It began as the story that no one was interested in. No one in the media wanted to believe that officers of the New Orleans Police Department had murdered unarmed civilians and then engaged in a massive and wide-ranging conspiracy to cover it up. And no one wanted to pursue evidence that revealed a department plagued by systemic corruption.
In a remarkable chain of events, the story that no one wanted has become the story that everyone knows. After nearly four years of media silence and official neglect, a combination of grass-roots activism, independent journalism and federal intervention shoved the truth out. Federal investigators opened at least eight investigations, are pursuing criminal charges against more than a dozen officers and have accepted plea deals from several more, with additional cops implicated seemingly every week. And as high-ranking officers admit to manufacturing evidence, their confessions bring doubt to scores of other cases they have worked on. Public support for changes in the department has never been so high, and even Mayor Mitch Landrieu has said that “a complete transformation is necessary and essential.”
Last week, Landrieu and his new police superintendent, Ronal Serpas, released a 65-point list of steps they are taking or have taken to rebuild the NOPD. While some have lauded the mayor for taking proactive steps, critics have said that the mayor is trying to institute small changes to avoid a full federal takeover of the department. “This is lukewarm reform,” complains Rosana Cruz, the associate director of VOTE, an organization that seeks to build power and civic engagement for formerly incarcerated people. “This is reaching the lowest possible bar that we could possibly set.”
The Storm and Aftermath
In the days after Hurricane Katrina, rumors and panic ruled the streets. There were stories of snipers and mass murder, and armed gangs controlling some neighborhoods. CNN reporter Chris Lawrence commented that there were no “normal” people left in New Orleans, only armed ones. As he said this, images of black people at the Superdome flashed on the screen. City officials helped fuel the panic with exaggerated reports. Police Superintendent Eddie Compass told Oprah Winfrey, “We had little babies in there [the Superdome], some of the little babies getting raped.”
On Sept. 2, 2005, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco announced that National Guard troops had arrived in New Orleans. “They have M-16s and they are locked and loaded,” she warned. “These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary, and I expect they will.” Witnesses from the NOPD have said that Warren Riley, who was then second-in-command of the NOPD, added to this dangerous atmosphere by telling officers that they had permission to shoot and kill as many “looters” as their conscience allowed: “If you can sleep with it, do it.” Riley denies the claims, although he does say that he “may have said” that officers needed to “take back the city.”