Holder to Announce New Orleans Police Reforms

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  • NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Attorney General Eric Holder will announce a series of court-supervised reforms of the New Orleans Police Department on Tuesday that are some of the broadest and strictest ever required of a law-enforcement agency.

    The agreement between the Justice Department and the city — in the form of a federal consent decree — is designed to clean up a police force that has been plagued by decades of corruption and mismanagement. The department also came under renewed scrutiny following a string of police shootings in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

    Developing a new policy on use of force, deadly and otherwise, is part of the agreement. The agreement also will require the police department to overhaul policies and procedures for training, interrogations, searches and arrests, use of photo lineups, recruitment and supervision, according to a government official. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the agreement had not yet been made public.

    Among its provisions:

    — All officers will be required to receive at least 24 hours of training on stops, searches and arrests; 40 hours of use-of-force training; and four hours of training on bias-free policing within a year of the agreement taking effect.

    — All interrogations involving suspected homicides or sexual assaults will have to be recorded in their entirety on video. The department also will be required to install video cameras and location devices in all patrol cars and other vehicles within two years.

    — The department will be required to completely restructure the system for paying officers for off-duty security details, develop a new report format for collecting data on all stops and searches and create a recruitment program to increase diversity among its officers.

    — The city and Justice Department will pick a court-supervised monitor to regularly assess and report on the police department's implementation of the requirements.

    — The city and police department can ask a judge to dissolve the agreement after four years, but only if they can show they have fully complied with its requirements for two years.

    The agreement will be signed and filed in federal court Tuesday. A federal judge must approve the agreement and oversee its implementation.

    Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who asked the Justice Department for the review in 2010, will join Holder for the announcement.

    Tuesday's announcement comes on the eve of President Barack Obama's visit to New Orleans. Obama is scheduled to deliver a speech at the National Urban League's annual conference on Wednesday.

    It was welcome news to Mary Howell, a civil rights attorney who has long been an advocate for victims of police abuses. She had not seen the agreement when interviewed Tuesday morning, but said the selection of a monitor will be important to the agreement's effectiveness.

    "That's the critical appointment here," said Howell. "That monitor is going to be making sure that, one, these terms are adequate — that the goals that are being set here are being reached, and that the structure that's being set up is adequate to reach those goals. And the other thing that monitor is going to be doing is reporting back to the court so that the court will be able to tell: Are we making progress here?"

    Last year, the Justice Department issued a scathing report that said New Orleans police officers have often used deadly force without justification, repeatedly made unconstitutional arrests and engaged in racial profiling. The report also found that the department has long failed to adequately protect New Orleans residents because of numerous shortcomings, including inadequate supervision.

    At the time, Landrieu said many of the problems identified by the report were exposed by Katrina but existed for years before the storm smashed levees and plunged the city into chaos.

    Rafael Goyeneche, head of an independent police watchdog group in New Orleans, said previous efforts to reform the department lacked the teeth and the strong federal oversight of a consent decree. The city will have to spend millions of dollars to implement the reforms, paying for training, equipment and oversight costs, Goyeneche said.

    "This is going to be a living document that will shape the future of not just the New Orleans Police Department but of the entire criminal justice system, probably for the next eight to 10 years," he said. "This is not going to be an inexpensive item for the city to absorb."

    The Justice Department's civil rights division also launched a series of criminal probes focusing on police officers' actions during Katrina's aftermath.

    The investigations resulted in charges against 20 officers, including five who were convicted last year of civil rights violations stemming from deadly shootings of unarmed residents on a New Orleans bridge less than a week after the 2005 storm's landfall.

    The officers convicted in the Danziger Bridge shootings were sentenced to prison terms of up to 65 years. Five others pleaded guilty to engaging in a cover-up plot that included a planted gun, phony witnesses and fabricated reports.

    Tom Perez, head of the Justice Department's civil rights division, has expressed hope that a consent decree will provide a "comprehensive blueprint for sustainable reform" that will reduce crime and restore the public's trust in the police department.

    "Culture change does not occur overnight," Perez said after the sentencing hearing for the officers convicted in the bridge shootings. "The challenges that we saw manifested in the Danziger Bridge trial were many years in the making and they will take many years to resolve."

    Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said prior reform efforts merely "drove some of the problems underground for a period of time."

    "It didn't really remove them. It didn't change the systemic culture of the police department," Goyeneche said.

    Howell cautioned that the consent decree will not be a permanent solution to the department's longstanding problems.

    "Consent decrees have lives of their own, too, and they end at a certain point," she said. "Everything we do now needs to be geared towards the day when we no longer have that direct federal oversight."

    ___

    Associated Press reporter Pete Yost in Washington contributed to this report.
     

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