On Thursday, the top civil rights prosecutor for the U.S. Department of Justice, Assistant Attorney General Tommy Perez, came to New Orleans and basically said what we all already knew:
* The NOPD is a mess
* The NOPD has drawn just about the most scrutiny in the country
* The NOPD has shown little progress since the last time the feds put it under the microscope
In fact, Perez is no stranger to New Orleans’ joke of a criminal justice system:
New Orleans is familiar territory for Perez, who spent a decade as a civil-rights prosecutor and supervisor in the Justice Department until leaving in 1999. He was confirmed for his new position last October.
In the mid-1990s, Perez helped supervise the prosecution of rogue NOPD officer Len Davis, who ran a drug-protection racket and ordered the murder of a woman who filed an internal-affairs complaint against him. Davis, who was convicted in federal court of ordering the murder, is on death row.
“It was my hope back then that that incident of that outrageous character would catalyze sustainable reform. I was mistaken,” said Perez.
Here’s what else we know:
* That Orleans Parish Prison and our incarceration system also is under investigation, and that OPP has one of the highest death rates in the country.
We know we are not lacking for those who purport themselves to be “tough on crime.” Local police officers and sheriffs are not taking it easy on the community here. We devote more resources to the criminal justice system than to anything else.
* Orleans and Jefferson Parish have some of the highest drug crime arrest rates in the nation
* That Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the nation
And yet, have we solved the crime problem in the New Orleans area?
Crime was once again the fixation of voters in this year’s mayoral election. Reducing crime is the No. 1 priority of Mayor-elect Mitch Landrieu. New Orleans is consistently saddled with findings that it is amongst the most violent cities in America.
It is clear that the civil rights division, whether they’ll confirm it or not, is considering action beyond the prosecution of the ‘bad apples’ in the NOPD. They must be considering some sort of official sanction on the NOPD itself, like a consent decree that could put reform under a court order.
But why stop there?
This metro area has some of the worst criminal justice outcomes in the country. We have high incarceration rates, we spend gobs and gobs of money, but who can say we have positive results?
Certainly the communities most devastated by violent crime would not say that we have. Not only are those communities victimized by the highest incarceration rates and the highest rates of violence but they also bear the brunt of the policy brutality and corruption that have yielded yet another generation of federal scrutiny.
If the Department of Justice really wants to get serious about the long-term success of this region’s criminal justice system, they’ll need to step on some toes.
Actually, they’ll need to stand on those toes for an extended period of time.
The citizens of Orleans Parish and its larger metro area deserve justice for those victimized by police corruption and brutality, a decade-long commitment from the federal government to cement reforms, and even perhaps, a mandate that extends beyond the NOPD and beyond even Orleans Parish.
The Justice Department has an opportunity to take one of the worst criminal justice systems in the country and work out some long-term solutions. For the sake of the residents of New Orleans and its environs, I hope they do not yield like they did the last time.