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New Orleans Police Misconduct Violated Law, U.S. Says

March 17 (Bloomberg) -- The New Orleans Police Department has engaged in a pattern of “unconstitutional conduct,” including the use of excessive force by officers and illegal searches and arrests, a U.S. Justice Department review found.

Leadership failures left the department with “deeply rooted” problems that have impaired its ability to protect public safety, Deputy Attorney General James Cole said today in a statement.

“Poor policies, non-existent training and inadequate leadership have led to these systemic problems,” Cole said.

The 10-month review of the department’s operations, requested by Mayor Mitch Landrieu, includes recommendations aimed at transforming a force that has faced calls for reform since the police-related killings of four residents in 1980. An independent monitor will likely be appointed to ensure the recommendations are implemented, Police Chief Ronal Serpas said today at a press conference in New Orleans.

“There will be federal-court oversight,” he said.

New Orleans officers practiced racial and ethnic profiling, discriminated against gays and lesbians, and repeatedly failed to investigate sexual assault and domestic violence reports, according to the Justice Department.

Recruitment and evaluation systems are flawed, and the department’s program allowing officers to have off-duty jobs is “an aorta for corruption,” Thomas E. Perez, an assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s civil-rights division, said at the press conference.

Off-Duty Work

The program lets off-duty officers provide security for private businesses and other entities while using New Orleans Police Department uniforms, radios and marked cars. Members of the force routinely put such private assignments ahead of public duties, the Justice Department found.

Reviewers highlighted defects in the department’s K-9 unit, citing dogs “uncontrollable to the point where they repeatedly attacked their own handlers.” During the past two years, New Orleans officers also used unnecessary force against handcuffed suspects and mentally ill persons, the Justice Department said.

The aggressive approach has created “a substantial obstacle to strong community-police partnerships,” according to the report.

The department is under scrutiny in more than a half dozen federal criminal investigations. One focuses on the 2005 shootings of six unarmed people on the Danziger Bridge shortly after Hurricane Katrina flooded most of the city. Two individuals died in the attack while four others were wounded.

Five New Orleans officers have pleaded guilty to criminal charges stemming from an attempted cover-up of the incident. Four of their former colleagues are preparing to stand trial for the killings in June.

Life Maximum

The government alleges two police supervisors joined the officers in a conspiracy to make the shootings appear justified. The officers accused of civil-rights violations face maximum life sentences if convicted, prosecutors said.

The Justice Department review didn’t focus on allegations of officer misconduct related to Katrina’s aftermath because some of those incidents are the subject of “ongoing federal criminal proceedings,” U.S. officials said in the 114-page report. The Justice Department sought to review the police procedures as a civil, rather than criminal, matter.

In December, three New Orleans officers were convicted of federal civil-rights violations stemming from the shooting death of an unarmed black man, whose body was burned inside a car officers stole from a citizen who brought the wounded man to a police station after Katrina.

The Justice Department previously monitored the force in the mid-1990s, after a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe found corrupt officers working with drug dealers to arrange the murder of a witness in a police-brutality case.

Federal officials ended a nine-year review of the department in 2002 at the request of then-Mayor Ray Nagin.

The criminal case over the bridge shootings is U.S. v. Bowen, 2:10-cr-00204, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana (New Orleans).

To contact the reporters on this story: Jef Feeley in Wilmington, Delaware at jfeeley@bloomberg.net; Allen Johnson Jr. in New Orleans at allenmct@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: David E. Rovella at drovella@bloomberg.net.

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