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Kami Chavis Simmons

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New Orleans Probe Demonstrates Need for Implementing Systemic Reforms Within Nation's Police Departments

Posted: 08/08/11 03:25 PM ET

Jurors recently convicted five police officers accused of civil rights violations and obstruction of justice following a shooting of six people in New Orleans. Federal prosecutors alleged that the defendant police officers shot at two families as they crossed the Danziger Bridge in New Orleans while fleeing Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters. Two victims, one of which sustained gunshot wounds to the back of the head, died, and four others were critically wounded. Prosecutors claimed that after the shooting, several officers engaged in an elaborate effort to conceal evidence that the victims were unarmed and to give the appearance that the officers' actions were justified.

Crucial to the government's case was the testimony of several officers who had pled guilty to charges related to shooting. Given the "blue code of silence" that is widely known to exist among police officers, it would have been extremely difficult to secure these convictions without the testimony of these officers, some of whom had actively participated in the scheme to fabricate and conceal evidence. This unwritten code not only discourages police officers from reporting the wrongdoing of their fellow officers, but also encourages them to hinder investigations of alleged misconduct. The officers who participated in the Danziger Bridge shooting bear direct culpability for their actions. The ensuing cover-up, however, which was orchestrated by the supervising officers who were assigned to investigate the shooting, exemplifies the danger of the code of silence and demonstrates a lack of accountability across the entire department.

The testimony and subsequent guilty verdicts in the Danziger Bridge trial have exposed institutional deficiencies that encourage police misconduct and corruption. These systemic issues are neither new nor unique to New Orleans, but are endemic within many local law-enforcement agencies. For example, in 1992, the Christopher Commission exposed startling revelations about how the institutional culture of the Los Angeles Police Department cultivated and tolerated police misconduct. Experts have long warned that much police conduct stems from an organizational culture that is characterized by group loyalty, a code of silence, and the toleration of unnecessarily aggressive tactics that lead to violence.

These recent events should therefore prompt policymakers to take a closer look at the reforms still needed in police departments around the nation. The overwhelming majority of police officers are honest, hardworking individuals who risk their lives to keep other safe. Unfortunately, the severe consequences of breaching the code of silence may force otherwise innocent police officers into compliance with the code. Thus, holding individual officers accountable, while necessary, may not be enough. The culture of the entire police institution must change in order to effectively address misconduct and corruption.

The Special Litigation Section of the Department of Justice (DOJ) is currently working with officials in New Orleans to implement institutional reforms, as it has done with several other police departments nationwide, including Los Angeles Police Department and Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. Generally, the resulting consent decrees or agreements have included reforms aimed at improving substantive polices and creating more transparency. One common reform DOJ has required is the implementation of an early-warning tracking system to help supervisors identify officers who might need to be retrained, reassigned or released.

Collecting this type of information and using it to make training and personnel decisions may deter the intentional wrongdoing of individual officers. Another common reform is the implementation of fair and comprehensive complaint processes for citizens who wish to report alleged misconduct. To ensure fairness and reduce the possibility for retaliation, officers assigned to investigate citizen complaints should be sufficiently independent from the officers they are investigating. Reforms such as these may begin to address the code of silence because if properly implemented and enforced, they signal to all officers that the department will tolerate misconduct.

Although DOJ should continue to vigorously enforce its authority to require and oversee these reforms, state and local jurisdictions should not wait for DOJ to require them to implement these sound police practices. After assessing their police departments, local policymakers should implement similar reforms, tailored to the specific needs of their community. Multiple stakeholders -- community members, as well as police union representatives -- should be actively involved in developing and approving these reforms.

Incidents like the Danziger Bridge shooting and the ensuing cover-up undermine public confidence in law-enforcement agencies. This lack of legitimacy has negative consequences for both police and the communities they serve because community members are less likely to partner with police to solve crime. Prosecutors and those investigating police wrongdoing will not always have the testimony or cooperation of other police officers to uncover wrongdoing. Thus, efforts to eradicate police misconduct and corruption will be ineffective unless reforms address the culture of the police organization itself. No community should endure another incident like the Danziger Bridge shooting.