Two weeks after taking office, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu held a town hall meeting last May about the city’s beleaguered police department. As reported by the New Orleans Tribune, Landrieu closed with a campaign-style promise: “I am not going to be commander-in-chief of a police department that engages in racial profiling.”
Ten months later, the U.S. Justice Department has thrown cold water on Landrieu’s hopeful pledge. In a relentlessly damning, 158-page report, a Justice Department task force has found “reasonable cause to believe” the city’s police department guilty of “a pattern or practice of discriminatory policing,” including “bias-based profiling” against African Americans, Latinos, and gays, lesbians and transgender persons.
The evidence of racial profiling is simple statistics. In the period covered in the study January 2009 through May 2010, at the start of Landrieu’s tenure New Orleans police officers shot 27 civilians, all of them African American. For the year 2009, police arrested 500 young black males for serious offenses but only eight young white males. Adjusted for population, that amounts to a 16 to 1 black/white ratio more than five times as great a disparity as the 3-to-1 ratio reported nationally.
For someone like myself who came of age in the 1960s, the figures are not only disturbing but also deeply disappointing. Back then, urban police departments were close to lily white. New Orleans had 54 African American officers out of a total force of 1,308, according to data in the 1968 Kerner Commission report. Integrate police departments, many of us assumed, and the problem would be if not eliminated at least substantially reduced.
Today, New Orleans is a majority-black city with a majority-black police department. Yet the kind of race-based harassment and intimidation that the Kerner Commission cited as one of the causes of racial unrest and disorder appears to persist. “Black on black” racial profiling must be part of the problem. Why?
“That’s a question that a lot of people have in their mind,” says David Harris, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and author of the book Profiles in Injustice: Why Racial Profiling Cannot Work. The explanation, he says, lies not with the race of the officers involved, but with the training, customs, and culture within the police department. And the answer is not simply to identify and get rid of the bigots within a department, but to change the way the department operates.
“Black officers are going to be trained like all the others,” Harris explains. “They’re going to want to fit in just like all the others.”
As Harris notes, African American officers’ role in racial profiling has been documented before. A Justice Department study of police-civilian contacts a decade ago found widespread complaints of race-based traffic stops by African American drivers. The officers complained of were as likely to be black as white, Harris recalls.
In like vein, the Rampart Division scandal in Los Angeles in the late 1990s involved abuse by Latino officers against Latinos. “You’ve got minority cops beating up minorities,” an ACLU lawyer told me for my CQ Researcher report, “Policing the Police” (March 17, 2000).
The Justice Department study of the New Orleans force, requested by and now embraced by Landrieu as well as his (white) chief of police, Ronal Serpas, paints a portrait of a thoroughly dysfunctional department. The report found routine use of “unnecessary and unreasonable force.” Even so, no violation of the department’s use-of-force policy has been found in the six years reviewed by Justice Department investigators.
Detentions without reasonable suspicion were also found to be routine. Out of 145 arrest reports reviewed in detail, “a significant number … reflected on their face apparent constitutional violations,” the report stated. One reason, the investigators surmised, was “a strong and unyielding pressure” on officers to keep their arrest numbers high.
Systemic bias shows up in the department’s practices in dealing not only with African Americans, but also with women, Latinos, Vietnamese, and the LGBT community. Sexual assault and domestic violence cases are poorly investigated, the report says. Gay men complain of fabricated accusations of solicitation, transgender persons of harassment. The force has “no meaningful capacity” to deal with the limited-English-proficiency population. In a city with growing numbers of Vietnamese and Latinos, the department relies on only one Spanish-speaking and one Vietnamese-speaking officer to help handle calls and investigations.
The Justice Department report closed with 16 pages of recommendations covering everything from recruitment, training, and supervision, through evaluation and accountability procedures. On bias-based profiling, the report calls not only for training and explicit policies, but also for data collection to ascertain the extent of profiling and to identify individual officers or units responsible. Harris says similar steps have helped reduce racial profiling in other police forces, including Pittsburgh’s, which was under federal court supervision for five years from after a similar Justice Department investigation.
The report on the New Orleans force is expected to result likewise in a consent decree with federal court supervision for a period, according to the New Orleans Times Picayune. Encouragingly, Serpas appeared at the March 17 press conference in New Orleans with the Justice Department’s Tom Perez, head of the civil rights division, to release the report. “I believe we will make these reforms a reality,” Serpas said.