Late in July, six people were murdered in 24 hours in New Orleans. Five days later police superintendent Ronal Serpas and a dozen uniformed officers visited the neighborhood where three of the killings happened.
Led by a local high-school marching band and passing out paper fans in the heat, the officers headed down Orleans Street in what has become a monthly routine, exhorting neighbors to come out from behind barred doors and march against violence.
The display was part of the latest push by city officials to overhaul a department dogged by a history of brutality and tense community relations. This time, the effort has some federal muscle behind it. A week before the march, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the city announced a consent decree that Holder said would provide for the most comprehensive federally-mandated police overhaul in Department of Justice history.
“We have had a systematic failure,” said New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, 52, in a telephone interview. “We have to undo it all and the decree will help us get there. It will be very expensive, but the cost of not doing it is a lot more, in dollars and in human lives damaged and changed by bad police behavior.”
The July 24 consent decree was the result of a federal finding that city police had systematically violated citizens’ constitutional rights. It followed the successful prosecutions of 14 police officers related to the killing of civilians after Hurricane Katrina incapacitated the city in 2005.
Landrieu, a Democrat elected in 2010, and his police superintendent have vowed to reform the department and to bring down the city’s soaring murder rate, which was the highest in the U.S. last year, according to FBI statistics.
So far they’ve had little success, at least with the murder rate. The city had 199 murders last year, or 58 for every 100,000 residents, up from 50 for every 100,000 in 2010. The city with the next highest crime rate last year was Flint, Michigan, with 51 murders for every 100,000 residents followed by Detroit with 48 murders for every 100,000.
Change has not gone over well in all quarters. Hundreds of officers have left the force, while lingering distrust of police in the city’s most murder-prone neighborhoods has undermined efforts to stop the violence. A police union, a community group and the city’s independent police monitor have all filed to intervene when a federal judge holds the first hearing on the consent agreement August 29.
The march down Orleans Street exemplified the challenges the mayor and his police chief must overcome. As women, children and a handful of men ventured out to watch the parade, Serpas, 52, bounded up sagging front porches, shaking hands and teasing children. His message was to stem the killing, neighbors need to begin trusting and talking to the police.
Residents decried the violence yet stayed on their porches. None of them joined in the neighborhood march.
“The bottom line is that nobody is talking and people are not going to be talking,” said Charlandra Jones, 46, after the police passed. “There is no protection here.”
The consent decree won’t make neighbors trust the police, said her sister Deborah Jones, 61. “They need new leadership. They all have to go, even -- I hate to say it -- him who was just standing here,” she said.
Jones was referring to Serpas, who returned to the department as superintendent in 2010 after working for a decade in law enforcement in other states.
“The storm,” as residents call Katrina, left New Orleans with the need to rebuild most of its public services, including schools, health care and other municipal functions.
“Literally, we had to reorganize government,”said Landrieu.
Adding to the hurdles, the city’s population fell by more than half immediately after Katrina, from 452,170 to 223,388. It has since climbed to 360,740 in July 2011, according to the U.S. Census.
The biggest challenge has been the police department, where there have been sporadic overhaul efforts over the years, Landrieu said. The last attempt at change was in the late 1990s, after a police officer ordered the assassination of a neighborhood woman who had reported his beating of a witness and the murder rate had soared to more than double what it is now, according to a report in the Times-Picayune. While that effort resulted in a decline in murders, it didn’t address poorly trained and hired police, the mayor said.
“From about 2000 to 2010, nobody was minding the store,” Landrieu said.
The Katrina killings brought negative national attention to the police. In the chaos after the storm, officers shot and killed four civilians and then tried to cover up their actions, federal prosecutors would eventually establish in court.
Police shot Henry Glover, 31, on Sept. 2, 2005, four days after the hurricane overwhelmed levees and flooded the city, according to U.S. Justice Department documents. A good Samaritan drove the wounded man to a makeshift police station. The police didn’t help and Glover died, the documents say. An officer then drove the car with his body to a levee and set it on fire. Relatives pushed for prosecution. “After what happened to Henry, I will never trust the New Orleans Police Department again,” said Rebecca Glover, 66, who was Henry Glover’s aunt.
Two days after the Glover killing, officers shot unarmed civilians walking across the Danziger Bridge, wounding four and killing two, including a 40-year-old mentally disabled man with the mind of a six-year-old, according to court testimony. They then fabricated evidence to bolster a false claim that the victims fired first, according to the testimony.
The incidents hardened distrust of the police in black neighborhoods, said Deborah Jones. “It may have been a surprise to the rest of the world. It was not surprising to us.”
The Justice Department’s civil investigation unfolded alongside the criminal prosecutions. The probe found a pattern of unconstitutional use of force, failure to investigate violators, out-of-control police dogs and improper handling of rapes. The Justice Department report detailed a system of private work for off-duty officers that it called an “aorta of corruption” that created conflicts of interest and sapped resources.
The 124-page settlement requires retraining, new hiring and disciplinary policies, video cameras in squad cars and recording equipment in interview rooms, among other changes that will be enforced by the courts over four years.
Landrieu likened the task to trying to build a winning football team with players inherited from a losing one. Those players are going. Since January 2010, 319 officers out of about 1,600 have left the department, including 71 this year, said Remi Braden, spokeswoman for the New Orleans police.
Serpas credits a new “You Lie, You Die” policy, which makes it a firing offense to lie for some of the exodus: “It’s true we’ve run a lot of people off. There have been a lot of people who left before we terminated them, because the truthfulness thing is so powerful.”
Peter Scharf, a criminologist at Tulane University’s Department of Global Health Systems and Development, said officers say they feel demonized by the top-down approach to the changes. He said the low morale contributes to the department’s failure to shave the murder rate: “The issue is whether we can become ethically acceptable, in the mainstream of law enforcement, before the city comes close to closing down because of violence in the street,” he said.
Scharf surveyed 463 of 1,300 officers in a study paid for by the police union, and found most disagreed with the overhaul; 80 percent would leave if they could keep pay and seniority and 97 percent thought the department was undermanned. Braden, the police department spokeswoman, said the survey wasn’t representative of the force.
Officers are hurt, said Fraternal Order of Police spokesman Raymond Burkhart: “Many of these officers were heroes during the storm. They stayed. They lost houses and friends.”
The department marches are intended to build rapport between police and residents in neighborhoods where drugs and revenge killings among young black men drive the murder rate, Serpas said. Fear of retaliation and distrust of police has made witnesses reluctant to come forward, making the murders hard to prevent or solve, he said.
Neighborhood anti-violence advocate Al Mims said the walks fall short of what’s needed to change that. “They’re after the fact,” he said.
District Five Commander Christopher Goodly said the events bring payoffs whether neighbors walk alongside police or not. On Orleans Street, he gave some contact information to a woman desperate to keep her teenage son out of trouble.“That’s worth it right there.”