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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

There was a time after Hurricane Katrina when people spoke of a clean slate for New Orleans.

MONTAGNE: They suggested that the flood would wipe away failing institutions. It would offer a chance to start over.

INSKEEP: Now, whether that was a wise approach or not, it has proven impossible for the New Orleans Police. The police department was in deep trouble before the storm.

MONTAGNE: As the city flooded, the police lost control of the city and themselves.

INSKEEP: And now, almost five years later, that trouble continues.

NPR's Carrie Kahn reports on one city's struggle for law and order.

CARRIE KAHN: The NOPD has long battled a bad rep. But after Katrina, the department's flaws unraveled on the nightly news: Officers deserted their posts, others got caught looting, even the police chief up and quit.

Mr. EDDIE COMPASS (Former Chief of Police, New Orleans): I'll be retiring as superintendent of police, and I will be going on in another direction God has for me.

KAHN: With lawlessness engulfing the city and the cops' leadership absent, individual acts of police heroism are overshadowed by allegations of brutality.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

KAHN: In this tape shot by an NBC News crew, police officers were filmed in a chaotic scene on the Danziger Bridge.

Unidentified Man #1: Give us the location.

Unidentified Man #2: They're at the bottom of the bridge already.

Unidentified Man #1: I see them running. Shut up.

KAHN: Unarmed residents were shot. Two died of their wounds. Seven New Orleans officers would be accused in the shootings and a subsequent cover-up. In another case, five more officers were implicated in the death of a man whose burned body was found in an abandoned car near a police station. Both cases were never fully prosecuted by local officials.

That perceived impunity and a persistent murder rate that remains at least eight times the national average has led to five years of increasing mistrust in New Orleans Police.

Lieutenant MICHAEL BRENCKLE (New Orleans, Police Department): Put me on flag down on a signal, 62 Awe(ph) 2128 St. Roch.

KAHN: You can see it on the streets, as cops like Lieutenant Michael Brenckle work even a minor burglary case.

Lt. BRENCKLE: You got witnesses, who stole this gentleman's speaker?

Unidentified Man #3: Nope. I mean, I...

KAHN: Brenckle asks more than a dozen neighbors sitting on their porches if they've seen any suspicious activity nearby.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

Unidentified Child #1: We just came from our vacation bible school.

Unidentified Child #2: We just came from vacation bible school.

KAHN: Brenckle, a 20-year veteran of the force, grew up in this rough St. Roch neighborhood near the Mississippi River. He says people are afraid to be seen talking to the police, let alone coming forward as witnesses.

But times are changing. Federal prosecutors have come to town and are looking into as many as eight unresolved police cases, including the Danziger Bridge shootings. Eighteen officers have been indicted. And New Orleans' new mayor, Mitch Landrieu, has asked the federal officials to stay on and help clean up the department.

Mayor MITCH LANDRIEU (New Orleans): The level of danger on the streets of New Orleans, the number of murders is unnatural. We have to find an answer to it, and we're going to work really hard to see if we can.

KAHN: Landrieu also hired a new police chief, Ronal Serpas.

Chief RONAL SERPAS (New Orleans Police Department): We are going to make a difference. We are going to turn this police department around. We are going to make New Orleans safer.

KAHN: Serpas was an assistant chief here before leaving to head the Washington State Police, and later the force in Nashville. He says his nine years away from New Orleans has given him the experience he needs to clean up the NOPD once and for all.

Chief SERPAS: We are going to support the officers who are professional in every way. But I can't be more crystal clear than this: If you have a different agenda, as a member of this department, of being professional and service-oriented, you might as well leave now, because I will go to bed every night thinking of ways to get rid of you.

KAHN: But many here have heard this tough talk before. Case in point: New Orleans in the mid-1990s, in the case of Len Davis. Davis was a cop who ran a cocaine ring out of the Lower Ninth Ward. When a resident filed a complaint with the police department, Davis called in a hit man, caught on this FBI wiretap.

(Soundbite of FBI surveillance tape)

Mr. LEN DAVIS (Former New Orleans Police Officer): ...and brown skin, with light brown eyes. I got the phone on and the radio. After it's done, go straight uptown and call me.

Unidentified Man #4: Later.

Mr. DAVIS: All right.

KAHN: Corruption on the force was unbelievable. You couldn't make this stuff up, says local civil rights lawyer Mary Howell.

Ms. MARY HOWELL (Civil Rights Attorney): We had police officers involved in kidnappings, rape, murders, drugs, bank robberies. There was a guy who used to do, like, bank robberies on his lunch hour. You could - it was just astonishing. At one point, we had four police officers facing first-degree murder charges.

KAHN: Back then, a reform mayor and police chief came in and pledged to work with federal officials. Changes were implemented. Nearly 100 cops were fired. The murder rate dropped. Community relations improved. But sadly, the reforms didn't stick.

By 2001, a different mayor and police chief took over, and federal oversight began to wane. In 2005, when Katrina struck, the department had returned to its old ways. And residents today say the misconduct and murders just keep coming.

Unidentified Man #5: We're going to get started and...

KAHN: In the back room of a community organization that protests police violence, relatives of family members who say they've been victimized by the police were eager to tell me their stories.

Patricia Grimes talked about her son, who was shot New Year's Day in 2009 by nine plainclothes cops. She says the entire confrontation lasted just minutes.

Ms. PATRICIA GRIMES: I heard all the shooting, and it only took three minutes. What that - that ain't nothing but somebody ganging up on you. That's hate, torture, murder.

KAHN: Another mother told about police beating her son to death after a traffic stop. One man recalled how cops shot and killed his mentally ill brother in their home.

Theresa Elloie says her son was beaten by police inside the family-owned bar. There were 12 witnesses. The lead lieutenant in her son's case has recently been indicted by federal prosecutors.

Ms. THERESA ELLOIE: If they would have handled my son's case, not swept it underneath the rug and handled those officers, got them off the force, then these other people kids would be living.

KAHN: She says her family won a judgment against the NOPD, but can't disclose the terms of the award.

In addition to the significant human cost, the city is bearing a huge financial liability, as the lawsuits mount. Police Chief Serpas says he will get better training for his officers and new technology. He wants an early warning system to alert supervisors about potentially abusive cops - standard in most big city departments. And he says this time, he'll make sure that federal overseers stay longer so reforms stick.

Mr. SERPAS: This time, the difference is going to be when we work collaboratively at the end of this process, there's going to be a document signed with the force of law so that if I won the lottery three years from now and I left, the next chief behind me couldn't go back and change the stuff that we put in place.

KAHN: Serpas says all this will take time, especially if the culture of the NOPD is to be changed. At a minimum, he says, give him five years. That would be right around Katrina's 10-year anniversary.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

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