WASHINGTON — Seven years after a series of high-profile murder cases in the wake of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina involving the New Orleans Police Department rocked the nation, the U.S. Department of Justice took steps toward reforming the troubled agency. A federally mandated plan to rid the NOPD of corruption, discrimination, widespread abuse and a frequent use of deadly force will be imposed on the department for at least four years and likely cost the financially strapped city $11 million annually.
Flanked by federal officials and members of the Landrieu administration, Attorney General Eric Holder unveiled the plan Tuesday. Holder, the nation’s first Black attorney general, called the agreement the most wide-ranging in the history of the U.S. Department of Justice and said that it resolves allegations that New Orleans police officers have engaged in a pattern of discriminatory and unconstitutional activity.
The changes come in the form of a court-approved consent decree, an agreement the Justice Department negotiated with the city after releasing a scathing report taking the department to task on multiple fronts in The agreement includes extensive requirements for improved training, better supervision and new technology including cameras in police cars.
“The people of this city should rest assured that together with the Department of Justice, we will fundamentally change the culture of the NOPD once and for all,” said New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who estimated the cost at roughly $11 million a year over the next four to five years.
Landrieu expressed confidence that the agreement will produce “the new NOPD.”
“There is no problem here that cannot be solved,” he said. “We can and we must change, and we now have a clear roadmap forward.”
The agreement spells out a series of strict requirements for overhauling the police department’s policies and procedures for use of force, training, interrogations, searches and arrests, recruitment and supervision.
“There can be no question that today’s action represents a critical step forward,” Holder said. “It reaffirms the Justice Department’s commitment to fair and vigorous law enforcement at every level.”
Landrieu and City Council President Jackie Clarkson both expressed certainty that the council will make the needed budget changes to pay for the plan, while seeking any and all available federal grants to help ease the financial sting.
“It’s a priority,” Clarkson said after Tuesday’s news conference.
At least one community activist challenged claims by the mayor and some DOJ officials that suggest the NOPD has already begun to implement changes. “That’s all song and dance, just political posturing,” said the Rev. Raymond Brown, a longtime community activist who often marched alongside the late Rev. Avery C. Alexander and is also the founder of National Action Now. “None of the changes implemented so far after last year’s Justice Department report on the NOPD prevented widespread abuse of the department’s paid detail program or were enough to save the lives of Justin Sipp or Wendell Allen. We need real, sweeping changes and I don’t know if this city, the NOPD or even the U.S. Department of Justice are committed to making that happen.”
New Orleans police scandals go back decades. In the 1990s, they included the severe beating of a suspect in an officer’s death, and the conviction of a police officer who arranged the murder of someone who filed a brutality complaint against him. It also saw a conviction in a separate case of a killer cop who murdered a fellow officer and two others during a restaurant robbery.
Renewed attention fell on the department after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Spurred by family members of one of the victims of a grisly post-Katrina NOPD shooting that left two men dead and wounded four others, the Justice Department’s civil rights division launched a series of criminal probes focusing on police officers’ actions in the storm’s aftermath.
After the fatal shootings of James Brissette, 17, and Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old disabled man, on the Danziger Bridge, the victims’ families and members of the community sought justice in the local criminal justice system but found none. Even though Jim Letten, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana, had been appointed to that post by former President George W. Bush and was serving the district at the time of the shootings, he showed little interest in prosecuting the cops accused of murdering innocent civilians the Danziger Bridge case, Henry Glover case, Raymond Robair case and several other high-profile cases.
The overwhelming majority of the city’s Black leaders agree that the DOJ probe of the NOPD would not have happened if Dr. Romell Madison, the brother of Ronald Madison, and several others, had not been unrelenting in seeking help from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
The investigations resulted in charges against 20 officers, including five convicted last year of civil rights violations in the deadly shootings of unarmed residents on an eastern New Orleans bridge less than a week after the storm’s landfall.
The officers convicted in the Danziger Bridge shootings were sentenced to prison terms of up to 65 years. Five others pleaded guilty to engaging in a cover-up plot that included a planted gun, phony witnesses and fabricated reports.
Among the agreement’s provisions:
• All officers will be required to receive at least 24 hours of training on stops, searches and arrests; 40 hours of use-of-force training; and four hours of training on bias-free policing within a year of the agreement taking effect.
• All interrogations involving suspected homicides or sexual assaults will have to be recorded in their entirety on video. The department also will be required to install video cameras and location devices in all patrol cars and other vehicles within two years.
• The department will be required to restructure the system for paying officers for off-duty security details, develop a new report format for collecting data on all stops and searches and create a recruitment program to increase diversity among its officers.
• The city and Justice Department will pick a court-supervised monitor to regularly assess and report on implementation of the requirements.
• The city and police department can ask a judge to dissolve the agreement after four years, but only if they can show they have fully complied with its requirements for two years.
The Justice Department has reached similar agreements with police departments in Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Detroit and Oakland, Calif. But the scope of the New Orleans’ consent decree is billed as the most extensive of its kind and includes requirements that no other department has had to implement.