DAVID GREEN, host:
Now to New Orleans. You might remember, on August 5th, a federal jury handed down one of the most sweeping verdicts in the modern history of American police brutality. Five New Orleans police officers were convicted for various roles in gunning down innocent civilians in the days after Hurricane Katrina and then covering it up.
The Danziger Bridge case, as it's called, adds momentum to a reform effort that's already under way. The U.S. Justice Department says it is committed to cleaning up the New Orleans Police Department, once and for all.
NPR's John Burnett reports.
JOHN BURNETT: After winning guilty verdicts against all five defendant officers, Bobbi Bernstein stepped outside the federal courthouse into the withering southern heat. She's the lead prosecutor who came down from the Justice Department in Washington to try the case.
Ms. BOBBI BERNSTEIN (Attorney): I want to express my gratitude for the people who allowed justice to happen in this case; and first and foremost, to the victims and their families.
BURNETT: And then a remarkable thing happened to the 43-year-old litigator and marathoner. All over town, people came up to hug Bernstein and thank her. A group of homeless men in a park even gave her a standing ovation.
Such was the gratitude of the people of New Orleans that someone had fought back against rogue cops and sent a message to the police department - this will not stand.
The misdeeds of the NOPD are infamous. Mary Howell has represented victims of police abuse for more than 30 years.
Ms. MARY HOWELL (Attorney): In the '90s we had officers arrested and prosecuted and went to jail for rapes, for arson, kidnappings, killings, drugs, bank robberies. We had a police officer who used to do bank robberies on his lunch break. He went to prison. He's out now. You know, so we've been here before.
BURNETT: Been here before means attempts to reform the New Orleans police. After a string of police atrocities in the '90s that sent two officers to death row for capital murder, the Justice Department came to town to clean up the force. They stayed from 1996 to 2004, at which time most people thought the problems had been solved.
Then came Katrina, during which there were many instances of police bravery, but also more misconduct. It became apparent that the eight-year effort overseen by the Justice Department did not hold, says current police chief, Ronal Serpas.
Chief RONAL SERPAS (Police Chief, New Orleans): Sometime between 2005 and 2010 the train came off the tracks and crashed. It's really a frightening case study of how fast it can all come apart.
BURNETT: Last year, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu invited the DOJ back to town to help straighten out the police department again. In March, the federal Civil Rights Division released a scathing, 150-page investigation detailing systemic problems within the NOPD. Among them: excessive force, illegal stops and searches, uncontrolled attack dogs, sloppy investigations of officer wrongdoing, poor hiring, poor training, poor supervision, and the notorious detail system. Officers earn extra money pulling off-duty security details for things like parades.
Mr. TONY RADOSTI (Metropolitan Crime Commission): Within the New Orleans Police Department there is a culture, and that culture is very unusual.
BURNETT: Tony Radosti is 23-year veteran of the force who now works for the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a police watchdog group. Radosti says it was an open practice in the department for officers to use the detail system to enrich themselves and their buddies.
Mr. RADOSTI: We've had some issues that police officers, during Carnival a few years back, were paid $100 an hour, three of 'em, to protect a porno shoot in the French Quarter.
Mr. TOM PEREZ (Assistant Attorney General): The detail system was certainly an aorta of corruption in the police department.
BURNETT: That's Tom Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights, oversaw the NOPD report.
The new chief, Ronal Serpas, spent 21 years on the force, but he left to run other police agencies and returned, he claims, anxious to bring about change. He has tightened up the detail system, he's fired or sidelined bad commanders, and put teeth in internal affairs reviews of officer misconduct.
Chief SERPAS: If you are untruthful, first time, you're terminated. One of the things we also put into policy...
BURNETT: How many terminations have there been as a result of an untruthfulness policy now?
Chief SERPAS: We have dismissed more than 35 people in the last 15 months. It's probably up to 37 or 38 now. And we have suspended 200 people.
BURNETT: But can the department change a culture of cover up? The Danziger Bridge verdict was the third federal trial in the last nine months in which NOPD officers were found guilty of killing innocent suspects then lying about it.
Again, local civil rights lawyer, Mary Howell.
Ms. HOWELL: We've had reform here. The question is, what's different now? How are we going be able to really have reform that will last?
BURNETT: Washington's answer - this time the Justice Department is negotiating a consent decree with the NOPD, under which a federal judge will ensure that dozens of recommendations are carried out.
Assistant AG, Tom Perez.
Mr. PEREZ: With the benefit of our experience from the late '90s, we learned that we need a consent decree that has court oversight. We will have a monitor. We will stay in New Orleans as long as is necessary to get the job done and not a day longer.
(Soundbite of dispatch call)
DISPATCHER: (Unintelligible) black male, early 30s, dark complexion, thin build and a black shirt and jeans.
BURNETT: Out in the neighborhoods where police and residents often clash, there's skepticism that things are getting better. Ronald McCoy is a neighborhood captain for a grassroots organization called Safe Streets, Strong Communities.
Mr. RONALD McCOY (Safe Streets, Strong Communities): Yeah. We have been getting more complaints since the (unintelligible) investigation, than before the (unintelligible) investigation.
BURNETT: The city of New Orleans and the U.S. Justice Department have a tall order, how to create trust in a community that expects its police to uphold the peace, not to violate it.
John Burnett, NPR News.