Two Cops, One City
Remembering James Parsons and John Raphael
“Time is an implacable foe.”
– Robert S. Robins (ret.), Tulane University police science professor
Two veterans from a formative period in the history of the New Orleans Police Department died this summer. They are remembered here:
James C. Parsons. James C. “Jim” Parsons, 79, died June 5 in his hometown of Birmingham, Ala.
Credited with transforming the Birmingham Police Department from the unabashed racism of the “Bull” Connor era into one of the nation’s more modern police departments, Chief Parsons (1972-’78), who was white, was appointed by New Orleans’ first black mayor, Dutch Morial, to reform the NOPD.
Selected from more than 110 applicants, Parsons served as chief from 1978-’80. His stormy tenure included the ’79 police strike and “the Algiers Incidents” of November ’80: the NOPD investigation of the murder of Officer Gregory Neupert, resulting in the police shooting deaths of four blacks and – a federal trial judge later concluded – the police “torture” of alleged witnesses. The two watershed controversies and a playboy reputation overshadowed Parsons’ administrative innovations and personal efforts at community outreach. “The strike undermined him; Algiers finished him off,” says Anthony Radosti, vice president of the private Metropolitan Crime Commission and a retired NOPD detective. “He did come in with some fresh ideas. The department as it was in that era resisted those changes as it has done up until recently.”
Parsons was the first chief to “civilianize” the NOPD, hiring civilians to replace cops at desk jobs, saving money and putting more police on the street. He cleared the way for more women to join the force and hired respected civilian administrators such as Paula Huber and Janice Roussell.
He improved police response times, the reporting of crimes and gave officers more time for police work by replacing long hand-written narratives with “check-box” reports. He introduced NOPD’s “customer satisfaction” survey, among other reforms.
“Parsons left a legacy of attempts to modernize and improve the relationship between the city and the citizens,” says First Assistant District Attorney Graymond Martin, a police sergeant assigned to the “reform” chief.
“He wanted to make the NOPD more human,” says Leonard Moore, author of Black Rage in New Orleans (LSU Press, 2010). He hoped that “minor administrative reforms would change the overall character of the NOPD.” Personal attempts to bridge the abyss between the NOPD and the city’s black community proved “ineffective.”
Parsons resigned Nov. 24, 1980, amid public uproar over the brutality of the Algiers Incidents. His stint at NOPD destroyed his once-promising career in police administration. New Orleans didn’t see another “outsider” chief until October 1994, when Dutch Morial’s son, former Mayor Marc Morial, hired Superintendent Richard Pennington away from Washington D.C.
John C. Raphael Jr. During the 1979 police strike, NOPD Officer John C. “J.C.” Raphael Jr. and his police partner Ronald Recasner continued working. They were pursuing the “Kissing Bandit,” a violent sex offender who terrorized the university area of Uptown.
I covered the attacks as a freelancing journalism student at Loyola University. I saw one of the victims, moments after she had been shot in the face, near Tulane University campus. She walked calmly out of the dark holding her bleeding jaw as she crossed Broadway Avenue near Zimple Street. She survived.
As the strike and the crime spree continued, racial tensions mounted. The suspect was a black male. All the victims known to police were white women.
Recasner and Raphael, both black, spent many nights looking for the deranged suspect and possible copycats while trying to assure residents of the racially-mixed neighborhoods in the Second District.
One night, the blue-uniformed cops appeared at the Chapel of the Holy Spirit on Broadway Avenue to update a packed church on the case.
I remember being struck by how comfortable Officer Raphael appeared at the altar. He was tall and thin and gripped the dais like the pastor he would later become.
He calmed the crowd, separating facts from rumors.
Soon, neighbors were confidently exchanging phone numbers and vowing to look after one another. “By the way,” Raphael said. “I hope nobody thinks this is all racial.”
The predominantly white crowd erupted with laughter. A few shook their heads, no. For weeks, in fact, young black males in the Uptown area complained of being routinely stopped, searched and sometimes cursed by police until a suspect was arrested and convicted on an attempted murder charge.
The son of Det. John Raphael, one of the first black officers to join the NOPD in the 20th century, the younger Raphael later said he found his badge and gun were no buffer to the pain of racism.
In 1988, Raphael married fellow Officer Catherine Peacock, after a long courtship shadowed by grief.
On Aug. 31, 1983, her unarmed son Gerard Glover, 18, was fatally shot in the back by a white NOPD officer during a high-speed police chase of a motorcycle in the Palmetto Overpass area. Another unarmed youth drove the motorcycle. He escaped harm and imprisonment.
At the time, I interviewed Officer Peacock at her home for The Louisiana Weekly. Officer Raphael sat solemnly with her at the kitchen table. Peacock expressed the same shock and disbelief to me as she did later to The New York Times: “I said, ‘This couldn’t be. Police don’t shoot people in the back.’”
She called for independent investigations of her son’s death, resulting in the disclosure of a police cover-up of Glover’s death and her ostracism from the NOPD. She told me how she took the stairs to work at police headquarters to avoid hearing cruel criticisms from police colleagues in the elevator.
Officer Stephen Rosiere was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Although police admitted that they planted a drop gun and lied to NOPD investigators, Rosiere’s conviction and life sentence was vacated on appeal for insufficient evidence and the failure of prosecutors to turn over exculpatory statements.
By the end of the 1980s, Peacock and Raphael had left the NOPD to lead New Hope Baptist Church in impoverished Central City.
Rev. John C. Raphael, 60, died July 1 of bone cancer.
“He was unbelievable,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu told reporters after a huge memorial service at the Mahalia Jackson Theater, where he eulogized the pastor’s ministry of well-publicized street crusades, prayer vigils and postings of “Thou Shalt Not Kill” signs against drugs and violence.
As one of the city’s first second-generation black officers on the NOPD, Raphael’s 14 years on the force helped to establish the peace-keeping role of a black police presence.
It is odd – the things we remember when someone dies. I recall riding with young officers Raphael and Recasner some 30 years ago as a reporter for the Loyola Maroon student newspaper. Recasner joked as he wheeled the blue-and-white unit off Magazine Street toward the Riverview behind Audubon Zoo. We talked about the factors citizens should consider before buying a firearm for protection.
“Watch out for (police) rookies,” Recasner quipped.
The more pensive of the two, Raphael emphasized the awesome power and responsibility. He seemed to weigh his words as he spoke: “The thing about a gun is, you have to know where it is – at all times.”
Years later, he holstered his police service weapon for the last time. He had found love, marriage, a church – and a new cross to bear.