New Orleans Police Force Rebuilds From Within After Katrina Indictments

With 13 officers indicted, the police force tries to regain order.

Aug. 27, 2010— -- Still suffering from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans police department has it anything but easy as it tries to regain order among its officers as much as out on the city's streets.

The subject of nine U.S. Department of Justice investigations, 13 New Orleans police officers have been indicted for various crimes, ranging from shootings to civil rights violations that happened in the days after Katrina.

Lt. Mike Field vividly remembers driving down flooded roads, and watching as residents quickly became angry and desperate after having their livelihoods washed away.

"People started turning on the police, accusing them of all sorts of things. Police did this, police did that," he said.

The city was left in total chaos after the storm hit, and the New Orleans police department was scattered. Some officers stayed in the makeshift headquarters at Harrah's Casino, but hundreds reportedly abandoned their posts.

There were other reports of serious confusion over what rules to follow, and some officers claimed they were instructed to shoot looters.

One notorious incident took place on Danzinger Bridge, when police allegedly opened fire on several unarmed civilians, killing a 17-year-old and a mentally disabled man.

If convicted, the cops involved in those shootings may face the death penalty, and five others have pled guilty to trying to cover up their crimes.

"It reads like a horrible novel. It's just terrible," said Ronal Serpas, the new chief of police.

"When I read those guilty pleas, I was embarrassed for every police member's family in America who had to read and see what those people have admitted to doing."

A new Orleans native, Serpas said that mayor Mitch Landrieu's decision to bring in the Justice Department to conduct the investigations was "perfect ... exactly what needed to happen" to clean up the police department.

Ronal Serpas Cleans Up After Katrina

Serpas was working in Nashville, Tenn. when Katrina hit, but said Landrieu asked him to come back to help get the corrupt force back on its feet. Five years after the storm, he said there have been improvements but he is still evaluating their progress.

"I see tremendous effort here, and I see officers doing brave things," Serpas said. "But I also see a tremendous amount of mistakes and errors and system failures."

His top priority: rebuilding the community's trust in its police department again, using what Serpas called a "you lie, you die" mantra with his officers -- one wrong move will get you fired.

"If your word cannot be trusted because at work you decided not to tell the truth ... how do we know you're telling the truth about who you saw commit the crime?" Serpas said. "So in our department, if you lie, you die, which means you lose your job."

Sepras's Long History With The Police Force

Despite the grim circumstances of his return to his hometown, Serpas is enthusiastic about being back. He has a long history with the department he's now in charge of rebuilding.

"My family has been on the New Orleans police department since 1914, non-stop," he said. "I wanted to be chief of the New Orleans police because this was my force. This was my universe."

Serpas joined the force after dropping out of high school to marry his pregnant girlfriend. He then worked his way through the ranks, and earned a doctorate in urban studies at the University of New Orleans on his off-duty hours.

But Serpas left New Orleans in 2001 to become chief for the Washington State Patrol, and then chief at the Nashville police department in 2004.

It took the aftermath of a powerful, destructive storm and a call from home to pull him back to the city he had such deep roots in. He re-joined the New Orleans force in May of this year.

"My family is here and many of my lifelong friends are police officers here," Serpas said. "[After Katrina] I think like most of America we were like, wow, what a proud day for the police department."

Now with a dark shadow falling heavier on a force that is tainted with scandal, Serpas said he, like many others, was confused about why officers acted the way they did during the aftermath.

Determined to Make New Orleans Great Again

"Those officers' selfish behavior … has ripped from the pages of history the dramatic bravery of so many," he said. "I think we all are infuriated ... at a very deep level at the criminal cases the federal government is pointing out. I think we're all mad about that."

But Serpas said he has much hope that the city's police department will get back to the way it was before the chaos of Katrina. Currently, there are 1,481 officers in the New Orleans police department, down from 1,668 before the hurricane.

"It'll take a year or two ... obviously Hurricane Katrina totally changed the game," he said. "We're gonna make New Orleans better. We're going to make it the greatest city in America. I don't have any doubt about that."