New Orleans Police Captain Harry Mendoza, who fought the Nagin Administration to win back his job after he was fired in the wake of the 2006 mayoral election, was recently honored as the Louisiana Arson Investigator of the Year by the Louisiana Association of Arson Investigators (LAAI). Mendoza's successful appeal of his firing took two years, after which he was reinstated with full back pay. Upon his reinstatement, Police Chief Warren Riley assigned Mendoza to the New Orleans Fire Department as the arson investigator — a form of "exile" in comparison to his previous stint as head of the NOPD Traffic Division.
During Hurricane Katrina, all of the officers under Mendoza's command remained on their posts, in contrast to several hundred other cops who deserted and/or looted. After the hotly contested 2006 mayoral election, Riley fired Mendoza for allegedly failing to devote adequate time to his duty. Mendoza's attorney claimed his client was sacked because he was close to Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, who nearly beat Mayor Ray Nagin in the 2006 mayoral election.
After the election, NOPD investigators tailed Mendoza several times and reported that he was playing tennis and otherwise not devoting eight continuous hours to his duties. Mendoza argued that, as a captain, he was not tied to a time clock because supervisors are salaried employees. He also produced an NOPD letter of commendation saying his work was "exemplary." In its reversal of Mendoza's termination, the city Civil Service Commission held that the NOPD investigation of Mendoza was incomplete. "There has been no evidence offered in this proceeding that [Mendoza] failed to devote to his job the time, attention and skill necessary to manage the Traffic Division effectively," the commission ruled.
Since Mendoza's assignment to the Fire Department in September 2008, the unit has more than doubled the number of arson arrests. In honoring Mendoza, the state arson investigators' group noted that he "has utilized his position to renew the involvement of other departments ... such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF)" to assist in his investigations. Mendoza also worked with the Fire Department and ATF to launch a "reverse arson sting" — an investigative tool "which hasn't been done in the Eastern Judicial District of Louisiana in at least 15 years," the group noted. "Captain Mendoza's investigations are utilizing techniques not normally incorporated into fire investigations such as cell phone tracking, mail covers, which prompted his nomination and selection as the Louisiana Arson Investigator of the Year." — Clancy DuBos