Tuesday, May 4, 2010

When Abuse is the Norm, by M. Endesha Juakali, J.D.

Recently there was a controversy surrounding the transition task force charged with assisting in finding a new police chief for New Orleans. Our city's new mayor, Mitch Landrieu, declared a national search to find the best available person for the job of police chief. According to him, this is a fresh new approach and his task force allowed a cross section of the community to have input in the decision making process. However, four of the community persons from the transition task force resigned or were forced out.

The reality of the situation is this process is old hat and the community involvement is only window dressing for him to hide behind. The community will have no real power to impact this decision. Therefore, honest community representatives had only two choices: participate in this charade or resign and expose it. I applaud the choice of the four who refused to go along and be silent.

In tandem with this process of internal selection, there is another farce being perpetrated on the citizens of New Orleans. This is the selection of a so-called police monitor, which is supposed to give citizens some extra protection from police abuse by having an independent monitor to investigate the actions of the police.

The problem is, like the task force mentioned above, the police monitor has no real power. It cannot even investigate the police, but can only “review the New Orleans police department's internal investigation of misconduct cases to determine if they were properly conducted." This means they will only see what the police department gives them. They have no independent investigation power, no subpoena powers, no arrest powers, and no powers to take police off the streets. In short, they have no powers at all, except the power to come to work and get paid.


I remember thinking recently that I was having a flashback when I watched some well-meaning community groups fight in the city council chamber for an entity to oversee police actions. This was not a new request, just as the most recent spate of police murder is not a recent occurrence or an aberration.

In going forward with trying to change the NOPD, we must accept two major facts:

1) The brutal actions by the New Orleans police department is not the work of a few bad apples on an otherwise good group of hard working individuals. Brutality and the deprivation of the rights of the black/poor is ingrained into the fiber and history of the NOPD.
2) The police cannot police themselves, and any entity that is not totally independent of both the police department and government will ultimately become a part of the problem, not the solution.


I began organizing against police brutality in 1980, when a police officer named Gregory Neupert was found on a levee in Algiers shot to death. There has never been a satisfactory explanation as to why he was on a dark levee by himself with no legitimate reason, with no back-up and without the knowledge of his bosses. But his fellow officers did not need a reason. In their minds, someone in the black community killed one of them and they intended to get some payback.

Almost immediately, the entire black community in Algiers was under siege. People were beaten, kidnapped, and tortured. Based upon the information received from the use of torture, police raids led to the murder of four people in Algiers, three men and one young mother who was shot through the eye with a 357 magnum revolver and in the chest with a shotgun loaded with double ought buckshot. She was shot while naked, unarmed and in front of her 4 year old son. During that same period unarmed black men were killed in the French Quarter and the Desire community. In fact, in a very short period of time 11 people had been killed by the police, in different parts of the city, following the death of Officer Neupert.

In response to this war that had been declared on the black community by NOPD, we created the Committee for Accountable Police (CAP), a united front of family members, neighbors, civic leaders, lawyers and activists.

I was one of the student leaders that helped organize on the college campuses. In fighting back, CAP had numerous marches, closed down the city council, closed down police headquarters, occupied the mayor's office for over a week, and sponsored a public hearing that packed the city council chambers with people testifying regarding the actions of NOPD, from 6pm in the evening until the sun came up the next day.

After months of protracted struggle, the following results were achieved:

1) The police chief, who was brought in from Alabama after an exhaustive national search, was forced to resign.
2) Seven police officers were indicted for civil rights violations and four were convicted.
3) The city created the Office Of Municipal Investigation, an independent agency to monitor the actions of the police department.
4) The city settled with the families of those murdered by police, paying out millions of dollars.


The reality of this situation is that none of the police officers who participated in these murders were convicted for what happened to Sherry Singleton and the other persons killed during this rampage. These officers were not even removed from the police force and continued having power over citizens. Many ended up being supervisors and passing on their unique form of policing to incoming officers.

The OMI became a part of the system and was totally controlled by the forces that supported the role of the police in New Orleans, In other words the police continued to police themselves.

I stated at that public hearing that: “the police policing the police is like having Dracula guarding a blood bank,” and I still feel the same way today. Since most of the police that went on a murder spree in 1980 are still on the police force now, what has happened since should not be a surprise.

I was not surprised when I heard that the police department used hurricane Katrina as an excuse to hunt and murder black people. The beating death of Adolph Archie was expected. Antoinette Franks, who murdered several citizens while pulling off a robbery and Len Davis, who put a hit out on a young black woman for filing a complaint against him, are par for the course for NOPD. Shooting a young black man 22 times for no obvious reason is not outside of the norm. What I saw and learned while organizing after the Algiers murders made me understand, it is the total relationship between the police and the black community that is the problem, it was then, and that hasn't changed.

In looking at the current situation, we have lost many of the reforms we fought for and won thirty years ago.

In the end, we must understand that the problems that exist between the police and the black community are ageless and systemic. The original police were the paddy rollers whose job it was to catch escaped slaves. The criminal justice system was given an exemption from the thirteenth amendment, using conviction of a crime as a way to re-enslave those being emancipated. Under this system, the police are supposed to be brutal, and fear is a tool of control.

If we are going to protect ourselves from the daily disrespect, abuses, and brutality of the police department, we must create an entity that is controlled by the community, that reports to the community, and is funded through the community. We need a version of the community policing model that was put in place by the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in Oakland 40 years ago. But instead of shotguns people need to be trained to use cameras and video to document the daily abuse,disrespect and violations of rights that goes on in the Black community countless times on a daily basis. This evidence would be delivered to a central place where people with knowledge of the law would formulate official complaints and make the case prior to turning it over to officials. This would be accompanied by exposing the info to progressive media sources prior to giving it to traditional media outlets.

The community must also be educated and organized on how to document what they see, such things as date, time, place, of incidents, car and badge numbers, and name addresses and telephone numbers of witnesses, of course none of this would be given to the police until it is processed and the persons involved are protected(from the police). Some will say that this would place people in harms way, since the police will not want to be filmed, photographed, or policed by the community. My, response is that we are all in harms way now, we must at least try to fight back.

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