law & disorder
SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

UPDATES

October 6, 2011 13:48 Tough Sentences for Danziger Bridge Officers Turned Witnesses Federal prosecutors yesterday asked for leniency in sentencing two former New Orleans police officers who pleaded guilty to participating in the cover-up of the notorious post-Katrina Danziger Bridge shootings. CONTINUE »
September 15, 2011 13:26 FBI Agents To Monitor New Orleans Police Two FBI agents will be stationed full time in the NOPD's Public Integrity Bureau, the department and the FBI jointly announced this week. The agents, whose presence was requested by the NOPD, will investigate allegations of significant corruption or civil rights violations in the department. CONTINUE »
August 5, 2011 14:07 Verdict: Five NOPD Officers Guilty in Danziger Bridge Shootings, Cover-Up A federal jury today found all five Danziger Bridge defendants guilty of the shootings that killed two civilians and seriously wounded four others in the days after Hurricane Katrina. The jury also found the officers guilty of a massive cover-up that lasted nearly five years. Five NOPD officers had previously pleaded guilty in the case. CONTINUE »
MORE UPDATES

Interview Mary Howell

Mary Howell

Howell is a New Orleans lawyer who has been working on civil rights cases, many involving allegations of police brutality, for more than 30 years. She is currently representing Lance Madison, who filed suit against the NOPD claiming he was falsely arrested in connection with the Danziger Bridge incident. His brother, Ronald, died in the incident after being shot by police. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Nov. 23, 2009.

When you look at the New Orleans Police Department over the last 30 years, what patterns appear to you?

When I started out with the civil rights practice here, we had a larger civil rights practice, and we did housing cases; we did employment. We saw ourselves as being sort of a multipurpose civil rights law office. Unfortunately, very quickly in the setting up of this practice here -- and I think it was in 1977 -- the problems with the New Orleans police just took over everything, and for the last 30 years it has been almost relentless with problems with this police department. It has seemed almost impervious to real change. ...

Unfortunately -- and this is not peculiar to New Orleans; I think this is sort of a universal problem with police departments -- we've had a long history here of police chiefs and mayors who unfortunately viewed the population here, [which] is predominantly African American, a lot of poor people here, very large concentration of poverty, as almost like an enemy ... and has treated people accordingly.

Where we've seen real breakthroughs happen is -- and this happened with the Len Davis case, which happened in 1994 -- when it's crossed out of just impacting the poor people or impacting the black community, and periodically there will be, like, a tourist who's killed by the police or there will be some really absolutely horrendous incident that crosses class and race lines. ...

Len Davis was a police officer with New Orleans Police Department who, ironically, had more commendations and awards and merit recognition than any other officer in the department and simultaneously had more complaints from citizens. ...

Basically, the feds came in and were doing a sting operation of Len Davis and a number of other officers who were running a cocaine ring inside the police department. ... The feds had wired a number of these police officers, had them guarding what they thought was a warehouse filled with cocaine. This was mainly in the Lower Ninth Ward. [Davis] basically ran the Lower Ninth Ward and was just terrorizing people down there. Kids would be pulled over and beaten up. There was constant threats against people. And people would complain about it, and nothing would happen. It was a really dire situation. He would get complaints about it, and it would be investigated, and he would get a slap on the wrist, etc.

“The storm stripped bare any pretense that there was any structure, any accountability, any policies in place, any of the skeleton that you would expect of an organization like a police department.”

In October 1994, as the feds were investigating this cocaine ring, Kim Marie Groves, who's a young mother of three children in the Lower Ninth Ward, there were some kids in the neighborhood [that] had been mistreated by Len Davis and by his partner, and Kim Marie Groves just said: "That's it. That's enough. I'm going to put a stop to this." And she made the decision to go file a complaint with internal affairs about Len Davis. Literally I would say within two days later, 24 hours, she was shot and killed by a hit man who was working for Len Davis.

And that murder, assassination of Kim Marie Groves, was captured on audiotape. ... It's going to be the audio equivalent of the Rodney King incident. ... It's really chilling, because Len Davis and his partner had the hit man in their car earlier in the day circling around in the neighborhood, in the Lower Ninth Ward, looking for Kim Marie Groves, and didn't find her. …

That evening, as Len Davis is off work, he's patrolling her house, circling the house, and he sees her, and she'd left to go out to a neighborhood bar to get a beer. He calls the hit man, and the hit man is running late. ... Davis is just constantly pressuring the hit man: "Come do her. Come do her now." And finally the hit man just says, "All right, all right, I'll go do her now," and drives down to the Lower Ninth Ward and shoots and kills her. Her children are inside the house, and they hear gunfire, and a neighbor called and says, "I think that was your mother." They go running outside and see their mother dying in the street.

When that became public knowledge about what had happened, there was such a chill through this community. It's the first time in all the years I'd done this work where it really felt to me like there was a wakeup call happening. And this was in 1994, when we were number one in the nation in murders. It's less than I think 30 percent of those murders were ever solved. And "solved" doesn't mean that someone was convicted. It just meant that someone was identified as a suspected perpetrator. It was a very, very scary time to be in this city.

And the U.S. attorney at that time, who was Eddie Jordan, actually came forward and said this was not a question of bad apples; that the police, the corruption inside the police department was systemic, pervasive and rampant. The mayor at the time, Mark Morial, who ... had just been elected, been in office about six months -- to clean up the police department; it was a major part of his campaign -- classified this struggle against police misconduct, police corruption in New Orleans as a fight for the soul of the city. And he was right about that.

We had a reform police chief: Richard Pennington was brought in from Washington, D.C. He was specifically brought in to clean up the police department. He was the ultimate outsider. ... As he was being sworn in, the FBI took him aside -- right after he was sworn in, which was the day that Kim Marie Groves was being killed -- and the FBI told him about the corruption in the department, that they had a very big investigation going on in cocaine delivery inside the police department and told him to trust no one. That ended up standing him in good stead, and it was good advice.

By the end of his tenure, which was an eight-year tenure, ... it's anywhere between 60 and 100 police officers who were criminally charged, convicted. There were at least 100 officers, I think, that were fired. He made a number of policy changes. ...

There was a brief moment of respite from the enormous problems that we had with this police department, because, for the first time in the history of New Orleans, you had a mayor, you had a police chief, you had a U.S. attorney who got it. We were out of denial, and we had a recognition that we had a very, very serious problem with this police department that was generational; it was cultural; it was profound; it was not just a case of one or two bad apples; that it was much deeper than that and was going to take a systematic and dedicated effort to transform it. ...

There was one point where we had four New Orleans police officers who were charged with first-degree murder. We had two police officers on death row. Len Davis was the first police officer in the history of the United States who was convicted and sentenced to die for the murder of a citizen who had complained about civil rights violations under the federal criminal rights statute. He remains on death row today.

The other outrageous incident that I think really galvanized the broader community was the incident involving [Officer] Antoinette Frank [in March 1995]. She had worked a private-duty detail at a restaurant owned by a Vietnamese family here. ... She came with a partner of hers, non-police partner [Rogers LaCaze], and they robbed the place of business, the restaurant where she'd been working, [and] in the course of that robbery shot and killed her former partner, Ronald Williams, a fellow police officer. And she's on the police department at the time this killing is happening.

They executed a brother and sister of a Vietnamese family who were in the restaurant. The brother was studying to be a priest. The sister was planning on being a nun. They were young. They'd been there helping to clean up in the family business. And there was another sibling who was hiding while this happened and saw what had happened. ...

And then the call goes out. The police come, and Antoinette Frank returns back to the scene at the restaurant as if she'd just heard the call and comes in, acts as if she's all upset and all concerned. And the young girl who had survived had looked over and said: "Well, why are you asking these questions since you were here? You know what happened." That's when literally the police looked at her and go, "Oh, my God," and they arrest her on the spot.

In the 30 years I've been doing this work, she was the first person I know of who was accused of killing a police officer in New Orleans who lived long enough to have a trial. Up until that point, virtually anyone who was accused of killing a police officer, they died. They were shot and killed. That was sort of the legend. That was the culture: that you messed with the police, you'd die. And the fact that she lived -- she's on death row today -- the fact that she lived long enough to have a trial was a source of real discomfort. I'd say a small-minority vocal part of the police department just felt like this was the beginning of the end, that someone had killed a police officer and had lived to tell about it.

The fact that the officer she killed was a fellow officer really brought home again in a very powerful way what serious trouble we're in with this police department.

This is also during the Clinton administration, so you had actually resources available. Pennington was in an unusual situation. One, he had a Justice Department who was actually prosecuting and cared and was investigating for police misconduct; and you had a lot of money that was pouring in at the time for cops' programs and different programs to kind of build up for training and accountability in police departments.

You also had the threat of civil enforcement, that for the first time there was a federal statute that said that the federal government could basically come in and take over a police department. ... That was a very real and serious threat with this police department I would say in between 1994 and 1996. ... Justice is going all over the country, and they were suing police departments, and they were having them do consent decrees. Those consent decrees instituted a lot of the reforms that we had here, but they were by court order, and they were monitored by courts, and you had somebody doing oversight and making sure they were doing what they were supposed to be doing. And they did them in L.A. They did them in, I think, Pittsburgh. There were a number of cities around the country where these consent decrees were happening.

Let's just back up one second. Richard Pennington is the chief of police during this moment and then he decides to do what?

Richard Pennington was an interesting guy when he was here. I would say there was a period of time when Richard Pennington was probably the most popular person in this city. He would walk into a restaurant and people would stand up and cheer him. He really took a very strong and open and direct stand that he was going to clean up this police department, and he did it.

In one sense he was free in the sense that he didn't know any of these police officers. He didn't know their families; he didn't know their mothers; he didn't know their preachers. He didn't have the old school ties, the neighborhood ties. He had the backing of the Justice Department, he had the backing of the FBI, the backing of the mayor to do what needed to be done. And he was very straight in doing that from what I could see, looking at it from the outside.

There would be a number of times when there would be really bad incidents happening. We had an incident [where] there were some police officers who were literally taking kids on the street and pulling their pants down and putting their fingers in their rectum and doing these very degrading -- I mean, they were basically raping them with their hands. ... That's the kind of thing, if you found out about it, you could contact Pennington, and Pennington would stop it. He'd just stop it, find out who was doing it, where is this going, and bring in the supervisors. ...

The problem with New Orleans -- New Orleans is a very seductive city. The good thing about New Orleans is that somebody like Richard Pennington, I think, was embraced by people, and [they] saw him as an agent for change and saw that things were going to get better here and welcomed him. The bad thing about it is, I think at a certain point, I don't know who was telling him this or advising him of this, but was saying that this could translate into a larger political power. And that's when he decided to run for mayor, which I always thought was a big mistake. It was not his finest moment. He was not a good candidate. ...

And [Ray] Nagin emerged as this sort of businessman, no background. He's going to bring this city together. He's not tied up in all the politics around the Morial administration. He sort of appeared out of nowhere. And he had the support of the police unions, and he had the support of those who didn't want to see reform in the police department. …

There were five candidates to be police chief, to follow Pennington, and they were all from New Orleans. They were all part of this police department. They were career officers. They'd been here forever. And I started making calls around the country to talk to experts and police, saying, "OK, here's our scenario." They were well familiar with what had happened here in New Orleans. I said: "We've had an outside reform police chief here for eight years. We've had a real campaign to clean up the police department, not just to get rid of individuals, but to have a culture change here."

And what every one of those experts said is, given the history of New Orleans, given the problems we've had here, you have got to follow an outside reform police chief with another outside reform police chief. You have got to have a national search. You've got to find the best person, and they have to come from outside the department to show that this is not just a question of a specific administration or a specific mayor, a specific police chief, but this is about a paradigm shift; it's about a culture change; it's about real transformation.

And I think, to the great misfortune of our city, that did not happen, and instead we ended up with a police chief who mainly wanted to be loved by his fellow officers, and that was Chief [Eddie] Compass. ... And almost immediately you saw discipline stopped, accountability stopped.

By the time we came to Katrina this department was, I would say, in as bad a shape as we had been in 1994. And this is 11 years later. And in August 2005, there had been almost a complete collapse of the department before the storm even hit.

And by complete collapse, what do you mean?

First of all, we were again number one in the nation in murders, and most of those murders were not solved. ... Once again, people were afraid of the police. ... We used to say that people in New Orleans during the period when Pennington had come here, that people were more afraid of the police than they were the criminals -- and it was hard to tell the difference. …

When Eddie Compass took office in May of 2004, when the Nagin administration came in, almost immediately you started feeling -- it's like the good ol' boy network was back. There was almost a sense of relief: We've gotten rid of Pennington; we've gotten rid of this oversight.

There was this announcement that the feds were leaving, and gradually things started going back to where they had been before, but almost with a feeling of vengeance or something. ... We once again started getting complaints about police officers putting their hands up kids' butts on the street. We started getting a lot of complaints about people being cursed out and treated really rudely and really mean, and then it started escalating, and we started getting more and more of these minor street-level -- just harassment, beatings, with no response, no real accountability at all from the police department, certainly no recognition from the police chief that this was going to be dealt with and that this was going to be stopped. ...

All at once we started having a lot of shootings. You had Joe Williams, the trombone player for the Hot 8 [Brass Band], who was shot and killed in August 2004, coming from playing a jazz funeral. The police claim that he was driving a stolen vehicle and used the vehicle as a weapon, shot and killed him. The only weapon he had -- if you can call it a weapon -- in his vehicle was a trombone. And his death created a lot of dissension and outrage in the community. He was a very talented and gifted player, and nobody bought the police story.

You had an incident that happened in March 2005 with the Mardi Gras Indians, at St. Joseph's Night. ... That's a sacred night for the Indians. On that night the Indians go out, and they're in their suits and their costumes that they've worked on for the whole year. ... Historically it's never had permits. I mean, the Indians for 150 years or so have been doing this. ...

And the police decided [on] St. Joseph's Night to bust up the Indians and came, and there's video footage of some of this stuff. You hear people screaming, the police coming in with their lights; they're ordering Indian chiefs who are parading through the streets to take off their crown. And the whole theme of the Indians is that the Indians do not bow down, so there was a public humiliation of the chiefs. People were outraged by this. ...

There was a memorial event for Joe Williams, the Hot 8 trombone player, in the Ninth Ward. The police came and busted that up and arrested a number of people in the community there and charged them [with] inciting a riot. One was a young woman who was videotaping the police as they came in and were yelling at people and breaking up this gathering. ... The police assaulted her, grabbing the video, charged her with inciting a riot. And afterward, when I had to gone to meet with the police officials about this, they told me that merely having a video camera or camera in a situation like this where the police are interacting with the community was considered to be inciting a riot. And that would give you an idea about how tenuous the relationship was at that point. ...

In June 2005 they held a press conference to announce that the motto of the police department, "To protect and to serve," was being changed, and that from now on the motto would be only "To serve." ...

We had the incident with Raymond [Robair], who was beaten to death in the streets of Treme. ... The police claim they found him on the streets and took him to the hospital and left him there. There were numerous witnesses who came forward and said that he had been attacked and beaten by the police, and killed by the police.

You had also in August 2005 -- you look back on this, and it's hard to believe all this is happening at the same time -- you had the sentencing hearing for Len Davis. Len Davis had been originally convicted of three counts of federal violations, and one of those counts involved killing or interfering with a federal witness. The appellate courts had ruled that since Kim Marie Groves went to the police department to complain of a violation of rights that she was not technically a federal witness, so that count was reversed. Since that count had been reversed, the death penalty had been set aside, and they had a new hearing for the sentencing hearing for Len Davis.

Editors' Note: Davis was again sentenced to death in October 2005 as a result of this new hearing.

So there was this moment in time where you're having this whole replay of what was going on in 1994 with the collapse of this police department with the killing of Kim Marie Groves. Once again we're hearing the sound of the hit man and the police officer planning her death. ... It's like, we're back. We're back to where we were.

And then, of course, Katrina came. ...

What do you think was going on with the police department that week, the week that the storm struck? ...

First of all, the department by that time was, internally, deeply divided. There were cliques. There were feuds going on between Compass, the police chief, and one of the deputy chiefs, [Warren] Riley, who then subsequently took over as police chief. ... I think there was a great deal of undermining and backbiting. ...

And you're having young recruits who were coming in who were seeing a lot of bad stuff happening and no accountability. Then that's what they're learning, that, "Oh, this is the way you do it." You had a lot of bad, old guys who were still hanging around, and they were becoming the "go-to" guys in the department because they were seen as "being aggressive." And once again, you were having this whole thing with these tactical units and these street units that they were running rampant. And this is what we'd had with Len Davis. They had their own turfs, and they controlled them.

Externally, we were back again in the situation where the city was number one in the nation in murders. There was a huge amount of violence going on in the city. Citizens are feeling that not only are the police not protecting them, you can't go to the police for help, but the police are hostile toward the community. They've lost the ability to make distinctions between who the good guys [are] and the bad guys are, so everyone's being treated badly.

I'm making gross generalizations here. There are obvious exceptions to everything that I'm saying here. But in a gross sort of overview, we went into that storm with a deeply dysfunctional department, with leadership that was hanging in there by name only.

And what happened, you saw. I evacuated the day before the storm. We left town. So I'm watching this on TV, and anyone watching this on TV saw several things happening almost simultaneously: We saw massive desertion of hundreds of police officers who just left and said, "I'm out of here." Some of them you can't blame, you know, because by then things were really awful, and there was no leadership. There was no sense that anybody really cared about them, I think. A lot of them lost their own homes, etc. A lot of them had hit their own wall, and they just left. And a lot of them couldn't come back.

You had police officers who were engaging in criminal activity during the storm of a relatively minor level, in terms of the shoplifting, and they're contributing to the sense of lawlessness. There were many, many stories about police taking people's -- law-abiding citizens who were here who had guns and weapons. In fact they ended up being sued by the NRA [National Rifle Association] because they were stripping people of their ability to defend themselves. They just stole people's guns and weapons. They weren't inventorying; they weren't following any procedures. They were just going into people's homes. They were stopping people's cars.

You had accounts of police just driving by as people are literally dying and showing just gross indifference to them. There were accounts of police departments, other departments from other cities coming in to help with rescue, who were horrified by what they saw as the interaction between the New Orleans police and the citizens here. And some of those departments reportedly left. Their own department said, "We can't be party to this," and left town watching the interaction.

You talked to people here during the time, the difference between the way they were treated by the National Guard, treated by the military, treated by the Coast Guard, treated by volunteers that came in, it's night and day. ...

And there are exceptions to that. You also will find people who are alive today because they were rescued by New Orleans police officers. You will find that there were individual officers that went out and just sort of created their own little units, for good and bad, ... but they were without leadership that was giving them any real direction. I think it's widely understood that our police chief basically lost it during Katrina and was not really able to give leadership that [was] needed. ... So I think they were making it up as they went along, for good and bad.

The fact that there ends up being a number of killings just seems to me to be part of the whole larger picture. ... The storm stripped bare any pretense that there was any structure, any accountability, any policies in place, any of the skeleton that you would expect of an organization like a police department. It all vanished. ...

At some point in there I think that it all came down to: … The courts are gone, the jails are gone, it's up to us and we're going to "do what we have to do" and move on. …

And in the middle of this, as I'm watching this on TV from miles away, I called a leading expert on police in the country, and I said, "OK, you're watching the same thing I'm watching." I said: "It appears that this department is collapsing and has collapsed. Is there any precedent for this for a police department in an American city, whether it's in the midst of civil disorder or natural disaster or whatever it may be, that a police department has essentially collapsed as it appears that this one is collapsing on every front at every level?" And there was a long pause, and the answer was, "Not since the 19th century." ...

It's been more than four years now. Has City Hall ever given a full explanation of how the police department used force, how many people might have been killed in the week after the storm or the two weeks after the storm?

One of the problems that we have with this city is nobody really wants to look at what happened in New Orleans with the police department, with the storm. And when I say nobody, I mean the mayor has had no interest in it; the police department, to my knowledge, has not conducted its own internal investigations or asked for an overall study to be done or review to be done of what happened here with this department.

Until fairly recently, we couldn't get the Justice Department to come in and look at these cases. We had local investigations by the local district attorney's office, particularly in Danziger [Bridge]. It was a disaster. It was badly handled from the beginning. ...

There's a really interesting book called The Resilient City [2005], and it's about how cities survive disaster. ... And one of the things that they've discovered in looking at cities like Kobe, Japan, or different places [that] have had these kinds of experiences is that if the toxic narrative wins out, then the city is not going to survive, is not going to come back. But as long as there's a positive narrative that winds out, then there's a resiliency in the city, most cities. ...

I think that has gotten twisted in a really bad way here as if, OK, positive narrative. Let's construct a positive narrative for what happened here, and let's pretend that the bad things didn't happen. So if you want to talk about the bad things that happened here, you are an obstacle to the recovery of this city. You are preventing the city from recovering because we need to make things look good. ...

There were people that were heroic; there were people who did wonderful things. But that's not the whole story. And my feeling consistently has been if we don't address what happened here during Katrina and hold those accountable, if there was wrongdoing here, if there were criminal acts that happened here, if there was misconduct that happened here, there has got to be accountability.

Katrina did not suspend the United States Constitution. It did not suspend the Fourth Amendment. There's no such thing as martial law in this country where you come into free-fire zones, where you come in and shoot to kill without any justification legally or any accountability. That does not and should not happen here. It cannot happen here. ...

More than four years later, do we know how many people police shot in the wake --

One of the shocking things about what happened with Katrina, and the number of people killed in Katrina, is we have a generic body count of about 1,500, 1,600 people, all the people who supposedly died during Katrina. To this day, I would venture to say we do not have a clear understanding of how many of those were homicides, and we do not have a clear understanding of how many people were actually shot and killed by the New Orleans Police Department or by military operations that were going on here.

We need those numbers. We need to know every one of those incidents that happened, and we need to know their faces; we need to know their names. We need to know whether those killings were justifiable or not justifiable. ... And it's shocking to me that we don't know that. And it's the lack of curiosity about that within the police department itself or by the mayor or by the state authorities [that] is pretty appalling. ...

How extensive [is the current federal probe]?

My sense is that the federal probe that's going on now is serious, and I don't know that I would have said that a year ago. There's a lot of FBI agents that seem to be in town. They've brought in very experienced Department of Justice attorneys working on this, and obviously it's an investigation.

There's no indictments that have come down yet, and whether or not there will be indictments remains to be seen. And what those indictments are for also remains to be seen.

Editors' Note: There have been more than a dozen indictments since this interview was conducted.

One of the big issues about Katrina is the fact that, in a number of these incidents, evidence was not collected. ... It was not logged. And you could say, well, it was chaos, and there wasn't time to do it. With the state police, their crime lab was operating. There were lots of other police departments that were coming in here, and even though, yes, the NOPD Crime Lab was flooded, at a certain point there were a lot of resources that, had you wanted to conduct an investigation, there were resources; there were teams that could have been asked to come and step in and handle those matters.

The fact that the New Orleans Police Department kept most of this in house itself is a problem, because it does raise the legitimate question of whether that was deliberately done in such a way that it was going to be very difficult to reinvestigate these killings and to understand what actually happened there. ...

So you have the New Orleans police officers, which is a problem under the best of circumstances, investigating their own officer-involved shootings that they've never been very good at doing anyway. You now have them doing this under Katrina conditions. That in itself was a disaster. And that's one question that I would like to have answered, is why they didn't ask for assistance to come in from outside to take over these officer-involved shootings. I've never gotten a satisfactory answer to that.

In your experience, what happens when the New Orleans Police Department investigate[s] a deadly use of force or an officer-involved shooting? What kind of conclusions do you typically see the department coming to about the actions of these officers?

In the 30 years that I've been doing these cases, you have to break down officer-involved shootings by different categories, and how the department handles them really depends. If it's an officer-involved shooting that is a domestic situation -- there actually have been a number of cases, and more in recent years, where the department has investigated it, has arrested and prosecuted officers for shooting and killing their wives or their girlfriends or that kind of domestic shooting. So you have to set those aside. ...

There have been some incidents where some officers -- there's a couple I'm thinking of over the years -- there was other criminal conduct involved in carrying out hits or something like that. … You usually found out afterward that officer wasn't liked by other officers or there was other stuff going on. And there have been criminal prosecutions in some of those incidents over the years.

When you are dealing with a question of a use of force by a New Orleans police officer against a citizen, where the officer has shot and killed that citizen, I would have to say -- I'm struggling to think if I can think of any exception to this, and there may be some exception -- but almost universally that officer is going to be cleared. ... The case is going to be referred to the Orleans Parish District Attorney's Office, which is going to take it before a grand jury. They're only required to take shootings in front of grand juries, or killings in front of grand juries, of a first-degree murder. If it's lesser offenses like second-degree murder, or if it's manslaughter, cases like that, they can actually charge by bill of information. It does not have to go before the grand jury. But the grand jury is secret, so you don't ever know really what transpires.

So what would happen here, universally, the district attorney … would take the case to the grand jury, state grand jury, and the state grand jury would clear them. There would be no indictment, but you never knew what was presented there or what happened.

Before you even got to the grand jury stage, the body would be autopsied of the person that was shot by the police, and that would go to the coroner's office. Invariably the coroner's office -- we had such difficulty with the autopsies that would happen over there in in-custody deaths. Invariably the autopsies would be incomplete. They would have misleading information in them.

If it was an in-custody death case, we developed the habit ... that we would have to do our own autopsies, and it was shocking, the disparity that we would find. We would bring in an independent pathologist, do the autopsies. We would videotape them; we would tape-record them; we would take photographs -- all of the stuff that is not happening in the coroner's office -- and invariably the findings we would have would be drastically different from what was happening at the coroner's office. ...

[Has] Orleans Parish not allowed [families to have their own pathologists view an] autopsy?

The Orleans Parish Coroner's Office historically has not allowed families to have their own pathologist view autopsies in custody deaths, and that's been a problem. ...

I want to go back to something about Katrina. ... I'm aware of at least one report that came out that I found fascinating. This was a New Orleans police sergeant who, in an after-action report describing what had happened at Katrina, had stated that this officer had observed scores of officers -- I think the figure is like, 100 or 150 officers -- who were significantly traumatized and impaired as a result of what they themselves experienced in Katrina and actually should have been decommissioned on the spot; that they were not emotionally fit for duty. ...

But I remember just feeling chilled when I saw that, because this is a really dangerous situation to be in. … Knowing that these people are impaired and that they're not thinking right and sending them out in the streets in that condition, it's just shocking to me that that was allowed to happen and that there's been no real follow-up to that and to understand how that could have been allowed to happen and what were the consequences of that. Were there things that happened because you've put people in situations they should not have been in? ...

And there are exceptions to that. I think there were specific individual officers that stepped forward and took charge of their own little bands and their own little units, their own little groups, and were trying to define missions and go about doing work, I hope, in a positive way.

But it was a disastrous situation other than that in terms of accountability. And we went through this in 1980 -- it was really interesting -- in Algiers, [a case that became known as the Algiers 7]. It was the first really horrific incident I was involved in here, where a white police officer was shot and killed in Algiers, [a] predominantly black neighborhood. And at the end of that week, four black people had been killed. Scores of people had been tortured. We had mock executions. We had people, young men, marched through the housing projects like prisoners of war with their hands up to their heads and guns to their heads. It was a whole week of just absolute terror in the community. ...

One of the most telling things about Algiers is the police chief at that time after that officer was killed, they basically suspended the normal report-writing rules. They suspended all of those internal rules and regulations, which sometimes people chafe against or may think they're unnecessary. They suspended trip sheets. They suspended the actual report writing. ...

So when we got involved in looking into it afterward and doing the civil lawsuits, we discovered that all the rules had been suspended. It cut both ways. ... We had trouble identifying [where] all officers were and what were they doing and trying to have accountability and tracing their steps, but it also meant officers couldn't account for what they were doing. They had no records to show that they were where they were supposed to be or that they were in fact doing what they were supposed to be doing. ...

And at the end of that whole episode -- the civil lawsuits lasted six years -- I think we ended up with something like 17 plaintiffs and 50-something defendants. There were seven New Orleans police officers who were charged by the federal government with federal criminal civil rights violations. Three of them were convicted and went to prison. There was a brief period of reform after that. There was a new internal affairs office set up. There was some different reform measures that were instituted, but basically those started slip-sliding away.

And then [in the] mid- to late '80s, you started seeing a rise again in these incidents and in these shootings. And I think it was ... from 1985 to 1990, New Orleans had the highest, what they called, JHR rate in the nation, which is a justifiable homicide rating by the police, and virtually every shooting by the police was classified as a justifiable homicide. I think there was 17 times the number of shootings by police compared to New York City or other cities, where there were a lot of crime problems going on. ... We also led the nation in civil rights complaints during that time through the Justice Department.

The police chief at that time said that we didn't have a problem with police misconduct in New Orleans. We just had a problem with citizens who liked to complain a lot, and that that was the only problem we had in New Orleans.

So we went through a really rough period where you're seeing again, after the reforms had kind of worn off after Algiers, where there was sort of an increase in complaints, an increase in incidents, an increase in killings and shootings by the police with no accountability, leading up to 1990, where there was a very popular and well-respected police officer, Earl Hauck, ... who was shot and killed by an individual who was identified later as Adolph Archie, who was an African American man, had a mainly petty criminal background but had done some time in prison also, had walked away from a work release program. The story was that there was actually a chase that had happened through City Hall. He had gone to the Superdome, had stolen a gun from a security guard that was there, was being chased through City Hall, ends up running into Officer Hauck. No one actually knows what happened there, but it appears that during that exchange Archie shot and killed Officer Hauck and took off running.

This is downtown New Orleans rush-hour traffic. Police officers are coming from all over the city, and they're shooting. Guns are going [off] everywhere. People are diving for cover. Archie has a gun. He's gone under a car. And the story at that point is that he's clicking his gun, and it's empty; it has no bullets. And there was a young rookie police officer who was there, realized he was out of bullets, and captured him and pulled him out of the car, handcuffed him, put him in the police car. We heard later that that young police officer got a lot of grief for the fact that he hadn't shot and killed Archie right there on the spot, and that officer ultimately ended up leaving the department.

But what happened, they put Archie in the backseat of the police car and they take him to the hospital, Charity Hospital, on the ramp -- which is where they had taken Officer Hauck. He's met by what the police report, [it] described themselves as a mob of about 150 to 200 police officers who were threatening to kill him on the ramp. On the way there to the hospital -- this is back where you had the old analog tapes with the police dispatch -- and you can hear, and every cab driver in town and everybody with a police scanner could hear it, the police communications back and forth: "Is he dead yet?" "No." "Kill him now." "String him up by the balls." "We've got to start killing them." It's just replete with death threats against Archie.

And you listen to that transcript, or you listen to that whole tape, and you keep waiting for a command voice to intervene and say: "Stop this. This man is under arrest. He's in custody. He must not be harmed," you know. That voice never happened. There is an attempted intervention by one officer, comes in and says, "Hey, guys, that's all going on the tape." And they're going, "Eff the tape." That transcript was just -- it was chilling.

I refer to the Archie incident as a lynching that happened in open, in public, in downtown New Orleans. He had been wounded; he had been shot in the arm. They diverted him from the Charity Hospital, diverted him from medical treatment. There were other hospitals right in the immediate area where he could have been taken for treatment and then taken to be booked in the jail. Instead they took him back to the 1st District, which was the home station of the police officer that had been shot and killed, [which] has no holding cells. There's no facilities there. They claim they left him alone, unguarded in a room that's a large officer room with floor-to-ceiling windows in it and that they come back into the room five to 10 minutes later, he's made a Houdini-like maneuver, has gotten his hands in front of him and that he lunges for their gun, and there's a struggle, and he slips and falls. He died within 12 hours. ...

It turns out Dr. [Frank Minyard, Orleans Parish coroner,] did an autopsy [in] which the injuries appeared to be consistent with a slip and fall. We end up doing a follow-up autopsy, which show the extensive injuries. Archie's face had been kicked in. There's indentations [showing that] his teeth had been kicked in; he had a fractured larynx; he had massive hemorrhaging all over the back of his body, his testicles hemorrhaging. The FBI eventually brought Dr. Michael Baden in to review all the autopsy reports, who concluded that he had been beaten to death by the police. The coroner ultimately changed the cause of death to homicide due to intervention by police.

No police officers were ever indicted. There was no prosecution. There was no one ever held accountable for the beating death of Adolph Archie.

And I will tell you, I think the killing of Adolph Archie was sort of the beginning of the end for this police department, the fact that this could happen in broad daylight, openly. Everyone in town knew what had happened. There was a sizable minority, very vocal, who thought that this was just fine, and the police chief at the time went on the air and said the lessons to be learned, after it was announced that Archie had died, is that you resist the police to the threat of your own demise. That was the message from the police department.

There was no internal investigation by the police department that was conducted. We did, in the civil lawsuits -- the police chief, subsequent police chief at the time, we asked him about this procedure of the police, what happened, why no one intervened with the death threats that were made against Archie on the communication and the dispatch calls, ... and he said, "Well, the reason that you didn't intervene is that you know how children are." I said, "What do you mean, you know how children are?" He said, "If you tell them not to do something, it just makes them want to do it even more." And we're saying: "You're the police chief. These are police who are talking about killing a man who's in custody, and you're not going to tell them not to do that? If you heard it, you wouldn't have intervened?"

He also claimed that it was not a violation of any policy for the police to divert Archie from medical care and to take him back to this home district station, because he said that a place of custody is any place a police officer says it is, and the police officers could even take an arrested subject home with them and that that would be considered to be permissible. ...

We had police officers doing bank robberies. We had police officers involved in arson, rape, narcotics, kidnapping. … And that was the road that led to Len Davis. And that was the road that led to the first time in my history of doing this work where finally, for one brief moment, we had agreement, and we were out of denial that something had to be done. The problem going into Katrina was somehow those lessons got forgotten again. …

We've heard from other officers, and they say if you weren't here in the middle of Katrina, if you weren't here for the weeks after the storm, you really can't understand what we went through, and you have no right to judge us. What do you think of that?

I think understanding and judging are two different things. I think we do have to understand what happened here, and we have to understand the pressures that were on this department. We have to understand the chaos that existed internally and externally, and we have to understand all the conditions that led up to this. …

We can try to understand what the stressors were and what the conditions were, but that doesn't mean that people are not also to be held accountable for that. We understand all the time why people commit crimes, why people do things that are terrible things, but we don't say the understanding means that it's over with or that they're forgiven or that there's no accountability. Part of understanding is having accountability and saying that there are limits, there are boundaries, and there are parameters, and you cannot cross those; you cannot cross them. ...

If anything, it's in times of crisis like that, that those rules, those guidelines, those laws, they become more important, because they may be all that we have -- that and your own individual moral compass. And it's sort of like, if nobody knows that I did something wrong, then maybe I didn't do anything wrong. You know you did something wrong. And we can't leave it up to individuals to judge that.

This is a question of a social system. We are, we say -- whether we believe it or not, whether we do it or not -- a system where we have laws that have certain limits. And if you cross those limits, there is a consequence for doing that, Katrina or not Katrina. …

And what police always say about in times of crisis that's when your training's supposed to kick in. That's when this stuff is supposed to be so ingrained in you that that's your default position. You don't even have to think about it because that's your default. And so you have to ask: Why do some people have that default and act appropriately and conduct themselves professionally even without, you know, all the apparatus around them; and why did some lose their bearings? And then that raises the question: Well, were they losing their bearings, or had this been their default all along?

posted august 25, 2010

law & disorder home page / watch online · dvd/transcript · credits · site map
FRONTLINE series home · privacy policy · journalistic guidelines

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of WGBH Educational Foundation.
Web Site Copyright ©1995-2014 WGBH Educational Foundation