Thumbing through the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigative report of the New Orleans Police Department, one wonders why the feds didn’t publicly urge the city to cancel Mardi Gras. The 10-month federal review of NOPD’s operations would be released March 17, almost two weeks after Fat Tuesday, but the grim results of the study were no doubt known far sooner to DOJ officials at Washington, D.C.
After 9/11, terrorism became the top priority at DOJ. Oversight of NOPD appeared to rely more on reports and policy reviews than the intensive federal scrutiny of the mid-1990s.
“In general, we are pleased with the improvement we have seen in our most recent review of [NOPD] Use of Force reports and complaint investigation files,” a DOJ official said to Nagin City Attorney Sherry Landry in a letter dated July 21, 2003. “However, we have concerns about the unconstitutional use of a choking technique to prevent swallowing of drug evidence and recommend additional changes to the Public Integrity Bureau’s (PIB) complaint investigation process and to the NOPD operations manual.”
By March 2004, the civil rights division DOJ was satisfied that Police Chief Eddie Compass and PIB commander Lonnie Swain had made essential changes to NOPD policy, including allowing a suspect to swallow drugs then retrieve the evidence by “appropriate medical attention” rather than permit officers grab people by the throat on the street.
“Today, Superintendent Edwin P. Compass III and Mayor C. Ray Nagin announce that after an intensive 10-year review of the “practices, policies and standards of the New Orleans Police Department, the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ has decided to close their investigation into the NOPD,” then-Capt. Marlon Defillo said in a March 29, 1994, press release.
“The Department of Justice became interested in the NOPD in the early 1990s when the Police Department was plagued with corruption and ‘practices and standards’ that were, at the very least, questionable. The Department of Justice was moving toward a ‘Federal Consent Decree,’ which would have allowed the federal government to assume control of the department.
“The federal government delayed their ‘takeover’ and gave the opportunity to reform itself” over the next decade. “Last week the Department of Justice gave the NOPD a ‘vote of confidence’ in how the department was managed and how its officers treat citizens.”
Civil rights lawyer Mary E. Howell said then that the DOJ increased the need for an Independent Police Monitor.
“The history of these problems with the police department is that we wait until some thing happens; then we try to fix it,” Howell said.
Hurricane Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005.
In the long aftermath of the storm, you knew the cops were in trouble when both the National Rifle Association and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the NOPD in federal court. On Sept. 22, 2005, the NRA accused Mayor Nagin and police chiefs Eddie Compass and Warren Riley of violating the constitutional rights of storm victims when Compass called for the confiscation of guns from homeowners in house-to-house searches. (The city settled the suit in 2008.) The ACLU sued Chief Riley to obtain NOPD’s records of racial profiling and abuse-of-force complaints. Federal criminal investigations of deadly police cover-ups of Danziger Bridge and the shooting death of Henry Glover followed but were unrelated to the DOJ study that covered the last two years.
You knew the cops were in trouble again when voices as disparate as FBI Special Agent-in-Charge David Welker, civil rights attorney Mary Howell and ex-offender advocate Norris Henderson all said during different interviews that the cops convicted of covering up post-Katrina wrongdoing would have been better off telling the truth because “people would have understood.”
Mayor Mitch Landrieu on May 5, 2010, “invited” DOJ to conduct an operational audit of the NOPD, accepted the “sobering” federal report. “We can and must turn this around.”
It has been well-reported that DOJ found a “pattern and practice” of constitutional violations at the NOPD, including a routine use of “unnecessary and unreasonable” force, illegal stops, searches, arrests, under-investigations of violence against women and discriminatory treatment of gays and minorities.
The feds also found the kind of disturbing evidence of excessive force that the ACLU no doubt suspected when it sued Chief Riley five years ago – officers firing at moving vehicles, endangering the lives of innocent bystanders and fellow law enforcement alike and a K-9 unit with “uncontrollable” dogs that attacked police handlers and civilian suspects at a rate of six in 10 incidents.
“We found further that NOPD’s oversight of its officers’ use of deadly force has been so perfunctory that until we inquired, NOPD did not know where some officer-involved shooting investigation files were located and did not initially provide officer-involved shooting investigative files for approximately one-half of the (27) incidents that occurred during the (18-month) time period we were reviewing. Several officer-involved shooting investigations are still missing,” according to the federal report, which adds: “We found repeated instances where officers used force, including deadly force, in a manner that plainly contradicted NOPD policy or the Constitution, and that endangered the lives of civilian bystanders and other police officers, yet no one in the chain-of-command held officers accountable.”
Other findings were chilling if not surprising:
“On ride-alongs, it was often our experience that only a single-platoon sergeant was providing field supervision for an entire district.”
“The training NOPD has for the past several years provided to its officers is severely deficient in nearly every respect, compromising officer and public safety, effective crime reduction and the credibility and reputation of the department as a whole.”
After Katrina, the NOPD reportedly lowered the standards, hiring “hundreds of officers” during a three-year period to re-staff the storm-depleted force, by “essentially removing the physical agility requirement and asking the city Civil Service Commission to score the written portion of the application less vigorously.”
We will need at least a generation of court oversight to fix problems at the NOPD, but that’s the history of this department.