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)

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.

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.