Cameras flashed like tiny quasars in the darkened arena. Proud families leaped to their feet, excitedly pointing out their loved ones in the single file of blue-uniformed New Orleans police recruits marching into the auditorium on the Southern University of New Orleans campus.

And before Police Superintendent Richard Pennington ordered the NOPD academy graduates to their first assignments on the flood-prone streets soaked by Tropical Storm Allison, Recruit Class No. 143 basked in the brief sunshine of public accolades.

Keynote speaker and former U.S. Attorney Eddie Jordan told the graduates they are "privileged" to join a police department that has broken from its criminal past since both he and Pennington took office in 1994. Jordan received polite, if not weary, applause.

City Chief Administrative Officer Cedric Grant remarked on the NOPD's code of ethics, featured inside the academy awards program for the second consecutive year. Grant urged the graduates to revel in the moment as they crossed an invisible line from private citizens to public servants. "Welcome to our family -- and it's quite a family," he said with a chuckle.

The family of 1,676 NOPD officers is one steeped in history and tradition. The New Orleans Police Department, founded in 1889 and dominated for more than century by white males of Italian, Irish and German descent, in recent years has reached historic hiring levels for both African Americans and women -- 54 percent and 15 percent, respectively.

And the 44 new recruits -- including 31 blacks and 13 whites, and a dozen women -- appear to reflect the face of a changing department in a city that is now 70 percent nonwhite.

Pushed by a federal consent decree during the administrations of three consecutive black mayors and four black police superintendents, the city now has a majority-black police force for the first time since Reconstruction. Women on the NOPD today are making history, too. Although they did not directly benefit from the consent decree, female officers now account for a record 15 percent of the force. (See sidebar.)

Youth is another agent of change on the force. No figures have been released since 1998 -- when the average age was 38 -- but top brass say the NOPD is now much younger thanks to an ongoing hiring drive that has drawn several hundred new recruits over the last four years.

The top cops worry that many of today's youth view police work not as a career, but as a job. "The greatest crisis we face today is changing career ethics," says Assistant Superintendent Ronal Serpas, Pennington's second-in-command and a third-generation NOPD veteran. "It's difficult for career law enforcement officers to understand that today's recruits look at police work as a job."

On one occasion, Serpas says, a new officer quit rather than perform shift work, a downside of policing to many veterans, but not a career-killer.

Also changing the face of NOPD is the fact that the "Larry Williams consent decree" is drawing to a close. Based on a 1973 discrimination suit filed by seven black cops against the department and the city, the affirmative action settlement has governed hiring, training, discipline and promotions since 1987. The case has divided generally divided black and white cops for more than a generation.

Unlike many veterans, recruits promoted from now on will be "decree-free." Whatever that means is now being defined by a department committee that is working to establish new standards for testing, performance, and other promotion criteria, without federal court oversight.

Moreover, today's recruits will likely reflect changing national attitudes on racial issues, replacing the old black-white polemics generated over the consent decree. Gambit Weekly recently invited Larry Williams, the lead black police plaintiff in the decree, to review a recent copy of NOPD's race and gender demographics.

Williams, now a private investigator, suddenly stopped at the abbreviation "MRM" next to one statistic.

"What the f--k is that?" Williams asked.

Told the abbreviation designated an unnamed "multi-racial male" recruit, Williams shook his head in apparent disbelief.

NOPD has its first black majority since 1868, when blacks comprised 65 percent of a state-run metropolitan police force that had authority over Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes. Historians say all 170 officers were dismissed after violent white resistance.

History also shows the city gave African Americans the first police jobs in the nation -- controlling the city's slave population in the early 1800s.

With the end of Reconstruction, the number of black officers in New Orleans dwindled. In 1909, the last two blacks on NOPD "died in service" and "their deaths closed an era for black police in the South," historian W. Marvin Dulaney writes in his 1996 book Black Police in America (Indiana University Press).

No more blacks were hired by the NOPD until June 16, 1950, when locally renowned civil rights lawyer A.P. Tureaud filed suit to clear the way for the first two African-American officers in modern times: Carlton Pecot and John Raphael Sr. In 1987, the Larry Williams consent decree took effect, aiming at a number of reforms and affirmative action remedies, including making blacks on the force reflective of its majority-black population.

Today, Recruit Class No. 143 is graduating at a time of heightened awareness over policing and racial issues, nationally (as in the recent Cincinnati riots), locally and within the department itself.

The Mayor's Criminal Justice Commissioner this month released a report that showed nearly 80 percent of those cited for violation of the city's open container ordinance were African Americans. Some community activists say these figures smack of racial profiling -- police targeting of minorities. NOPD officials deny the allegations.

Inside the department, Sgt. Ira Thomas takes office as the new president of the Black Organization of Police on Wednesday (June 20). Thomas is expected to outline the organization's agenda over alleged disparities in departmental discipline, transfers, off-duty employment privileges, and promotions.

Outgoing BOP president Sgt. Jenerio Sanders acknowledges BOP has met with Pennington over the past year to express "some concerns" over alleged racial disparities in discipline. "There's some concerns about different officers being given different type of discipline for the same type of incidents," Sanders says.

Ron Wilson, a civil rights lawyer and architect of the Williams consent decree, has been representing black police plaintiffs since 1978. "The black police officers generally feel that not only have they not made headway with Pennington, but that they have taken a step backwards," Wilson says. In response, Pennington says he often hears such comments from "disgruntled officers" and lawyers for cops who have been disciplined.

"We have a fair discipline process," Pennington says. "We have a discipline penalty schedule that we go by. And the officers have an appeal process. Every officer who gets disciplined has a chance to appeal and most of them do, except the ones who get a reprimand -- which they cannot appeal. Even the ones who get one-day suspensions appeal."

He adds: "I count on Chief Serpas to administer discipline and he metes out discipline fairly as far as I'm concerned. ... We don't target anybody. We've demoted white and black [alike]."

Serpas points to a recent ruling by the state Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal that chastised a Civil Service Commission ruling that interfered with the chief's authority to manage the NOPD. "The Fourth Circuit says the commission no longer has its right to substitute its judgment for the department's because we prove our case," Serpas says.

A police department reflective of its community may be expected to produce quicker arrests and better criminal cases for prosecution. The most obvious downside of a diverse force may be internal tension.

However, black and white veterans of some of the department's worst racial turmoil in modern times agree that officers immediately unite to pursue a criminal or in support of each other on the street.

"The common ground is 'the blue,'" says Carol Hewlett, a retired 28-year NOPD veteran, who is white and the first female deputy chief appointed by Pennington. "When you call for a little extra help, I never saw people not backed up because they were black or white. Same thing for gender."

Larry Williams, a former 11-year NOPD veteran who joined the force in 1968, agrees. "I would have to back up the white officer because I understood the white officer would back me up," he recalls. "When you're in a police car, you really only have each other. ... That's the way you have to look at it. It can get dangerous, but you stick together. And I always did."

Jeanne McGlory, one of the original seven black plaintiffs in the Williams decree and a retired 26 year-veteran of the force, agrees. She recalls, however, that racial tensions often returned after an emergency ended and police debate resumed over promotions, transfers and discipline.

On one occasion, she recalls, Ron Cannatella, the late president of the Police Association of New Orleans, tried to calm the department by declaring: "We're all blue." However, African-American officers often told each other, "Don't forget, we're navy blue," McGlory says with a laugh.

If the worst result of any social friction on the department today is the departure of good cops, that alone could be dangerous for the under-staffed NOPD. Retention of officers is a key concern to NOPD, which has been saddled with slipping salaries, amid a national policing shortage.

The changing face of the department also presents new opportunities for unity and problem-solving, which leads to another historic "first." Long divided over the consent decree, the four major police groups have banded together on a range of employment issues that may put them at odds with Pennington and the city administration.

Meanwhile, all of the major issues of the consent decree have been largely resolved except the hottest -- promotions.

Aided by the Williams decree, the number of black ranking officers on the force has increased, though not as quickly as some had expected. Blacks on the force today account for 118 or 32 percent of all NOPD supervisors with the rank of sergeant to superintendent, up from 13 percent in 1994.

"We have a majority-black city," Kenneth Plaisance, an attorney for the Black Organization of Police, said. "We have a majority-black police department. Then why is the number of black ranking officers so small? The statistical data gives rise to an inference of discrimination, which we can prove in court."

But attorney Ron Wilson, one of the architects of the Williams consent decree, predicts any future court remedies on police promotions will be limited to individual suits. "The United States Supreme Court is not willing to allow for modification of consent decrees or even the implementation of new consent decrees," Wilson says.

Aided by lawyers from the Police Association of New Orleans, white officers have succeeded in using the Williams decree to win a string of "reverse discrimination" bias cases against NOPD and the city. But any black advancement at NOPD must now take place "through attrition," Wilson says. Moreover, the Williams decree is expected to expire in October, with the end of a promotional list for captains.

A few "coat-tail" cases to the decree remain. Among them, records show, are two promotions-based racial bias suits filed by white cops against the city and NOPD in federal court -- and a unusual civil service commission ruling that race may have played an unfair role in the demotion of one black lieutenant by his senior black supervisor. The city is appealing the commission's reinstatement of the demoted lieutenant to the Fourth Circuit Court.

Pennington, meanwhile, has consistently defended his promotions since taking charge in 1994. "I look at education. I look at experience. And I clearly look at discipline and recommendations from commanding officers. It's not just because you're sitting on a list that you're going to get promoted." In both court and in interviews, the chief insists that race is not a factor in his promotions.

However, a federal judge or the consent decree sometimes dictates otherwise. "About eight or nine [promotions] were forced on me by the judge," the chief says. "Those are the ones I had no control over."

The court last year forced him to promote seven captains -- six whites and one African American -- using an old promotional list the chief wanted to discard. And a split decision may be the best Pennington can get in another promotions case now in federal court. U.S. District Court Judge Carl Barbier on April 24 all but ruled in favor of a group of 35 white cops who accused NOPD of racial bias when considering promotions for sergeant and lieutenant. Barbier said that Pennington's four "well-intended" deputy police chiefs nevertheless violated the Williams decree by using race as a factor to increase the number of African Americans eligible for promotions in 1995.

The judge had not issued a formal ruling for the so-called Charles Albright plaintiffs by late last week.

Pennington and NOPD won the second case, however. On June 1, Barbier dismissed the promotions bias suit by five white sergeants led by Sgt. Barry Fletcher, who alleged they were discriminated against when they were passed over for promotion to lieutenant in 1997. Fletcher attorney Michael Allweiss says he is appealing the decision.

"If you go back and look at every time I promoted, there was racial balance or females that I promoted," Pennington said in an interview after the NOPD graduation ceremony. He adds: "There are a lot more black lieutenants today than there were in 1994, and a lot more black sergeants ... The record speaks for itself."

Indeed, the number of black sergeants and lieutenants has doubled since Pennington took office in 1994, according to NOPD figures through May 22. The number of black captains has also doubled, from three to six, out of a total of 31.

Pennington also carved out a small slice of NOPD history several months ago when he became the first police chief in 50 years to use the civil service "rule of three" when considering promotions. The rule states that a city department head must consider a candidate on a promotional register at least three times, before requesting that civil service remove the individual from consideration, says city personnel director J. Michael Doyle. Or simply put, Doyle says: "Just because you're on list doesn't mean you make it."

That sparked appeals from PANO lawyers, who could not be reached for comment. "It was like deer in headlights when it happened a few months ago," Doyle said of Pennington's first Rule III refusals. "It was like, 'What's this?' There's a whole bunch of people who are appealing it."

"Every other city department head has used it for years -- but not the police chiefs," Doyle adds. "In the past, the chiefs always went down the list then stopped the whole promotions process when they got to someone they didn't want to promote."

Assistant Superintendent Serpas says that the good news is that the distribution of race and gender in the promotional process is becoming more reflective of the city with each list. "The testing is getting better," he says. "There are larger pools of applicants to take the tests. And the civil service department is putting together some good exams that obviously take care of those issues of exclusion."

Ebbert, of the Police Foundation, stresses that NOPD's higher standards will not be sacrificed over the current manpower shortfall.

"One of every 10 made it through the process and 25 percent did not make it through the academy," Ebbert says of Class No. 143. "And we'll probably lose a couple more in field training. Regardless of the difficulty we have in fighting the [manpower] numbers, you can't lower the requirements."

As for the department's race, gender and diversity issues, Ebbert adds: "High entrance qualifications, tough training and good supervision is the answer to almost any internal problems ... especially in a police department.

Ebbert then points to Recruit Class No. 143. "The foundation of long-term success rests right here with these young men and women," he says. "They are the ones that bring about change."