Why You Should Care About the New Orleans Police Trial

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans police officers allegedly fired on two black families on the Danziger Bridge. Two people died. Now the officers are on trial in a case that exposes widespread corruption in the city's justice system.

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Jordan feels that investigators should pursue charges up to the very top of the department, including Warren Riley, who was promoted to police chief shortly after Hurricane Katrina and served in that role until 2010. "Riley, by his own admission, never even read the report on Danziger," Jordan points out. "It's so outrageous, it's unspeakable. It's one of the worst things that anyone can do. It's hard to understand why he's not on trial as well.

"Fish starts rotting at the head," adds Jordan. "This was all done in the backdrop of police opposition at the very top. It's not surprising that there was a cover-up. You just have to wonder how far that cover-up went."

Riley, who resigned in 2010, has said that any officers involved in a cover-up should go to jail. He has also defended his response to NOPD corruption, saying that he inherited a deeply troubled department and a civil service system that protects bad officers. "I've fired 178 police officers in 4 1/2 years," he told radio host Gerod Stevens shortly before he retired. "I've suspended over 600."

A recent scandal involving the NOPD's "paid detail" system, in which some officers are able to double their salary by working in private security and other outside jobs, implicated friends and family members of Ronal Serpas, the current police chief. Assistant Superintendent Marlon Defillo, the second in charge of the department, is currently being investigated by the NOPD's internal affairs division for his role in stifling investigation of the Henry Glover case, in which five New Orleans police officers were accused of shooting the 31-year-old, burning his body and then engaging in a cover-up.

Defillo and Riley are both expected to be called to testify in the Danziger case, as is Eddie Compass, who was police chief at the time of Katrina and is now the head of security for the district that covers most of New Orleans' public schools.

Even representatives of the NOPD admit that the police department has a long way to go. While calling the Danziger incident "a tragic event from the past," Braden told The Root that Superintendent Serpas "inherited a fundamentally flawed department … It will still take significant time to change the foundation."

The Problem Goes Beyond Police

Criminal-justice reformers say that the Justice Department investigations, which have focused mostly on the NOPD, don't go far enough. According to Rosana Cruz, the associate director of V.O.T.E., an organization that seeks to build power and civic engagement for formerly incarcerated people, any discussion of changing the city's criminal-justice system must include Orleans Parish Prison, the city jail. "The prison has played a key role in all of this," she says. "We need to think about public safety from an actual safety perspective, not an incarceration perspective."

A September 2009 investigation by the Department of Justice documented "a pattern and practice of unnecessary and inappropriate use of force by OPP correctional officers," including "several examples where OPP officers openly engaged in abusive and retaliatory conduct, which resulted in serious injuries to prisoners." The investigation also found instances in which "the officers' conduct was so flagrant it clearly constituted calculated abuse."

Activists have also called for an investigation of Judge Raymond Bigelow, a prosecutor-turned-jurist who has close relationships with the attorneys for the Danziger cops. Bigelow dismissed state charges against the cops in 2008 and retired soon after.

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