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A report issued by the Department of Justice in March has confirmed a long standing belief by many of New Orleans’ minority residents—the New Orleans police department is racist and abusive. The city’s African-American population has complained about the frequent abuses at the hand of the police force, long before Hurricane Katrina swept into town, making an already bad situation much worse.
The 115-page DOJ report, which details the findings of a 10-month-long investigation, attacked nearly every area of the department’s operation, from the recruiting, training and supervision of its officers to its tactics of policing. The investigation found a pattern of unconstitutional conduct and violations of federal law, extensive use of excessive force, and unwarranted stops and searches. The report also detailed discrimination based on race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. The Justice Department accused the NOPD of 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.”
Being a police officer in New Orleans is not an easy job. The city has had a high murder rate for decades and communities filled with drugs and violence. However, in those communities hit hardest by crimes, residents do not fear the criminals as much as the police officers.
“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.”
Although the report is alarming to some, it is expected to others. “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.”