Cleaning up the police force in New Orleans: An editorial

Cleaning up the police force in New Orleans: An editorial
December 20, 201o

New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas inherited a mess when he took over the department last summer. But he probably understood the situation as well as anyone could.
Although he had been gone from the city for some time, he was part of former Superintendent Richard Pennington's efforts in the late-1990s to rid the department of rogue officers.
Those reforms unraveled under Mr. Pennigton's successors, and Superintendent Serpas has had to move quickly to restore discipline. In perhaps the most dramatic move so far, he reassigned six high-ranking officers Thursday -- including four captains -- for possible rules violations in connection with the Henry Glover case.
The officers who were reassigned Thursday were Capts. Gary Gremillion, David Kirsch, Joseph Waguespack and Jeff Winn, Lt. Joseph Meisch and Detective Catherine Beckett.
The move came a week after a federal jury found three officers guilty in Mr. Glover's death and the cover-up that followed. The 31-year-old Algiers man was shot by a police officer four days after Hurricane Katrina. Police drove his body to the levee in Algiers and burned it, and a false report was created to cover up what happened.
Superintendent Serpas immediately put two convicted officers -- Lt. Travis McCabe and officer Greg McRae -- on emergency suspension. They are off the payroll, off-duty and not allowed to perform any police duties. The third officer who was convicted, David Warren, had already retired from the force.
Three other officers - Lt. Dwayne Scheuermann, Sgt. Jeffrey Sandoz and Sgt. Ronald Ruiz ­-- were put on administrative assignment at that point as well. Lt. Scheuermann was acquitted of federal criminal charges but was the ranking officer on the scene when Mr. Glover's body was burned and failed to report it. Sgts. Sandoz and Ruiz testified as government witnesses, but they admitted to lying to federal agents or to a grand jury probing the Glover case.
Superintendent Serpas in August announced a new policy that made lying a firing offense. "If you tell this Police Department a lie about anything, you will be terminated," he said then.
It's unclear whether that policy could apply to these officers, but it is a pretty basic standard of behavior -- especially in law enforcement.
How the reassigned officers will ultimately fare remains to be seen, but removing this many high-powered officers from their duties is stunning. If nothing else, it sends a message that the superintendent takes accusations of impropriety very seriously -- as he should.
Superintendent Serpas said in a statement that at this point he doesn't have confidence in the six officers he reassigned Thursday. "After receiving a briefing this week by federal authorities regarding the death of Henry Glover, I am presently not comfortable in the ability of these individuals to professionally carry out their police duties as members, or leaders, of this police department pending our full investigative review," he said.
That is understandable. The public is wary as well given the apparent breadth of misbehavior among officers.
The Glover case is one of nine civil-rights investigations into the New Orleans Police Department started by the FBI and Justice Department in recent years, most of which involve police conduct in the chaotic days after Katrina. Ten New Orleans police officers face pending charges in three separate cases, including the Danziger Bridge shooting two days after Glover was shot. Five former New Orleans police officers have pleaded guilty in a cover-up of that incident, in which two men were killed and four people injured.
Superintendent Serpas is taking steps, though, that should repair the department's image over time. The rule about lying is part of a 65-point police reform plan. The superintendent and Mayor Mitch Landrieu also embraced a department-wide review by the U.S. Justice Department, and Superintendent Serpas is re-establishing internal oversight mechanisms set up during Mr. Pennington's successful tenure. Those controls, designed to give early warning about troubled officers, were largely dismantled under the Nagin administration -- allowing rogue officers to go unchecked.
That was a great disservice to New Orleanians and to the officers on the force who do the right thing. And it's a trend that must be turned around.
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