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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The city's elected coroner, Frank Minyard -- an 81-year-old jazz trumpeter who previously worked as a gynecologist -- has also been a focus of public criticism. Minyard's office didn't classify Glover's body -- which was found, burned, in a car with its skull missing -- as a potential homicide. Minyard also attributed the death of Raymond Robair, allegedly beaten to death by officers, as the result of having "fallen down." These cases helped inspire an investigation by PBS's Frontline, along with calls from the editorial board of the Times-Picayune for his resignation.

Dana Kaplan, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, a legal and advocacy organization, agrees that systemic change is necessary, including reform at the district attorney's office. Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, who was elected in 2008, has taken over an office that has long faced accusations of racism and illegal activity, says Kaplan.

Connick v. Thompson, a case of prosecutorial misconduct that made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court this year, "made it clear there was an endemic level of corruption in the prosecutor's office," she says. Under former District Attorney Harry Connick Sr., the Orleans Parish District Attorney's office "failed to do what its stated mission is," Kaplan adds. "But [it] also contributed to corroding the public trust in law enforcement. And it will be a long time before they can regain that trust." Cruz of V.O.T.E. agrees and says that the problems in the office persist. "For the D.A.'s office, it is about the number of convictions. Safety is secondary."

Assistant District Attorney Christopher Bowman, spokesman for Cannizzaro, says that public distrust in the criminal-justice system is real. "We see the effects of that on a daily basis in criminal court. When we question jurors, there are jurors that say they don't trust the police."

However, says Bowman, positive changes have already taken hold in the NOPD as well as in the district attorney's office, which he says has instituted important changes since Cannizzaro took over. "You have to look at an entire criminal-justice system that is reforming itself," he says.

For the officers on trial, much will depend on whether the jury believes that Katrina represented an extraordinary circumstance that excuses violent behavior, a defense that former District Attorney Jordan has no patience for. "A storm does not make law-enforcement officers go out and kill people," he declares, "and that's the excuse they're using. They are saying water is on the streets and the city is shut down, and so normal rules do not apply."

Jordan Flaherty, a New Orleans-based journalist, is the author of Floodlines: Community and Resistance From Katrina to the Jena Six. He can be reached at neworleans@leftturn.org.

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