History On Trial

Historians,” Tulane history professor Larry Powell once said, “can get into trouble when they comment on current events.”

Powell’s caution comes to mind, during a local panel discussion commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

United States District Judge Susie Morgan moderated the half-day seminar at the federal courthouse, sponsored by the local chapter of the Federal Bar Association. More than 125 people attended, mostly lawyers. The program included a showing of House Divided, a 1987 film documentary on the Civil Rights Movement in New Orleans (’50-’65).

A panel of prominent speakers provided historical context for the landmark legislation that sought to end discrimination by race, color and national origin nationwide.

The discourse unexpectedly turned from historic desegregation battles of the 1960s to current reforms underway at both the New Orleans Police Department and Orleans Parish Prison.

“The enduring problem of police brutality has not diminished,” said Rafael Cassimere, 72, a retired history professor University of New Orleans.

Today, 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Cassimere says police mistreatment of minorities persists. The elections of black mayors and the appointment of black police chiefs haven’t solved the problem, he says.

An appointee of the late Mayor Dutch Morial, the city’s first black mayor, Cassimere earlier recalled a string of local legal victories during the Civil Rights Era. As New Orleans chapter president of the NAACP Youth Council (1960-’66), he led student demonstrations to desegregate diners on Canal Street and to compel Coca-Cola to yank job listings for “whites only” – just weeks before the Civil Rights Act became the law of the land on July 2, ’64. “I am pleased to say seven of the first 19 complaints filed with the EEOC came from New Orleans,” Cassimere adds proudly.

Asked about progress in police-minority relations over the last 50 years, the professor turns solemn: “It’s been a big disappointment for me, personally.”

A fellow panelist disagrees. Judge Morgan earlier introduced Albany Law School Professor Paul Finkelman as a nationally recognized legal historian, author of more than 150 scholarly articles and more than 30 books, with expertise on slavery and race issues.

Finkelman also is the author of a forthcoming Louisiana Law Review article that details the brutality and deprivations of blacks in the state, from slavery until the signing of the landmark Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964, “The Long Road to Dignity: The Wrong of Segregation and What the Civil Rights Act of 1964 Had to Change.”

He describes police-minority relations in the segregated South after World War II: “Segregation profoundly affected criminal justice in the South. With the exception of a few large cities, there were virtually no black police officers in the South. Most southern blacks lived in fear of law enforcement officers, especially those in rural areas and small towns, where policing was segregated and often oppressive. Police brutality toward blacks was the norm, and only the most egregious cases ever reached the federal courts where some relief might be found.”

The U.S. Department of Justice, which began investigating police brutality in Louisiana under U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (1961-’64), has since acquired more power to prosecute “race-based criminal behavior by police,” Finkelman says.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 “eliminated the structure of segregation that allowed the police to stop a black for almost anything” and paved the way for the number of black police officers to increase throughout Louisiana.

In 1959 there were just 60 black officers in Louisiana, including 28 in New Orleans, Finkelman says.

Today, blacks account for 683 of the 1,149 officers on the NOPD – a black majority of 59 percent, according to department figures dated May 10, 2014. In addition, roughly one of every five NOPD officers is a woman.

Today, Finkelman says, Arizona seems to have replaced the Deep South states for the dubious distinction as “the most racist and homophobic state in the nation.”

The Albany law professor is more optimistic about Southern policing of blacks. “Things are better than they were, even if things aren’t good,” Finkelman says.

For the first time today, the audience stirs, murmuring polite disagreements. Finkelman appears surprised (evoking Professor Powell’s warning to historians opining on current events.)

Mary E. Howell, a panelist and veteran civil rights lawyer in New Orleans, has been litigating misconduct cases against the NOPD and Orleans Parish Prison for some 40 years.

“New Orleans is the only city with federal consent decrees to reform both its police department and its jail,” Howell tells the conference. “That is embarrassing.”

Records show both court-supervised consent decress aim to settle separate lawsuits alleging “a pattern or practice” of civil rights violations.

Both plans also exclude criminal complaints brought against police officers and jail deputies – such as the civil rights prosecutions of the Danziger Bridge police-defendants or OPP.

Both plans include protections of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – extending, for example, protections to incarcerated persons with “Limited English Proficiency.”

On June 6, 2013, U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, after hearing expert testimony on prison rapes and other alleged constitutional violations, called Orleans Parish Prison “an indelible stain on the community.” Africk then approved the civil consent decree for reforming the jail, proposed jointly by Sheriff Marlin Gusman and civil rights attorneys for the Southern Poverty Law Center (Lashawn Jones et al v. Marlin Gusman et al, (12-859)).

On Aug. 9, 2013, Judge Morgan appointed the Washington D.C. law firm of Sheppard Mullin to monitor a consent decree to reform the NOPD (U.S. v. City of New Orleans (12-1924)).

In June, Jonathan Aronie, lead monitor of the 492-point Consent Decree to improve the NOPD told a mostly-black audience in Gentilly that most NOPD officers were “longing for change.” Aronie also said the department “has a long way to go.” Both court plans for police and jailers envision a safer city through proper recruiting, supervision, staffing, training and discipline.

As “Freedom Summer” began, the apparent inability of the NOPD to hire 150 recruits raises concerns citywide, amid a double-digit increase in overall violent crime (except for murders).

The NOPD’s adoption of new policies (including recruitment and training) prior to Judge Morgan’s appointment of Sheppard Mullin “will increase the City’s costs of complying with the Consent Decree,” according to the monitor’s May 27 report. “Even more importantly, it will delay achievement of the city’s commitment to improving police practices for the people of New Orleans.”

Chief Serpas says he’s “committed” to improving the policy compliance with the Consent Decree. Aronie and Serpas say the staffing of NOPD’s compliance unit headed by new Deputy Chief Jay Ginsberg should help.

Consent decree improvements to both OPP and the NOPD are estimated to cost taxpayers’ more than $50 million over the next four years.

It takes an optimistic utopian to predict our city’s ignominious reputation for “unconstitutional” policing and inhumane jails could begin to end by the start of tri-centennial celebrations in 2018.

 Still, it’s a worthy goal. (Ask a historian.)

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