(NNPA) - The U.S. Department of Justice has confirmed that it is considering taking an active role in reforming the New Orleans Police Department.
Thomas Perez, the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, called the NOPD "one of the most troubled departments in the country."
Perez added that federal civil rights investigators were in New Orleans last week and that their presence continues to grow as the probe of the New Orleans Police Department and its role in more than a half-dozen post-Katrina shootings expands. Monitoring the department and playing an active role in the operation of the department are just two of several options the Justice Department is considering, he added.
"You can't reform a department simply by using the hammer of criminal prosecutions," Perez said. "Those alone are not going to allow you to implement broader systemic reforms...If there were ever a circumstance when it would be justified, with what we are seeing and hearing in court, it certainly indicates it's appropriate," former assistant U.S. attorney Julian Murray told FOX8 News last week.
The Department of Justice is investigating at least eight incidents in New Orleans, including the Danziger Bridge shootings that have already led to three NOPD convictions.
The FBI also said that it will investigate the recent shooting of a man inside his eastern New Orleans home. The NOPD actually requested the FBI review after "great concern" expressed by the family of Brian Harris, 39, who was shot and killed by police on April 9 by Officer Stephen McGee, a department spokesman said. McGee has been assigned to administrative duty.
FBI spokeswoman Sheila Thorne said Wednesday that the bureau received the request and will review the incident. The police reported that on Friday night, April 9, Harris' wife called to report that her husband was threatening suicide, armed with a knife and may have taken a sleeping pill overdose. Harris allegedly barricaded himself in a bedroom and was in bed, holding a knife, when officers entered the room.
"Several commands were given for Mr. Harris to disarm himself and he refused to comply," police said in a statement. "He was tased by two different officers and those attempts were unsuccessful. The armed male moved toward the officers when one officer drew his weapon and fired twice, hitting the adult in the torso."
Deputy Superintendent Marlon Defillo said he requested the FBI's assistance given the current climate.
"The family was crying foul and I felt it was in the best interest of the community, the police department and the family that a third entity review this case," Defillo said. "I'm looking for transparency in this investigation. I want the public to know that this case is going to be conducted fairly, thoroughly and completely."
Attorney Jason Williams, who has been retained by the Harris family, said he's glad the department has opened an investigation.
"We think it's a good move for the department," he said. "They need help, desperately in terms of rooting out overly aggressive police officers. I am candidly pleading to any officer involved to be honest and cooperate ... to do the right thing. If it is a mistake, say it is a mistake; If it is a wrongdoing, then say so."
Williams said when officers arrived at the Harris' house they ordered his wife and children outside. "Within moments of that, you can hear them forcing their way into the bedroom (where Brian was) and shortly after that, gunshots rang out," he said.
Williams said it was evident from viewing the crime scene that "there was some searching of drawers, closets, or containers to possibly find something, anything, that would justify this horrible shooting."
Rafael Goyeneche, executive director of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, told FOX8 News last week that the current NOPD crisis is far worse than the one the department faced in the mid-1990s when it had officers like Len Davis and Antoinette Frank murdering innocent people.
"To me it's not a question of whether the Feds will step in and monitor. It's a question of to what extent will it be?"
Goyeneche, a former law enforcement officer, predicted that Mayor-elect Mitch Landrieu's selection to replace outgoing NOPD superintendent Warren Riley will go a long way in determining the extent to which the U.S. Department of Justice will monitor the department's inner workings.
"I think the federal government is going to be very, very interested in who the appointee is," he said.
Not everyone agreed with Goyeneche's assessment of the need for federal oversight.
Michael Glasser, president of the Police Association of New Or¬leans, told FOX8 News that close monitoring by the Justice Depart¬ment might amount to overkill. "Federal intervention would create a fourth level of oversight. It would seem to me that would be terribly inefficient," Glasser said. "If there's a problem with the first or second level of oversight, then you change them. That would be the ideal solution and I think that's exactly what's happening."
Tulane University professor Dr Peter Scharf told projectnola.com that the federal probe of the NOPD and the possibility of a federal takeover of the department will ultimately lead to those seeking to become the department's next police chief to answer some tough questions about their ability to work well with the Feds.
"Can you change a culture? Can you document that you have changed a culture? Can you deal with astronomic violence and crime rates? Do you understand how to do that?" Scharf said.
Scharf also outlined some of the challenges the next police chief will face: "With NOPD, how do you change this culture? How do you change attitudes, values, procedures, practices? How do you change your core investigative strategies? If you can't do that, you can't have this job."
The process of finding a new police has become muddled in a dispute about Mayor-elect Mitch Landrieu's willingness to share information with those he chose to aid in the superintendent search.
In a guest column in Thursday's local daily paper, Norris Henderson, founder of Voice of the Ex-Offender, and Baty Landis, co-founder of SilenceIsViolence, outlined their reasons for parting ways with the NOPD superintendent search committee.
1. We had no assurance that the public input we worked so hard to solicit was part of the applicant assessment process. No task force member was allowed to review initial recommendations by the search firm International Asso¬ciation of Chiefs of Police, nor be privy to the IACP's assessment tools," they wrote.
2. Contrary to our instructions from Mayor-elect Landrieu, we did not have an opportunity to discuss and decide upon which search firm to use.
3. Most decisions were made by an executive committee, whose own members were surprised by their appointments, and whose make-up is far less representative of the community than the original task force as a whole. We felt that executive committee decisions should engage additional task force members.
4. Finally, even as meetings became bogged down in circular and redundant discussions, task force members did not receive minutes or meeting summaries, contracts or even informal updates regarding the process."
Henderson and Landis said that they were ultimately told that they couldn't ask any more questions about the search for a police chief, prompting them to leave, along with Gina Womack of Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children and Danatus King, president of the New Orleans branch of the NAACP.
"For months, speculation and rumors have spread about a predetermination of the police chief selection process," Henderson and Landis wrote. "Part of our accepted role as task force members was to dispel skepticism by representing the community to the task force, and by representing the task force back to the community.
"When it became impossible to endorse the proceedings in good faith from within the task force, as responsible stakeholders we had no choice but to become outside observers."
While a federal takeover of a city police department is not without precedent, it's not something you see every day.
Since the option was made available in 1994, only 21 of the nation's 17,000 state and local law enforcement agencies have been hit with "pattern or practice" lawsuits by the Justice Department, a step that is necessary for a federal takeover of a police department.
Former assistant U.S. Attorney Julian Murray told FOX8 News, "It's very unusual. Very unusual. It has to be an extreme situation such as you had with Rodney King when they went into the Los Angeles Police Dept."