Rajika Jayatilake writes about the transformation of the New Orleans Police Department into a model police force

Every society seeks justice from law enforcement. As former US President Lyndon B. Johnson once said, “effective law enforcement and social justice must be pursued together as the foundation of our efforts against crime.”

However, this was not what the people of New Orleans could expect from the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD), which is one of the oldest police beats in the United States. The city also had the dubious distinction of being known as the ‘murder capital of the US’ – it had the highest homicide rate in the country for several years.

But this is no longer the case.

Though violent crime remains high for a city the size of New Orleans, the 2018 homicide rate reflected a 47 year low. And much of the credit for this improvement goes to the NOPD, which has transformed itself from being the most corrupt in the US into a model police force.

Until a few years ago, instead of combating and controlling crime and violence, NOPD escalated it. And it was anything but a dependable and reassuring law enforcement entity, so much so that in 1996 The New York Times described it as “a loose confederation of gangsters terrorising sections of the city.”

When Mitch Landrieu became Mayor of New Orleans in 2010, his priority was to write a letter to the then Attorney General Eric Holder requesting federal help to clean up the NOPD in the face of unabated police lawlessness. “I have inherited a police force that has been described by many as one of the worst police departments in the country… We have a systemic failure,” he wrote.

Following a 10 month investigation of the NOPD, the US Department of Justice released a 158 page report, which revealed dysfunction and corruption in nearly every facet of the department. The issues included excessive use of force on civilians; unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests; racial and ethnic profiling; LGBT discrimination; a failure to investigate serious crimes; and a shocking lack of accountability.

The report added that while the majority of NOPD officers were hardworking and committed to public safety, too many of them from every rank either didn’t understand or chose to ignore the boundaries of constitutional policing.

The NOPD then entered into a consent decree with the federal government where court oversight was instituted to correct indisputable patterns of civil rights abuses by the police against civilians.

Today, the NOPD is a pioneer in humanistic policing; and its officers are genuinely reaching out to the LGBTQ community and homeless people, helping with a transition from the streets while treating them with courtesy and compassion.

This reformation programme includes an invaluable peer intervention programme called EPIC (Ethical Policing Is Courageous).

EPIC was founded on the idea that greater accountability builds camaraderie and strengthens the chain of command, allowing lower-ranking officers to confront higher-ranking colleagues about their actions without fear of retaliation.

Such interventions can be as dramatically overt as preventing a fellow officer from striking someone in handcuffs. Others are more subtle – such as asking a visibly irritable fellow officer if everything is all right at home; or suggesting that the officer grab a cup of coffee before dealing with a civilian.

In one instance, an officer suggested that his colleague should call the social worker in the NOPD’s Officer Assistance Program after observing him take out his frustration on his computer keyboard.

Over 60 percent of the NOPD have received EPIC training. Recently, US District Judge Susie Morgan called the city’s progress over the past five years “remarkable.” She observed that the NOPD was doing more than the EPIC programme demanded.

NOPD detectives were also the first to work with the Innocence Project to curb wrongful convictions, of which the city has had many.

The Innocence Project was launched by two public defenders, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, as a legal clinic in 1992. Its aim is to employ DNA technology to prove if people are innocent or guilty of the crimes they’re accused of.

The NOPD also has an
annual banquet for wrongfully convicted but now freed citizens in an attempt to make amends and build good community relations.

With these dramatic shifts in police attitude, the serious use of force by officers has plummeted from 14 in 2013 to one last year.

In surveys, the percentage of people whose interactions with police were described as ‘pleasant’ and ‘courteous’ rose from 53 percent in 2009 to 87 percent a decade later.

Today, the department wears the turnaround like a badge of honour.

NOPD’s Deputy Superintendent of the Compliance Bureau Daniel Murphy notes: “NOPD is proud of this recognition of its remarkable transformation into a model of reform.”

He adds that the city is “committed to further elevating its status as a leader in 21st century policing.”