New Orleans Police Corruption and Repression

Werner Herzog’s 2009 update of Bad Lieutenant, the 1992 cop movie starring Harvey Keitel, largely follows the same plot, only shifting scenes from the Big Apple to the Big Easy. As in the original film, a drug-addled NOPD officer played by Nicholas Cage cruises around New Orleans accumulating gambling debts, snorting copious amounts of cocaine, raping and brutalizing citizens, stealing drugs and money for his personal stash and entangling himself in the city’s underworld of organized crime. Fiction, right?

Bad Lieutenant, Port of Call New Orleans makes quite a few mistakes. For example, there’s the scene where several characters drive across the Crescent City Connection Bridge toward the West Bank, supposedly on their way to Alabama. Couldn’t happen. Scenes like this demonstrate Herzog’s lack of familiarity with the region’s geography. Beyond some petty offenses like this, however, the film mostly reveals truths about the city, especially its police force. The New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) is corrupt, violent, and fractured, flaws that run deep in the department’s institutional culture.

The NOPD is currently under investigation by the FBI for seven separate cases of civil rights violations, mostly involving abuses of power in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Some of these inquiries are expanding in scope week by week. Police murders. Acts of brutality. Corruption. Obstruction of justice. The department’s existing rap sheet, which already includes some of the most viscous and systematic violations of rights ever perpetrated by any police force, is being added to. Long time cop-watchers in New Orleans believe that the Justice Department may soon move in to take over and root out corruption. The consequences will be far reaching. Besides reducing instances of rogue cop behavior, any attack on the NOPD’s culture of corruption and violence could potentially transform the politics of the city, empowering social movements among the working poor.

"We Don’t Want This to Look Like a Massacre"

The paramount case to date concerns the Danziger Bridge. A group of seven officers are accused of killing two and injuring five in an unprovoked assault during the "federal flood" that followed Katrina. After a flawed indictment of the officers who participated in the shooting and cover-up was thrown out of state court in 2008, largely on procedural grounds, the feds stepped in to prosecute the case. Justice Department attorneys have already brought charges against four officers as the net continues to close around other cops who took part in what is being called a massacre. The latest admission of guilt came from officer Michael Hunter who, on April 2, signed a statement of factual basis that described the Danziger shooting in detail. Hunter’s statement is a shocking confession, worth quoting at length:

On September 4, 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the defendant [officer Hunter] and his fellow Seventh District officers were working out of a temporary station at the Crystal Palace on Chef Menteur Highway. In response to a radio call that officers on the I-10 high-rise bridge had taken fire, defendant HUNTER and other NOPD officers loaded into a large Budget rental truck, which HUNTER then drove from the Crystal Palace to the Danziger Bridge….

Defendant HUNTER stopped the Budget truck a short distance from where he had seen people climb over the concrete barrier. As the truck rolled to a stop, Sergeant A fired an assault rifle down toward the civilians on the walkway. At one point before HUNTER got out of the truck, he saw an older black male raise his head above the barrier and he saw Sergeant A fire at the black male. The black male did not appear to have a weapon and did not threaten the officers….

HUNTER saw Sergeant A and one or more other officers firing at or behind the barrier. Seeing that there was no threat to the officers, defendant HUNTER shouted, "Cease fire!" When the officers stopped firing, defendant HUNTER walked toward the back of the truck on the passenger side. While defendant HUNTER was still on the passenger side of the truck, near the walkway, he saw several civilians, who appeared to be unarmed, injured, and subdued. Sergeant A suddenly leaned over the concrete barrier, held out his assault rifle [an AK-47], and, in a sweeping motion, fired repeatedly at the civilians lying wounded on the ground. The civilians were not trying to escape and were not doing anything that could be perceived as a threat….

An unmarked car driven by an officer with the Louisiana State Police (LSP) approached from the east side and stopped near the crest of the bridge. Defendant HUNTER, Sergeant B, and Officer A entered the car…. As the car moved down the bridge, defendant HUNTER saw three black males running away, near the bottom of the bridge. None of the civilians appeared to be armed or to be a threat to the officers. Two men, later identified as Lance and Ronald Madison, ran down the right side of the road, while a third, older man ran down the left side. As the LSP car drove down the bridge, defendant HUNTER focused on Lance Madison, who was wearing black clothing, and Ronald Madison, who was wearing a white T-shirt, with blood on it. As Lance Madison ran toward the Friendly Inn, a motel at the bottom of the bridge, Ronald Madison trailed approximately 20 to 30 feet behind him….

At no time as Ronald Madison ran, did defendant HUNTER see him turn toward the officers, reach into his waistband, or make any threatening gestures. As the unmarked LSP car pulled to a stop, Officer A, without warning, fired a shotgun at Ronald Madison’s back as Madison ran away in the direction of the motel. Defendant HUNTER immediately got out of the car and went to where Ronald Madison was lying on the ground. Ronald Madison was alive, but appeared to be dying. He was lying on his side, with two officers standing nearby. Neither defendant HUNTER nor either of the other officers searched Ronald Madison for a weapon.

As Ronald Madison lay dying on the pavement, Sergeant A ran down the bridge toward Ronald and asked an officer if Ronald was "one of them." When the officer replied in the affirmative, Sergeant A began kicking or stomping Ronald Madison repeatedly with his foot. Sergeant A appeared to be striking Madison’s torso with as much force as he could muster.

Hours after this brutal attack, the perpetrators held a meeting in their temporary headquarters, a Chinese restaurant a few miles from the crime scene. A roundtable discussion ensued about how to handle the situation. One officer remarked to another, "We don’t want this to look like a massacre." Lieutenant James Lohman promptly assigned an investigator, Sergeant Arthur Kaufman, to put together a report on the incident.

Lance Madison is surrounded by State Police and NOPD SWAT on Sept. 4, 2005; his brother, Ronald, was fatally shot by police
—photo by Alex Brandon,

Neither Sgt. Kaufman nor Lt. Lohman had any intention of pursuing the truth, however. Rather, the homicide investigation appears to have been the first phase of a cover-up. Lt. Lohman and others seem to have realized that an episode of violence as outrageous as this would require paperwork and could not be dismissed as a "21/NAT," as so many other shootings and beatings were. Code 21 refers to a "miscellaneous incident," and "NAT" is the department’s abbreviation for "necessary action taken." Both shorthand terms litter reports filed in the chaotic days following Katrina when NOPD leadership encouraged this kind of corner-cutting in the name of expediency. Because of this, Kaufman’s first reaction was to tell his superior Lohman, "21 NAT, Babe, we don’t have to do anything." But Lohman insisted and the cover-up was soon underway.

With suspicions of the officers’ conduct building, four months later they convened a different kind of roundtable, a secret gathering held in the abandoned and gutted Seventh District Police Station. Sgt. Kaufman directed all of the officers to get their stories straight so as to avoid conflicting accounts. Following the lead of their most murderous brother in arms, "Sergeant A," later identified as Kenneth Bowman, they fabricated a tale in which they re-took the bridge from violent marauders who had shot at law enforcement earlier in the day. They claimed that the unarmed men and women they shot on the bridge had guns. Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old mentally disabled man, was specifically said to have turned toward officers and reached into his belt as if to draw a weapon. Sgt. Kaufman and other officers bolstered this lie by picking up an unregistered handgun from Kaufman’s garage, which he jokingly called a "ham sandwich." They dropped the weapon at the scene where they had previously also tampered with evidence by kicking shell casings from their weapons off the roadway. Kaufman’s final incident report—an "attempted homicide" filing that listed the NOPD officers as victims, with Ronald Madison and one Jose Holmes fingered as the perpetrators—went on to claim that officers had seen multiple weapons on the bridge. None were ever recovered (because they never existed).

Michael Hunter’s guilty plea and vivid description of the massacre followed admissions by two of the senior NOPD officers overseeing the department’s internal handling of the Danziger shootings, Lt. Michael Lohman and Detective Jeffery Lehrmann. Lt. Lohman oversaw the entire effort to cover for the killer cops, trusting that Kaufman and others would sweep the incident under the rug. Detective Lehrmann appears to have played along the whole way. He reportedly conjured up the ethnic and descriptive names of fake witnesses Sgt. Kaufman claimed to have obtained statements from at the scene of the shooting: "Lakeisha Smith" and "James Youngman," described as a black female and black male. The testimonies of these phantom citizens supported the officer’s accounts.

The FBI seals off the Danziger Bridge during the bureau’s investigation into the bridge shooting in September 2005—photo by Danny Bourque,

After Hunter’s April 7 admission, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice Thomas Perez spoke about the strength of the federal inquiry into the Danziger case and hinted that all of the investigations underway could lead to a more profound intervention in New Orleans. "In times of disaster, we look to our law enforcement officers to protect public safety and keep the peace. Today, this former NOPD Officer has admitted that amidst the devastation that followed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina he watched fellow officers shoot unarmed civilians. And, he admitted covering up about what they did," said Perez. "We will continue to aggressively investigate the incident that occurred on the Danziger Bridge and other post-Katrina incidents and we will continue to prosecute any officer who violates federal law." Perez went on to note that the Justice Department may be considering a "14141 action" which would essentially force major reforms onto the NOPD or else the city and police department would face an extremely costly civil rights lawsuit that they would certainly lose.

One of the more chilling federal civil rights cases bolstering the fed’s position involves the death of Henry Glover. Glover was shot in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans on September 2, probably by a police officer, although this remains unclear. Seeking medical attention, Glover’s brother Edward King and a passing motorist William Tanner placed the wounded Glover in Tanner’s car and took him to a nearby school where emergency responders had set up an operations center. When they arrived, both Tanner and King were detained, beaten, and threatened while Glover lay bleeding in the back of the automobile. The last King or Tanner ever saw of the dying Glover was when an NOPD officer in a SWAT uniform drove the car away with Glover still in the back seat. Months later the car was found on a nearby Mississippi River levee, burned inside and out. Glover’s charred remains were found inside. Federal agents have zeroed in on officer Greg McRae, Capt. Jeff Winn, and Lt. Dwayne Scheuermann in their investigation into Glover’s death and the burning of Tanner’s car.

If the feds move ahead with a 14141 action, it will be the first consent decree utilized to reform New Orleans’ deeply troubled police establishment and only the twelfth time this federal power has been used against a local or state police force since the decree was established in 1994. Whatever happens, citizens are hoping for some kind of drastic intervention. According to community activists, any reform efforts that reduce police brutality and corruption would have a positive impact on the city’s politics. They would remove one of the most repressive barriers to social movement activism, provide the working poor with more safety in their neighborhoods, and cut the city’s shocking levels of violence. Addressing police brutality could create greater solidarity at the grassroots level around all kinds of issues. At the same time, community leaders are cautious about prospects for reform.

Malcolm Suber, a community organizer who has battled corrupt police and politicians for decades, welcomes federal intervention, but is also skeptical about how far reforms might go. "The police are here to suppress people who don’t have anything," explains Suber. "In a city like New Orleans, split between a wealthy ruling class and a large poor black population, there’s always going to be tension between the community and police. You can’t just reform an institution, the prime role of which is to keep a lid on the poor’ According the Suber, police reform will only succeed if accompanied by larger social transformations. "Their method of control is corporal…. That method of policing has to be addressed, but you can’t change that unless you change the political economy of the city…. So just trying to address the police side of it, asking them to change their behavior, this won’t work. We need radical change across sectors."

One Gang Among Many

The NOPD is widely seen by New Orleanians as a corrupt and violent branch of government, its problems rooted deep in the department’s institutional culture and historic mission. Distrust of police is the norm, especially among the city’s African American working class. The police are the most proximate and deadly arm of a larger legal system in Louisiana that has been described by some human rights activists as a "cradle-to-prison pipeline," one that criminalizes and incarcerates working class blacks at rates surpassing any other state in the union. Louisiana has the highest rate of incarceration in the U.S., giving it the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of incarceration of any state in the world.

Mayor Ray Nagin and Police Superintendent Warren Riley display newly acquired city firepower at the Superdome in February 2008—photo by Eliot Kamenitz,

A recent history of the NOPD, historian Leonard Moore’s Black Rage in New Orleans, sums up the situation this way: "…the New Orleans Police Department has been arguably one of the most brutal, corrupt, and incompetent police units in the United States in the postwar period…. At the height of its corruption in the mid-1990s, the New Orleans department had the highest number of citizen complaints of police brutality in the country and a 1992 Justice Department study reported that New Orleans citizens had lodged more complaints with federal officials about police abuse than residents in any other city between 1984 and 1990."

But as Moore and others familiar with the department’s history are careful to point out, to simply identify instances of police brutality or the corruption of specific officers misses the wider political significance of the NOPD’s above-the-law culture and ruthless practices. As a recent Times-Picayune editorial puts it, the issue is not just "a few bad apples" among the ranks, but is instead a case of a "rotten orchard."

Prior to the civil rights movement, the NOPD was an all white force. One of its primary functions was to enforce Jim Crow laws against the city’s black population. It’s other major political function was disciplining the local labor market by breaking attempts at union organization, a task that sometimes involved attacking inter-racial coalitions.

One outgrowth of the department’s own institutional culture were tight-knit gangs of officers conspiring to form complex business relationships with local gambling parlors, brothels, drug distributors, smugglers, and other criminal organizations. The NOPD was made up of gangs of officers whose patronage and protection was required by or forced on the city’s powerful criminal bosses, many of whom—such as mayor Robert Maestri—were also well-respected political and business leaders. Low pay and lax recruitment standards that allowed criminals to join the force (so long as they were white) helped foster these conditions. The city’s anti-tax, white supremacist ruling class, even its progressive uptown reformers, mostly tolerated this situation, so long as the NOPD served to suppress African American agitation and keep labor unorganized to the profit of the region’s monopoly industries.

The black freedom movement challenged the NOPD in several ways. It called for an end to random brutality and discrimination experienced on a daily basis. Civil rights activists, especially from the small but growing ranks of the black elite, called for integration of the police force. Eventually this would coincide with black entry into all other public spheres of power, from the City Council to the Orleans Parish School Board.

In a deeper sense, though, the demands of the black community, emanating from grassroots levels, especially from families that lived in public housing or the expanding ghetto areas of the city, were directed towards dismantling the system of racist and classist domination that the whole economy was based on. Neither the NOPD, nor the region’s ruling class, responded to this with the least sense of conciliation. Thus, the all-white police moved against the black community not only to carry out repression, but also to fight integration of the force and protect their spoils.

Showdown in Desire on Sept. 15, 1970 between the Black Panthers and the NOPD—photo by James L. O’Connor

The NOPD’s response to the black freedom movement in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s was to escalate the levels of violence on working class communities. The war between the department and the civil rights movement’s constituency came to a peak in 1970 with an episode Orissa Arend has called the "showdown in Desire," a mass confrontation between police armed with military equipment, including tanks and assault rifles, and the Black Panther Party.

The destruction of the Panthers at the hands of the NOPD occurred alongside broader efforts to undermine all social movement activity in the city using both a militarized police force, as well as the co-optation of more moderate leaders by giving them positions in the administration of Mayor Moon Landrieu. Symbolized by their attack against the Panthers and the Desire community, the NOPD had succeeded in doing its part to destroy the freedom movement and block any attempts toward radical change. But change was still going to come for reasons beyond their control. Over the next few years the chaotic police department, its own white and black officers increasingly divided along racial lines, would lash out against New Orleans’ poor, and New Orleanians would strike back.

In 1973, former Naval enlistee Marx Essex stormed a Howard Johnson tower, killing multiple police officers before being killed himself in a hail of bullets fired from a military helicopter. Essex’s posthumously discovered note to a local TV station was a short and angry missive that many blacks in New Orleans could agree with, even if they condemned his violent reaction: "Africa greets you. On December 31, 1972, aprx. 11 p.m., the downtown New Orleans Police Department will be attacked. Reason—many. But the death of two innocent brothers will be avenged. And many others. P.S. Tell pig Giarrusso the felony action squad ain’t shit."

The letter was signed "Mata," a Swahili word for a shooting weapon. Essex’s attack against the NOPD was in direct response to two recent police killings and the formation of the highly controversial Felony Action Squad (FAS), a militarized outfit utilizing exceedingly violent tactics and operating under "shoot to kill" orders from the mayor and other reactionary leaders. FAS was modeled on commando-like squads created in New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, and cities that had seen major rebellions between 1965 and 1969, rebellions that were always sparked by episodes of police brutality or the assassination of movement leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr.

War Zone

While the 1980s ushered in an era of black control over City Hall, there was no decline in police brutality or corruption. Two years into mayor Ernest Morial’s tenure, New Orleans was rocked by a racist police siege of the Algiers neighborhood. Following the killing of a white police officer, an all-white NOPD squad stormed Algiers where the Fisher projects are located. During a week-long and mostly illegal campaign of invasive searches, intimidation, and beatings, the police forced two young men (after torture and death threats) to identify two other Algiers residents as the killers. With this pretext, the rogue officers, unchecked by NOPD leadership or the mayor, carried out an early morning raid to assassinate James Billy, Reginald Miles, and Sherry Lyn Singleton. These extra-judicial murders touched off months of protests by the community and an organized boycott of the central business district and major events like the Sugar Bowl. Activists and lawyers, including Malcolm Suber and Mary Howell, described the killings as a modern-day lynching and act of terrorism directed against the city’s black population. They were joined by activists Kalamu Ya Salaam and Bill Quigley in calling for a civilian review board to police the police, a proposal that has been opposed by the NOPD and its political allies to the present day.

New Orleans SWAT raid a housing project in the Algiers neighborhood on September 9, 2005, after alleged reports of a sniper shooting—photo by Dina Rudick,
Boston Globe staff

After the Desire "showdown," Essex’s rampage, and the Algiers executions, the police could not enter public housing to make an arrest or chase down suspects without the residents pelting them with bottles and rocks, sometimes even un-arresting targets or helping them to evade police detection. Fueling this battle between the community and police was the hard-learned fact that the NOPD’s role in their communities was to repress any self-determined efforts at alleviating poverty and building black power, while disingenuously waging a "war on drugs," a war that was being intensified by gangs of outlaw officers who served as suppliers and protectors to powerful cocaine and heroin dealers.

Complicating matters was the fact that the city’s working class African Americans could no longer depend on middle class and black elites to stand in solidarity with them against police brutality. Black political elites like Ernest Morial, Sidney Barthelemy, Marc Morial, and Ray Nagin, as well as the city’s first black chief of police Ernest Morial in 1984, did little to stem the violence and exploitation of the black working class by the city’s police.

Crack cocaine and a flood of cheap pistols, assault rifles, and ammunition washed over New Orleans in the early 1990s, creating a level of violence never before seen in a major U.S. city. As happened in other urban areas, the ultimate source of the guns and drugs was never investigated. Law enforcement instead concentrated on the petty criminals who operated in the communities that were ultimately ravaged. Cops firmly extended their power into the growing drug and prostitution markets, serving as major suppliers of powdered coke and brokers of "protection" or reprisal against those who infringed on the turf of their favored criminal clients. By the mid-1990s, the commonality of police brutality, and readily apparent police links to criminal syndicates became so severe that most residents had adopted a policy of never cooperating with the police, not merely for fear of being attacked as snitches, but for fear of the police themselves. The police were implicated at every level. They had become the number one reason for the city’s astronomical crime rates.

By this time, the NOPD had transitioned alongside the entire city government to become a majority black institution. But even with blacks policing blacks, the violence actually escalated due to the wider structurally racist transformations overtaking urban America.

The metropolitan region’s police forces managed to avoid the quality of integration and democratization sought by civil rights activists in prior decades—a feat accomplished through white flight and suburbanization. Just as suburban schools, municipalities, parishes, and industries managed to grow by attracting middle class whites who fled the city rather than share public goods and a tax base with blacks, so, too, did white-majority suburban forces recruit white ex-NOPD officers. In the process they managed to pay their officers much more, which reproduced a regionalized segregation of police forces split between majority white suburban departments and the now mostly black NOPD. These newly-built police forces carried on the role of the NOPD of yesteryear, maintaining de-facto segregation in the suburbs and building a wall between the tax-rich government and an increasingly black and fiscally troubled Crescent City.

NOPD beating a 64-year-old retired school teacher in October 2005, caught on video by AP

As the NOPD’s budget collapsed, its institutionalized culture of corruption reproduced itself with a force of black and white cops who would take the violence to new heights. Federal agents opened inquiries into gangs of officers they suspected of supplying cocaine to different housing projects in the city, as well as investigating several of the many cases of brutality and rape. In 1994, one case eclipsed all others and served as a symbol of how depraved the NOPD had become. Officer Len Davis, known as the "Desire terrorist" by residents of that housing project, was caught on audiotape by federal agents ordering the execution of a woman who had made a brutality complaint against him a day earlier. The victim, Kim Groves, was murdered by a pair of criminal colleagues Davis worked with. The only reason the FBI knew of Davis’s contract kill was that they had tapped the phones of multiple NOPD officers involved in a large-scale cocaine distribution and protection operation. Davis and eight other cops were arrested in the sting. Ironically, the first NOPD officer convicted of murder and sent to death row was black.

Len Davis’s scandalous abuse of the badge did not surprise many New Orleanians, however. Nor did the cocaine bust. Nor did further revelations of vice squad officers pocketing confiscated money from gambling houses; or one officer’s kidnapping and assault of his own wife; or two officers who raped a woman they pulled over in a routine traffic stop; or another officer’s propensity for armed robbery; or yet another officer’s killing of several restaurant employees and her own partner in a robbery of an East New Orleans eatery; or two other police officers charged with murder also in 1994; or the firing of 48 officers the year before by then Superintendent Arnesta Taylor.

New Sheriff in Town

Marc Morial became mayor in 1994 after a campaign in which he promised to "clean out City Hall with a shovel, not a broom." His main municipal target was the NOPD. Civil rights attorney Mary Howell acknowledged that, "Morial is talking about it as a holy war, a battle for the soul of the city. We’ve never heard that talk from politicians before." Backing up his rhetoric, Morial went outside the city to hire Richard Pennington as his new superintendent. At the time, Pennington was deputy chief of police in Washington, DC, where he gained a national reputation as a tough reformer and modernizer of corrupt and inefficient bureaucracies.

Pennington took over in the midst of an FBI investigation into the aforementioned cocaine ring. Indeed, just minutes after being sworn in, FBI agents pulled Pennington aside to inform him of their investigation into the gang of officers, as well as the murder of Kim Groves orchestrated by Len Davis.

Over the next four years, Pennington, with support from Morial, and working hand in glove with the FBI, indicted dozens of officers and purged the force of many of its most corrupt cops. Aggressive reforms upset the reactionary police officer’s union, PANO, but effectively cut the crime rate. The department’s culture of corruption was undermined through policies that included doubling officer base pay, strict limits on the working of "details" (private security gigs), and the establishment of a Public Integrity Bureau in place of the internal affairs unit, which had traditionally served to cover-up and ignore complaints. Random exercises to test officer integrity became common, tougher admissions standards to the police academy were added, as well as residency requirements for cops that incentivized living in New Orleans.

Federal intervention and Pennington’s reforms paid off, especially as the late-1990s ushered in a period of economic growth for the city, one of the first sustained periods of job additions in decades. Crime rates declined nationally as well as in New Orleans. While instances of officer abuses continued to arise, overall the NOPD was becoming a much less brutal and corrupt presence in the city’s working class neighborhoods. Violent crime rates dropped and conviction rates for felons increased, in no small part because the NOPD’s war against the poor was put on hold. Residents of public housing and other poor areas began cooperating with the police to address problems like drug dealing, domestic violence, robbery, and other crimes. The feeling on the street was that more and more cops could be trusted, that they weren’t themselves neck deep in drugs and vice, and that some of them might actually have good intentions for the community.

Mayor Nagin at Mardi Gras dressed in what appears to be Roman legionnaire armor, flanked by NOPD—photo by Darwin BondGraham

But the reforms didn’t last. In 2002, Pennington lost his bid to become mayor of New Orleans. His opponent, Ray Nagin, until then a relatively unknown corporate executive, was viewed by most political observers as a conservative black newcomer funded and supported by white business leaders. Nagin’s campaign platform was not to attack police brutality and corruption, but rather to go after political corruption. His message was highly effective in mobilizing white voters who had come to see Morial and previous black mayoral regimes as extremely corrupt, channeling city contracts to favor black businesses and allies, at the expense of whites who had always monopolized these troughs. Nagin took office with 85 percent of the white vote and enough black votes to swing the total his way.

Pennington left the NOPD and the city. September 11, 2001 began a long economic downturn for the tourism-dependent economy of New Orleans. Budgets were cut. Murder rates began to rise fast. There were 264 murders in 2004, putting New Orleans’ murder rate at roughly 57 per 100,000, far higher than any other city. Nagin and his allies continued the Morial administration’s agenda of demolishing public housing in the name of crime fighting, but escalating levels of street violence, robberies, and rape belied the connection, demonstrating instead the causal link between crime and police integrity. By 2005 New Orleans was back where it started with 210 murders. Many refer to the summer before Katrina as the "hottest on record" as killings, shootings, stabbings, and turf wars were spiraling out of control. The NOPD was back to its old bad self.

So when the hurricane hit, it was little surprise that officers participated in the looting or that they drove away with brand new cars from an auto dealership in Metarie. And then there was Danziger, the murders of Madison and Brissette, and the still unaccounted for killings of Matthew McDonald on September 3 in the Marigny, Danny Brumfeld Sr. outside the Convention Center on September 2, and, of course, Henry Glover’s grisly death—and the many others that New Orleanians claim have yet to be revealed.

Federal Intervention?

Community members demonstrating outside the First District Police Headquarters after the slaying of Adolph Grimes on New Years Day 2009—photo by Darwin BondGraham

On New Year’s Day 2009, around the same time that Oscar Grant was shot in the back in Oakland, California, another young black man was slain by the police in New Orleans. Adolph Grimes III was in town visiting family and celebrating the new year. He pulled up to his grandmother’s house on Governor Nicholls Street a little after midnight. It’s not clear what happened next, but what is known is that a team of nine plainclothes officers, working through one of the NOPD’s new felony action squads, put 14 bullets in him, 12 in the back. After 48 casings from the police weapons were found on the scene, Grimes’s family, distrusting the NOPD’s investigative unit, contacted the FBI, seeking justice. This was only one of several high profile incidents of police brutality that occurred throughout 2008 and 2009.

On May 6, 2010, the newly-elected mayor Landrieu decided to appoint a new police chief, Ronal Serpas. Unlike Pennington who was an outsider, Serpas had spent 21 years in the NOPD, rising to the second highest rank. For many, his insider status was a major red flag. Landrieu seemed to think he was the right man for the job.

Mayor Landrieu, who has promised reforms, stated in a lengthy interview with local media: "I’m not interested in a hostile takeover. I don’t think that would be in the best interests of the city and it wouldn’t be in the best interests of the police department. That’s why cooperative relationships are better." Many community leaders say that it was exactly this kind of non-binding cooperation and reform based on personalities that failed to fully transform the NOPD’s institutional culture in the 1990s, leading to disastrous consequences, during and after Katrina. In the same interview, however, Landrieu seemed to indicate support for a consent decree, but he then backslid during a press conference on May 5, calling vaguely for federal resources and cooperation. His ambiguity may indicate a lack of understanding of what the legal device known as a consent decree entails.

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 allows for the first time the Department of Justice to sue local law enforcement agencies in order to correct a "pattern or practice" of illegal and unconstitutional police misconduct. This federal power, however, is not actually used to sue cities and police departments. Rather, the intention and application of it has been to force localities to agree to a range of reformist solutions, from signing memorandums of agreement to entering into consent decrees with the Department of Justice in order to impose reforms on the police. These agreements and decrees typically involve the appointment of a monitor who measures compliance with federally determined goals. Most prior examples have lasted two to five years. It’s a very large carrot and soft stick that defers very much to the power of local police unions, mayors, city councils, and other powerful groups.

Ironically, this civil rights tool was about the only positive part of the 1994 crime bill that included funding for 100,000 new cops, $9.7 billion in prison construction funds, expansion of the death penalty to cover 60 offenses, measures to further criminalize youth as gang members, trying youths 13-and-up as adults, and anti-immigrant measures such as stiff penalties for re-entry after deportation. Consent decrees have brought about some reforms and have generally been supported by community activists from Los Angeles to Cincinnati.

On May 4, a coalition of organizations in New Orleans called on Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez to pull the trigger on a consent decree. The group—which includes religious, youth, cultural, environmental, and other advocates—has written, "our local police, elected officials, and local federal agencies have sat silently for years, complicit in the brutality of NOPD ineptitude, mismanagement, corruption, and abuse of power. For years there has been a pattern or practice of conduct by law enforcement officers of the New Orleans Police Department that deprives persons of rights, privileges, and immunities secured and protected by the Constitution and laws of the United States." They concluded their letter with a petition to the Justice Department: "The bottom line is we want the culture of our police department changed, which will require a paradigm shift that cannot occur without your immediate assistance. We deserve this. Justice has been delayed and denied to us for far too long."

Seven New Orleans police officers accused of murder, with attorneys, on Jan. 6, 2007, march between lines of hundreds of police supporters to turn themselves in at Central Lockup—photo by Ellis Lucia, Times-Picayune

As of this writing, the feds have yet to decide what kind of intervention they will make, whether piecemeal or systematic, but most observers believe a consent decree is likely. Whether this will uproot the rotten orchard of the NOPD is anyone’s guess. To many seasoned community organizers the odds don’t look so good. Others see a consent decree as the possibility of a new day.

According to Malcolm Suber: "the true history of struggle against police brutality in this city runs through a number of grassroots black-led organizations. We’ve had many struggles and debates over the nature of reform, what works and what doesn’t. We debated police review boards back in the 80s after Algiers." So for many, the fundamental question isn’t whether federal intervention will change things, but how the community might use a federal presence and increased scrutiny on the NOPD to further mobilize against police brutality, corruption, and the systemic racism and brutality that underlies the city’s culture and economy.


Darwin Bond-Graham is a sociologist who splits his time between New Orleans, Albuquerque, and Navarro, California.