Like the city itself, the New Orleans Police Department is in desperate need of repair. And just as restoring the city will require a good many wrecking balls and bulldozers (and perhaps a flame-thrower here and there), much of its police department is going to have to be razed and rebuilt.
The recent videotaped arrest in the French Quarter may or may not be evidence of this. In the tape, two officers are shown detaining 64-year-old Robert Davis. One of the cops, for reasons yet to be explained, punches Davis several times in the back of the head, causing Davis’s face to strike the wall he is facing. Two more cops arrive, and soon the lot of them end up on the ground. One cop appears to punch Davis in the face at least twice before the scuffle ends. To make matters worse, an officer who wasn’t involved in the arrest proceeds to manhandle an AP producer who attempted to inquire about the way Davis was being treated. Having shoved the producer against a parked car, the cop tells him, “I’ve been out here for six weeks trying to keep alive. Go home.”
There is much in those words. The cops of New Orleans have been through hell and, yes, high water since Hurricane Katrina came through, and those among them who worked through the worst of it are surely showing the strain. About 80 percent of the officers have been left homeless and are now living on a cruise ship in the harbor. Some of their stations are in ruins, hundreds of their squad cars are now nothing more than rusting scrap metal, and much of the civilian support staff has been laid off. And rumors of pay cuts and layoffs for the officers themselves are eating away at what little morale the overworked and underpaid force may have left. Under these conditions, I’m not at all surprised that these cops may have snapped their caps and taken it out on Davis and the AP producer. I don’t condone what I saw on the tape, but whatever punishment these cops receive should be weighed against what they’ve been through.
Consider also that the department is now without a real leader. Police Superintendent Eddie Compass announced his retirement on September 27, reportedly at the insistence of Mayor Ray Nagin, who named Assistant Superintendent Warren Riley as an interim replacement. In a just world, Nagin would be out of a job too, but it appears that he put the bull’s-eye on Compass’s back so as to make him the fall guy for the city’s utter failure to prepare for and react to Hurricane Katrina.
Clearly, Compass was not the innocent victim of a craven politician. Katrina’s flood waters served to reveal what for years has been a dysfunctional police department. This dysfunction is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that some 250 New Orleans police officers are under investigation for failing to report for duty when Hurricane Katrina struck. Though this is less than half the number of AWOL officers first reported, it’s still about 15 percent of the force, more than enough to signify serious problems within the ranks. Many of these officers now find themselves ostracized by those who did not desert their posts, and feelings run so strong that some of the AWOL officers are forced to work out of a local high school rather than at their assigned stations. The high school is known among non-deserters as the “leper colony.”
For what it’s worth, I offer one cop’s suggestions on restoring the New Orleans Police Department to vitality and respectability. I have no illusions whatsoever that any of these suggestions will ever be implemented.
1. Hire a recognized leader to head the department. Just as an ailing LAPD reached out to former New York police commissioner William Bratton in 2002, New Orleans needs to commence a nationwide search for a police professional of sufficient stature and reputation to take on the monumental task at hand. Once installed, the new superintendent should be given a free hand in moving personnel to fit his needs. He should also be free to hire a command staff from outside the city as well. The salaries offered should be commensurate with the challenge; the current salary for an assistant superintendent on the NOPD is only $62,096 a year, less than a sergeant earns on many big-city departments.
2. Reward the officers who endured the hardships of Katrina, and fire those who didn’t. There should be no place in the department for any officer who abandoned his post when the city and his fellow officers needed him most. If the deserters aren’t dealt with harshly, they’ll be a cancer in the department for as long as they are allowed to remain.
3. Eliminate the residency requirement for police officers. Currently all New Orleans municipal employees are required to live within the city limits. This requirement has been rendered impractical if not downright foolish in a city that has been almost completely depopulated. Furthermore, before Katrina struck, New Orleans had the dubious distinction of being the homicide capital of the United States, with a murder rate more than ten times the national average. If the residency requirement was enacted to ensure that the police department was a true reflection of the city’s population, they got what they asked for. Today there are several former New Orleans police officers doing time for murder, including one who in 1995 killed her own former partner during a robbery. Many, many others have been convicted of lesser crimes.
4. Hire officers at all ranks from other agencies. The best police officers revel in confronting challenges, and today there is no greater challenge in law enforcement than the one facing New Orleans. If a capable and charismatic leader is brought in as superintendent, good police officers, detectives, sergeants, and lieutenants will flock to New Orleans from all over the country, especially if the salaries are brought up to competitive levels. (New Orleans police officers are among the lowest paid in the country. The starting salary for a police academy graduate is only $28,825. In Atlanta, by comparison, a rookie officer with a bachelor’s degree earns nearly $10,000 more per year.)
5. Institute a realistic disaster plan for the city. New Orleans had elaborate plans for dealing with the predicted flooding, none of which were followed. For example, those squad cars that are now unusable should have been moved to higher ground as soon as the evacuation order was given. Also, the police department had only a handful of boats at their disposal, this despite the fact that levee failures had been predicted for years. The next flood could come as soon as tomorrow. The time to prepare for it is today.
As New Orleans begins the task of rising from the muck, every scoundrel and scallywag in the world is descending on the city to claim his piece of the action. The Crescent City will someday emerge either as a model of renewal or as an even seedier version of its former self. If the police department is allowed to fester as it has, bet on the latter.
–Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.