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New Orleans police battle to save their reputation

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Media captionLieutenant Aaron Blackwell: 'We can only try to rebuild the trust and that takes years'

Over the years, officers in the New Orleans Police Department have faced allegations of corruption, drug dealing and murder. The BBC's Andy Gallacher investigates how with a new chief at the helm, some on the city's police force are now looking to save the reputation they say other officers have worked to destroy.

Professionalism, integrity and courage - those are the three words by which each and every officer within the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) is supposed to be guided.

It is written on the side of every patrol car, a motto for all to see.

But to many people in this city, these are words that hold little meaning or value.

"If you complain about the police you may die, you may literally die," says civil rights lawyer Mary Howell, who has handled numerous cases involving police misconduct over the past 30 years.

"We have the unfortunate distinction of having the only police officer in the history of the United States to ever be convicted of a federal criminal civil rights violation for having a citizen executed for having complained about the police," Ms Howell adds, referring to the former NOPD officer Len Davis - who is still on death row for the murder of resident Kim Groves.

"I can't tell you the number of people that have come to me, and they will tell me about a bad police officer, a corrupt or brutal police officer, and I urge them to report it and they tell me they won't do it," she says.

Ms Howell's statements may seem like a damning and perhaps unfair indictment of an entire city's police force but even the force's relatively new chief of police finds them hard to argue with.

Winning back communities

Superintendent Ronal Serpas, who has taken on the job of trying to reform the city's troubled department, says it is clear the NOPD committed "terrible insults" on the city.

"And those insults are not going away tomorrow," he adds.

"We'd be foolish not to think that we have a lot of work to do on each and every street level in the city of New Orleans."

Winning back the communities one street at a time is something that 30-year veteran Lt Aaron Blackwell is trying to do.

"We have bad people and it only takes a few bad apples to ruin the barrel," says the officer, who works in the seventh police district of New Orleans.

Lt Blackwell says he is hurt by the damage the police department has caused, adding that "other good police" have been pained by the events as well.

"In fact, it causes policemen to get hurt that don't deserve to get hurt. A lot of people want to fight with the police because they don't trust us," Lt Blackwell says.

'Bad behaviour'

But that message of reform and trust is not trickling down to the poorer neighbourhoods of this city, where many view the police as racist and corrupt.

Ronald McCoy lives in the Riverside Gardens section of New Orleans and is the neighbourhood watch captain.

"The conduct and the bad behaviour of the bad ones casts a dark, dark shadow over the good ones," says Mr McCoy, adding that their actions make it difficult for the community "to tell who's good and who's bad".

Any chance at reform is going to be made even more difficult because of the sheer number of officers facing serious charges, including the murders of unarmed civilians.

As each of those cases comes to court, it will garner national and international attention and make it harder for those working to restore people's faith.

"We can only just try and rebuild that trust, and it takes years. It's very difficult to do," says Lt Blackwell.

"The main thing, I guess, is showing the community that we're coming out not to harm anyone but to actually help, that's the most important thing," he adds.

This is a police force at a crossroads, but it has been here before.

Back in the mid-1990s, the NOPD faced similar problems; two officers were convicted of murder and others were found to be running drug rings.

But after everything this city has been through over the past few years, it needs its police force more than ever.

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