The memory of Paul B. Habans (1884-1964) deserves more respect and consideration from the New Orleans Police Department.
So do the children at Habans Elementary, the small public school in Algiers that bears his name.
Unfortunately, many people now know the school only for a gruesome civil rights killing – the post-Hurricane Katrina police shooting, burning and cover-up death of Henry Glover on Sept. 2, 2005.
Ironically, Habans is named for a now-obscure New Orleans educator, lawyer and public official who announced a plan to help reform NOPD in 1925 – almost 80 years to the day before Glover’s death.
As the city’s elected Public Safety Commissioner, Habans proposed re-establishing a police training school starting with intensive courses for the NOPD’s top cops at Northwestern University near Chicago, according to an Aug. 2, 1925, story in the Times-Picayune.
“Training is badly needed, especially by new men coming on the force,” Habans said.
In 1920, New Orleans’ population topped 387,000 – roughly the size of the city post-Katrina in 2010.
In the 1920s, one NOPD chief proposed gun control to reduce the city’s violence. A successor issued submachine guns to a pair of officers with orders to “shoot-to-kill … the right parties.”
NOPD cops at the time were poorly paid, largely uneducated and worked 12-hour shifts seven days a week, historian Louis Vyhnanek wrote in Unorganized Crime: New Orleans in the 1920s (The Center for Louisiana Studies; Lafayette, 1998).
The force topped 1,000 officers in the 1920s. Only two were black; none were women.
“Blacks were often shot by police in the line of duty, either for trying to escape or after pulling a weapon,” and black women were “frequent targets” of police harassment, Vyhnanek wrote. In 1922, Louisiana Gov. John M. Parker of New Orleans asked the FBI to help stop Ku Klux Klan violence against blacks and white immigrants.
Illegal liquor, gambling and prostitution interests received police protection in exchange for financial support. Drug trafficking wasn’t the deadly scourge then that it is today.
Habans’ training proposal followed a series of corruption investigations of the NOPD. One internal probe fizzled when a captain under investigation committed suicide by “shooting himself in the head with his service revolver while seated in his bathtub,” Vyhnanek wrote.
Near the end of the decade, an Orleans Parish grand jury recommended a probe of police ties to illegal gambling. Habans agreed; City Hall did not; and that was the end of that.
The success of Habans’ police reform ideas appears limited to their introduction.
His efforts at traffic enforcement were more obvious, and commensurate with the advent of the automobile.
He issued the first driver’s licenses in New Orleans.
He developed a “junior traffic officer” program to protect small children at school intersections.
Habans left his City Hall commissioner’s job in 1930. President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him director of a federal home loan program in Louisiana, credited with saving 15,000 homes.
Habans was 80 when he died in 1964. His passing ended nearly 60 years of public service, and made front-page news.
Unfortunately, New Orleans’ need for a more professional NOPD would outlive both Habans and Henry Glover.
On Sept. 2, 2005, “Good Samaritan” William Tanner and a stranger, Edward King, drove up to Habans Elementary, seeking help from police encamped at the school, post-Katrina.
In the back seat of Tanner’s car, Henry Glover lay mortally wounded. He had been shot moments earlier outside an Algiers strip mall.
(A jury later determined Glover was unarmed, unjustifiably shot by a personal assault rifle fired by NOPD Officer David Warren.)
Instead of getting help, Tanner said he and King were interrogated and beaten by police. (The officers denied the allegations, which were later unproven in court.)
A female officer allegedly intervened, saying Tanner had helped police jump-start a car battery two days earlier,
King and Tanner were released. They fled.
Officer Gregory McRae would later admit to commandeering Tanner’s 2001 Chevrolet Malibu and driving the car behind a levee to a secluded area. McRae said he then set fire to the car with Glover’s body inside. He blamed extreme stress from the storm for his misconduct.
For several years afterward, Glover’s mother prodded the NOPD to look for him.
There was apparently no serious official inquiry in the case until Dec. 19, 2008, when The Nation published a story on the case by Pro Publica reporter A.C. Thompson. Glover’s burned remains filled five red plastic bags, Thompson wrote.
“I remember sitting at my desk and reading this article and asking – ‘Why the hell didn’t we know about this?’”
local U.S. Attorney Jim Letten told New Orleans Magazine.
The feds got busy. NOPD Chief Warren Riley announced an investigation of The Nation allegations in a terse statement on Christmas Eve.
Five officers were eventually indicted and the case went to trial late last year.
After hearing testimony from 65 witnesses – including the five police defendants – a jury convicted officers McRae, Warren and Lt. Travis McCabe of federal civil rights violations related to Glover’s death. Two defendants, Lt. Dwayne Scheuermann and retired Lt. Robert Italiano, were acquitted.
The jury, composed of eight whites and four minorities, included citizens from conservative suburbs and towns, such as Metairie and Bogalusa.
In pre-trial battles government prosecutors successfully fought to keep Glover’s criminal record out of trial. “Even those who have had run-ins or scrapes with [police] deserve to be protected by the laws of our constitution,” Letten said.
Glover was convicted of drug possession in 1993 and simple burglary in 1988 – “two minor convictions almost two decades ago,” the FBI said in court filings. However, at the time of his death, he was “a law-abiding citizen” who worked two jobs to take care of his three kids. “He worked in a furniture store and maintained a cemetery as a second job,” said U.S. Attorney Tracey N. Knight, who tried the case with veteran prosecutors Mike Magner and Jared Fishman of the Justice Department at Washington.
“In the final 12 years before his life was ended prematurely by defendant [David] Warren’s bullet, Henry Glover was a productive member of his community,” the prosecutors wrote.
Police defense attorneys found only limited success in their attempts to introduce evidence of post-Katrina “conditions,” such as the unrelated Aug. 30, 2005, store robbery-shooting and wounding of Officer Kevin Thomas and former top cop Warren Riley’s separate alleged “shoot-to-kill” looters order (which the ex-chief denies).
After the Glover verdicts, Letten acknowledged “racial elements” to the case, but insisted the core issue was the “abuse of power” by individual officers, not the NOPD. “The Glover case tells us a lot about who we are as a culture; it tells us a lot about what needs fixing,” he said.
Letten, the city’s top federal prosecutor and a native New Orleanian, acknowledges that Habans students will one day want to know what happened at their school on Sept. 2, 2005:
“I’d like them to eventually understand that at that [school] and around that [area], crimes were committed and betrayals of the public trust occurred that eventually led to justice taking place and reforms on the police department, consistent with the legacy of the individual for whom that school is named.”
Rest in peace, Paul B. Habans. Rest in peace, Henry Glover.