Attorney General orders sweeping reforms for New Orleans police

Reuters News
Posted: Jul 24, 2012 7:17 PM
Attorney General orders sweeping reforms for New Orleans police

By Kathy Finn

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday placed the New Orleans Police Department, which has been accused of widespread abuses, under the scrutiny of a federal monitor for at least four years.

Holder issued a sweeping decree that he said resulted from "one of the most extensive investigations" of a law enforcement agency the Justice Department has ever conducted.

"This agreement is the most widespread, wide-ranging in the department's history," he said during a downtown New Orleans press conference where he was joined by city officials.

The 170-page agreement, which must receive federal court approval before it can be finalized, resulted from months of negotiations between the federal government and New Orleans officials.

City officials have expected the decree since April 2011, when the Justice Department released a scathing report on the policies and actions of local police, identifying practices ranging from discriminatory searches to excessive use of force.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu - who invited federal scrutiny of local police shortly after taking office in 2010 - and Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas both said they welcome the order.

"Making our city safe is my top priority," Landrieu said.

The resulting "partnership" with the federal government "is what will allow true change to take hold" in the city's ongoing struggle against a persistently high murder rate, the mayor said.

New Orleans recorded 199 murders last year and could match that total in 2012. Homicides total 113 so far this year, a police spokesman said Tuesday.

Serpas said that the police department last year began implementing some of the reforms mandated in the order.

"I am confident we will succeed," he said. "This police department will not let this community down and we will not let one another down."

The Justice Department's 2011 report cited dozens of problems in New Orleans police training, recruiting, supervision and interrogation practices, and identified "a troubling racial disparity" in the use of force.

Increased federal attention to the city's problems helped produce more than a dozen convictions during the past year in a series of federal civil rights cases in which local police officers were charged with killing unarmed civilians and covering up the crimes during the violent aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The New Orleans consent decree is the latest in a string of such orders the federal government has imposed on police departments in cities including Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Los Angeles, to provide blueprints for reform. Failure to comply could subject a city to contempt of court charges and possible penalties.

The order, in the form of a lawsuit by the United States against the City of New Orleans, alleges that police have routinely violated citizens' constitutional rights and engaged "in a pattern or practice of intentional discriminatory conduct."

The order requires the police department to conduct use-of-force training; improve investigations of officer-involved shootings; make Spanish and Vietnamese translators available to handle emergency calls; and improve investigation of sexual assaults and domestic violence.

(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan, Jackie Frank and Lisa Shumaker)