How Hurricane Katrina, lack of funding, and a poor clientele shape culture at OPD

The organizational culture at Orleans Public Defenders is impossible to divorce from its underfunding, the idiosyncrasies of New Orleans culture and crime, and the employees’ underlying belief that incarceration is not the solution to the city’s problems. Employees in all departments of OPD approach their work with an expectation and attitude that are unique to a PD office, and I think particularly New Orleans’. Firstly, we all work to serve our clients and seek better outcomes for them. If you work at OPD, you are expected to preserve your clients’ presumption of innocence (as the system, and juries, so often do not) and seek their best interest no matter what. There is a good chance you support the abolition of prisons, or at the very least believe in a rigorous overhaul of the way the system works now.

Like any office, OPD has an embedded culture of norms and standards, most of them implicit, that my colleagues exhibit. The first of these norms is that the police department and the District Attorney’s office are our direct adversaries and are to be distrusted. During training, interns are told stories about the DA’s abuse of power and their targeting OPD employees. Interns are also trained to pull police officer’s disciplinary records should a client want to argue that brutality or racist policing occurred. From where we’re standing, I can see where the norm is coming from. However, I do think this is an area for improvement in the organizational culture at the office. These kinds of black and white, good and evil distinctions lack nuance and do not consider that the people at these offices may think our work is unethical. I think these radical attitudes may isolate potential new attorneys whose beliefs on criminal justice reform are less extreme, however the attorneys who come to work in New Orleans often do so because they feel the fight is the hardest here. This often attracts the most zealous believers in prison or police abolition.

Finally, I have seen that the context of the organization has an enormous effect on its leadership and the way it runs. OPD as it functions now did not exist before Hurricane Katrina. The indigent defense board that represented clients before the storm was comprised of separate attorneys appointed to a section of criminal court. It did not offer support services or take a holistic approach to defense. When Katrina hit, the system was destroyed and many people were left at the Orleans Parish jail to rot for a year or more without a single court date or attorney meeting. All of our files had been lost and no one was being represented. In 2006, a few attorneys began to pick up the pieces by traveling to jails and prisons across the state and country to gather information about where our clients were. One of the attorneys who did this is now the Chief District defender of our office. From this effort, OPD was reborn as a public defender office that prioritized rigorous, holistic defense with client services and support above all. The people who work here understand how far we have come, the injustices of the past, and how far we still have to travel. The leadership of the office was formed around the attorneys that were passionate and dedicated enough to indigent defense to track down our displaced clients after Katrina. Because of this, the leadership of the office is very based around service and fulfilling the needs of the community above our own. For these reasons, attorneys with world class educations and backgrounds forego six and seven figure salaries to represent poor people in a city with a history of trauma and the highest rates of incarceration in the world for next to nothing. These factors fundamentally shape organizational culture at OPD into the justice minded, service oriented public defense office is it today.