As revelations of police violence and corruption shake New Orleans, the city’s new mayor, Mitch Landrieu, has signaled the disturbing direction he plans to take, asking the Department of Justice to help restructure the police department while at the same time appointing a new police chief whose daughter lives with a police officer involved in a racist brawl now under federal investigation.
The dual announcement came last week in the wake of eight federal criminal investigations into accusations that police brutalized and killed residents in New Orleans in the days after Hurricane Katrina struck the city and in more recent years. Already, four police officers have pled guilty.
Now the Justice Department is expected to announce its wider investigation of the New Orleans Police Department. Most likely, this will lead to a restructuring of the police force which could go in one of two ways: a kind of hostile takeover, in which the Justice Department issues mandates, or a friendly partnership, in which the feds play the role of cooperative overseer. By asking publicly for help from the feds, Mayor Landrieu is clearly hoping to get the latter, gentler deal.
But what Justice Department officials will find in New Orleans is a systemic problem of corruption that has its roots in pre-Katrina times and that’s going to require more than just a new police chief or a restructuring. Part of the city’s troubled system includes its elected coroner, the district attorney’s office, the U.S. attorney and the city’s independent police monitor, whose ability to perform its own investigations have been, according to residents here, severely limited.
The Justice Department will also find a slew of other crimes at the hands of police that families and activists say need to be investigated.
The current scandal broke with the stories of killings that happened in the days after Hurricane Katrina, when police officers apparently believed they were defending a city under siege and were given tacit permission to use deadly force at their own discretion.
Among the most disturbing revelations:
On September 2, 2005, four days after Katrina made landfall, Henry Glover was shot by one officer, then apparently taken hostage by other officers who either killed him directly or burned him alive.
Also on September 2, Danny Brumfield Sr., a 45 year old man stranded with his family at the New Orleans Convention Center, was deliberately hit by a patrol car, then shot in the back by police in front of scores of witnesses as he tried to wave down the officers and ask for help.
On September 4, 2005, a group of police officers drove up to several unarmed civilians at the Danziger Bridge who were fleeing their flooded homes and opened fire. Two people were killed, including a mentally disabled man named Ronald Madison. Madison was shot in the back by officer Robert Faulcon and officer Kenneth Bowen then rushed up and kicked and stomped on him, apparently until he was dead.
Police officers then arrested Madison’s brother Lance under false pretenses and later had secret meetings where they conspired to invent a cover story, including planting evidence, inventing witnesses and coordinating lies.
But the violence wasn’t just about a few bad cops.
At the time, no one in power neither in New Orleans or in Washington seemed to be interested in looking into the details of who shot who and why. Although seven officers were indicted in 2006 for the Danziger Bridge shooting, the case fell apart in court. For more than three years, these post-Katrina murders were ignored by the city’s district attorney, the Republican U.S. General Attorney, and even the local media. Then, in late 2008 ProPublica and The Nation published the results of an 18-month investigation by journalist A.C. Thompson, and soon after the Department of Justice, under new leadership, began its own inquiries.
FBI agents reconstructed crime scenes, interviewed witnesses and seized officer’s computers. Since then, the disturbing revelations have continued to unfold, as one-by-one officers have been forced by the evidence against them to confess. One of the most chilling findings is that police may have burned a man alive or at least burned his body to cover up the evidence of murdering him.
While the stories are shocking and terrible, advocates here say police violence has been endemic.
At a rally last month, a coalition of criminal justice activists called Community United for Change asked for federal investigations of dozens of other alleged police murders committed over the past three decades, which advocates say have never been examined, such as the death of 25-year-old Jenard Thomas, who was shot by police in front of his father in 2005.
The parents of Adolph Grimes III, who was shot 14 times by cops on New Years day in 2009, were among those who spoke at the rally. “We want those officers incarcerated, so they can live with it like we live with it,” said Grimes’ father. “There should be a federal administrator over the police department.”
“This represents a real opportunity to raise some fundamental questions about the nature of police and what they do,” said Malcolm Suber, project director with the New Orleans chapter of the American Friends Service Committee, and one of the organizers of the rally. “There should be an investigation of the entire local criminal justice system.”
While some form of federal supervision of the department seems likely, Suber doesn’t think that goes far enough.
“I don’t think that we can call on a government that murders people all over the world every day to come and supervise a local police department,” he said. For Suber, federal control will not offer the wider, more systemic changes needed in other aspects of the system. So while he wants more federal investigations of police murders, he wants these investigations to go hand-in-hand with community oversight and control of the department.
On May 4, more than two dozen organizations signed a letter addressed to U.S. Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez requesting that federal intervention come through the form of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. That law authorizes the Department of Justice to file civil lawsuits against law enforcement agencies that engage in a pattern of violating people's rights and to obtain a court order to monitor and reform them.
Civil rights attorney Tracie Washington has been among those leading the call for federal intervention. “It is time for the U.S. government, through the Justice Department’s Office of Civil Rights, to step in and step up,” she says. “We need a solution that addresses the systemic nature of the problem.”
Justice Department officials seem to agree with the local activists who are calling for federal assistance. Assistant Attorney General Perez (who worked on the murder prosecution of New Orleans police officer Len Davis in 1994) told TPMmuckraker that he is considering “every conceivable jurisdictional option and every conceivable intervention," including a civil rights lawsuit against the city that could lead to federal oversight of the department.
“Criminal prosecutions alone, I have learned, are not enough to change the culture of a police department,” said Perez.
Less than 24 hours after the letter from the community organizations was released, Mayor Landrieu met with 16 of these activists and community leaders and six attorneys from the U.S. Department of Justice, and announced that he had invited the justice department to come to New Orleans and perform an assessment of the police department and the criminal justice system.
Mayor Landrieu said this assessment will eventually lead to a consent decree and federal oversight for the New Orleans Police Department, a move which he said he supports. In a letter to Attorney General Holder, Landrieu wrote, “It is clear that nothing short of a complete transformation is necessary and essential to ensure safety for the citizens of New Orleans."
Then last Thursday, he announced his choice of Ronal Serpas to lead the police department.
Serpas, a white, third generation cop and veteran of the New Orleans Police Department left the department in 2001 and ran the Nashville police department since 2004.
Naturally, people here are suspicious of Landrieu’s choice. After 85 candidates applied in a nationwide search, the decision to go with Serpas suggests that New Orleans’s new white mayor, the son of the city’s last white mayor, who left office in 1978, is still a product of old New Orleans politics.
“Serpas’ dad and Mitch’s dad go way back,” said Rosana Cruz, the associate director of V.O.T.E., an organization that seeks to build power and civic engagement for formerly incarcerated people. “So this is like an arranged marriage.”
Anticipating criticism at naming a white veteran of the New Orleans Police Department as chief, Landrieu said when announcing Serpas that his time away from the force removes him from the scandal that has tainted the department. “Having been gone for 10 years, the experience he has in the department actually is an asset,” said Landrieu. “He knows the department but is not of it.”
According to Louisiana Weekly, a NAACP leader from Nashville gave Serpas a thumbs up for increasing the number of Black people and women on that city’s police force.
Landrieu’s support for federal oversight of the police department though might get personally sticky for Serpas. His daughter lives with one of the police officers who allegedly gave false testimony in the 2008 beating of Black transit workers at the hands of cops. The incident is now under federal investigation.
Serpas’s daughter wouldn’t be the only one with connections to that violent incident.
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s own daughter made headlines when it was uncovered that she too was apparently at the bar where white police officers beat Black transit workers. Officers involved in the fight used racial slurs and planted a gun on one Black worker, who was arrested but later released. Cannizzaro’s daughter was apparently there but wasn’t charged with participating in the violence. The DA’s office later hired one of the officers who had been fired for his participation in the fight, claiming there hadn’t been sufficient evidence to press criminal charges. (The officer resigned after media scrutiny).
In a city where far too many public officials are linked to the police corruption, not even the coroner is off the hook.
“We have a coroner who always finds police were justified,” said Suber, referring to Frank Minyard, an 80-year-old Jazz trumpeter who trained in medical school to be a gynecologist.
Minyard has been city coroner since 1974 and has been the frequent subject of complaints from activists, who complain that he has mislabeled police killings. “We’ve had independent coroners, forensic doctors come after him and we found that basically all of his finding were bogus,” said Suber.
Henry Glover, who was found burned to death in a car in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, was not flagged by the coroner’s office as a potential homicide. In another case now under federal investigation, witnesses say police beat Raymond Robair to death. The coroner ruled that he “fell down or was pushed.” This “fall” broke four ribs and caused massive internal injury, including a ruptured spleen.
“If you ask any attorneys who have handled cases of police killings, when they have hired independent doctors to go after our coroner, nine times out of 10 he’s wrong,” continued Suber.
Organizers have put forward a range of proposals for the reforms they would like to see, including community programs like CopWatch and a more powerful independent police monitor. But they all agree that not just the department, but the entire system needs fundamental change.
“How you gonna get the wolf to watch over the chicken coop?” asks Adolph Grimes, Jr. “It’s the system itself that is corrupted.”
Jordan Flaherty is a journalist and activist based in New Orleans. Haymarket Books will release his new book, FLOODLINES: Stories of Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six, this summer. For more information on the book and tour, please see floodlines.org.