New Or­leans tries to clean up its po­lice force

Austin American-Statesman - - WORLD & NATION - By Sand­hya Somashekhar

NEW OR­LEANS — The peo­ple fan­ning them­selves in the crim­son pews of the Evening Star Mis­sion­ary Bap­tist Church had lev­eled these ac­cu­sa­tions be­fore. Sto­ries of the po­lice tar­get­ing and “ex­e­cut­ing” their sons, of tiny bags of crack planted by the po­lice in a baby’s di­a­per, of a men­tally ill man cook­ing break­fast when he was fired on by a SWAT team’s worth of guns.

The dif­fer­ence this time was they felt some­one was lis­ten­ing. Seated in the front pew was Roy Austin, a deputy as­sis­tant at­tor­ney gen­eral at the Jus­tice Depart­ment, in­vited to this city by a des­per­ate mayor and to this meet­ing by an even more des­per­ate com­mu­nity. His pres­ence is part of an un­prece­dented ef­fort to re- make the scan­dal-plagued New Or­leans Po­lice Depart­ment, whose al­ready sus­pect rep­u­ta­tion was left as bat­tered as the city it was charged to pro­tect af­ter Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina.

In the five years since the storm, the depart­ment’s stand­ing has only wors­ened. Ea­ger for a turn­around, the newly elected mayor did some­thing nearly un­think­able for a per­son in his po­si­tion: He called in the feds.

“I have in­her­ited a po­lice force that has been de­scribed by many as one of the worst po­lice de­part­ments in the coun­try,” Mayor Mitch Lan­drieu wrote in a let­ter to At­tor­ney Gen­eral Eric Holder dur­ing the spring. “The po­lice force, the com­mu­nity, our cit­i­zens are des­per­ate for pos­i­tive change.”

Since the fed­eral agency’s ar­rival here, 13 po­lice of­fi­cers have been in­dicted in con­nec­tion with the killing of civil­ians, and more are likely to fol­low. But root­ing out cor­rupt of­fi­cers is only part of the goal, be­cause “do­ing that alone will not be enough to bring about the sys­temic re­forms that are nec­es­sary to trans­form the depart­ment,” said Tom Perez, head of the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s Civil Rights Di­vi­sion.

“The pres­i­dent and the at­tor­ney gen­eral are per­son­ally in­vested in the suc­cess of the New Or­leans Po­lice Depart­ment,” Perez added. “I’ve sel­dom seen a sit­u­a­tion where we’re be­ing in­vited in ... and that in and of it­self gives me op­ti­mism that we can suc­ceed.”

At least a dozen Jus­tice Depart­ment ex­perts have been dis­patched to New Or­leans to as­sist with a top-to-bot­tom over­haul aimed at strength­en­ing the depart­ment’s abil­ity to po­lice it­self, Perez said.

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