Aug 19, 2010

 
 
NEW ORLEANS — The new superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department read the mountain of federal court documents detailing the alleged behavior of his officers with increasing alarm.

The papers, Ronal Serpas says, are like a "disgustingly vile novel," outlining the murders of two unarmed civilians, the woundings of four others and a vast coverup involving 11 current and former officers accused in the deadly 2005 shootings in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

So far, five of the officers have pleaded guilty to conspiracy, while the fates of six others — indicted last month on charges ranging from murder to obstruction of justice — are pending in the fatal assaults on Danziger Bridge.

Now more than 90 days into his tenure as the city's top cop, Serpas says the reality of his department is even worse than the "insidious" accounts he began reading in the documents just before he was appointed superintendent in May.

The court records accuse officers of killing innocent survivors of the storm, then covering up their actions by creating fictional witnesses and holding a secret meeting to get their stories straight during investigations of the incident. Yet Serpas says the troubles run even deeper: More officers have been linked to other crimes, and new charges are likely.

Five years after Hurricane Katrina — when some New Orleans officers deserted their posts and film crews caught others looting stores — police officials, community activists and civil rights advocates say the storm exposed systemic failures in a law enforcement agency that had been decaying for years. Many of the city's institutions have rebounded from the storm, but the police department seems to have sunk to new lows.

With the department's credibility in tatters, the federal government has launched an unprecedented intervention to salvage the agency at the urging of the city's new mayor and police superintendent.

In a May letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder calling for the Justice Department's help, Mayor Mitch Landrieu said he had inherited "one of the worst police departments in the country."

"It is clear that nothing short of a complete transformation is necessary and essential to ensure safety for the citizens of New Orleans," Landrieu wrote.

The mayor's unusual candor quickly won endorsement from Serpas. "Deadly accurate," the police superintendent says. "Complete, systemwide failure."

Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, chief of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, says Landrieu's entreaty has launched the "widest-ranging review ever" of a local police force by the federal government.

Already, the department is the subject of eight federal inquiries into alleged wrongdoing by police. At least 18 current or former officers have been charged with federal crimes so far this year, 11 in connection with the Danziger shootings. Four face possible death sentences if convicted.

Apart from the criminal inquiries, Perez said the Justice Department is reviewing the city's police operations to try to reduce crime and restore public trust in an institution shaken to its core.

Violent crime, like police corruption, has menaced the city for years, linked in large part to the trafficking of illegal drugs.

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