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Justice Department announces sweeping reform plan for New Orleans police

New Orleans Police Re_McNe.jpg

July 24, 2012: U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder speaks next to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, far left, and Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas about the details of a federal consent decree from the U.S. Department of Justice that will be used to institute reforms in the New Orleans Police Department inside the historic Gallier Hall. (AP)

A court-backed plan to excise corruption, discrimination and a frequent use of deadly force from the long-troubled New Orleans Police Department will last at least four years and likely cost the financially strapped city $11 million annually.

Attorney General Eric Holder announced the plan Tuesday. Holder said the agreement is the most wide-ranging in the Justice Department's history and resolves allegations that New Orleans police officers have engaged in a pattern of discriminatory and unconstitutional activity.

It comes in the form of a court-approved consent decree, an agreement the Justice Department negotiated with the city after releasing a scathing report taking the department to task on multiple fronts in March 2011. The agreement includes extensive requirements for improved training, better supervision and new technology including cameras in police cars.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu called for Justice Department help in reforming the department when he took office in May 2010.

"The people of this city should rest assured that together with the Department of Justice, we will fundamentally change the culture of the NOPD once and for all," said Landrieu, who estimated the cost at roughly $11 million a year over the next four to five years.

The agreement spells out a series of strict requirements for overhauling the police department's policies and procedures for use of force, training, interrogations, searches and arrests, recruitment and supervision.

"There can be no question that today's action represents a critical step forward," Holder said. "It reaffirms the Justice Department's commitment to fair and vigorous law enforcement at every level."

Landrieu and City Council President Jackie Clarkson both expressed certainty that the council will make the needed budget changes to pay for the plan, while seeking any and all available federal grants to help ease the financial sting.

"It's a priority," Clarkson said after Tuesday's news conference.

New Orleans police scandals go back decades. In the 1990s, they included the severe beating of a suspect in an officer's death, and the conviction of a police officer who arranged the murder of someone who filed a brutality complaint against him. It also saw a conviction in a separate case of a killer cop who murdered a fellow officer and two others during a restaurant robbery.

Renewed attention fell on the department after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The Justice Department's civil rights division launched a series of criminal probes focusing on police officers' actions in the storm's aftermath.

The investigations resulted in charges against 20 officers, including five convicted last year of civil rights violations in the deadly shootings of unarmed residents on a New Orleans bridge less than a week after the 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.

Among the agreement's 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 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 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 Justice Department has reached similar agreements with police departments in Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Detroit and Oakland, Calif. But the scope of the New Orleans consent decree is billed as the broadest of its kind and includes requirements that no other department has had to implement.

For instance, the agreement requires officers to respect that bystanders have a constitutional right to observe and record their conduct in public places. Its "bias-free policing" provisions, which call for creating a policy to guide officers' interactions with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents, also are believed to be unprecedented for a police department's consent decree.

Holder said Landrieu and Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas didn't wait for the agreement to be signed before instituting reforms.

"The problems that we have identified were many years in the making and preceded this current administration," Holder said. "They are wide-ranging and they are deeply-rooted. Sustainable reform will not occur overnight, but we can all be encouraged that it is already happening here thanks to the leadership of Mayor Landrieu, Chief Serpas and so many others."

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 Wednesday.

Urban League President Marc Morial is a former New Orleans mayor who saw a rare drop in violent crime amid reforms instituted by then-Chief Richard Pennington in the 1990s.

Morial applauded news of the consent decree.

"It insures that police reform is not dependent on the leadership of any single mayor or any single police chief," said Morial, who blamed his successor, former Mayor Ray Nagin, for allowing earlier reforms to die.

Mary Howell, a New Orleans attorney who has frequently represented victims of police abuse, 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 toward the day when we no longer have that direct federal oversight."