Wednesday, June 29, 2011

You have the right to remain silent - or do you?

During the first 14 years of my law enforcement career (1967-1981) I always tried my best to avoid verbally criticizing another officer's actions, especially when they involved the use of deadly force. Yes, there were a few occasions when I quietly wondered (to myself) if the officer's actions were really necessary. Did the officer really need to do what he/she had done? But, I always tried to remember that I was not there when the incident actually transpired, and I did not experience the same things the officer had, so it wouldn't be right for me to second-guess them later. I didn't like people Monday-Morning Quarterbacking me when I was involved in a stressful situation, so I definitely didn't want to do this to someone else.

In 1981 I was promoted to the rank of sergeant and as a sergeant I no longer had the luxury of being able to remain silent when I had my doubts concerning an officer's actions. As a sergeant it was my responsibilty to accurately AND honestly evaluate the questionable actions of the officers I supervised. When you put on those stripes that's one of the things you know you will have to do. If you're not prepared to do this, then you have no business being a supervisor. Luckily, Fort Lauderdale P.D., where I worked, was a good department AND the overwhelming majority of the officers I supervised were dedicated and honest cops --- so, I never did have to make that choice; doing the right thing, or remaining silent.

Perhaps this is why it bothered me so much when I read the article about the New Orleans Police Department (N.O.P.D.) lieutenant who is now on trial in Federal Court. This lieutenant's decision-time, his own Waterloo if you will, occurred back on September 4, 2005, during the height of the post-Hurricane Katrina chaos. In what was reported to be an exchange of gunfire on the Danziger Bridge (U.S. Route 90), between the cops and the bad guys, two individuals were killed and several more were wounded. But, when the lieutenant arrived at the scene of the shooting he quickly observed that these supposed bad guys did not have any weapons. He wondered, if these where the individuals who shot at the police, then where were their guns?

The sad fact is that these individuals who were killed and wounded by the N.O.P.D. cops were all unarmed. Sadly, this apparently was not a case of officers just doing what they thought was right, and then having a tragedy occur instead. No, it appears that many of the officers involved just lost control of themselves and their emotions, and they committed murder. One of the two men that were killed was forty years old and mentally disabled. An officer in a moving police vehicle shot him in the back with a shotgun, as he ran away. His hands were in plain site and he held no weapon. Therefore, he posed no threat to the officers.

Did going through the turmoil, mayhem and devastation of Hurricane Katrina play a part in this? I don't know. I guess it could be a possibility, but it is still not an excuse. What the officers did was bad enough, but then the lieutenant didn't do his job and he apparently initiated a cover- up. This cover-up included encouraging and allowing the officers involved to provide false stories about what actually occurred during the shootings on the Danziger Bridge. He also apparently had knowledge and condoned a "throw down" weapon being planted at the scene.

On January 2, 2007, the police officers involved in the shootings were taken into custody. They were indicted for murder and attempted murder. However, on August 13, 2008, charges against all of the officers were dismissed by the District Judge. He said his reasons for doing this involved misconduct by the prosecution reference to the grand jury. I wonder what that really means. Did the prosecution try to help the officers involved, or did the prosecution just engage in stupid and/or unethical conduct? I suppose that's another story all by itself.

Although the federal government couldn't file their own murder charges against the officers, they could charge them with "Deprivation of Rights Under Color of Law" --- after a lengthy and thorough investigation this is what they did. I was surprised to read that an individual convicted of this specific federal statute can be sentenced to death. Maybe this is why so many of the officers involved, including the lieutenant, made deals and/or pled guilty to lesser charges.

I began this post intending to talk about a supervisor's duties and responsibilities. But, the more I read about this terrible event, and the shocking way it happened, the more I realized that what happened there in New Orleans was not the norm. Most law enforcement officers in America would never behave as those few N.O.P.D. cops did. Most supervisors woud act in a totally different way too.

In fact, most of the men and women of the New Orleans P.D. acted honorably and bravely during the very trying times during and then after Hurricane Katrina. They endured looting, sniping and a host of other problems that most of us in law enforcement will never have to experience. Yes, some N.O.P.D. cops abandoned their duties and left the area, but most didn't. Some of those who stayed and served couldn't handled all the stress, and at least two N.O.P.D. officers committed suicide. I read what one N.O.P.D. Captain had to say about those two officers: "To me, they died in the line of duty. They died of injuries caused to their psychological being from the storm." Then he said, "...they were told you have to perform, you have to protect, and you have to serve, and they did."

I prefer not to remember those few N.O.P.D. cops, including the lieutenant, who disgraced the badges they wore, and the oath they swore. Instead, I want to remember what that one N.O.P.D. captain said to his wife when she asked him, "Why do you still do this? Why?"

"Well, you get up every day, and you go to work with heroes. Not everyone can say that."

God bless the dedicated men and women of the New Orleans Police Department!

Gary P. Jones
Law Enforcement Ambassador
National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund

author of: Badge 149 - ''Shots Fired!''

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