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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 November 2005, 15:04 GMT
Storm-hit NOPD faces its future
By John Murphy
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

The New Orleans Police Department was struggling with a corrupt reputation when it was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina.

Now many are wondering if the hurricane could turn things around.

Acting NOPD Chief Warren Riley
There is nothing for this police department to be ashamed of
Acting NOPD Chief Warren Riley

"Do you want my drug dealer face?" said the acting chief of the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) as he posed for a photograph.

"You think we're all drug dealers."

Superintendent Warren Riley was joking, but it summed up two important facts.

First, that the NOPD feels it has been treated badly by the media and second, that over the past 10 years or more, numerous NOPD officers have been convicted of a whole array of serious crimes, including drug dealing and murder.

Two officers, convicted in the mid-1990s for different offences, are currently on death row. But the problems go beyond those extreme cases.

For a substantial number of people in New Orleans, corruption and brutality go hand-in-hand with the NOPD.

"We're glad the army's here, because they're protecting us from the NOPD," we heard a few times.

Police brutality

Mary Howell, civil rights lawyer
[There have been] cases of mock executions, rape, armed robbery
Mary Howell, lawyer
There are undoubtedly many good police officers, and quite a number performed heroically in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, rescuing people from their flooded homes.

So, how much of this negative image is based on the past, or is urban myth?

"This is not urban myth," said Mary Howell, a civil rights lawyer of 30 years standing.

"This police force has been chronically plagued with provable, demonstrated horrendous instances of corruption and brutality for ages.

"[There have been] cases of mock executions, rape, armed robbery. There was one officer who used to do bank robberies during his lunch breaks. Of course assault, battery, civil rights violations."

There were some improvements in the late 1990s, Ms Howell said, when the police chief at the time, Richard Pennington, brought in reforms and got rid of some bad officers.

But in the last few years, up to Katrina at least, she said she has seen an unravelling of the Pennington reforms and is worried the bad old days are coming back.

Displaced people

Mike Montebalno
Some of the bad people lost their homes and they're displaced too
Mike Montabalno, NOPD
Since Katrina, New Orleans' notoriously high crime rate - it had one of the highest murder rates in the US - has largely disappeared.

That is mainly due to the fact that most of the drug dealers and criminals fled the city after the storm, along with most of the population.

They have not yet returned.

For Mike Montabalno, returning to his normal vice and narcotics work for the first time, Katrina's destruction has brought some good.

"People lost their homes and they're displaced. But the good part of that is that some of the bad people lost their homes and they're displaced too," he said.

"If you've ever watched any of the old cowboy movies... I always saw this as Dodge City, a place that was totally out of control. And since the storm, crime-wise it's gone."

Ghost town

Great swathes of the city are empty, with homes destroyed by the flood waters.

Dog food left by a building in New Orleans
The empty homes bear the evidence of the search for survivors
In many districts New Orleans looks like a ghost town. Piles of destroyed furniture, carpets, children's toys and fridges litter the streets.

Houses have symbols spray-painted on them by the fire brigade, police or emergency services, searching first for survivors and now for bodies or remains.

We even saw piles of dog food put out by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for some of the few surviving pets left behind.

The destruction near the burst flood levees is eye-opening.

Even though I had recently returned from seeing the devastation from the earthquake in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, these sights were still shocking.

The storm hit the NOPD particularly hard.

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents will be broadcast on Thursday, 24 November at 1102 GMT.

Two police officers committed suicide in the days after the flood, a couple of hundred failed to turn up to work, 80% of officers lost their homes, and a month after Katrina the Police Chief Eddie Compass resigned without explanation.

Even today, most police officers, like Norbert Carroll, still have no houses to live in:

"I've lost my home. My wife and two children have been relocated to Houston, Texas, and I am living on a cruise ship," Officer Carroll said.

"I see my family maybe once a month since the hurricane has passed. It's very difficult. Very. It's hard, but I have a job to do and I am going to stay here and do my job."

Interestingly, Officer Carroll's cruise ship is called Sensation. A second one, housing mainly firemen, is named Ecstasy.

Public confidence

Jim Bernazzani, FBI
What Chief Riley is doing is changing aircraft engines in mid-flight
Jim Bernazzani, FBI
In his black suit, white shirt and dark tie, Jim Bernazzani could not be anything but an FBI man.

We met him in one of the FBI's favourite watering holes, a grand southern mansion, damaged by Katrina and Hurricane Rita.

He argues that the NOPD has been the victim of a failed judicial system, which has let criminals off the hook, so undermining public confidence.

But he is upbeat about the future and about the police department's new boss.

"I think he has the toughest job in town, either he or the mayor.

"This reconstitution is very difficult and you're doing it while you're still prosecuting your mission.

"In essence what Chief Riley is doing is changing aircraft engines in mid-flight and it's very difficult. He's doing a very good job."

'No shame'

Warren Riley has already sacked over 50 officers who went AWOL after the storm.

There will be hearings into another 230 or so cases over the next few months. He is fed up with the bad press the NOPD has been getting.

We will continue to grow, we will address those mistakes as they occur, we will take swift action
Acting NOPD Chief Warren Riley
"I myself witnessed, observed and shared experiences with New Orleans police officers who did incredible things throughout this hurricane, when nobody was here.

"You know, there is nothing for this police department to be ashamed of. There is nothing we will be ashamed of.

"We will continue to grow, we will address those mistakes as they occur, we will take swift action."

Any substantial action though, is dependent on political will and money.

The population of New Orleans is now about a tenth what it used to be. Businesses are shut.

Inextricable link

Peter Scharf, executive director of The Centre for Society, Law and Justice at New Orleans University, argues that the fate of the NOPD is inextricably linked with the city's.

"This is a very challenged department," he said.

"Everyone who is in charge lived through the bad days and it is difficult to separate yourself from your institutional legacy.

The police department won't get better unless the city gets better
Peter Scharf, New Orleans University
"The police department won't get better unless the city gets better. You need an economic base. Will there be tax money to do the things that they want to do?"

For now, New Orleans is not getting anything like the tax revenue it needs.

No-one knows how many people will eventually return to the city and whether those who do return will have jobs.

Given so many unknowns, it is impossible to predict what the city - and indeed its police force - will look like in the future.

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 24 November, 2005, at 1102 GMT.

The programme was repeated on Monday, 28 November, 2005, at 2030 GMT.

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