This is an altered version of a story originally published on The Loop21 website:
In New Orleans’ federal courthouse, five police officers are currently facing charges of killing unarmed Black civilians on Danziger Bridge and conspiring for more than four years to cover-up their crime.
The New Orleans Police Department has developed a reputation as one of the most violent and corrupt in the nation, and the revelations in this case has stoked anger and outrage, especially in New Orleans’ African-American community. “This case shows the total dysfunction of the New Orleans Police Department,” says Malcolm Suber, a longtime activist against police brutality and project director with the New Orleans chapter of the American Friends Service Committee. “It shows they were just going wild after the storm.” Suber and other activists have called for the DOJ to launch a wide-ranging investigation into a pattern of abuse they say goes back decades.
A Department With A Troubled History
Like most southern police departments, NOPD was explicitly segregationist for much of the 20th century. The first Black New Orleans police officer was not hired until 1950 and it was several more years before Black officers were allowed to carry a gun or arrest whites. In comparison, Miami, Florida was one of the first southern cities to hire Black officers, starting in 1944, while Jackson Mississippi did not hire their first Black officer until 1963.
Even as Black officers came onto the force, suspicion from the Black community remained. In 1980, New Orleans was rocked by protests when Sherry Singleton, a 26-year old African-American mother, was shot by police while she was naked in a bathtub, in front of her four year old child. Police said she was armed, but a neighbor testified that she heard her pleading, “please don’t shoot, please don’t shoot.”
The issue of police violence continued to dominate in the 1990s. Revelations of corruption in the force inspired both mass protest and Department of Justice investigations. Federal involvement combined with aggressive actions on the part of a new mayor and police chief led to 110 police officers being arrested, while 600 officers were suspended, 117 were fired and 180 officers resigned while under investigation. Two NOPD officers received the death penalty for killing civilians. One of those officers, Len Davis, was caught on a federal wiretap ordering the assassination of a woman who had complained about police brutality. As officers were being fired and disciplined, the city’s murder and violent crime rates dropped dramatically, and the prosecution of corrupt officers was widely seen as having made the city safer.
Advocates say that the changes begun in the 90s were cut short when C. Ray Nagin became mayor, at around the same time that the Clinton presidency ended and the Bush administration begun. Both Bush and Nagin seemed uninterested in continuing to prosecute police, and New Orleans slipped back into having the nation’s highest murder rate, as well as reclaiming the title of the capital of police violence.
Renewed Outrage Brings Energy for Change
The revelations of post-Katrina police violence have given birth to a new era of outrage. Political and civic leaders, across boundaries of color and class, have called for systemic change in the NOPD. “The public has a right to know what really happened,” says Anthony Radosti, vice president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, which plays the role of an unofficial watchdog over the NOPD. “The police department failed in their mission,” adds Radosti, a 23-year veteran of the NOPD.
Ronal Serpas, who has hired by Mayor Landrieu to run the department in 2010, admits that the department has a long way to go. “Chief Serpas has always acknowledged that he inherited a fundamentally flawed department,” explains NOPD spokesperson Remi Braden. “He has done a lot, but there is much more to be done.”
Federal agents are looking into at least 9 cases of police killings from the past several years, but that is just one aspect of their involvement. In March, the DOJ released a 58-page report that describes a department facing problems that “are serious, systemic, wide-ranging, and deeply rooted.” The report highlighted a range of areas in which it found “patterns or practices of unconstitutional conduct and/or violations of federal law.”
The bad news keeps coming out of the NOPD. In just the past two weeks since the Danziger trial began, scandal has reached the very top of the department. The NOPD’s second in charge, Marlon Defillo, was found in an investigation overseen by the state police to have neglected his duty to investigate police violence, in effect helping to hinder official investigations. Three police commanders – the position under Defillo, and third in the overall NOPD hierarchy – have also been the subject of internal investigation. One commander was accused of directing officers to specifically target young Black men for questioning during the city’s Essence Festival, one of the nation’s largest Black tourism events. He resigned shortly after the investigation was announced.
Investigations are also ongoing into profiteering in the NOPD's "paid detail" system, in which officers make extra money - sometimes far more than their official salary - by doing outside work for hire. Among those under investigation are Police Commander Edwin Hosli, a close ally and friend of Chief Serpas, and officer Travis Ward, Serpas' son-in-law.
Criminal justice activists have demanded more federal investigations and a wider scope. “This represents a real opportunity for New Orleans to raise some fundamental questions about the nature of police and what they do,” says organizer Malcolm Suber. “But unless we talk about the entire system, this will repeat again.”
Photo above from 2010 Protest/Memorial on Danziger Bridge.