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.

Danziger Bridge, New Orleans, July 2010 (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

“We have an opening at this point,” says Malcolm Suber, project director for the New Orleans chapter of the American Friends Service Committee, and a longtime activist against law-enforcement violence. “But unless we talk about the entire system, this will repeat again.”

The shootings on Danziger Bridge are the most notorious of at least nine separate incidents — most of which occurred in the days just after Katrina — that are being examined by federal agents. “This trial is going to show the country and the world that we have a serious problem with our police department,” says Eddie Jordan, the city’s former district attorney. “This department is engaged in horrendous acts against its citizens.”

Official Responsibility

In a wide-ranging 158-page report released this March, the U.S. Justice Department declared that the NOPD has deep structural problems, noting, “Basic elements of effective policing — clear policies, training, accountability and confidence of the citizenry — have been absent for years.” The report criticized the department for “use of excessive force; unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests; racial and ethnic profiling and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) discrimination; a systemic failure to provide effective policing services to persons with limited English proficiency; and a systemic failure to investigate sexual assaults and domestic violence.”

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.