New Orleans struggles to overcome mistrust of police

Reuters News
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Posted: Aug 24, 2011 4:24 PM
New Orleans struggles to overcome mistrust of police

By Kathy Finn

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Sylvia McKenzie has seen it all in her New Orleans neighborhood where she was once held up at gunpoint on her front step: Drug deals, shootings and even prostitution on a nearby street.

What she has not seen much of, she says, are police officers who she believes could clean up the area she has lived in for 40 years if they so chose but who face an uphill battle gaining residents' trust after a series of missteps.

"Those streets have been bad for years and nothing has changed," she said in her eastern New Orleans neighborhood, damaged in Hurricane Katrina, where she complained blighted homes and overgrown lots were inviting crime. "You're taking a chance every time you come out your door."

Like many New Orleans residents who doubted police involved in killing two civilians in the 2005 aftermath of Hurricane Katrina would ever be held accountable, McKenzie is heartened by guilty verdicts returned in the case earlier this month.

But relations between police and New Orleans residents, especially those in long-neglected crime-ridden neighborhoods, remain fraught, and the jury is still out on whether public confidence in the police will now improve.

It took a federal civil rights trial to bring justice for the pair who died, one a teenager, gunned down by police on New Orleans' Danziger Bridge days after the storm as police responded to a call about gunfire.

A jury deemed the deaths of Ronald Madison and James Brissette were the result of police willfully violating their civil rights, but stopped short of calling them murder. The four officers convicted in the killing will be sentenced in December and could face life in prison.

A fifth officer was convicted in a years-long cover-up of the crimes.

"Everybody is well aware that the local police department and local justice system didn't resolve this matter. It was resolved by the federal government's legal intervention," said Rev. Willie Gable Jr., president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of New Orleans.

The federal government began mounting its case over the shootings in 2008, shortly after state indictments were quashed due to errors by the district attorney's office.

Gable said the guilty-on-all-counts verdict was beneficial for the community, but said ongoing police misbehavior pointed to "systemic issues in the police department that still need to be eradicated."

REFORMS AFOOT

Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas, on the job just over a year, has vowed to fight violent crime and clean up his 1,370-member force in a city that boasts the country's highest murder rate.

"We will continue to recognize that we must take the first steps to heal our relationship with the people of New Orleans. Our commitment is unwavering," Serpas said after the verdict.

The Danziger Bridge case was the largest of several recent police incidents in New Orleans to be investigated by the U.S. Justice Department under civil rights statutes.

A jury in December convicted three officers of killing a man and burning his body, although one of the officers was later granted a new trial based on fresh evidence.

Two officers were later found guilty in April in a separate beating death of a civilian, and several other federal probes into New Orleans police activity remain open.

Serpas has fired 36 officers and suspended 200 others since his tenure began, the department says. But his department may soon be placed under federal oversight and ordered to correct problems the Justice Department has identified.

The Justice Department, in a report compiled after Mayor Mitch Landrieu requested federal help to reform the police system and staunch crime, found police too often used excessive force and conducted illegal stops and arrests.

The report, released in March, also found "a troubling racial disparity" in the use of force, with African Americans in the majority-black city being targets in all instances of officers intentionally firing at people in a 16-month study.

That was not news to Doris Dillon, an African American resident who said she was once mistreated by officers, who were also black, following a car accident. "I think they do target blacks more, and I really don't understand it," she said.

Michael Cowan, a Loyola University professor who heads the New Orleans Crime Coalition, said the history of the New Orleans police treatment of African Americans was "pretty grim" but that other cities do have similar issues.

"I think it reassures a lot of us to know that the Justice Department is going to have significant oversight in these matters for a long time to come," Cowan said.

But not everyone is optimistic.

"It's not one thing that makes you lose confidence in your police force. You lose confidence because of a cumulative legacy of bad decisions," said resident Jennifer Farwell.

She said it was up to the police chief to root out bad apples, and was hopeful Serpas can do that. But she said she and many of her Mid-City neighbors were discouraged by police stumbles. "So far, we're all kind of disappointed," she said.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Greg McCune)