How Katrina Sparked Reform in a Troubled Police Department

New Orleans' force, once a national symbol of corruption and dysfunction, has become a model for change.

Gerald Herbert / AP

The New Orleans Police Department had a reputation for corruption long before Hurricane Katrina made landfall in the summer of 2005. For decades, the department was infected by a culture of discrimination, abuse, and lawlessness. That culture spilled out into the open in the week after the storm. During that brief period, police officers shot and killed three unarmed civilians.

As Katrina’s flood water receded, the department's dysfunction was laid bare for all to see. A Justice Department investigation found that the police department was loosely held together by an even looser code of conduct. Soon after, the city was forced into an agreement to reform its police department. It seemed a uniquely awful situation.

In the years since Katrina, though, the Justice Department has launched investigations into numerous other police departments. The dysfunction of the New Orleans police began to look less like an exception, and more like an example of widespread issues that happened to be noticed and addressed earlier in New Orleans than elsewhere. Ironically, the depth of the department’s dysfunction has set it up to be a model for reform. As it continues to improve almost every area of its operation, it is becoming an example for other troubled police forces seeking to clean up their own acts.

The New Orleans Police Department’s Long, Troubled History

“New Orleans was a city where the general population had a fair degree of skepticism coupled with outright fear of the police department. It was quite justified,” says Pam Metzger, a New Orleans resident and a professor of criminal law at Tulane University Law School. “That made this a place where one’s view of the police depended largely on one’s race and socioeconomic background.”

The department earned that reputation through a series of high-profile incidents of police violence against black suspects and the city’s black community at large. In 1980, officers went on a rampage through the largely black Algiers section of the city that ended in the deaths of four civilians and left nearly 50 others injured. The 90s were full of shocking news stories about the NOPD’s abuse, misconduct, and criminal activity. Perhaps the most outrageous example came in 1994 when a woman was killed at the behest of an NOPD police officer after she reported that he’d beaten up a teenager in her neighborhood. The hit was recorded in the process of a federal investigation into a cocaine ring involving that officer.

In 1996, The New York Times described the New Orleans police as “a loose confederation of gangsters terrorizing sections of the city.”

Katrina Blew the Lid off the NOPD

When Katrina struck on August 29, 2005, the department found itself understaffed and overwhelmed. Many of its officers evacuated the city before the storm hit and couldn’t come back to help secure the city. Police were without power, vehicles were under water, stations were flooded along with 80 percent of the city, and the police radio system had completely shut down.

Despite the force’s reputation and the tremendous odds officer faced, many rose to the occasion. Michael Harrison, the current superintendent of the NOPD, says officers coordinated and performed search-and-rescue operations for days, many working around the clock. During this time, however, rumors of widespread violence and looting spread throughout the force. While officers scrambled to save stranded residents, there was a growing sentiment that the city was being overrun by its criminal element.

“I heard stories and I heard rumors but I didn’t see it and I never talked to anybody else who saw it,” says Harrison, who was a commander in the department during Katrina.

“Yes, we saw people looting stores that didn’t flood for supplies and clothes. We saw people taking it upon themselves to get whatever necessities they needed; people were in survival mode,” he says.

Somewhere in all of the chaos, ProPublica later reported, officers were told they had the authority to shoot looters.

“It's not clear how broadly the order was communicated. Some officers who heard it say they refused to carry it out. Others say they understood it as a fundamental change in the standards on deadly force, which allow police to fire only to protect themselves or others from what appears to be an imminent physical threat,” reported A.C. Thompson.

In the week after Katrina hit New Orleans, police officers shot at least 10 civilians, killing three.

Police Shootings the Weeks After Katrina

Suspected of committing robbery days after the storm, Keenon McCann was shot by police and arrested but released on his own recognizance and never charged with a crime. Matthew McDonald was shot in the back and killed by officers after allegedly threatening them with a gun. Police shot and killed Danny Brumfield, Sr. outside of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. The officers involved say they thought they saw something shiny in one of Brumfield’s hands as he, according to witness accounts, attempted to wave them down for help.

Perhaps the most infamous of the post-Katrina police shootings, however, was the incident on Danziger Bridge in which officers, having heard that police were being shot at near the bridge, drove to the scene and opened fire. Six civilians were shot. Seventeen-year-old James Brissette and Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old mentally handicapped man, were killed. A federal investigation into the incident found that none of the people shot on the bridge were armed.

One case that didn’t get much national attention, however, was just as appalling. On September 2, Henry Glover was shot in the chest in a strip mall parking lot while reportedly picking up stolen goods. Glover’s brother hailed a good Samaritan to drive them to a hospital after the shooting, but the driver took them to a makeshift police station where they expected to get medical attention for Glover, who was still alive by some accounts. Instead, the men say they were handcuffed by officers and severely beaten. The vehicle used to transport Glover was then driven away by officers with Glover still in it. Days later, the car was discovered by private security consultants completely burned out with Glover’s charred remains inside. It was later uncovered that the person who initially shot Glover in the parking lot was an NOPD officer.

Chief Harrison was with the public-integrity bureau during the use-of-force incidents that followed Katrina. A New Orleans native, he joined the force in 1991 at the height of the crack-cocaine epidemic, and of the department’s dysfunction. Good police work on the street led to a job in the Narcotics unit where he often worked undercover and, on a few occasions, ensnared corrupt cops who were involved in the city’s drug trade. In 2000, Harrison was recruited into the department’s public-integrity bureau, where he was tasked with fighting corruption on the force and ensuring accountability. He was involved with some of the post-Katrina investigations, in particular the death of Henry Glover. While Harrison says he can’t get into specifics of the investigations, he can confirm that Glover was shot by a police officer and another officer did burn his remains.

The Department of Justice Steps In

If it wasn’t clear before the storm, the behavior of police officers in the days after revealed how troubled the department really was. In May 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice announced an investigation into the New Orleans Police Department.

After a year of community meetings, interviews with officers, and a review of police documents, the Justice Department issued a 158-page report on the state of the department. Expert say it is one of the most comprehensive reports the agency has ever released after a police-department investigation. Investigators concluded that the NOPD had a pattern and practice of unconstitutional conduct and violation of federal law in several areas, including: use of excessive force; unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests; racial and ethnic profiling; LGBT discrimination; failure to investigate sexual assaults and domestic violence; and failure to provide effective policing services to persons with limited English proficiency. The Justice Department also determined that broken systems for evaluation, inadequate training and supervision, ineffective systems for accountability, and a lack of sufficient community oversight all contributed to the department’s lawlessness. In short, just about every area of the department was broken.

Justice Department officials said their probe was completely unrelated to any of the Katrina-related cases, but Metzger and Harrison agree that incidents of police misconduct following the storm shone a light on a culture that really needed to be changed and exposed the department’s flaws to a national audience.

In January 2013, after years of negotiations, the Department of Justice and the City of New Orleans entered into a consent decree to reform the police force. The agreement required that the department make sweeping changes to the way officers use force and conduct stops, and searches and interrogations. It also required it to revamp its recruitment, training, supervision, evaluation, and investigation practices in addition to its paid details, which the report called the “aorta of corruption” in the department. Finally, the consent decree mandated more transparency and greater civilian oversight of the department.

A Department on the Road to Reform

Recent reports issued both by the independent Consent Decree Monitor and the police tell the story of a department working to put systems in place that will make it more efficient, transparent, accountable, and just. In keeping with the consent decree, the department is tasked with an overhaul of most of its practices and procedures. Arguably the most progress has been made in the department’s transparency. Chief Harrison says that increased transparency from the police is essential to establishing trust with residents while his department continues to reform. For its efforts, the department was recognized this year by The Sunlight Foundation.

Two of the biggest reforms in the years since Katrina, though, didn’t actually come as the result of the consent decree. In 2009, the city created the Office of the Independent Police Monitor, a civilian oversight agency. The department worked with the Monitor to create a protocol and process for sharing information, one of only a few such systems in the country. In addition, last year it became the first police department in the country to outfit its entire police force with body cameras. The body camera program has been criticized for its accountability loopholes, but many agree that it’s an important addition to the department’s reforms.

“All of it working at the same time is turning us now into a model police department,” Harrison says. “We were slow moving getting started but we're feeling traction and momentum now going forward.”

He adds that crime has come down in recent years and the department has become more efficient because of the consent-decree requirements around documentation and transparency.

“The progress is incremental. It’s here and there,” says the Independent Police Monitor, Susan Hutson. “Keeping in mind all of the shootings that occurred during Katrina, use of force is always our number one focus and we’ve put a lot of energy into monitoring cases and how they’re investigated,” she adds. “We’ve been watching [the department] grow for the past few years and they’re doing a much better job.”

Despite the progress made by the department, the police shootings that followed Katrina still cast a pall 10 years later. Charges were never filed against officers in the McCann or McDonald cases. The officers involved in the killing of Brumfield were both charged with crimes for lying about what happened that night, but not charged with murder.  One was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice. Officers involved in the killing of Glover and subsequent cover up were found guilty at trial, but an appeals court later vacated those convictions. The incident at Danziger Bridge spawned a series of charges, convictions,  trials, and reversals. Ten years later, five officers are currently in prison for their role in the shooting and cover up. After convictions and mistrials, six others await their day in court.

Indeed, the New Orleans Police Department still has much more work ahead if they hope to turn around the department for good and win the trust of residents. With just two years of the consent decree under its belt, Hutson says there’s still a need for basic, fundamental changes.

“All of the things in the consent decree can ultimately only be maintained if there’s a robust accountability and oversight system in place after the consent decree is gone,” she says. “If not, we’re back where we started.” And among the many lessons that the department has to offer other police forces around the country, that may be the most important of all.

This project was made possible with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.