HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
New Orleans:

Criminal Prosecution
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Despite the New Orleans police force's reputation as abusive, local prosecution of officers accused of human rights violations is rare. Morris Reed, a 1996 candidate for the district attorney post, stated "If [incumbent District Attorney Harry] Connick was prosecuting rogue cops effectively, a police officer like Len Davis, who had 20 complaints in his dossier, would not have been around to issue a [murder] contract."76 Possibly criminal acts by officers, when pursued, are presented to grand juries, which are traditionally lenient toward police defendants. Officers are almost always cleared, while the public has no access to the proceedings, nor can outsiders monitor or evaluate their degree of vigor. When indicted, officers usually waive their rights to a jury trial and instead go before a judge. When Connick has been questioned about the lack of prosecutions, he has blamed the police department forthe troubled force.77 In one recent, positive change, the district attorney's office has agreed to provide legal opinions on possible cases against officers before arrests are made. Evaluating the activities and effectiveness of the district attorney's office is not easy; when Human Rights Watch requested from it a list, or total, of police officers prosecuted, they reported that they do not compile such statistics.78

Although a Justice Department study showed that New Orleans residents lodged more complaints with federal officials about police abuse than residents in any other U.S. city, federal criminal civil rights prosecutions do not reflect those concerns. In 1996, of the eighty cases decided by federal prosecutors for the federal district containing New Orleans (Eastern District of Louisiana), none was prosecuted (presented to a grand jury to seek an indictment). Between 1992 and 1995, 819 cases were considered, of which nine were prosecuted.79

The OMI representative interviewed by Human Rights Watch in late 1995 reported that he knew of no federal criminal civil rights case in a dozen years and, put more bluntly, the federal prosecutors "don't do a damn thing with these cases."80 (The Len Davis prosecution took place after this interview.) One attorney who represented Adolph Archie's family in their civil case repeatedly urged U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, and then his successor Janet Reno, to investigate that case, but no federal grand jury was convened.

After a period during 1992 and 1993 when there was no U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of Louisiana, in 1994 Eddie Jordan, Jr. became the first African-American U.S. Attorney in Louisiana's history. He pledged to stop police brutality: "We must see that police officers who are guilty of those abuses of power are brought to justice."81 Through several telephone calls, Human Rights Watch attempted to obtain information directly from the U.S. Attorney's office regarding its activities, to no avail.

In at least one publicized recent incident, however, there was reason to believe the U.S. Attorney's office may be taking a more proactive approach in dealing with allegations of police brutality. According to press reports, two New Orleans police officers were indicted on federal civil rights charges on January 22, 1998 for allegedly beating two handcuffed men in custody.82 (The same two officers, Richard Munguia and James Shepack, had previously been acquitted on state battery charges relating to the same July 1995 incident; Shepack was also indicted on federal civil rights charges relating to a June 1994 alleged beating incident.) One of the officers allegedly pistol-whipped the men while the other allegedly kicked at least one of them; both men were hospitalized, one with a broken jaw. According to press reports, Superintendent Pennington brought the case to the attention of federal prosecutors. U.S. Attorney Jordan told reporters, "Neither my staff nor I will tolerate police brutality in any of its forms, and we will remain relentless in bringing those police officers to justice."83

Under new civil powers, the Justice Department can file injunctions against police departments, or specific units, with a "pattern or practice" of abuses or for failing to deal with abuses or misconduct. In the first exercise of this authority in dealing with a police department, the Justice Department initiated a wide-ranging civil investigation into misconduct in the New Orleans police department in 1996 to find out whether the department had adopted adequate procedures to deal with officers who commit abuses. In August 1996, the Justice Department requested all ordinances, policies and procedures dealing with complaints of police misconduct,including documents from the PID and OMI, as part of its investigation.84 City and department officials complained that the inquiry was unnecessary in light of reforms since Superintendent Pennington's arrival in October 1994. The review is still in progress at this writing. If the New Orleans police department fails to satisfy federal investigators, the Justice Department could force changes through court orders.85

76 Susan Finch, "Murder case heats up Connick-Reed forum," Times-Picayune, October 5, 1996. For his part, Reed was criticized for his acquittal, as a judge in a non-jury trial in July 1996, of Officers Shepack and Munguia. Michael Perlstein, "Coalition takes aim at Reed," Times-Picayune, October 9, 1996. Federal prosecutors have since charged the officers (See below).

77 For example, when asked in 1995 whether he was aware of the extent of the problems with the police department, Connick - who had been the district attorney for twenty-one years - told the Sunday Times Magazine (London), "Absolutely! I complained about it all the time. There were individuals in the department involved in criminal made it difficult for us to get convictions [using officer testimony against accused criminals]...." Miller, "The big sleazy," Sunday Times Magazine (London).

78 Telephone inquiry, district attorney's office, August 1997. From another source, Human Rights Watch did obtain such a list, apparently compiled by the district attorney's office for years prior to 1996.

79 According to data obtained by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) from the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys, Justice Department. Cases prosecuted or declined represent only a portion of the total number of complaints alleging federal criminal civil rights violations because several steps prior to this decision narrow down the number of complaints actually received to those considered worthy of consideration.

80 Interview with Peter Munster, October 26, 1995. As noted above, in November 1996, Len Davis was convicted on federal criminal civil rights charges.

81 "La.'s first black U.S. attorney has eye on the street," Times-Picayune, August 16, 1994.

82 Michael Perlstein, "Two cops face federal charges in beating case," Times-Picayune, January 23, 1998.

83 Ibid.

84 James Varney and Mark Schleifstein, "Justice asks for reams of NOPD records," Times-Picayune, August 24, 1996.

85 Christopher Cooper, "NOPD probe set in motion," Times-Picayune, July 4, 1996.

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch