NEW ORLEANS – The new superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department read the mountain of federal court documents detailing the alleged behavior of his officers with increasing alarm.
The papers, Ronal Serpas says, are like a "disgustingly vile novel," outlining the murders of two unarmed civilians, the woundings of four others and a vast coverup involving 11 current and former officers accused in the deadly 2005 shootings in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
So far, five of the officers have pleaded guilty to conspiracy, while the fates of six others — indicted last month on charges ranging from murder to obstruction of justice — are pending in the fatal assaults on Danziger Bridge.
Now more than 90 days into his tenure as the city's top cop, Serpas says the reality of his department is even worse than the "insidious" accounts he began reading in the documents just before he was appointed superintendent in May.
The court records accuse officers of killing innocent survivors of the storm, then covering up their actions by creating fictional witnesses and holding a secret meeting to get their stories straight during investigations of the incident. Yet Serpas says the troubles run even deeper: More officers have been linked to other crimes, and new charges are likely.
Five years after Hurricane Katrina — when some New Orleans officers deserted their posts and film crews caught others looting stores — police officials, community activists and civil rights advocates say the storm exposed systemic failures in a law enforcement agency that had been decaying for years. Many of the city's institutions have rebounded from the storm, but the police department seems to have sunk to new lows.
With the department's credibility in tatters, the federal government has launched an unprecedented intervention to salvage the agency at the urging of the city's new mayor and police superintendent.
In a May letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder calling for the Justice Department's help, Mayor Mitch Landrieu said he had inherited "one of the worst police departments in the country."
"It is clear that nothing short of a complete transformation is necessary and essential to ensure safety for the citizens of New Orleans," Landrieu wrote.
The mayor's unusual candor quickly won endorsement from Serpas. "Deadly accurate," the police superintendent says. "Complete, systemwide failure."
Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, chief of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, says Landrieu's entreaty has launched the "widest-ranging review ever" of a local police force by the federal government.
Already, the department is the subject of eight federal inquiries into alleged wrongdoing by police. At least 18 current or former officers have been charged with federal crimes so far this year, 11 in connection with the Danziger shootings. Four face possible death sentences if convicted.
Apart from the criminal inquiries, Perez said the Justice Department is reviewing the city's police operations to try to reduce crime and restore public trust in an institution shaken to its core.
Violent crime, like police corruption, has menaced the city for years, linked in large part to the trafficking of illegal drugs.
In the months before Katrina, New Orleans was on pace to rank as one of the deadliest in the nation, according to city crime statistics. Drug-related violent crime surges also have plagued the city since the storm, even as crime throughout much of the nation has declined.
"There is a crisis of confidence right now," Perez says. "We are bringing to bear resources in a way never seen before."
A crisis-defining incident
Along with images of residents stranded on rooftops and of squalid conditions inside the Superdome, the Danziger Bridge shootings helped define the dysfunction of post-Katrina New Orleans five years ago. The ramifications of those shootings reverberate in the department today.
The most serious allegations center on the actions of two sergeants and two officers who, six days after the storm, responded to reports that officers were taking gunfire near the bridge.
Armed with AK-47 assault rifles, a shotgun and other weapons, the four officers drove to the bridge in a Budget rental truck and, prosecutors allege, opened fire on six unarmed people, killing 17-year-old James Brissette and wounding four others.
A short time later, according to court documents, the officers moved to the other side of the span, where they allegedly took aim at two unarmed brothers, Lance Madison, 49, and Ronald Madison, 40, who had been checking on the condition of a relative's property.
While trying to flee, Ronald Madison, who was severely mentally disabled, was shot in the back, court papers say. As he lay critically wounded, the documents state, another officer "kicked and stomped" him. He later died.
Lance Madison was arrested and accused of attempting to murder police. He was held for three weeks before a judge ordered his release.
In the months and years after the shootings, the documents allege, the officers sought to conceal their actions by concocting false reports, referring to fictitious witnesses and planting a gun in an attempt to show the shootings were justified.
Five months after the shootings, amid reviews into the incident, prosecutors say some of the officers gathered for a secret meeting in an "abandoned and gutted" police precinct building on the city's east side. During the Jan. 26, 2006, meeting, two sergeants instructed officers to "make sure they had their stories straight" before they gave recorded statements about the incident, the documents allege.
Frank DeSalvo, the chief attorney for the New Orleans police association, questions the federal government's case, suggesting prosecutors assembled information to support their "own opinion of what happened."
All six officers indicted last month have pleaded not guilty, DeSalvo says. "We're going to trial," the attorney says. "We're optimistic about winning."
Civil rights advocates say the allegations reflect a decades-old pattern of corruption and abuse by the department.
Attorney Mary Howell, who represents the Madison family and other recent victims of alleged police abuse in New Orleans, says the charges are reminiscent of 1994 and a case involving then-officer Len Davis.
Davis was convicted of ordering the assassination of a 32-year-old woman who had filed a brutality complaint against him hours earlier. In shocking detail, FBI recordings of conversations involving Davis revealed in court that he celebrated the killing after learning it had been carried out.
Howell says 1994 — marked by additional cases of police abuse and corruption and by surging violent crime citywide — was the grim low point in modern department history.
The events of the past five years, though, are prompting comparisons to that period.
"I had cops calling me even pre-Katrina, saying (the department) was headed back to 1994," she says.
Howell says the number and severity of recent allegations has prompted a new urgency for change.
"There is a quest for things to change — that this (will) never happen again," Howell says.
'Police culture of corruption'
Political leaders and the community have largely welcomed the Justice Department's intervention.
Yet the enthusiasm is tempered by the fact that changes initiated by the federal government after the Davis case — including closer tracking of citizen complaints — did not prevent the Danziger shootings or end what community activist Allen James describes as a "police culture of corruption."
James says that culture has been heavily influenced over the years by issues of race and class, as much of the abuse was committed by white officers against low-income black residents.
"I'm not expecting a rapid or dramatic transformation," says James, executive director of Safe Streets/Strong Communities, a group that proposes overhauling the 1,489-officer agency, down from 1,741 officers before Katrina. "The only way to bring about any sudden transformation is to replace 50% of the officers. … I don't think that's going to happen, but there has to be an emblematic action."
Others, including W.C. Johnson, a local community organizer, say Serpas was the wrong choice to lead the department because of his past ties to the agency. Serpas is a former New Orleans police official who retired in 2001, then left the city to head law enforcement agencies in Washington state and Nashville.
Any transformation, James says, should begin with an agreement between the Justice Department and the city about what needs to change and how to measure progress. He says it should create a system for tracking police activities — from monitoring use-of-force incidents to auditing routine traffic stops for possible racial bias to revamping training with an emphasis on cultural diversity and racial tolerance.
Unlike previous federal interventions here, James says, a judge should enforce any new agreement, in the form of a "consent decree" that has governed troubled police operations in eight other U.S. cities since 1994. Federal and city leaders have not yet settled on a plan for New Orleans.
Samuel Walker, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska who has studied the New Orleans Police Department, says New Orleans' problems are deeply entrenched, the product of years of inconsistent oversight. Walker says a consent decree enforced by a federal judge is "the best hope we have for changing this department."
Perez says Los Angeles may be the best example of change under a judge's oversight. Allegations of excessive force, racial profiling and a corruption scandal sparked federal intervention there in 2001. Last year, a federal judge finally returned control to the department after then-police chief William Bratton and others overhauled the agency.
"Public confidence is up," Perez says. "Crime is down."
Bratton, now retired, says New Orleans' troubles appear to be "much worse" because the allegations involve murders and apparent breakdowns in all levels of oversight.
Yet, he says, New Orleans has one important advantage that Los Angeles lacked: City leaders are acknowledging the problems and requesting the federal government's help.
Before Bratton's appointment, Perez says, Los Angeles was "brought in kicking and screaming."
"Here," he says, "we don't have that denial."
'People are starting to open up'
Since Serpas' return to the city in May, most of his time has been spent diagnosing and cataloging the department's ills. He faces a dual job of rooting out crime on the streets and in his own agency.
He has hired a former prosecutor to head the agency's internal investigations division and has opened to the public his weekly accountability meetings among commanders.
Citywide, crime statistics are mixed. Homicides are up 8% to 105 killings during the first six months of this year compared with last year, countering a two-year period in which slayings declined nationally. Property offenses — from petty theft to burglary — are down nearly 10%. Yet crime statistics, the primary measure of most police agencies' effectiveness, have been largely overshadowed by New Orleans' internal problems.
"People are starting to open up," Serpas says of his early efforts to build trust in the community. "It's not going to happen overnight."
On the beat, officers also are coping with what Sgt. Duralph Hayes, 40, calls the "sad and embarrassing" allegations against his former colleagues.
Along the narrow streets of the French Quarter where Hayes patrols, he says, public reaction ranges from disappointment to sympathy. The cloud of the federal investigation is constant.
"It's a reflection on everyone," says Hayes, a 17-year veteran who helped train one of the officers facing possible death penalty charges in the Danziger Bridge shootings, Anthony Villavaso.
"What happened at Danziger? I don't know. But to read what I read now is like (learning) that your brothers were robbing banks and shooting tellers. Because you are a brother, is that a reflection on you? No, but I feel disgusted."