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ProPublica: Law and Disorder

After Katrina, New Orleans Police
Shot Frequently and Asked Few Questions

Feds Find ‘Systemic Violations of Civil Rights’ by New Orleans Police Department

Alex Brandon/New Orleans Times-Picayune

ATF Special Response Team and the NOPD SWAT team search the Convention Center after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans on Sept. 5, 2005.

The U.S. Department of Justice released a 158-page report today on the New Orleans Police Department, identifying a host of deep systemic problems, including a pattern of discriminatory policing, the routine use of "unnecessary and unreasonable" force, and a chronic failure to discipline officers involved in misconduct.

The NOPD "has been largely indifferent to widespread violations of law and policy by its officers," states the report, which was compiled by the Justice Department's Civil Rights section.

The report also suggests that NOPD officials may have sought to cover up evidence in incidents in which police shot civilians. "NOPD's mishandling of officer-involved shooting investigations was so blatant and egregious that it appeared intentional in some respects," the report says.

As ProPublica has reported, federal prosecutors have built a string of criminal cases against 20 current or former officers over the last three years. In December, one former cop and two members of the force were convicted in connection with the murder of a man and incineration of his body in the days after Hurricane Katrina.

But today's report describes a department with deep-rooted, comprehensive flaws that extend far beyond a small number of cops.

Now the effort to transform the police department will likely wind up in the hands of a federal judge. At a press conference today, Thomas Perez, the assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, signaled his intent to seek a consent decree, a move that would place the police force under the supervision of a court.

Police chief Ronal Serpas said today he was steering the police force in that direction as well "When we finish this process with the Department of Justice, there will be oversight by a court," said Serpas, who took the helm last spring and has implemented a series of reforms.

Interestingly, the NOPD was in a similar position in the mid-1990s, when a string of crimes by police officers -- including murders -- prompted the Justice Department to consider imposing federal oversight. At that juncture, however, the agency decided not to seek a consent decree, allowing Police Chief Richard Pennington to overhaul the NOPD's training and disciplinary systems without the involvement of a judge.

Clearly, the improvements initiated by Pennington -- who left the police force after losing a bid to become mayor of New Orleans in 2002 -- didn't stick.

In an interview last year, we asked Perez, who grappled with the NOPD's problems while working for the Justice Department during the 90s, what lessons he'd drawn from that experience.

"There was nothing that was ever memorialized in writing. There was no accountability tool," said Perez in the interview, which was conducted for Law & Disorder, a documentary produced by ProPublica, PBS "Frontline," and the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "Hindsight is 20/20 and the fact of the matter is the reforms were not sustained and that is why we're working in a much different way this time around."

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