New America Media, Black America Web,
NEW ORLEANS - Justice advocates in New Orleans are welcoming the pledge to clean up that city’s police department following the release last week of a scathing U.S. Department of Justice report, but they say they’ll wait to see what really happens.
“I am not surprised at what the report revealed, because it’s what we’ve been saying for a while,” said Yvette Thierry of Safe Streets/Strong Communities. “I am concerned about what will be the next step,” Thierry told BlackAmericaweb.com.
The 115 – page report showed that New Orleans police officers have often used deadly force without justification, repeatedly made unconstitutional arrests and engaged in racial profiling.
The report found that the department has long failed to adequately protect New Orleans residents because of numerous shortcomings, including inadequate supervision and ineffective methods of taking and investigating complaints.
“A lot of the problems existed before Katrina, but after Katrina, you focus on them even more because people have so many challenges just putting their lives back on track,” Thierry said. In 2006 she lost a mentally ill brother-in-law at the hands of New Orleans police officers, she said.
“His mother called for help in taking him away,” Thierry said. When the police came, they asked the family to clear out of the house, she said. “Because the family wasn’t in there, we never really knew what happened,” Thierry said.
Thierry and Shaena Johnson of the Louisiana Justice Institute, said for years now, families have sought answers in the deaths of sisters, brothers, cousins and friends. They’ve questioned unexplained stops and arrests by police.
“We’d been asking for some months for an investigation. A coalition of groups and individuals last spring requested that Perez intervene,” Johnson told BlackAmericaweb.com. “Now we have a working relationship with the NOPD and they seem eager to rectify the problems in the system. That means a lot,” she said. “It’s still early in the process, but it seems like they are on the right track.”
In a letter dated May 4, 2010, more than two dozen advocates asked Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general, Office of Civil Rights, to “intervene in the reform of the NOPD through utilization of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which authorizes the Department of Justice to file civil lawsuits against law enforcement agencies that engage in a pattern of violating people's rights and obtain a court order to monitor and reform them."
Less than 24 hours after that letter was sent, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu met with 16 of these leaders and 6 attorneys from the US Department of Justice, and then announced that he had invited the Justice Department to come to New Orleans and perform an assessment of the NOPD and the criminal justice system.
In their letter to the Department of Justice, advocates said: “Our local police, elected officials, and local federal agencies have sat silently for years – complicit in the brutality of NOPD ineptitude, mismanagement, corruption, and abuse of power. For years there has been a pattern or practice of conduct by law enforcement officers of the New Orleans Police Department that deprives persons of rights, privileges, and immunities secured and protected by the Constitution and laws of the United States,” the letter stated.
Department of Justice representatives reviewed records, conducted interviews and met with community groups as a part of the investigation of the police department and the criminal justice system.
“In July when a black man and white woman were attending a community meeting, they experienced racial profiling firsthand,” Thierry said. “They were stopped by police simply because there was a black man in the car with a white woman.”
Advocates say many of the problems in New Orleans are class based, and not necessarily race based.
“We are a city of the haves and the have-nots,” said Johnson.
“There is a vast income gap. The minorities and the poor are the ones who are treated unfairly by the system. They arrest people for unpaid traffic tickets.
We’ve found that 67 percent of those arrested for minor offenses are low income African Americans.”
Johnson, said what is needed is a total change in the culture of the New Orleans Police Department.
”This report provides us with an honest assessment that will help us to take a data-driven approach to making our streets safer and reforming the NOPD,” Landrieu said Thursday. “The findings are sobering and the challenges ahead are daunting, but we will do whatever it takes to make this right."