Can a new police chief sweep out corruption?


January 30, 1995|By Rick Bragg | Rick Bragg,New York Times News Service

NEW ORLEANS -- Tucked away in a corner of Mary Howell's law office are four bags of clothes, all encrusted with dried blood. The clothes are evidence, not to be used by police officers, but against them.

For 17 years, Ms. Howell has been battling the New Orleans Police Department in the courts, representing the victims of its crimes. The lawyer has represented people who were beaten, shot, kidnapped and tortured. One man was interrogated by police officers who encased his head in a plastic bag.

Others, she represented posthumously.

"I'm sick of it," she said, surrounded by the files of hundreds of victims. "I'm sick of seeing mothers in here whose children have been brutalized and killed, of seeing the same officers repeat those crimes over and over.

"Nothing changed, in all my years of doing this. Now I have some hope. I may be a fool, but I do."

Her optimism arises from a new mayor and police superintendent, who have promised to change a department that has been cited in study after study for corruption and brutality. Ms. Howell, like many people here, wants to believe.

The police superintendent, Richard J. Pennington, a 26-year veteran of the Washington, D.C., force, was hired four months ago by the 37-year-old mayor, Marc Morial, to clean up the New Orleans department. The force has had two police officers charged with murder, its chief of detectives dismissed for unethical behavior, and its vice squad disbanded after a deputy supervisor was convicted of robbing bars and strip clubs.

That was all in the past 18 months.

Mr. Morial promised voters in his 1993 campaign that he would remake the department, and Chief Pennington seems to be carrying out the mission.

"I believe people want it," said Mr. Morial, an energetic man who has won over even many people who did not vote for him.

Even as Chief Pennington was being sworn in, federal prosecutors were saying that Officer Len Davis had used a cellular phone to order the killing of Kim Groves, a 32-year-old mother of three who had filed a brutality complaint against him.

Before Chief Pennington was unpacked, nine New Orleans officers were indicted on federal drug charges. The officers had been hired by undercover federal agents to protect 286 pounds of cocaine, according to the indictments. Charges against other officers are expected.

The U.S. attorney here, Eddie Jordan, said that corruption runs through the department -- "pervasive, rampant, systemic" -- and that nothing short of a "radical revision" can work.

The people of New Orleans, trapped between the nation's highest murder rate and a police force better known for committing crime than for solving it, say they will not settle for empty promises.

"We're beyond excuse-making, beyond denial," said Howard Gaines, the chief executive officer of the First National Bank of Commerce. "We are beyond making excuses for our crime, saying, 'Oh, it's no worse here than in most other cities.' "

"I'm originally from New Orleans, but I'm ashamed to tell anybody I'm from here because of the cops," said Barbara Hubbard, 37, who sells hot dogs in the French Quarter.

In an unusual marriage of local and federal law enforcement, Chief Pennington has welcomed the FBI into his department to help weed out corrupt officers. He has also done away with the internal affairs unit, which was known for looking the other way. He has replaced many former investigators with new faces and has created a new title, public integrity, for the operation. Two FBI agents will be attached to the unit.

The city attorney has filed a lawsuit aimed at striking a state law allowing past complaints against an officer to be expunged after seven years. The law makes it difficult to trace patterns of wrongdoing.

"Change won't come dramatically or suddenly," said Neil Gallagher, the FBI special agent in charge here. It may take years, he said.

"New Orleans is a good tourist town," said Jerry Zimmerman, 64, as he repaired light fixtures outside Antoine's restaurant in the French Quarter. "But I don't know if I'd want to come to a convention."

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