As if the city's horrendous murder rate were not enough to keep Mayor Mitch Landrieu busy, he was reminded — again — that the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) still has a lot of housecleaning to do.
Various news outlets recently reported that several cops who are part of a multi-agency police force allegedly ripped off a suspected drug dealer in January 2011. The alleged rip-off was brazen enough, and evidence of it strong enough, that DA Leon Cannizzaro's office dropped all charges against the suspected drug dealer.
According to WDSU-TV and The Times-Picayune, two building managers say they saw cops hauling out a pair of safes from the ArtEgg glassblowing studios in Mid-City during a raid on the premises used by 24-year-old Stefan Daigle. There was no mention of the safes in a police report about Daigle's arrest on charges of distributing methamphetamine.
On top of that, Daigle's defense lawyer, Roger Kitchens, says cops also extorted money from Daigle after his arrest. The station and the T-P reported — and DA spokesman Chris Bowman confirmed to me last week — that Kitchens showed the DA's office a video of his client going into Daigle's French Quarter apartment with a pair of cops. The same video shows the cops leaving a short time later carrying a bag. Kitchens says the bag contained $3,500 that Daigle kept in his apartment.
The video does not show what's in the bag — but it does undercut sworn testimony by Detective Ray Veit, who Kitchens says was waiting in an NOPD cruiser outside the apartment while the other two cops went in with Daigle. Veit testified that he and the other two arresting officers did not go anywhere else with Daigle after his arrest in Mid-City — and the officers' report of Daigle's arrest makes no mention of any confiscated money.
The cops are part of a special unit called the West Bank Major Crimes Task Force, which was formed in 2006 and includes cops from NOPD, the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office, the Plaquemines Parish Sheriff's Office, the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office, the Westwego Police Department and the Gretna Police Department.
Gretna cops are now investigating one of their own in connection with the incident, and Bowman told me late last week that Cannizzaro's office is investigating the entire matter. NOPD's Public Integrity Bureau also is looking into it. Bowman said Daigle's lawyers are cooperating fully with the DA's request for evidence of the cops' wrongdoing.
As bad as all this sounds, it's going to get worse. Several lawyers familiar with the case told me last week that this case is going to get "real ugly" and "much bigger." If that's so, and I have no reason to doubt these guys, don't be surprised to see the feds get involved.
Which brings us to a related topic: the federal consent decree to reform NOPD. The decree has been in the works for almost two years. Notwithstanding the feds' well-established reputation for moving at a snail's pace, it's high time the decree got done. Even if the ArtEgg case does not get bigger — but it probably will — it shows that police corruption is costly on several levels. It allows suspected drug dealers to go free. It undermines public confidence in cops. And no doubt it demoralizes the many honest cops who are busting their butts and risking their lives to make the city safer.
All of which argues for the drastic measures that a federal consent decree puts in place, starting with a top-down federal takeover of a department that clearly is out of control. If the latest scandal is any indication, nothing less will rid NOPD of its bad eggs.