Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
After a white officer was killed in November 1980, mobs of police officers went on a rampage in Algiers, a black section of town, killing four and injuring as many as fifty residents. Some of the victims were tortured, including two who were dragged to swamps where the officers carried out mock executions. The violence led to the resignation of the police superintendent, an outsider hired to reform the department - a departure welcomed by many department insiders opposed to reform.8 Three homicide detectives were convicted on federal criminal civil rights charges.
History repeated itself on March 22, 1990, when Adolph Archie, an African-American, was accused of killing a white officer, Earl Hauck, during a shootout downtown. On the way from the scene of the shooting to the hospital, the police transporting Archie, who had been injured during the incident, took twelve minutes to travel seven blocks. When they arrived at the hospital, approximately one hundred officers were waiting for them after hearing that Hauck had died. During this period, officers were broadcasting death threats against Archie over police radios. Those transporting Archie, including a close friend of Hauck's, stated later that they thought there could be a lynching at the hospital where the officers continued to threaten Archie. The officers transporting Archie decided not to enter the hospital, but instead of following department policy and taking him to another hospital, they drove him to Hauck's police station. At the station, officers claimed there was a scuffle with Archie, and that he slipped and fell. The station's sergeant denied ever seeing the officers or Archie and did not raise questions about the bloodstains that appeared on the floor; instead he simply ordered a trusty to clean them up.9
By the time Archie got to a doctor, he had been beaten severely, yet no officer was held accountable then or later.10 Once they got to the hospital, events became more confused. Some of Archie's hospital x-rays, showing his injuries, reportedly vanished. Medical staff were unable to determine Archie's name or his background (even though officers knew his name) and injected him with iodine for a medical test, to which he was allegedly allergic, leading some to conclude this had killed him. Two pathologists said he was beaten to death, and it was reported that he had exacerbated his condition by pulling out tubes in his throat at some point and that the injuries to his throat prevented breathing without them. His death was ultimately called a "homicide by police intervention" by the coroner's office.11
In a settlement with the city, Archie's family was paid $333,000, with one-third designated for the family of Officer Hauck.12 According to all reports, no officers were criminally prosecuted or administratively sanctioned; in fact, within hours of Archie's death, then-Superintendent Warren Woodfork cleared all the involved officers of any departmental violations.13 It was also reported that the rookie officer who initially apprehended Archie and did not shoot him on the spot, was vilified by fellow officers for his restraint.14
In a May 1993 report requested by then-Mayor Sidney Barthelemy - one of several reports detailing problems in the police department and recommending changes that were ignored until subsequent, high-profile cases - the advisory committee on human relations found that some officers behaved brutally and that the department's efforts to control them were "halfhearted and ineffectual."15 The committee found a relatively small percentage of bad officers, but its chairperson noted: "[T]he police department itself helps to cover up such people through the code of silence, and anyone who rats on another guy will find himself never promoted. Those signals come from the top and work their way down."16 Among its scores of recommendations, the report called for: public, quarterly reports containing the number of complaints and type, race of all parties, final disposition and reasons; civilian involvement in disciplinary decisions; stricter rules regarding off-duty employment; and publication of the number of civil lawsuits and how they were resolved.17
Mayor Marc Morial - who was elected in 1994, in part to clean up the department - appointed former Washington, D.C. assistant chief of police Richard Pennington as an outsider reformer. In discussing the task he faced in fighting police corruption and abuse, Pennington noted, "[I]t took years for the department to get to the point it was when I arrived, and it is going to take years to change the ingrained culture."18 The superintendent did fire or reprimand scores of officers, called for improved background checks on recruits (ending the practice of hiring known criminals), instituted an early warning system to spot repeat offenders19 on the force, and placed limits on off-duty employment. In general, the superintendent gets high marks from police abuse experts in the city, but some worry that his reform efforts are linked to him personally and may mean little if he leaves the force. And despite positive actions by Superintendent Pennington, the U.S. Attorney for New Orleans has warned, "There has been a change to some degree in that culture of tolerance of corruption. But as long as there are some officers who are holdovers from the previous regime, then I think we still have a problem."20
8 Allan Katz, "Policing an atypical city," New Orleans, June 1990, p. 39.
9 Russell Miller, "The big sleazy," Sunday Times Magazine (London), October 8, 1995; Letter from Dr. Michael Baden, NY State Police, forensic pathologist retained by the FBI, June 25, 1990; Christopher Cooper, "Archie tale doesn't explain it all," Times-Picayune, August 8, 1993.
11 Bob Herbert, "Disgracing the Badge," New York Times, September 18, 1995; letter from attorney Mary Howell to Attorney General Janet Reno, March 30, 1993, citing Orleans Parish Coroner's office.
12 Bill Voelker, "Settlement split with kin of slain cop," Times-Picayune, May 20, 1994.
13 Ibid.; Howell letter, March 30, 1993; and Herbert, September 18, 1995.
14 Allen Johnson, Jr., "Dead men do tell tales," Gambit, October 17, 1995.
15 The Mayor's Advisory Committee on Human Relations, "Report on police use of force," May 19, 1993, p. 3.
16 Susan Finch, "NOPD told to put stop to brutality," Times-Picayune, May 20, 1993.
17 In 1991, the International Association of Chiefs of Police recommended the creation of an early warning system, another recommendation ignored by the police department until quite recently.
18 Miller, "The big sleazy," Sunday Times Magazine (London).
19 When an attorney reviewed IAD's files covering 1987 until March 1990, she found that approximately 8 percent of officers were the subject of 38 percent of all complaints.
20 Comments of U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana on National Public Radio program, February 4, 1998.
© June 1998
Human Rights Watch