Community activist Norris Henderson, who served 28 years at Angola for a 1974 murder, says he hasn’t seen too many law enforcement officers in Louisiana like James Bernazzani.
For months, the Special Agent in Charge of the New Orleans FBI has captured the attention – and imagination – of activists like Henderson, a co-founder of Safe Streets/Strong Communities in Central City (www.safestreetsnola.org).
“You can tell he’s a serious cop but he thinks outside the law enforcement ‘box,’” Henderson said, after the agent spoke at the city’s recent crime summit at Gallier Hall.
At crime forums and other public appearances, Special Agent Bernazzani, 51, has excoriated criminals and corrupt politicians.
However, he consistently maintains that education, jobs and opportunities – not arrests – will save the city and black New Orleans youths from the violent drug trade.
“He is a global thinker and he brings a global perspective,” says Robert Stellingworth, executive director of the private New Orleans Police & Justice Foundation. “He is much more than just a law enforcement officer.
Bernazzani is indeed a “serious cop.” His “intelligence-driven” crime fighting philosophy – a law-enforcement-based “tactical approach” and a community-intensive “strategic approach” – is based on an extraordinary, 23-year career with the FBI.
One of the bureau’s top counter-terrorism agents, he has pursued al-Qaida and other “Jihadist” movements, worldwide.
Before coming to New Orleans on April 13, 2005, to take a coveted “S.A.C.” post, he helped lay the foundation for the National Counterterrorism Center. In ‘03, CIA Director George Tenet and FBI director Robert Mueller appointed Bernazzani to that job, tasking him with blending all military and federal government agencies with counter-terrorism operations. Bernazzani also investigated the 9/11 attacks, the Oklahoma City bombing and the 1993 World Trade Center blast. And he served stints supervising all of the FBI international drug cartel prosecutions and organized crime cases.
It’s ironic that he became renown for his observation about Louisiana’s “brazen” public corruption. “Here in Louisiana, they skim the cream, they steal the milk, hijack the bottles and look for the cow,” he says.
Some of his most colorful proclamations are aimed at terrorists. “Don’t forget al-Qaida! It’s not above al-Qaida to bayonet the wounded!” he has told more than one audience, post-Katrina. Meanwhile, Silas Lee, a political pollster, Xavier University sociologist and an acquaintance of the agent, suggests Bernazzani’s community appeal emanates from a variety of non-law enforcement experiences.
A once-aspiring professional ice hockey player, master carpenter and Harvard-educated teacher, Bernazzani formerly taught at a Catholic boys’ school. “I taught them how to build houses,” he says, proudly. “He isn’t one-dimensional,” Lee adds. “He is a very sincere individual, concerned about the community and open to alternative strategies. He is someone you can relate to.”
Peter Scharf, a criminologist at Texas State University, also praises Bernazzani but he worries about the local FBI’s unprecedented new partnership with the New Orleans Police Department, whose troubled ranks have been depleted since Katrina. “His personal integrity is beyond reproach,” Scharf says. “But the relationship between the NOPD and FBI has changed. How can you maintain your distance when dealing with law enforcement corruption? How do you enforce civil rights?”
Some of the joint FBI-NOPD initiatives seem to have no effect on city crime, at least early on, the professor continues. “And it’s sometimes hard to tell whose leading New Orleans’ crime fighting strategy.”
Bernazzani’s admiration for Police Chief Warren Riley and NOPD clearly is rooted in the chaotic aftermath of Katrina. “NOPD operated valiantly,” Bernazzani told the private Metropolitan Crime Commission in March 2006. He added: “None stood taller than Warren Riley. I watched that guy in action. He was a pillar of strength.”
Bernazzani says the FBI’s role is to support local law enforcement. And of course, the FBI is sworn to investigate any police misconduct.
As a kid growing up, Jim Bernazzani had only one goal. “My whole ambition was to play professional hockey,” he says.
A standout at Framingham College in Massachusetts, he was scouted by the Detroit Red Wings. His dreams were shattered on Nov. 11, 1977. He broke his leg in a pickup game; his femur tore through his hipbone. He was invited to try out for the U.S. Olympic hockey team. He didn’t make the team and he hung up his skates.
A third-generation carpenter, he infuriated his father (“a hot-blooded Italian”) when he gave up winter roof repairs in Boston to teach at the American School in Mexico City. He later applied to the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “I liked academe,” he says.
In 1982, Agent Edward N. Quinn, a longtime friend – later lionized as the head of the organized crime “O.C.” squad, which busted up the Boston Mafia – persuaded him to apply to the FBI.
When the bureau called, Bernazzani declined; he wanted to finish Harvard. “They said, ‘We don’t call again.’ But they did. A (recruit) broke his leg, that’s the only reason,” Bernazzani recalls.
In June 1984, he graduated from Harvard and reported to the FBI Academy at Quantico, Va. He broke the arms of two fellow recruits during training. “Those agents graduated with casts on their arms because of yours truly,” he says.
His first assignment was New Orleans. He arrived Oct. 15, 1984, and stayed for six years. His FBI bosses included Dick Swensen, father of former WWL-TV anchor Karen Swensen. “This used to be a disciplinary transfer office … if you screwed up, they sent you to New Orleans,” Bernazzani says.
On Dec. 14, 1986, a deranged postal employee shot and wounded several civilians and took hostages at the federal building on Loyola Avenue. Bernazzani was one of three agents on the responding FBI SWAT team. They took cover behind huge sacks of Christmas mail and only suffered minor gunshot wounds. “I bled more playing hockey,” he says.
More than 20 years later, Bernazzani is back at the New Orleans bureau. He and other agents endured Katrina, guarding bureau secrets, evidence and weapons at the FBI’s lakefront headquarters.
In his office, he stands back from a chalkboard with boxes denoting non-law enforcement stake holders in the local crime fight, including clergy, businesses and activists: “What is missing is coordination,” he says, frowning, holding a piece of chalk.
Heidi Unter, research director of the Police Foundation, says: “What is cool about Bernazzani, is that he’s a true problem solver even when it involves problems that span beyond his typical area of control and are not traditional FBI-type issues.”
At least one ex-convict agrees. There aren’t many in Louisiana law enforcement like James Bernazzani.