New Orleans is on edge this summer after a string of police funerals and violent encounters between cops and civilians. "The temperature on the street right now is extremely hot and rising," says Councilman Oliver Thomas. "There is already a culture of violence. Everybody seems to be armed. And these attacks against officers are jeopardizing lives and our criminal justice system."
Peter Scharf, director of the Center for Society, Law & Justice and author of a book on police use of deadly force, is equally concerned. "We are in an extreme risk period right now," he says. "If community leaders want to save the city, they have to assure officers that they can do their job safely."
Our goals should be clear and simple. First, we must get every police officer home to his or her family and loved ones safely each night. Also, we must help save the lives of our drug-addicted, mentally ill and misguided youths by encouraging tactics and strategies aimed at reducing the likelihood of NOPD's use of deadly force.
The cops cannot do it alone. Mayor Ray Nagin and the New Orleans City Council can boost public confidence in NOPD by establishing an independent monitor who can dispassionately review police policies, procedures and complaint patterns, and make public recommendations ("A Necessary Safeguard," April 6). Our leaders must act now.
New Orleans is dangerously close to the boiling point. A brief chronology illustrates how police tensions have escalated:
• July 10. Alva Ray Simmons died 19 years after he slipped into a coma from a gunshot wound suffered on a burglary call.
• July 14. George Tessier was killed when he was hit by a truck while on a traffic assignment. On the same day Tessier was buried, recruit Tess Smith died at home after surgery for an injury suffered during police academy training.
• July 27. Dwight Patterson was sentenced to life in prison for the 2002 murder of Officer Christopher Russell. Lt. David Bennelli, president of the Police Association of New Orleans, blasted the jury's decision to spare the cop killer from the death penalty. "He deserves to die," Bennelli said.
• Aug. 1. Third District Officer Quincy Jones fatally shot a man who struck him in the head with a wine bottle at a Gentilly convenience store.
• Aug. 2. Sgt. John M. Montalbano was shot in the stomach during a confrontation with a suspect in eastern New Orleans. His police partner threw his body over the fallen officer to protect him from further harm. Montalbano has been discharged from the hospital. His assailant is still at large.
• Aug. 3. Musician Joe Williams was shot to death by three First District cops who said Williams tried to run them over in a truck that was reported stolen. People claiming to be witnesses said police did not need to use deadly force. The officers, including injured cop Kevin Scruggs, have been reassigned pending an investigation.
• Aug. 4. A man was acquitted of the attempted murder of Sgt. Michael Levasseur in a 2000 shootout in which no one was injured.
• Aug. 9. LaToya Johnson was shot to death when she and her police partner attempted to serve commitment papers on a mentally ill man at a Mid-City residence. Johnson is the first woman officer in the 115-year history of NOPD to die in the line of duty.
• Aug. 12. The first-degree murder trial of Mark Cambre, who is accused of killing retired NOPD Officer Kelly Marrione in an attempted armed robbery, began in Jefferson Parish.
Police Superintendent Eddie Compass' passionate praise for the fallen officers reflects the profound sorrow of the force and the sympathies of the city. At the same time, the public has the right to question the police, especially when deadly force is used. No one wants to repeat the divisiveness that followed the Algiers police killings of four black citizens in 1980 or the murder of Officer Earl Hauck and subsequent police-custody death of his accused killer Adolph Archie in 1990. Statistics show New Orleans has grown more dangerous since the Archie incident. Today, the city has 70,000 fewer people than in 1990, but has led all major cities in murders for the last two years -- even though the NOPD has 350 more cops.
The key is to break the cycle of violence by maximizing both police and citizen safety. "Every (police) supervisor has to monitor every risk-call," Scharf says. "The line supervisors have to reduce fear, anger and all the natural emotions of the police officers to proportionate levels and increase awareness of officer safety." Community leaders also need to counsel young people on how to respond appropriately when stopped on the street by police. Compass has wisely agreed to send officers to area schools to show kids how to avoid trouble with police. Every citizen must be treated as a potential juror who can affect the outcome of an officer's case, and officers deserve respect for continuing to defend the public in a dangerous city. Warren Woodfork, NOPD's first black police chief, said it best in 1990: "The true police are the people."