Last summer, I broke up a fight between two men near my Los Angeles home, and last night I stood between a man and a woman who were quarreling loudly in the street outside a friend’s home in New Orleans. A few moments earlier, the man had hit his girlfriend so hard that she landed sideways in a mud puddle, and I was there to make sure he didn’t do it again.
Police response to these two incidents reveals just how dangerous the NOPD can be.
In both situations, someone else called the police and the physical violence had subsided before they arrived. Two squad cars arrived in Los Angeles and three LAPD officers quickly but calmly assessed the situation by talking to the victim, perpetrator, and witnesses. They arrested the perpetrator after conferring with the witnesses.
Last night’s incident was handled quite differently by the NOPD. Three squad cars arrived with seemingly panicked officers who started yelling orders at everyone involved without understanding who was who. One officer told me to come to her, and as I walked over, another officer got out of his car and yelled at me to “back off.” I thought their abrasiveness would subside once they had identified the victim, perpetrator, and witnesses, but this was not to be.
They rounded up the perpetrator and two male witnesses — Good Samaritans who had also intervened. I tried to calmly tell the officers what had happened, but they acted like I wasn’t even there as they placed handcuffs on all three of the black men — the perpetrator and the two Good Samaritans. The female officer eventually asked if I was the victim. I informed her that I was a witness and led her to the victim, Cindy (not her real name), who was crying on a stoop a block away. Walking over, the officer asked me if I knew what had started the fight, as though there exists a legally justifiable reason for a person to hit another person. This officer posed the same impertinent question to Cindy and pressed her for details as to what might have caused her boyfriend to hit her. The officer actively engaged in victim blaming.
When I arrived back at the squad cars with Cindy, one of the Good Samaritans had been let go. The other Good Samaritan was arguing with a police officer over confusion about whether the officer had asked for his Social Security number or a license. After getting his license, the officer shoved this Good Samaritan into the back of his squad car. I kept saying, “but he was trying to help!” I was ignored. A friend came out of the house and protested loudly that this man had tried to help, but I motioned for him to go back inside as the NOPD was obviously indiscriminately detaining people at this point. I fully expected to be arrested if I continued to talk, so I stood silently waiting, shivering in the cold. I would have already been in cuffs if I were a Black man.
Moments later, a despondent Cindy started apologizing to her boyfriend, and the third officer barked, “Shut up. You have nothing to say. You have nothing to say to him now.”
Thankfully, the NOPD let the second Good Samaritan go after lecturing him about his “attitude.” They also let the perpetrator go, despite Cindy’s leg and side covered in brown water, several witnesses to the violence, and my report that he had threatened to kill her. The officers seemed to enjoy a conversation with the perpetrator about how “Yankee bitches” don’t know “how we do with our bitches.”
To sum up, the NOPD arrived on the scene in a panic, didn’t clarify what had happened or who was who, handcuffed all of the black men (even though the call was mistakenly for two women fighting), verbally abused the victim, made the victim feel like she was to blame for getting hit, intimidated and detained witnesses, and failed to enforce the law.
It would be easy to blame this on the individual officers involved, but as a 2011 DOJ report indicates, “the deficiencies in the way NOPD polices the City are not simply individual, but structural as well.” Various deficiencies were identified “that lead to constitutional violations that span the operation of the entire Department, from how officers are recruited, trained, supervised, and held accountable…” More specifically, the DOJ found that officers routinely conduct illegal stops, searches, and arrests, and too frequently use excessive force. The harassment of the Good Samaritans I observed last night was clearly in violation of the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches.
Cindy was the victim of domestic violence, and it is not surprising that the NOPD failed to enforce the law and arrest her perpetrator since, according to the DOJ, they are particularly “negligent” in handling of sexual assault and domestic violence cases. As co-founder of the New Orleans Women’s Shelter, I was privy to the NOPD’s pattern of inaction in response to rape and domestic violence that led many victims/survivors to simply not report crimes against them.
This isn’t to say that the LAPD hasn’t had their share of problems (here, here, and here), or that most NOPD officers act in problematic ways, but the fact that it might be more dangerous to call the NOPD in a crisis situation than to not call them is simply ludicrous. Nine months ago, the DOJ labeled the New Orleans Police Department a “significant threat to the safety of the public.” While changes are underway, based upon recommendations from the DOJ, this experience suggests that the NOPD still falls far short of its mission to “provide professional police services to the public in order to maintain order and protect life and property.”