It was over coffee at a north Louisiana diner 34 years ago that a local sheriff’s deputy made the observation.
“People who are with the police department down there in New Orleans — a lot of them would be in jail if they were up here,” he said.
An exaggeration, but it shows just how ingrained the New Orleans Police Department’s reputation for scandal was even then.
And that was two years before a young officer’s murder sparked the abusive investigations and deaths that led to indictment of officers known as the “Algiers Seven”; 12 years before suspected cop killer Adolph Archie died a messy death in police custody; 16 years before officer Len Davis was exposed as a protector of a cocaine ring who ordered the murder of a woman; 17 years before Officer Antoinette Frank killed a fellow officer and two others during a restaurant robbery.
It was a generation removed from the Danziger Bridge shootings and the burned body of Henry Glover found amid post-Hurricane Katrina chaos.
And those were just the big scandals. Never mind the myriad abuses and incidents of corruption that draw less attention.
All of that is why nobody was surprised last year by the U.S. Justice Department report depicting a dysfunctional department replete with race and gender bias, lax enforcement of weak policies, poor training, uneven discipline and trigger happiness.
All of that is why few are expecting miracles or a speedy transformation in light of last week’s announcement that the city and the federal government have reached a historic agreement to overhaul the department.
Civil rights attorney Mary Howell called the agreement an important first step.
“But the question is, how do you, once you institute these reforms, how do you make them last?” Howell said.
The agreement, a federal consent decree, is a 124-page plan that spells out a series of strict requirements for overhauling the police department’s policies and procedures for use of force, interrogations, searches and arrests, recruitment and supervision.
Among many costly mandates, it requires the hiring of a monitor assigned to make sure the department adheres to the agreement, extensive new training and a new office to oversee officers’ employment in off-duty security details and the fitting of patrol cars with cameras. Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s initial estimate is that it will cost $11 million a year.
Landrieu and his police chief, Ronal Serpas, both noted last week that some of the reforms called for in the consent decree are already under way and they expressed confidence last week that the decree will lead to New Orleans developing a “world class” police department.
Serpas, who rose through the New Orleans department’s ranks and returned to take the top job after stints as chief of the Washington State Patrol and the Nashville police force, is not the first chief to arrive promising reform. Past efforts have resulted in little change.
Former Mayor Marc Morial, who appeared to make headway with reforms with then-chief Richard Pennington in the late ‘90s, said the progress unraveled after he left office. The consent decree, he said, is a step that will ensure that reforms outlast any administration.
Maybe, says Howell. “But it’s not the end of it. Because consent decrees have a life off their own, too. ... Everything we do now needs to be geared towards the day when we no longer have that federal oversight.”
Success is vital as the city continues to remake itself after Katrina. Last year’s Justice Department report made clear that, in a city where fear of crime is a pervasive problem, the police department’s problems make police work difficult for the majority of officers who are dedicated and law-abiding.
Kevin McGill is a reporter for the Associated Press in New Orleans.