March 17, 2011 / 9:31 PM / 7 years ago

DOJ cites New Orleans police for rights violations

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - The New Orleans Police Department too often uses excessive force, conducts illegal stops and arrests, and has a pattern of discriminating on the basis of race, gender and sexual orientation, the U.S. Department of Justice said in a report on Thursday.

“For too long, the Department has been largely indifferent to widespread violations of law and policy by its officers,” according to the report by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

The report -- which stemmed from a request for an investigation by Mayor Mitch Landrieu -- outlined problems with training, recruiting, supervision and interrogation practices.

“The leadership in this city went to sleep,” Landrieu said after a news conference in downtown New Orleans on Thursday in which DOJ and city officials announced the findings.

The report said the police department encourages under-investigating violence against women, and found a systemic police failure to respond quickly to calls from people who do not speak English fluently.

It identified “a troubling racial disparity” in use of force, finding that in all 27 instances between January 2009 and May 2010 in which police intentionally fired guns at people, the subjects were African American.

“The African American community for a long time has spoken about mistreatment from the Orleans Police Department,” Landrieu said. “Well, they were right.”

Despite the wide-ranging problems that are “deeply rooted in the culture of the department,” the police department did not find a single policy violation by an officer in the past four years, said Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez.

Federal officials called for reforms to improve training, foster better community collaboration and eliminate bias.

“You’ve got to have the right people hired, they’ve got to be trained properly and you’ve got to hire that right first-line supervisor who is teaching them accountability,” Deputy Attorney General James Cole said at the news conference.

New Orleans Police Department Superintendent Ronal Serpas, who was hired by Landrieu, said he wants City Council permission to reorganize the department, including picking new senior leaders.

Landrieu said that he expects the city and Department of Justice will enter into a consent decree stipulating the steps the city must take to address problems cited in the report and setting a timeline for each step’s completion.

Two days after taking office in May 2010, Landrieu requested federal help to reform the police department and stanch the persistent high incidence of violent crime. Days later, DOJ officials announced a widespread review.

Violent crime continues to plague New Orleans. The city has had 39 homicides so far in 2011.

Peter Scharf, a Tulane University criminology professor who advised the mayor in his search for a police superintendent, said some New Orleans residents wonder if police are becoming less aggressive on crime because of the federal involvement.

“When you have 40 murders in two months, what does an elaborate consent decree really do?” asked Scharf.

In December 2010, a federal jury convicted three current and one former New Orleans police officers in the shooting death and burning of a man in the chaotic days following Hurricane Katrina.

In March, 2010, a former New Orleans police detective pleaded guilty to helping cover up two shooting deaths by police days after Katrina struck.

Federal prosecutors have charged 20 officers in cases stemming from Katrina, according to media reports.

Writing by Corrie MacLaggan; Editing by Peter Bohan and Jerry Norton

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