NEW ORLEANS — Federal authorities launched a top-to-bottom review of the troubled New Orleans Police Department on Monday, a probe requested by Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who predicted it will result in court-ordered transformation of a department beleaguered by allegations of sometimes deadly brutality.
Assistant U.S. Attorney General Tom Perez said the investigation will include lawyers and non-lawyers with broad experience in police issues. At a news conference with Landrieu, Perez said the probe will be independent of ongoing federal criminal investigations of the department. Those include the probe of the fatal 2005 shootings of unarmed citizens at the Danziger bridge in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Perez, who heads the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said other such independent examinations by the department have resulted in successful change at other cities’ police departments, including Los Angeles. However, he said, the level of cooperation already being displayed in New Orleans is high and the consensus for change among city officials, including new police chief Ronal Serpas, is unprecedented.
Citing that broad consensus, Perez left open the possibility that court supervision could be avoided. But Landrieu stepped in and said he would welcome a court-ordered agreement between the Justice Department and the city that would spell out specific reforms. Such an agreement would “institutionalize” the changes, Landrieu said, and make sure they last into future city administrations.
Serpas was asked whether the review by outsiders would stir resentment in the department. “The hardworking people welcome it,” he said.
“The investigation will examine allegations of excessive force, unconstitutional searches and seizures, racial profiling, failures to provide adequate police services to particular neighborhoods, and related misconduct,” Perez said in a letter to Landrieu that was released Monday.
The department’s organization, practices and policies, including the policy on use of deadly force, will be part of the review.
Perez set no timetable for completing the review.
Violent crime and police department reform were among Landrieu’s highest priorities when he campaigned for mayor. He named Serpas to the chief’s position days after taking office May 3. Serpas was a former second-in-command at NOPD who left in 2001 for successful stints as head of the Washington State Patrol and police chief in Nashville, Tenn.
Four former police officers have pleaded guilty to federal charges involving an elaborate cover-up of the Danziger Bridge shootings, and federal investigations in that case are continuing. Other high profile federal probes include the New Year’s Day 2009 shooting by police of a 22-year-old man and a barroom brawl involving police in 2008.
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