New Orleans tries to clean up its police force
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.