When the Cops Turn Into The Bad Guys
The New Orleans Police Department hits its nadir
When Eddie Compass was sworn in as police chief of New Orleans three years ago, he took over a force that has seen its cops busted for plotting bank robbery, sent to death row for murder, and caught pocketing bribes that in one case allowed a French Quarter souvenir shop to run a scam that bilked tourists out of $1 million a year.
Compass was embraced by the community as an evangelically emotive hugger and kisser, an open crier who recalled innocent children in tough neighborhoods fleeing from police cruisers. He said that he didn't want people to be afraid of cops anymore. He took a salary cut and promised to beef up the office that investigates alleged police corruption.
Last week, Compass resigned, the same day his department announced that 249 officers--or about 15 percent of his force--would be investigated for abandoning their posts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. There were reports of a falling-out with New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin--and charges that Compass may have been forced out of his job by Nagin--leading some local politicos to accuse the mayor of scapegoating. The department late in the week announced that it had suspended four officers and was investigating 12 others suspected of looting in the aftermath of the hurricane. And the Louisiana attorney general's office confirmed that it is investigating police officers who allegedly took Cadillacs, some worth $60,000 each, from the Sewell Cadillac and Chevrolet dealership in New Orleans--cars that have since turned up in neighboring counties and across state lines. "I had a lot of phone calls from family and friends of mine that they'd seen a lot of police driving our cars," says dealership's president Doug Stead, adding that "no one had permission to take those vehicles." Acting Police Supt. Warren Riley confirmed that some officers, their police cars destroyed in the storm and subsequent flooding, did patrol with Cadillacs taken from a local dealership, a measure that he called "acceptable" under the extraordinary circumstances.
All this, though, casts further doubt on a force already plagued by chronic staff shortages and a bad reputation. Last year, Mayor Nagin was pushing to expand the NOPD by nearly 25 percent--to 2,000 officers by 2006--even as residency requirements had forced out some of the more experienced cops. "It created a leadership and experience vacuum," says Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission in New Orleans. "We've got an extremely young police department, and a lot of mistakes are being made as a result of that." In an effort earlier this year to address charges of misconduct on the heels of arrests among officers for rape, theft, and payroll fraud, Compass undertook some measures that drew strong criticism. He invited Nation of Islam speaker Dennis Muhammad to provide sensitivity training for the force--only to scrap that plan in June amid charges that the program would promote racial separatism.
Sorting out. Though the vast majority of New Orleans's officers worked through the storm, says David Benelli, president of the police officers union, "I'm sure there were those that flat-out deserted their posts." A panel of deputy chiefs is now reviewing the charges for each of the officers suspected of fleeing at a time when the city was caught up in a climate of fear and exaggeration: Compass repeated tales of widespread violence, telling Oprah Winfrey that there were "little babies getting raped" inside the Superdome; Mayor Nagin estimated 10,000 dead. Today, that number stands at 896 statewide. Still, says Benelli, "if no one can come up with a legitimate excuse other than 'there was a hurricane and I was scared,' then they need to be terminated."
The officers left behind, says Goyenesche, "will always distrust those who failed to report and didn't have their backs." Those resentments could plague the force for years, says Wayne Greenleaf, clinical psychiatrist who helped the city design profiling tests to predict the integrity of prospective police officers. Still, it is difficult to forecast who will be a reliable cop. "If someone is too risk-taking, it can show up as a lack of integrity," and those people are screened out, he says. But it can also mean overlooking leaders. And in a department with too few of them, that is no small dilemma.
This story appears in the October 10, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.