Long before Hurricane Katrina laid bare New Orleans’ deep social wounds, the relationship between the city’s police force and its black citizens had been deeply troubled.
The city’s African American residents have long complained of frequent abuses at the hands of police. Katrina only intensified the sense of grievance, given the prosecution of several police officers that shot unarmed civilians, sometimes fatally.
This week, the seething anger directed at the police and an enduring sense of injustice gained a powerful surge of affirmation, with the release of a scathing report from the Justice Department [PDF]. The 115-page document, which details the findings of a 10-month-long investigation, reads like an indictment of nearly every area of the department’s operation, from the recruiting, training and supervision of its officers to its tactics of policing.
The findings describe a pattern of unconstitutional conduct and violations of federal law, rampant use of excessive force and unwarranted stops and searches, as well as discrimination based on race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. The wide range of abuses also includes gender-biased policing and a systematic failure to investigate sexual assaults and domestic violence.
The document “is as damning a report as you could possibly imagine for any institution where people are allowed to carry weapons,” said William P. Quigley, who is a law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans and the legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. “If this was a business I think it would be declared bankrupt. If New Orleans was a foreign country, I think this would be enough to constitute a no-fly zone.”
Quigley added: “What this shows is that the people that are supposed to be serving and protecting, are actually a serious threat to the people of New Orleans.”
Several calls placed to the police department in an effort to secure an interview with Chief Ronal Surpas went unreturned.
No one would argue that the New Orleans police force has an easy job. For decades, officers have grappled with stubbornly high murder rates, a particularly ruthless variety of criminal activity, and communities steeped in drugs and violence. But in neighborhoods hit hardest by crime, some of the most feared people have not been the criminals, but the police.
“When you have the type of brutality that has happened in our community, going on from generation to generation, from white police committing atrocities, to blacks committing them and often being more brutal than the whites, it leaves a traumatic impact,” said Malik Rahim, an activist who has long decried police brutality and violence in the city. “But what can you do? You can’t do nothing. If you do something you risk getting shot or killed. And then it’s like, who cares?”
Federal and city officials will soon begin negotiations toward a consent decree that would formally place the department under federal oversight and create a strategy to implement specific systematic reforms.
“The challenges confronting the New Orleans Police Department are serious, systematic, wide-ranging, and deeply rooted,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s civil rights division, in a letter to Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans. “As devastating as Hurricane Katrina was, our investigation has revealed that these serious deficiencies existed long before the storm.”
The Justice Department report focuses on officer conduct during the past two years, using much of the NOPD’s own data, as well as interviews with a number of community leaders and police officers. Several current investigations and prosecutions of officers related to misconduct during Hurricane Katrina were deliberately kept out of the report.
The findings are at once alarming and expected: Despite the severity of the conduct the report describes, it merely adds the imprimatur of official conclusion to charges that local residents have been leveling against the police department for a long time.
“This report validates what many in the African-American community had been saying all along,” said John Penny, a criminologist at Southern University of New Orleans. “Their voice is finally being heard after years of silence. I think that now there’s a confirmation, so something has to be put in place so that integrity is the heart and soul of the Orleans Parish police department.”
Some experts dismissed the report as methodologically flawed and unfair to the police department, arguing that a few bad incidents were being used to unfairly impugn the integrity of all officers. Those holding such views argued that the nature of crime in New Orleans is so severe that an intense police response is required, inevitably leading to problems – a context they assert is missing in the Justice Department’s report.
“There’s no mention that we are in the middle of the battle of the bulge here, that we are approaching 50 murders in two and a half months,” said Peter Scharf, a criminologist at Tulane University. “It’s a rough town. This town is incredibly violent. Every criminal is packing. There seems to be absolutely no sensitivity to the cops in this city.”
Scharf said the likely effect of this report on rank and file officers could be devastating, and perhaps create an even more hostile environment.
“Fear based organizations don’t do well over time,” he said. “If I’m a cop on the street and I read this report, am I willing to pick up my gun and go on the street, where things turn from ok to crap in a second?” He continued, “You have to balance the civil rights of the people you are to protect, but again, recognizing the difficulties of police officers in this environment. It should not be a question of how do you come out pristine, but how do you turn the corner.”
As in perhaps all social issues in New Orleans and any large metropolis, complicated dynamics of race and class, power and money, are all at work. Many city services such as healthcare and education are inadequate for much of the city’s poor, black and immigrant communities. These are the places of greatest friction, where the people and the police often collide.
Rahim, the activist, and other residents say police brutality and abuse have been common for as long as they can remember. They recount stories of minor arrests that ended up getting whole families evicted from public housing; of men and women being stopped and frisked for no reason; of beatings in police custody; and of drug dealers being stopped by police and stripped of their money and jewlery.
William P. Quigley, the law professor, said the treatment of blacks by the police has resonated differently in different communities, a schism divided most often by race.
“In the white community the whole thing is sort of puzzling. They knew that the police were bad but they didn’t think it was that bad,” said Quigley. “The truth is, I honestly don’t think the white community is all that disappointed in what the police were doing, they really see them as trying to take control of the African-American and poor community. They see it as, if they had to bend the law and break the law, well, sometimes you have to break a few eggs to make an omlette.”
Larry Preston Williams Sr. was a police officer in New Orleans in the late 1960s and 1970s. He says many of the issues highlighted in the report were some of the same issues that confronted the department back when he was on the force.
There has always been an “unofficial practice” of officers looking the other way when it comes to excessive force, unjustified shootings and lax accountability for officers who broke the rules, he said, calling that “the blue law of silence.”
“I think as a matter of custom, there are some incidents that go back years and years that police have abused citizen, black citizens,” he said. “It has been a practice that has been tolerated for a long time.”
Williams said that while lectures on good policing and lethal force as an option of last resort were delivered in the academy, once an officer got in the field, much of what they learned came from veterans with bad habits.
“The higher ups who have gone through the ranks, captains, lieutenants and seargents, they understand that excessive force and unnecessary force is going on, and they don’t necessarily discipline officers because they are part of that fraternity,” said Williams. “It would be unpopular for a supervisor to come down on an officer.”
It was hard to ignore the violent interrogations to elicit confessions, Williams said. Complaints by black females that they had been sexually harassed or assaulted were common. And simply asking for an officers badge number could get you arrested.
Before leaving the police department to become an investigator in the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office, Williams said he and a group of black officers formed a group called the Black Organization of Police. The group was formed to speak out against police brutality and to encourage the hiring of more minorities and women, which they all assumed would lead to a more harmonious relationship between the police and the people.
In 1973, he and a group of six other officers filed a lawsuit against the city - Williams v. City of New Orleans – challenging the department’s biased hiring, disciplining, promoting and assigning practices.
The group won the lawsuit and the department was legally forced to make changes under a consent decree, including hiring more black officers.
“I don’t know if that worked at all,” Williams said of the black officers being a buffer. “Apparently it didn’t.”
“To say simply that it is an issue of black and white is superficial. It goes beyond race. It’s a failure of a command structure to deal with the behaviors that lead to brutality,” Williams said.
“It’s more complicated than black and white, it’s a mentality that you have when you become a police officer and you suddenly have power over an entire group of people.”