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New Orleans Cops Against a Wall

NEW ORLEANS - Allegations of corruption and coverups in the New Orleans Police Department have prompted the U.S. Justice Department to consider a little-used tactic that could force changes - and restore public confidence.

Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, who as a federal prosecutor 15 years ago helped convict a New Orleans police officer of murder, recently met with city leaders here and says the city's cops have become so troubled that his department may file a "pattern or practice" discrimination lawsuit against the city. That would allow the Justice Department to seek a court order to impose changes.

Only 21 of the country's 17,000 state and local law enforcement agencies have been hit with pattern or practice lawsuits since the option was created in 1994.

Perez's New Orleans visit came as federal authorities investigate eight local cases of alleged police misconduct, many in the aftermath of the August 2005 flooding.

"The Constitution does not take a holiday, does not get suspended during a storm, even one as catastrophic as Katrina," says Perez, who's in charge of the Justice Department's civil rights division. "We're keeping our options open."

Last week, former police officer Michael Hunter pleaded guilty in federal court to obstruction of justice and other charges stemming from one of the post-Katrina incidents. In his testimony, Hunter detailed how he and other officers opened fire on six unarmed civilians on the Danziger Bridge in eastern New Orleans less than a week after Katrina's landfall, then engaged in a coverup of the incident. Two people were killed in the shooting. Hunter is the third former police officer to plead guilty in that case.

"The problems in the New Orleans Police Department are frankly deep-seated," Perez said in an interview. "It is among the most troubled departments in the country."

A New Orleans Police Department spokesman did not return several requests for comment.

Capt. Mike Glasser, president of the Police Association of New Orleans, says the events under federal investigation occurred nearly five years ago, in the chaotic aftermath of Katrina, and are not indicative of the department today. About one-third of the department's 1,700 officers were hired after Katrina, he says. Federally mandated changes may not make the most sense, he says.

The incidents under federal investigation include:

- The death of Henry Glover, 31, whose charred remains were found inside a burned-out Chevrolet less than a week after Katrina. Glover was shot by an unknown person while walking through the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans. A group of men drove him to a nearby temporary police headquarters to get help. One of those men has said a police officer later drove off in the car with Glover still in the back seat.

- Danny Brumfield Sr., 45, who was fatally shot by a New Orleans police officer outside the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center four days after Katrina's landfall. The officer said Brumfield attacked him with a pair of scissors; Brumfield's relatives said he approached the officer for help.

- A 2008 bar brawl between New Orleans police officers and city transit workers, in which the workers claim police later falsified official reports of the incident.

In meetings with city leaders, including Mayor-elect Mitch Landrieu, Perez says he stressed the Justice Department's ability to force reforms upon the police department.

"You can't reform a department simply by using the hammer of criminal prosecutions," Perez says. "Those alone are not going to allow you to implement broader systemic reforms."

The department's problems are familiar to Perez. In the mid-1990s, he helped supervise the prosecution of Len Davis, a rogue NOPD officer who ordered the execution-style killing of a woman who had filed a brutality complaint against him. Davis was convicted of murder and is on death row.

Subsequent reforms at the department were gradually watered down, says New Orleans defense attorney Mary Howell, who has defended victims of police brutality in New Orleans for more than three decades. She currently represents the family of Ronald Madison, one of the victims killed on the Danziger Bridge.

Perez's reappearance in New Orleans is very meaningful, she says.

"You're dealing with someone who has a pretty deep understanding of how terrible things have been here," Howell says. "This has been a deeply troubled department for years."

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