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Police departments lack racial diversity

26th January 2015   ·   0 Comments

NOPD is racially balanced but lacks cultural sensitivity and constitutional policing

In the early 1970s, as white flight to the surrounding suburbs continued to transform the Big Easy into a majority-Black city, the police department was still overwhelmingly white. Fewer than 15 percent of the NOPD’s officers were Black at a time when the city’s Black population rose to 50 percent of residents.

In a story that aired last week after a USA Today article that looked closely at racial disparity in police departments across the U.S., WWL-TV looked at how racial composition of the city’s police department has reflected and/or influenced its performance and the way it is viewed by residents.

Larry Preston Williams, one of New Orleans’ Black officers during that era, was the lead plaintiff in a federal racial discrimination lawsuit that led to a consent decree to remake the color of the police department.

The federal consent decree mandated that the City of New Orleans and the NOPD adhere to civil service hiring and promotion quotas until the department more closely reflected the city’s racial demographics, WWL reported last week. Williams’ lawsuit led to the formation of the Black Organi­zation of Police, a group formed to address other minority issues within the NOPD.

The recent analysis by Gannett and USA Today found that racial disparity within U.S. police departments can fuel community distrust of police and a lack of sensitivity by police officers.

The rash of officer-involved shootings of unarmed Black men and boys over the past year underscore the fact that the disconnect between the community and law enforcement officers can have deadly consequences.

The explosion of protests and marches in the wake of the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last August is a stark reminder of what can happen in police departments that lack diversity and perhaps racial sensitivity. At the time of the shooting, only three of Ferguson’s 53 police officers were Black, while 67 percent of the community is African-American, according to data from the 2010 Census.

While the NOPD has its own community issues that revolve around race, class and cultural sensitivity, WWL concluded that it’s not because of a demographic disparity. Blacks comprised 60 percent of the city’s populace in 2010, while 59 percent of the NOPD’s officers were Black the same year.

Despite those impressive numbers, the NOPD has found itself on the wrong side of justice many times over the past two decades or so, dating back to the brazen murder of resident Kim Groves by former NOPD Officer Len Davis in the 1990s and a murder spree by former Officer Antoinette Frank. Those high-profile murders led to a federally mandated NOPD consent decree during the administration of former Mayor Marc Morial and former NOPD Supt. Richard Pennington.

Three years after Pennington left his past as NOPD superintendent, the City of New Orleans made international headlines again with the post-Katrina murders of Ronald Madison and James Brissette on the Danziger Bridge in eastern New Orleans and the NOPD killing of 31-year-old Henry Glover in Algiers.

In the wake of the Danziger Bridge and Henry Glover trials in federal court, the NOPD shot another unarmed Black man, 20-year-old Wendell Allen several years ago.

Only one of the officers tried in the death of Henry Glover remains in jail and the fire NOPD officers tried and convicted in the Danziger Bridge murders have been granted new trials because of an online posting scandal involving several federal prosecutors. The officer who killed Wendell Allen with a single gunshot to the chest, Officer Joshua Colclough, received a —year sentence after apologizing to the Allen family.

The Danziger and Glover cases led to a scathing U.S. Department of Justice report that slammed the NOPD for widespread corruption, abuse and ineptitude and called for another consent decree aimed at implementing a major overhaul of the department.

After nearly two years of haggling and efforts by the Landrieu administration to have the consent decree tossed out, the actual implementation of the consent decree began in August 2013.

However, more than year after the consent decree began, the NOPD has been sharply criticized by a number of groups including the NOPD consent-decree federal monitor, the Office of Inspector General and the Metropolitan Crime Commission for officers’ failure to properly use body cameras, failing to follow up on 86 percent of sexual assault allegations between 2011 and 2013 and misclassifying certain crimes.

Those incidents ultimately led to the unexpected resignation of former NOPD Supt. Ronal Serpas last fall.

While Larry Williams’ lawsuit played a major role in making the NOPD look more like the community it served, he told WWL last week that he learned that bring racial balance to the NOPD does not guarantee racial sensitivity.

“Although the 1973 lawsuit was successful in achieving its goals, it did not deal with directly the relationship between the police department and the community,” Williams, who is now a security consultant, told WWL “There are still too many bad interactions between white officers and Black members of the community.”

And as recent confrontations between citizens and NOPD officers have shown, incidents of brutality or lack of sensitivity in communities of color can just as easily be caused by Black officers as their white counterparts.

The DOJ echoed that sentiment two years ago when it order the NOPD consent decree after gathering in New Orleans for two years to listen to residents share stories about loved ones who were victims of racial profiling and excessive force by police of all colors. The consent decree lists 492 areas where the NOPD needs to make major changes to become compliant with federal standards for constitutional policing

As the Landrieu administration and NOPD officials continue to make changes in the department that protect the constitutional rights of all New Orleans residents, a number of grassroots organizations continue their work to hold the NOPD and the DOJ accountable to residents.

Community United for Change, for example, continues to work on a Civilian Oversight Committee that encourages residents to closely monitor NOPD officers as they interact with civilians. It was CUC which hosted two years work of community meetings that allowed residents to share their stories with DOJ officials, and it was also CUC which first recommended the use of audio and video recording equipment to be used by patrol officers as a way to improve their interaction with residents.

WWL reported that Silence is Violence is working on a more personal scale to bridge gaps of racial misunderstanding.

The group’s founder, Baty Landis, said it frequently brings community concerns to police commanders on a case-by-case basis. And the police generally listen.

“When it comes to police engagements, we have unfortunately seen that in certain neighborhoods there are different types of engagements – maybe different tones – from police to residents,” Landis told WWL. “But we work closely with the police department every day to try to improve. We don’t win every battle, but we certainly we find that many officers are very receptive.”

“Race, class and geography all play a role in how police interact with communities of color,” the Rev. Raymond Brown, a community activist and president of National Action Now, told The Louisiana Weekly. “We need to look at how hiring police from neighboring parishes affect community policing in New Orleans. Since integration, anti-New Orleans sentiment has gotten progressively work in Jefferson, Tangipahoa, St. Bernard and St. Tammany parishes, which oftentimes is a veiled way of expressing anti-Black sentiment.”

As an example, he pointed to a WWL story last week in which a Covington resident placed a sign outside his store that boasted that Covington was like “Uptown New Orleans without the gunfire.”

Ramessu Merriamen Aha, a New Orleans businessman and former congressional candidate, agreed.

“It would be shortsighted to not examine how police-community relations are impacted by the hiring of law enforcement officers from parishes where a large percentage of residents have demonstrated anti-Black attitudes,” he told The Louisiana Weekly. “In addition to making it more likely that these officers would be less committed to ‘protecting and serving’ Black residents, they would also be less likely to show cultural sensitivity, as we’ve seen in the past with Mardi Gras Indians, and might feel as though they have no vested interest in making New Orleans safer since they get to go home at the end of their work shift to a less dangerous community.”

Additional reporting by Louisiana Weekly editor Edmund W. Lewis.

This article originally published in the January 26, 2015 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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