For New Orleans, Katrina Recovery Means Remaking Police, Too

With the Justice Department bearing down, the city tries to go from worst to best in holding police accountable to the communities they serve.

By Julianne Hing Aug 30, 2010

Five long years after the chaos of Hurricane Katrina unleashed the New Orleans Police Department’s guns on the city, ending in at least 10 unarmed civilians being shot, justice may finally be on its way. 

The New Orleans Police Department is facing an unprecedented onslaught of reform initiatives, coming from both inside the department and out. On his second day in office, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu invited the Department of Justice to New Orleans to help overhaul the agency. "I have inherited a police force that has been described by many as one of the worst police departments in the country," Landrieu wrote in a now-famous letter to Attorney General Eric Holder. 

The department has a new chief, a new plan for change, and an impending agreement with the federal government for long-term monitoring. To date, 16 officers have been charged with federal criminal and civil violations for post-Katrina shootings. Their alleged crimes are serious; many face charges that make them eligible for the death penalty. The Justice Department has also charged two cops for an incident that took place a month before Katrina.

But even as the city appears to be getting serious about cleaning up its cops, questions remain. Amidst the hopeful promises and righteous anger of the past five years, can these grand ideas for reform be translated into real changes for citizens? If so, are they sustainable? Will the federal prosecutions actually end in cops being held accountable for their actions? And for those watching around the nation, if the country’s most infamously corrupt police force can be cleaned up and its community relations repaired, are there lessons for police accountability in cities elsewhere?

The Katrina Crimes

The New Orleans Police Department has long been synonymous with brash corruption and misconduct. Long before Hurricane Katrina, the city’s cops were well-known for both brazen crimes–such as robbing banks and restaurants, or executing people in cold blood–and for lower profile but equally insidious offenses like stealing dope and cash from crime scenes, planting evidence and beating people up for no reason. All went on with impunity for decades. 

But when the storm arrived on August 29, 2005, and swept away New Orleans’ lower 9th Ward, it opened up a period of unchecked police aggression that shocked not just the city but the nation. It has taken years to uncover the truth–and by all accounts the NOPD still has plenty of secrets it could tell about the days following the storm. But people have finally started talking.

Last week, ProPublica and the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that in the days after Katrina, command officers directed police to shoot "looters" in order to "bring order" back to the city. The DOJ has responded by opening yet another federal inquiry, but the report was a reminder of the competing narratives–which continue, unresolved, to this day–about what happened in New Orleans in the days following Katrina. Either you believe the city’s police were forced to step in and use a heavy hand to establish peace. Or, you believe the chaos of Katrina inflamed already rampant abuse and corruption–which had long been justified by a troubling disregard for the black residents and communities cops were supposed to protect and serve. 

The Department of Justice seems to accept the latter narrative, and it now has at least eight ongoing investigations into the NOPD. The most high-profile involve a shooting that took place on the Danziger Bridge on September 4, 2005. 

At 9 a.m. that morning, police received reports that two officers had been injured on the bridge. According to the responding officers’ report, at least four people fired at them. Seven officers shot at six civilians and killed two. One was a 40-year-old mentally disabled man named Ronald Madison, the other was a 17-year-old boy named James Brissette. The four other people, relatives of Brissette, were seriously injured.

Police claimed that Madison was armed and shooting at them, and say that they shot him once. Autopsy reports showed seven gunshot wounds, five in Madison’s back. Brissette was shot seven times. Witness accounts say all of the victims were unarmed. In 2008, a criminal court judge threw out a state-level case being prosecuted by the Orleans Parish district attorney, prompting the involvement of the federal government.

Attorney General Holder has charged 11 NOPD officers in the case thus far this year, for both the shootings and what the feds say was an elaborate cover-up. The coverup included lying on the police report and inventing witnesses–"Lakeisha Smith" was one–and lying both to the FBI and state investigators. 

Further reports suggest the Danziger Bridge incident was part of a widespread reign of terror NOPD had unleashed in those days. Two days before the Danziger violence, on September 2, 31-year-old Henry Glover had parked his truck in a strip mall in Algiers to pick up supplies for his stranded family, when Officer David Warren shot him from a second-floor balcony in the shopping center, where the 4th District’s detective bureau was stationed. Glover’s brother flagged down a passerby named Will Tanner, and the two brought Glover to a nearby school that had been commandeered by New Orleans SWAT officers. They expected they could get help from the police. 

Once they arrived at the school, however, police allegedly roughed the men up, stole Tanner’s Chevy Malibu, and drove away with Glover still bleeding in the back seat. Tanner insists Glover was alive at the time. Three months later, Tanner’s car was discovered burned out and rotting in a levee, a few blocks from a NOPD station office. Glover’s charred remains were found inside it. 

The Justice Department has brought charges against five officers for the crime. Like the Danziger violence, the feds say the Glover case involved an elaborate cover-up, with the alleged cooperation of the city coroner as well NOPD officers. All five cops, including Warren, have pleaded not guilty to misconduct, abuse, and the subsequent cover-up.

Accountability and Reform

Now begins the long, hard work of not only holding the officers’ accountable for the violence, but fixing the system that fostered it. Police accountability and reform advocates in other cities, with their own histories of abuse, say New Orleans would do best to focus on reforms beyond the criminal prosecutions that are unfolding now. 

"I honestly have no faith in the justice system," said Aidge Patterson, an organizer with the Los Angeles Coalition for Oscar Grant, after Oakland transit officer Johannes Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter earlier this summer. Mehserle shot an unarmed Grant in the back while he lay face down on a train platform in 2009, killing the 22-year-old. 

Asked if she had any faith in the courts, New York City organizer Yul-san Liem was hesitant at first, and then said: "No, not at all." Liem is a representative for People’s Justice for Community Control and Police Accountability, which was organized in the wake of Sean Bell’s 2006 killing in New York City. The unarmed Bell was gunned down by police while he celebrated his bachelor party, the night before his wedding.  

Advocates say trying cops in court is a necessary and important gesture–but inevitably heartbreaking. Sean Bell’s killers were acquitted in 2008. So were Amadou Diallo’s killers, as well as Abner Louima and Rodney King’s attackers. As in the Mehserle case, communities first rallied around the trials and later huddled in disappointment at their conclusion. 

The challenge is that the legal bar for convicting cops of murder or wrongdoing is higher than for civilians. Cops have the benefit of qualified immunity, which allows them not to be held individually responsible for their actions, as long as they can establish that another competent and informed officer would have acted similarly. That’s a problem, for sure, if police brutality and racialized attacks are symptoms of a systemic disease.

The real work of remaking the New Orleans Police Department, experts say, will come not from headline-grabbing court cases but from the sort of quiet, boring reforms that require constant public vigilance. It comes in ending stop and frisk policies, pushing back against illegal searches, combatting unlawful detentions and interrupting the patterns of everyday abuse and racial bias that set the stage for more dramatic violence.

Liem said that since the Bell verdict, the work of People’s Justice has turned to community-led police accountability initiatives. People’s Justice sends out street teams to monitor police-civilian interactions and record badge numbers, verbal exchanges and arrests. The cop-watch programs work in two ways: as an automatic deterrent for cops who know they’re being observed and as a legal precaution in case incidents become abusive. This way, it’s not just a civilian’s word against the police report; there’s another record of the incident. 

"The tendency is only to respond when the egregious high-profile case hits the papers, instead of the practices that are producing the misconduct," said Robert Perry, legislative director of the New York Civil Liberties Union who has helped develop civilian complaint review boards in New York. "The culture that allows this type of thing to happen is much harder to get at."

The New Orleans Plan

In New Orleans, people are looking to leadership from new NOPD chief Ronal Serpas. Serpas was one of Mayor Landrieu’s first official hires. He came back to New Orleans after a stint as police chief of in Nashville and was hired with a mandate to clean up the department.

Serpas announced a 65-point plan last Monday that outlines for the public his reform to-do list. Some are oddly basic–the department will make sure its crime lab is accredited, for example–but others make a strong public statement against future corruption and brutality. Number 26 on the list calls for the institution of a "Citizen Callback" system, which will mean that civilians can expect follow-up phone calls from the Office of the Inspector General to ask how they were treated by police and confirm the details of the official police report. 

Most important, especially where Henry Glover, Ronald Madison and James Brissette’s alleged killers are concerned, under the new plan, officers who lie to investigators or falsify police reports will be fired automatically and "without progressive discipline." 

Serpas’ plan also calls for the agency’s internal "Early Warning System" to be overhauled. Sometimes called Early Intervention Systems, these databases track in minute detail the goings-on of police interactions. Imagine a very powerful Excel sheet that tracks the race, age and gender of every person a cop stops and detains. It includes the length and nature of every stop and arrest; the time of day; the type of car and sorts of crimes police investigate. 

According to Sam Walker, a criminal justice scholar at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, early intervention systems allow police departments to see with utter clarity the behavioral patterns of police officers. They’re fine tools for monitoring police activity–but only if a department decides to mind them. "You can have the greatest computer in the world," Walker said. "But it’s just a tool."

Serpas has also decided to renew "integrity checks" for NOPD officers. Integrity checks test individual officers by sending them into staged crime scenes and recording officers’ actions and decisions in a controlled environment. But again, integrity tests are only as useful as the leadership allows them to be. 

"Police departments often already know who their problem officers are," said Carroll Seron, a criminologist at the University of California, Irvine. "But they do not handle it as forcefully as they might."

Walker says that an agency will only be as clean as its top brass and political leadership. Though, in New Orleans’ case, the NOPD will have the help of two other independent forces.

The Department of Justice is expected to formalize a consent decree soon. The NOPD will enter into a five-year commitment with the feds to overhaul the agency. Many of the Justice Department reforms are likely already on Serpas’ plan, but a federal judge and a court-appointed monitor will ensure the list is completed. If the process takes longer than five years, the consent decree will be renewed, and the agency could be found in contempt of court if it doesn’t cooperate. 

Meanwhile, Susan Hutson is New Orleans’ new independent police monitor. She arrived in town early this summer from Los Angeles, where she helped oversee that police department’s reform effort. Los Angeles has just come out of its own eight-year consent decree with the DOJ. Hutson will have access to information that a civilian oversight panel would not, but will not have the power to conduct her own investigations. Her office will be looking for police misconduct of all kinds, and has the power to issue public reports and recommendations with her findings. 

"We exist so that there is someone besides just those in the department looking at the investigations and looking at all of the functions," Hutson told the New Orleans Tribune in an interview earlier this year. "I shall be straightforward; I want complete investigations."

"The stars are in alignment," says Walker of New Orleans future. "You’ve got the mayor committed. You’ve got the police chief committed. And the police monitor, the Justice Department, which is the big hammer. If we ever have a chance with New Orleans, this is it."

Robert Goodman, an organizer with Safe Streets Strong Communities in New Orleans, started Community United for Change, a police accountability group, to stay involved in the police reform effort. His group has organized public town halls where New Orleans residents can testify and record their experiences with cops. Goodman says that representatives from the Department of Justice had even showed up to a couple of the meetings. And Hutson’s office had also trained Safe Streets to help with the intake of civilian complaints. 

"They’re talking a lot of good stuff about what they gonna do," says Goodman, who remains skeptical. "But they have always promised what they going to do. Until I see it, they’re not doing it." 

Activists and academics certainly agreed: the public plays an instrumental part in holding police accountable over the longterm. The cops who allegedly shot wantonly into the Danziger bridge crowds after Katrina will be tried, and maybe even convicted. And Warren, who allegedly shot Glover point blank, faces life in prison. But however satisfying the taste of individual justice may be, a conviction, should it come, will mean only superficial, short-term justice. 

It’s a fact New Orleans leadership, so well acquainted with corrupt cops, seems to understand. In his 65-point plan, Serpas announced that he’s making his agency’s Comstat meetings open to the public. In them, police from all over the city discuss weekly crime reports and crime fighting strategies, and accountability mechanisms. They’ll be boring, but important meetings. And everyone’s invited.