From the Ground Up: Safe Streets/Strong Communities Pushes for Reform of New Orleans Police Department

From the Ground Up: Safe Streets/Strong Communities pushes for reform of New Orleans Police Department
By Deborah Cotton

About 30 activists and residents testified before the city council last week. They described horrific acts of police brutality and corruption carried out against mostly poor, Black, and Latino victims since Hurricane Katrina.

Xochitl Bervera, co-director of the newly formed criminal justice group Safe Streets/Smart Communities, detailed terror campaigns led by New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) officers. City council leaders listened closely as Bervera cited cases of police officers brutalizing detainees through excessive use of force, such as slamming their heads against car windows, ordering public strip and cavity searches, planting evidence, and “charge bargaining” – demanding bribes for reduced charges.

Activists testified during the meeting that police often make statements like, “I joined the force to put Black people away” and “You shouldn’t have come back [after the Hurricane].” Officers were also said to purposely make comments for citizens to overhear during arrests, such as “We could say he tried to escape…put a bullet in his back…dump him in the river.”

An immigrant Latino worker testified that he was lured from Lee Circle by a police officer who promised to pay him to do home repairs. He was later forced at gunpoint, along with two other immigrant workers, to work on the officer’s house for 10 hours without pay.

Bervera also stated that good cops inside department are punished – given desk jobs, threatened, and passed over for promotions – if they try to challenge the corrupt behavior of their colleagues.

Representatives of Safe Streets asked the city council to support their proposal to the city, which includes three recommendations: to establish and fund an office for an independent monitor, to conduct a nationwide search for a new police chief “of sufficient stature and reputation to take on the monumental task of rebuilding the New Orleans Police Department", and to partner with national experts to help the city create a five-year plan for NOPD reform.  

Smart Streets, which opened in early December, was formed by a group of local and national criminal justice experts who saw Hurricane Katrina as an opportunity for a new start in cleaning up the New Orleans police department

“We all have backgrounds in criminal and justice work,” said Seung Hong, policy and media coordinator for Safe Streets. "We come from organizations like Southern Center for Human Rights, A Fighting Chance, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and Families and Friends of Incarcerated Children. Because of the previous political climate, the system was hard to penetrate. Now, everyone [in New Orleans] wants to fix systems that are broken.”

Hong recited the recent history of abuse by the police department. “The NOPD [is] seen as just another gang here – actually, the most powerful gang. In 2000, one out of three officers had been suspended for misconduct. The police chief at the time fired 300 cops in an attempt to crack down, but the problem still persists. New Orleans is the only police department in country with cops on death row.”

The organization’s presentation seems to have already made an impact on the police department. The day after the report was made public at the city council meeting, two NOPD officers were fired, one for theft and the other for beating a suspect in custody.

When alerted to the coincidental timing, Hong said, “I do think that’s a result of the work we’re doing. [Assistant Chief Marlon] Defillo and [Chief Warren] Riley are probably feeling pressure. Defillo’s been receptive to our ideas, supportive of an independent monitor. They’ve reached out to us and we’re meeting with them tomorrow.”

FROM THE GROUND UP is a weekly column that chronicles the current rebuilding efforts by New Orleans’ residents, both in the city and in evacuee areas.  Information or announcements about events related to rebuilding New Orleans can be forwarded to deborah [dot] cotton [at] gmail [dot] com.