Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
New Orleans is a very poor city, with more residents living in poverty than in any other large U.S. city except Detroit.48 In recent years, police officer salaries started as low as $18,000. The starting salary began to increase in 1995, but when pay was very low, some observers believed that officers were particularly vulnerable to temptations of more lucrative, corrupt practices. A generally accepted estimate is that about 10-15 percent of the department is corrupt, with some observers putting the percentage much higher.49 The U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District ofLouisiana, which includes New Orleans, stated that corruption in the police department is "pervasive, rampant, [and] systemic...."50
As part of the reform efforts following high-profile abuse and misconduct cases, the Internal Affairs Division was revamped and renamed the Public Integrity Division (PID) in February 1995.51 When he announced the changes in name and staffing, Superintendent Pennington stated, "No longer will we take complaints and put them in a file cabinet."52 Pennington replaced the former IAD commander, Maj. Richard Reeves; a state court judge had reportedly ruled that Reeves had ordered the altering of a police brutality report to protect the city from litigation.53
Prior to the changes, an outside attorney reviewed internal affairs files and found that the files were disorganized and that the department was using an incorrect standard of proof in deciding whether to sustain complaints: the criminal "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard instead of that of a preponderance of the evidence.54 She also found a sustained rate of about 1-2 percent for excessive force complaints filed against officers by civilians. The low sustained rate was explained by the criteria through which PID investigators considered almost any witness "involved" and therefore discredited their accounts.55 She also found that a small percentage of officers were responsible for more than one-third of all complaints. She noted that, in light of the historically lax investigations by the internal affairs unit, many community activists and attorneys who bring civil lawsuits against allegedly abusive police officers do not bother filing formal complaints.
At a civil trial in 1995, a public administration expert who had studied one hundred police departments around the country found that the New Orleans police department was the worst "in terms of responsiveness to deficiencies."56 For example, despite scandals, it was reported by other sources that there were no unsatisfactory personnel evaluations given by department managers between September 1992 and September 1995.57 Clearly, the department had a long way to go when reform efforts began in 1995.
A PID representative explained that districts investigate minor cases, and the PID reviews those investigations and explores possibly criminal behavior by officers.58 PID takes the lead in investigating any weapon discharge by an officer if no one is injured or killed, with the homicide division responsible for investigating shootings resulting in injury or death. The district attorney's office also reviews any shooting resulting in injury or death.59
Although for several months PID failed to respond to repeated requests by Human Rights Watch for statistics on its activities, PID's Maj. Felix Loicano did agree to an interview in January 1998 and provided some of the statistics we had requested.60 According to Loicano, PID received a total of 589 citizen complaints against the police in 1994, 662 in 1995, 341 in 1996, and 433 in 1997.61 According to Loicano, there were 509 abuse complaints in 1995, 301 in 1996, and 319 in 1997.62 Loicano could not estimate sustained rates for abuse complaints, becausesustained rates are not broken down by type of violation.63 Generally, he noted, complaints made against officers by supervisors are sustained at a much higher rate than those made by citizens.64 According to another PID representative, a complaint is not sustained if it is a one-on-one "swearing contest" between an alleged victim and an officer.65 He described an independent witness as someone else getting a ticket, someone on a corner, with no interest in the incident - thus apparently using a higher standard than in a criminal case.
Even if a complaint against an officer is sustained, appropriate discipline is not always applied.66 According to Major Loicano, even if PID sustains a complaint and punishment is ordered, the officer in question may avoid discipline. In many cases, he noted, the officer will appeal to the civil service commission and, if the complainant or witnesses fail to appear for the hearing, PID investigators are not able to present their case against the officer fully and the officer will often prevail.
An early warning system to detect officers with repeated complaints, called the Professional Performance Enhancement Program (PPEP), was initiated in mid-1995. Major Loicano of PID considers the PPEP the division's "best success story."67 Officers selected for the program are picked by collecting information about complaints filed against them, use of force and shooting incidents, and other relevant information that may show that the officer requires additional training, supervision, or counseling.68 The PID selects groups of officers once or twice a year, and the officers' commanders receive a report from PID about the officers picked. The commander is allowed two weeks to agree to placing the officer in the six-month PPEP program or objecting to the officer's inclusion.
According to Loicano, the first group of twenty-five officers selected for the PPEP program were collectively the subject of ninety-seven complaints during a twelve-month period ending in mid-1995.69 During the two years following their participation in the PPEP monitoring program (during which two of the officers were dismissed and one retired), the twenty-two remaining officers received thirty-seven complaints. The subsequent groups of officers placed in the program have shown similar reductions in complaints according to Loicano.70
In April 1995, as a bill to forbid officers from purging complaints from their records made its way through the Louisiana legislature, hundreds of officers tried to get their files quickly expunged.71 The officers were notified of the legislative effort in a letter from the Fraternal Order of Police, which urged officers to "immediately purge all non-sustained and seven-year-old sustained complaints from their files.....[T]his may be your last chance."72 The letter reportedly included a stock form that officers could use to request the purge.
49 Keegan, "The Thinnest Blue Line," New York Times Magazine; Miller, "The big sleazy," Sunday Times Magazine (London); interviews by the Metropolitan Crime Commission as described in James Varney, "District known for bad cops," Times-Picayune, December 9, 1994. Major Loicano of PID has suggested that this percentage has decreased in recent years and may be closer to 5 percent. He notes that many officers have been dismissed or have resigned while under investigation for misconduct; fifty-four were dismissed between 1994 and 1997, and seventy-three resigned.
53 "Internal affairs," Commentary, Gambit, February 14, 1995. Major Loicano of PID confirmed to Human Rights Watch that it was his recollection that Reeves had been responsible for misconduct during an investigation.
59 Shootings by police appear to have steadily decreased during the past several years. In 1992, there were sixty-six shootings, with thirty-two leading to injury or death, but by 1997 there were thirty-eight shootings, with eight leading to injury or death. Report by Superintendent Pennington to the City Council, January 22, 1998.
66 Unfortunately, disciplinary data provided by Superintendent Pennington in a report to the City Council in January 1998 were too limited and did not include enough information to allow the reader to understand their significance. For example, the data did not describe the type of complaint leading to disciplinary action.
© June 1998
Human Rights Watch