ronal Serpas, who served on the NOPD for 21 years before leaving in 2001 to work out of state. Four years into his tenure, the department is struggling with a persistently high rate of violent crime, reform pressures and dismal morale manifested in a shrinking force. The NOPD has dropped from 1,600 officers in 2010 to fewer than 1,200 today.
Both the NOPD and its monitor have been relatively opaque about the department’s progress under the consent decree, with no updates released since late November. The law firm appointed to oversee the implementation of the consent decree promised quarterly updates. As of early April, there has been no word about the date of the next report. The city’s independent police monitor, an oversight position created after Katrina, says the law firm overseeing the NOPD is focused on rewriting the department’s manual.
Serpas has taken some steps that have been welcomed by community groups, including outfitting officers with body cameras. Still, some are skeptical about the NOPD’s commitment to lasting reform and fear that top officials within the department will play along while the Department of Justice remains interested but that any changes will be ephemeral.
“These folks are really entrenched. Part of the strategy is they just stall and wait them out,” says Leonard Moore, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of “Black Rage in New Orleans.” “It’s sort of like during Reconstruction. White Southerners knew at some point those U.S. troops were going to leave and go back north.”
Community-police relations continue to be strained. Last September a judge acquitted a police officer charged in the Danziger killings because of prosecutorial misconduct. Five other officers convicted in connection to the bridge killings have had their convictions overturned, with a retrial ordered, and two weeks after Landrieu’s re-election in early February, an officer who had been charged with covering up Glover’s murder was reinstated with back pay.
On Feb. 16, police were summoned to deal with a shoplifting complaint. At the scene they shot and killed Keith Atkinson, who was reportedly hitching up his pants. (He had a gun, but eyewitnesses say he was not holding it.) Records show the officer had been investigated nine times for use of force, an issue that remains one of the primary focuses of the consent decree.
Theresa Elloie says she thinks that the New Orleans police today are more likely to think twice before using force than they were and that the body cameras will be a huge help. But she fears the progress won’t last. “A lot of the … bad old officers are passing it on to the young guys. If they are training the recruits to do wrong things, then they are just repeating a cycle,” she says. “They need to be more community-oriented and realize that there is good with us and there’s bad with us, and the same goes with them. But don’t treat everybody as if they are bad.”
*Editor's note: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of NOPD Commissioner Ronal Serpas.