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NEW ORLEANS - In the 1990s, federal prosecutor Thomas Perez helped convict a former New Orleans police officer of charges he arranged a woman's murder, one of this city's most notorious crimes.
More than a decade later, the new head of the Justice Department's civil rights division is overseeing a sprawling probe of New Orleans police misconduct that includes a cover-up of a deadly shooting in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath.
Perez said he had hoped that the case against Len Davis, a former officer convicted in the October 1994 shooting death of Kim Groves, would "usher in changes" at the city's police department.
"That didn't happen," he said Thursday during a break from visiting a New Orleans charter school. "One observation that's inescapable is that the department has a litany of very, very serious challenges."
In the past month, two former police investigators have pleaded guilty to helping cover up a deadly police shooting of unarmed civilians on a bridge less than a week after Katrina's August 2005 landfall. More charges are expected.
Federal authorities are investigating other allegations of police misconduct, including the death of Henry Glover, whose burned body was found in a car after Katrina. Glover was shot before a group of men drove him to a school that police officers were using as a temporary headquarters; one of those men has said Glover was still in the back seat when a police officer drove off with the car.
Perez said he is "profoundly troubled" by the state of the police department, but he expressed confidence that the pending appointment of a new police chief can help change the department's culture.
"There are not quick fixes to transforming a culture," he said. "Culture change takes time. Culture change takes perseverance. There's no quick fix to that, but it can be done. I've seen that in other departments."
Perez, who planned to return to Washington on Thursday after three days in the city, met with Mayor-elect Mitch Landrieu and Police Superintendent Warren Riley. He said Landrieu appears to have a "very inclusive process in place" for finding Riley's replacement.
"He understands clearly that this decision _ having the right chief in place _ is an absolutely necessary, albeit insufficient, condition of sustainable reform," Perez said.
Perez said a civil settlement was a "major linchpin" for reforming the Los Angeles Police Department during the 1990s. Although the Justice Department hasn't initiated a civil case against the New Orleans Police Department, he hinted that the same approach could work here.
"Criminal prosecutions can never be the linchpin of a systemic reform strategy," he said.
Perez, who was confirmed as the Justice Department's top civil rights official in October, was a Washington-based prosecutor for the same division when he helped supervise the prosecution of Davis and other New Orleans police corruption cases in the 1990s.