New Orleans Police Face More Challenges

When New Orleans' top cop, Eddie Compass, resigned from his post earlier this week, it was the latest challenge for a department that had made progress after being tarnished by crime and corruption charges.

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In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Big Easy needs a big fix. A lot of things broke as a result of the storm, levees, water systems and the New Orleans police force. Since the hurricane, the department has been faulted for not doing enough to evacuate residents and for deserting and allegedly looting in the chaos that followed the storm. As NPR's Laura Sullivan reports, fixing the police department will take more than just getting its officers back on the street.

LAURA SULLIVAN reporting:

It's been a bad week for the New Orleans Police Department. Their chief resigned, tribunals were announced for 249 officers accused of deserting. Then the chief's replacement, acting superintendent Warren Riley, made this announcement.

Mr. WARREN RILEY (Acting Superintendent, New Orleans Police Department): I stand before you today to inform the public that I have ordered an immediate internal investigation by the department's Public Integrity Bureau which will focus on at least 12 police officers who are being accused of misconduct.

SULLIVAN: The officers are accused of watching looting take place without trying to stop it, or in some cases joining in the theft. Already five officers have been suspended or reassigned, and on cable TV there's been an almost constant tape loop of officers in the act. All this comes at a time when the city needs its police department the most. Any effort to rebuild New Orleans depends heavily on the ability to keep residents and businesses safe. New Orleans Police Captain Marlon Defillo says the department is determined not to let the investigation sideline that work.

Captain MARLON DEFILLO (New Orleans Police Department): The vast majority of police officers, the men and women of this department, they're working each and every day to protect this city. Every organization, whether it's corporate America, the private sector or public sector, all have bad apples. The question is: What do you do once you identify those bad apples? And this department has a zero tolerance for anyone who is accused of wrongdoing or unprofessionalism.

SULLIVAN: This isn't the first time problems with the New Orleans police force have been made public.

Mr. RAFAEL GOYENECHE (President, Metropolitan Crime Commission): It was the poster child for a dysfunctional, corrupt police department.

SULLIVAN: Rafael Goyeneche is president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission which has fought public corruption in New Orleans since the 1950s.

Mr. GOYENECHE: In the late '80s and early '90s, we had seen a whole progression of officers arrested from everything from shoplifting to bank robbery.

SULLIVAN: Then it got worse. Two officers were convicted of murder in the mid-1990s, one for ordering a hit on a citizen that filed a brutality complaint against him, the other for robbing a Vietnamese restaurant and killing a co-conspirator.

Mr. GOYENECHE: Those two murders involving the police department vaulted the New Orleans Police Department into infamy as far as being corrupt and dysfunctional.

SULLIVAN: Ten years and a new administration later, the New Orleans Police Department still struggled with high crime, but it largely fell out of public view until Hurricane Katrina and the first reports of desertion and officer looting. When faced with an opportunity to show how far it had come, Goyeneche said the department instead reminded residents of its past.

Mr. GOYENECHE: It's disheartening to anybody, but I think that the department can and will turn around. We know that it can be done because we did it in the mid-1990s.

SULLIVAN: But the challenges facing the force are even greater this time. Eighty percent of the department's officers were flooded out of their homes. That's because of a department rule that required them to live within in the city limits. In addition, New Orleans police are among the lowest paid in the country and many took second jobs as security guards, jobs which are now gone. Psychiatrist Dr. Howard Osofsky(ph) has been hired to organize counseling for the department. He says he's already seeing officers with severe emotional trauma.

Dr. HOWARD OSOFSKY (Psychiatrist): Post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, family problems, it's harder for them to pay attention to some of the things that they did before the hurricane.

SULLIVAN: For now, most of the department's 1,500 officers are living on a cruise ship docked on the Mississippi River, and the department's command center is the lobby of a downtown hotel. Laura Sullivan, NPR News.

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