On March 6, 1995, law enforcement officers from around the Gulf South gathered at Lake Lawn Funeral Home in Metairie to pay final tribute to a New Orleans policeman slain by another cop during an armed robbery. Among the throngs of mourners, an internal police dispute was about to play out.
An NOPD lieutenant approached fellow Lt. Michael Sauter for a handshake. In a "hostile tone of voice," according to a subsequent internal report, Sauter allegedly told his fellow lieutenant: "I'm not going to shake your hand. You're a rat. How does it feel to be a rat? You piece of trash." Specific reasons for the alleged outburst by Sauter -- now a police captain and commander of the NOPD training academy -- are unclear from city disciplinary records obtained from the city under the state Public Records Act.
In 1995, then-Police Chief Richard Pennington handed Sauter a one-day suspension for his funeral home remarks, the first and only blemish on Sauter's police career, records show. A sympathetic civil service commission concluded the lieutenant acted "inappropriately" -- but said the suspension was excessive and reduced his penalty to a written reprimand. The panel cited "special circumstances" for its ruling, including the "raw emotions of the funeral," the fact that Sauter had recently been denied a promotion for reasons he thought were "biased and unfair," and "the symbolic meaning and value attributed by many to the handshake ritual."
The commission did not elaborate on the meaning of the ritual. But it would not be the last time the panel heard about the importance of a handshake.
Capt. Sauter, along with Capt. Michael Pfeiffer and Maj. James Treadaway, are currently under investigation for administrative violations in connection with the destruction of DNA and other evidence during a departmental housecleaning of the Evidence and Property Room two years ago.
Police Chief Eddie Compass inherited the debacle from predecessor Pennington. Disclosures of the purging of critical evidence in felony cases have infuriated victims' families and frustrated investigators. The Times-Picayune reported May 9 that the purge has affected more than 100 criminal cases, but sources say an estimate is impossible to determine without an exhaustive audit.
Retired District Attorney Harry Connick, who left office in January, says his administration had "evidence problems" with the police department during his nearly three decades in office, but never of the scope that has been recently reported. "I was not formally or informally notified of anything of the nature that is going on right now," Connick says.
Connick successor Eddie Jordan is reviewing an NOPD investigative report for possible criminal violations in connection with the evidence room clean-up. Compass has been reviewing the same report for several weeks for possible disciplinary actions. NOPD regulations prohibit officers from discussing a case under investigation. Capt. Marlon Defillo, commander of the public affairs division, says the evidence room was under the command of then-Deputy Superintendent Duane Johnson during the time in question. Johnson retired shortly after Compass took office a year ago.
Maj. Raymond C. Burkart Jr. is in charge of the administrative probe. He reportedly has recommended disciplinary action against Treadaway, Pfeiffer and Sauter for administrative violations.
But noting the convoluted histories of some of the principals involved, some observers in the local law enforcement community say that the case should have been sent to an outside agency to avoid the appearance of any conflicts of interest.
A survey of police disciplinary records shows that Burkart, a 33-year NOPD veteran, is himself presently appealing a 10-day suspension by Compass for allegedly threatening an assistant U.S. attorney in 2001. The Civil Service Commission has yet to rule on Burkart's appeal. Federal criminal charges against Burkart were dropped earlier, and he completed a six-month non-criminal diversion program that is an alternative to trial.
Furthermore, in 1996, Burkart and former Deputy Chief Antoine Saacks were indicted on bankruptcy fraud charges. Saacks was convicted and served two years in prison. Burkart insisted he was innocent, but acknowledged he failed to make a number of "reasonable" inquiries in the bankruptcy case and accepted the lesser charge of civil contempt. He paid $5,000 in court costs and agreed to an 18-month absence from practicing law in bankruptcy court. He also completed a six-month diversionary program.
NOPD regulations require that officers must be investigated by someone of equal rank or higher. Burkart and Treadaway are the only two majors on the department. This time, Burkart is investigating Treadaway, a former commander of internal affairs under Pennington who has a spotless record after more than 30 years on the force, according to civil service records. But records indicate that Treadaway was involved in processing Burkart's suspension in 2001.
Another indication of the complexity of the relationships in NOPD's command is shown in the case of Capt. Pfeiffer. Records show that, as a lieutenant, Pfeiffer received a 20-day suspension in 2000 for allowing his wife to use a police radio. Four years earlier, Pennington -- at the recommendation of Maj. Treadaway -- issued Pfeiffer a letter of reprimand and a 10-day suspension of his private detail privileges for failing to following NOPD reporting procedures for an off-duty job.
Given these histories, why didn't the NOPD case go to the city Office of Municipal Investigation?
"Because you have a major (Burkart) who is competent and can do the investigation with the checks and balances in place," answers Defillo, who during a brief stint as deputy chief himself conducted an internal investigation of Burkart.
"The department felt that Major Burkart was suited to the (evidence room) investigation ... and the department has confidence in his ability to do a thorough, impartial investigation, regardless of his own disciplinary history," Defillo says. "Absolutely. Major Burkart is not the deciding factor in this probe. Major Burkart's responsibility is to gather the facts and circumstances surrounding the allegations and to present a comprehensive report to the two deputy chiefs and to the superintendent for their review. He is the fact finder but he is not the decision maker. His recommendations are merely that, recommendations."
Deputy Chiefs Warren Riley and Danny Lawless are supervising the investigation. The Public Integrity Division led by Deputy Chief Lonnie Swain has no role in the case.
Among the supporters of the Compass-Burkart investigation is Metropolitan Crime Commission (MCC) president and former assistant district attorney Raphael Goyeneche -- despite the fact that Burkart accused the MCC of contributing to his legal problems with the feds in the Saacks case. "The chief is aware of everybody's background and history, including Major Burkart," says Goyeneche, who add that he and Compass discussed the evidence room investigation six weeks ago. "The chief will have to decide who to sanction based on the weight of the evidence."
Further, the chief expects ranking officers to put any personal agendas aside during the course of their duties. "I don't know [Burkart] well enough to say whether he could do it," Goyeneche says. "But I don't think the chief would have allowed it if he didn't feel [Burkart] couldn't be fair and objective." Goyeneche also says the chief told him he did not invite OMI to take over the case because the internal probe was well underway, and the chief didn't want to lose time or momentum. (OMI is no shield against controversy: its last administrative review of NOPD resulted in both the OMI director and a special agent seeking "whistle-blower" protection from civil service.)
Peter Scharf, a criminologist who directs the University of New Orleans Center for Society Law and Justice, says he doubts that NOPD management can police itself. The department's top management is too freighted with the four variables of police politics -- race, personality, reciprocity and alliances -- to conduct objective administrative reviews, he says.
"Generally, they cannot be objective," Scharf says of the approximately 40 officers with the rank of captain or higher. "These guys in management have been cohorts for a number of years. They have all worked together, under each other, over each other -- and 'screwed' each other -- at various times. And it is hard to get objectivity in an area that involves danger to people's careers because they are part of a team.
"They are dependent on each other for promotions and for support, so their relationships are often very complex. And to get independent appraisals of their conduct is a very difficult problem."
NOPD supervisors have made "pretty good" strides in disciplining patrol officers for overt offenses such as having sex in squad cars or drinking on duty, Scharf says. But the police command is far less objective when it comes to correcting their peers in management for "administrative wrongs."
"We haven't learned to conduct good administrative reviews," he says. "The probable truth is that objective justice in a world of personalities is very difficult."
Defillo takes exception to Scharf's remarks. "Superintendent Compass has demonstrated over the past year that favoritism, cohorts and friendship have nothing to do with a person who violates department rules and regulations," he says. "And he has demonstrated that in the past, not just with patrol officers, but ranking officers as well. For this professor to make a blanket statement like that is not fair to the police department or to the competent management staff of the NOPD."
Outspoken and controversial, Raymond Burkart is one of the most educated cops on the force. A lawyer and certified public accountant, the major holds a master of science degree in tax options and two bachelor's degrees. He was pursuing yet another degree -- in mechanical engineering -- but stopped earlier this year, citing the workload, records show.
A former deputy superintendent under Chief Arnesta Taylor, Burkart devised an award-winning crime-fighting program for the city housing developments. His willingness to try innovative crime techniques included a short-lived experiment with drug-sniffing pigs (Gambit, May 24, 1994).
On Feb. 6 -- six years after the Civil Service Commission heard the case of Sauter's funeral home handshake -- Burkart offered the panel his own commentary on the significance of police handshakes and other aspects of police culture. It came during the appeal of his 10-day suspension for allegedly threatening and cursing at assistant U.S. Attorney Salvadore Perricone, who got him indicted in 1996.
Burkart testified that on the morning of July 27, 2001, he was en route to a fifth floor office at police headquarters when he passed Perricone, who was talking with an FBI agent. Perricone, himself a former NOPD officer, offered to shake the major's hand, Burkart recalled.
"Now in police circles, that means all is forgiven," Burkart testified. "I don't know about civilian people, but if you shake a policeman's hand that you've had issues with, all is forgiven. So he slipped back into his police mode. He knew that; I knew that. ... And I just told him, 'I'm not shaking your hand. You bum-rapped me.'"
The testimony of Perricone and FBI agent Todd Cox tells a different story. Cox said after Perricone and Burkart announced they would not shake hands with each other, Burkart walked away. Perricone then informed Cox he had once indicted Burkart along with Saacks, the agent testified.
Five minutes later, Cox testified, Burkart returned and told Perricone, "I hope you retire soon because I'm going to kick your ass." As Burkart walked away, the agent said, Perricone replied, "Hey, I indicted you for lying at a bankruptcy hearing." In an ensuing "dialogue," Cox recalled, Burkart twice called Perricone "a back-stabbing asshole." Perricone testified he told Burkart, "We both know what happened in 1995," and that Burkart then said, "I'm going to get you." Burkart later testified that Perricone provoked the incident, saying, "I was disciplined for merely defending myself."
Perricone was "upset" by "the whole scene that had taken place on the fifth floor of NOPD headquarters," Cox testified. "I mean you're talking about on the management floor where you have high-ranking NOPD officials." FBI agents arrested Burkart that afternoon and charged him with threatening a federal officer in retaliation for performing his duties. Burkart was immediately suspended. The major was handcuffed and shackled and held in jail without bond. The criminal charges were later dropped, after he again negotiated a pre-trial diversion sentence with the feds.
The NOPD internal affairs probe fell to then-Deputy Chief Marlon Defillo, who took statements from other cops on the fifth floor that day. Among them was Maj. Treadaway, then commander of the Public Integrity Division (PID) and now the subject of the evidence room probe.
On the morning of the incident, Treadaway said, he was seated in the reception area of the superintendent's office conversing with then-Capt. Jerry Ursin, when they heard "raised voices" in the hallway. Treadaway said he heard cursing and the statement "You're a bum-rap artist," which he attributed to Burkart. Both Treadaway and Ursin indicated they did not hear any threats. Minutes later, Treadaway said he heard one raised voice say, "You're a coward."
Treadaway testified that the other person responded, "Anytime. Anytime you want."
Moments later, records show, Perricone entered the superintendent's reception area. Treadaway, who said he had never previously met Perricone, told the federal prosecutor that he looked "agitated." "He says, 'I've just been threatened by Raymond Burkart. He just threatened to kick my ass, and I'm really upset about it. I don't know what to do,'" Treadaway said.
Pointing to Maj. Treadaway, Ursin told Perricone he was "talking to the right person." Treadaway told the federal lawyer, then head of the U.S. attorney's violent crimes unit, "[I]f that was Raymond Burkart, and he made a threat towards you, you have to decide do you want to make a complaint to us, because we can receive that complaint right now." Perricone said he first wanted to talk to his boss, U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, and left the building. That afternoon, the FBI contacted Treadaway to arrange for Burkart's arrest at PID headquarters. Pennington was out of town. Treadaway processed Burkart's suspension.
Testifying at Burkart's civil service trial on Dec. 5, 2002, Compass said an internal investigation of the incident didn't reveal any criminal violations by his major, but he suspended Burkart for "poor judgment." "[I]n my opinion, he could have withdrawn from the encounter and he did not have to use profanity," Compass said. Told by Burkart attorney Pat Fanning that Perricone also used profanity in the incident, Compass said he would also have disciplined Perricone if the federal prosecutor was one of his officers.
Perricone denies using profanity during the encounter with Burkart. "Ignatius Reilly would laugh at the way this investigation has been handled by the NOPD," Perricone says of the probe into the hallway altercation.
When civil service hearing examiner Harry Tervalon, himself a retired New Orleans police commander, asked Burkart why he should not be disciplined for his role in the incident, the major offered his version of police culture.
"There was nobody around but policemen," Burkart responded. "This is how policemen deal with each other. They don't shake hands and use the king's rules and speak perfect. They call each other 'MF'; they call each other assholes ... even when they kid around, they do it. But when they're upset, that's exactly what you do."
Records show that Burkart has had two other reported altercations with his fellow officers at NOPD. In 1996, he nearly came to blows in a room full of FBI agents with then-Chief of Detectives Ronald Doucette; neither officer was disciplined. Ten years earlier, in 1986, then-Sgt. Burkart became involved in a verbal altercation with a detective over the taking of a statement from Burkart's juvenile son; records show Burkart "threatened to get even" with the detective and received a letter of reprimand.
NOPD spokesman Defillo reiterates that Burkart is professional, competent and in "good standing" with the department -- criteria for internal affairs investigators articulated several years ago by a director of the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA), of which NOPD is a member.
Burkart repeatedly asked to be taken off the evidence room probe when the investigation widened and reached into the upper ranks of the department, sources say. His established disdain for "bum-rap artists" is now public record and may set a bar for fairness and impartiality in his evidence room probe.
UNO's Scharf says NOPD needs an ombudsman or system to help the department through management problems like the evidence room nightmare. New Orleans City Councilman Marlin Gusman is leading an effort to find funding for both an independent monitor of the NOPD and an ombudsman for citizens.
Meanwhile, as investigations continue, NOPD observers will be watching to see which officers among the police command are still shaking hands.
- Cheryl Gerber
- NOPD Chief Eddie Compass