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Questions of Fear and Terror
Another new year recalls the haunting optimism of the late Father Joseph H. Fichter, author of a pioneering study of the New Orleans Police Department, “Police Handling of Arrestees, 1964.”
A Jesuit professor of sociology at Loyola University, Fichter later recalled an auspicious comparison between police treatment of citizens in a reform era of the segregated 1960s and the New Orleans Police Department’s scandalous past.
“The matter of police brutality was occasionally in the news during the period we were doing our interviews in 1963, but everyone seemed to agree that it was nothing like a decade earlier when a chief of detectives told a luncheon club about the practice of giving arrestees ‘ice cream and cake,’ meaning torture to extract information and confessions,” the Jesuit wrote in his memoir, One-Man Research: Reminiscences of a Catholic Sociologist (John Wiley & Sons, 1973).
Fichter wrote that his research team found discrimination in police arrests by race, gender, social status and against “homosexuals.” Fichter also reported that 79 percent of some 4,000 arrestees interviewed “did not complain of rough handling” by the NOPD, which he called one of the study’s “most significant findings.”
The sociologist credited then-Chief Joseph I. Giarrusso and District Attorney Jim Garrison with reducing brutality complaints.
However, Garrison complained that when the department investigated allegations of brutality, the NOPD reports were “doctored up” and “orchestrated,” Fichter wrote. (Chief Giarrusso countered the district attorney lacked “sufficient evidence.”)
Unfortunately, Fichter didn’t name Garrison’s assistant district attorney who declared: “We are intent upon abolishing the custom of brutality in this city and making sure that fear and terror are not part of our law enforcement process.”
The prosecutor’s resolve would make a good New Year’s resolution for New Orleans in 2011.
As 2010 drew to a close – more than 45 years after the publication of Fichter’s report – both a new city administration and a U.S. Attorney General appointed by the nation’s first black president – promised bright, lasting reform of NOPD.
Yet, dark testimony characterized the federal court proceedings for more than a dozen cops accused of Hurricane Katrina-era civil rights violations.
A fistful of cops admitted a police cover-up to shield seven officers from responsibility for the near-massacre of six unarmed civilians (two of whom died) at Danziger Bridge on Sept. 4, 2005. The cooperating cops described a plot to falsely accuse and jail two innocent men for allegedly shooting at police on the bridge, triggering police gunfire that killed a mentally retarded man and a 19-year-old who aspired to join the U.S. Marines, then fighting in Fallujah, Iraq.
The police creation of false stories, fictional witnesses and the planting of a “drop gun” (a.k.a. “ham sandwich”) – were all designed to mislead a state grand jury, the FBI and law-abiding NOPD
The remaining six Danziger defendants go to trial in the summer of 2011.
Other police prosecutions are expected to emerge from the federal court “pipeline.”
In the summer of 2009, FBI agents fanned out across the city to investigate a series of Katrina-era police shootings.
Near the end of 2010, Agent Ashley Johnson told a federal jury how she and another agent visited NOPD Officer Travis McCabe at the Whole Foods Market on Magazine Street, where he worked an off-duty security detail.
Johnson said she informed McCabe that the FBI investigation into the Sept. 4, 2005, death of Henry Glover had resulted in some bad news for the officer (who the NOPD hired in 1996, during the height of reforms by former Chief Richard Pennington).
“We told (McCabe) we believed he had committed perjury (during testimony to a federal grand jury) and made false statements to the FBI,” Johnson testified.
McCabe “followed us out the store” Johnson said, asking the agents why they thought he wasn’t telling the truth.
The agent said she pointed out alleged discrepancies in the officer’s grand jury testimony and the police report in Glover’s death, and advised him to get an attorney.
“He continued to say he did not need an attorney because he had not lied,” Johnson said.
By the end of 2010, McCabe and four current and former NOPD officers were on trial for the complex police shooting of Glover, the alleged subsequent police beatings of two men who tried to help the wounded man; the police burning of Glover’s body inside a “procured” car; and an alleged police cover-up.
As in pretrial hearings for the Danziger Bridge case, several officers testifying in the Glover trial admitted to previously lying.
As with the Danziger case, falsified reports and police perjury (known as “testilying”) in the Glover case helped to roughly distinguish police defendants.
There were cops who defended their decisions to use deadly weapons, during the chaotic aftermath of Katrina. In the Glover case, Officer Greg McRae admitted using a flare and a handgun to set fire to a car containing the body of the man, who had been seriously wounded by police gunfire at a shopping mall earlier in the day.
Then there were the cops who allegedly maintained a cover up long after the city had repopulated, misleading grand juries, the FBI and law-abiding NOPD officers for more than five years after the storm.
For example, co-defendants former Lt. Robert Italiano and Officer McCabe denied charges that they submitted a false investigative report on the Glover case on Dec. 2, 2005 – 90 days after Glover’s death.
A parade of police officers testified in both the Danziger and the Glover cases.
Some cops admitted to previously lying to the FBI and grand juries.
A few were granted immunity from federal prosecution.
A public uproar erupted midway through the Glover trial over what Police Chief Ronal Serpas should do with the un-indicted, lying cops who decided to cooperate with the feds.
At a minimum, the public debate, coupled with McCabe’s dramatic encounter with the FBI at an Uptown Whole Foods Market, belied a popular notion advanced by tourism boosters, civic leaders and police union officials during 2010.
The NOPD-Katrina trials have been erroneously portrayed as concerning dark, isolated events of five years ago whose disturbing revelations have somehow been confined to a courthouse and even severed from the “new” New Orleans by the swearing-in of a new mayor, a reformitave police chief, an Independent Police Monitor, and the U.S. Department of Justice’s plan for 10 years of court-ordered police reforms.
Not so fast.
Remember the New Year will also mark the 10th anniversary of the end of the last major police reform administration, led by former Police Chief Richard Pennington and former Mayor Marc Morial.
That welcome respite from police misconduct and high numbers of violent crime came after major upheavals and lasted only a few years. In fact, the deadly confederacies of drug dealers and corrupt police officers climaxed with Officer Len Davis directing a “hit man” to fatally shoot brutality witness Kim Marie Groves on Oct. 13, 1994 – the same night Pennington was sworn in as chief at Gallier Hall. Six months later, Officer Antoinette Frank and a civilian accomplice murdered her police partner, Officer Ronald Williams, in an armed robbery.
So as a new year dawns, the late Father Fichter may forgive us for not turning to NOPD’s “bad old days” for benchmarks of reform – as he and his capable research team once did.
The “bad old days” aren’t over yet.
Besides, there’s little solace in the history of a force that brutally serves “ice cream and cake” to detainees in the 1950s and whose veteran officers engage in a years-long conspiracy to conceal the truth of shameful acts with lies and “ham sandwiches.”
History offers wisdom, encouragement and ample evidence that ending “fear and terror” of both law enforcement – and crime – in New Orleans is indeed a worthy goal for the New Year.