The New Orleans Police Department has been rocked by successive scandals during the past several years: an officer was convicted in April 1996 of hiring a hit man to kill a woman who had lodged a brutality complaint against him and another officer was convicted in September 1995 for robbing a Vietnamese restaurant and shooting, execution style, a brother and sister who worked there, as well as an off-duty officer from her precinct working as security at the restaurant. In addition, at least fifty of the 1,400-member force have been arrested for felonies including homicide, rape, and robberies since 1993.1 As astutely noted by police abuse expert Prof. James Fyfe, some cities' police departments have reputations for being brutal, like Los Angeles, or corrupt, like New York, and still others are considered incompetent. New Orleans has accomplished the rare feat of leading nationally in all categories.2
The U.S. Justice Department, hardly an overeager interloper, has been so alarmed by the corruption that it has assigned two FBI agents to work at the department to help reform its internal affairs division, while the Justice Department's civil rights division is conducting an investigation under its new civil powers, allowing the Justice Department to bring civil actions against cities and their police departments if they engage in a "pattern or practice" of rights violations.3 New Orleans also had the highest ranking of citizen complaints of police brutality in the country, according to a 1991 Justice Department report.4 Yet, despite its abysmal record, the police department has avoided the widespread community protests or other sustained external pressure that are often necessary for reforms to take hold permanently.
Beginning in early 1997, the city began implementing "quality of life" policing tactics, as implemented in New York City and elsewhere around the country, byfocusing on more minor offenses.5 During 1995 and 1996, the crime rate began to drop in some categories, and this drop continued in 1997, with murder and armed robbery rates dropping dramatically. Police abuse experts in the city, however, are concerned that implementation of the "quality of life" plan will result in complaints of harassment and an increase in abuse complaints, as it has in other cities where it has taken effect; there is particular uneasiness about instituting "aggressive policing" by a police force like New Orleans' with its brutal track record. Indeed, police abuse experts in the city noted an increase in complaints during the summer of 1997, following the implementation of the new zero-tolerance program.6 According to the department's own statistics, citizen complaints against the police rose by 27 percent between 1996 and 1997.7