It is a courtroom like no other for a case that is unprecedented in the history of the New Orleans Police Department.
The civil service trial of the "First District Six" got underway last Monday, Nov. 29, in a spacious conference room of the City Planning Commission on the top floor of City Hall. Five fired cops and one demoted officer formerly assigned to the First Police District are accused of downgrading citizen crime reports and manipulating crime statistics from May 2002 to May 2003. They were allegedly motivated by the NOPD's career-enhancing crime reduction award competition, which has since been terminated. All six men deny any wrongdoing.
The proceedings began amid rising public anxiety over crime, spurred by a Bourbon Street shooting on the Bayou Classic weekend that left three people wounded, and a national survey (based on NOPD data) that ranked New Orleans as the nation's eighth most dangerous city -- and the second most dangerous city for murders. New Orleans had an overall ranking of 13th last year.
During the hearings, all participants in the case -- including the cops, the city prosecutor, the hearing examiner and witnesses -- sit around a square-shaped configuration of conference tables in the city planning room. In the center is a large, elongated balsa wood replica of the city of New Orleans, built by the architecture students of Tulane University.
So last Tuesday, fired First District commander Capt. Norvel Orazio would look across the model city and the painted likeness of the Mississippi River to the West Bank, where he would see the two city officials charged with keeping him off the force he served for 29 years. Deputy City Attorney Joe DiRosa, a jaded veteran of numerous appeal fights with disciplined cops, sat next to Capt. Carolyn L. Weigand of NOPD's Public Integrity Bureau. Weigand spearheaded the internal affairs investigation that resulted in administrative charges against the six cops.
Also appealing their dismissals and seated with their attorneys are Lt. Michael Glasser, a 23-year veteran; Sgt. Gary Lerouge, a 21-year veteran; and Sgt. Aaron Blackwell, a 23-year veteran. Officer Stephen Kriebel, a five-year veteran, was absent Tuesday, but his attorney was in the room. Probationary Lt. William Ceravolo, who was demoted to patrolman, sat to the left of Orazio.
Orazio totes his own stack of records (and ice chest) into the hearing room by hand truck. Muscular and gregarious, at one point last week he looked over the shoulder of a reporter beginning to scribble in a blank notebook. "You are going to need more paper," Orazio said, smiling.
Indeed, the witness-laden, document-intensive case is expected to be the most expensive civil proceeding in decades, surpassing even the voluminous appeal of former Chief of Detectives Antoine Saacks. More than 240 downgraded reports will be presented during the first round of hearings, scheduled to run through Dec. 17. And more than 90 witnesses, mostly cops who worked in the First, are expected to testify. A civil service hearing examiner is assigned to referee the proceedings. The testimony will generate reams of transcripts for review by the unseen decision-makers in the case, the five-member city Civil Service Commission.
THERE WAS LITTLE DECORUM AT THE HEARING one morning last week, considering the gravity of the charges. People popped in out of the ninth floor hearing room, or chatted among themselves, often during testimony. At one point, one of the police lawyers talked on a cell phone while a uniformed cop was testifying.
On Tuesday morning, all but one of the appellants were casually dressed, but none more than Orazio, who wore a brown shirt and blue jeans. One of his former subordinates chewed gum throughout the morning. Another former police supervisor slouched in his seat. Only Orazio exuded any semblance of what cops call "command presence."
The cops' lawyers sparred often that morning with city prosecutor Joe DiRosa, trading verbal blows across the model city until Hearing Examiner Jay Ginsburg intervened.
At one point during a police officer's testimony, an attorney for one appellant cried out: "Objection! Hearsay!"
DiRosa: "Hearsay is admissible in an administrative hearing."
The lawyer retorted: "Double hearsay isn't!"
DiRosa: "You have a case on that?"
Another lawyer shot back: "Do you?"
The other lawyers chuckled.
Minutes later, DiRosa, nodding to his opponents, asked Ginsburg: "These snide remarks are not for the record, are they?"
No, Ginsburg replied. He has advised the courtroom stenographer to ignore the digs.
"They are just for the press," said DiRosa.
Ginsburg nodded: "And there's nothing I can do about that."
THE OUTCOME OF THE CASE, however chaotic the process, will affect more than just the six men who want their jobs back. Ginsburg, whose youthful looks belie years of refereeing emotionally charged police discipline cases, opened the second day of hearings with a cheerful "housekeeping" request: "We need the active dates of service for the First District ... (Police Superintendent) Eddie Compass' service dates as First District commander," Ginsburg said aloud to the attorneys before him.
Ginsburg does not elaborate. A Times-Picayune story that day noted that the first day of testimony produced an "embarrassing revelation." The first witness in the case testified about a reported theft of a cell phone that was allegedly downgraded to a 21-L, or "lost of stolen" -- an incident that would not show up on city crime stats. However, a "quick check of the calendar showed that the incident took place before Orazio took over the First District," the T-P noted. "The commander at the time: Superintendent Eddie Compass."
Indeed, the trial is expected to raise more comparisons between Compass and Orazio. Before his appointment as chief on May 24, 2002, Compass was commander of the First District. Orazio, who commanded the police station near Armstrong Park until May 2003, replaced him. Chief Compass transferred Orazio out of the First last June, pending the outcome of the internal affairs probe that led to his firing.
The strategy of the First District Six attorneys seems clear enough: demonstrate that Orazio and the others followed the crime reporting practices of his prominent predecessor. "The policy under Compass was the same as under Orazio," Kevin Boshea, an attorney for Glasser, said during a break outside the hearing room. "There was not a policy of deliberately downgrading for some kind of award."
Three other police districts had "some kind of downgrading" problems, but NOPD's statistical analysis of the crime stats were skewed against the First District, Boshea continued. Each review of the crime reports by various agencies and individuals came up with different numbers of discrepancies from the same body of information, Boshea said.
A former top prosecutor, Boshea recalled that he unsuccessfully prosecuted three cops for the 1987 murder of Dennis Crawford; they are still on the NOPD today. Given that, Boshea asked, how can the department fire five cops and demote another, all of whom have never been in serious trouble, for the way they classify crimes? "This is a witch-hunt of six officers," he charged.
Asked to respond to Boshea's remarks, DiRosa said: "The stats in the First were so out of proportion to the other districts to indicate something was afoot." Under Orazio, the First District boasted "unprecedented decreases" in major felonies of 42 percent in the fourth quarter of 2002 and 43 percent in the first quarter of 2003, according to the internal affairs report.
POLICS SCANDALS OVER MANIPULATED crime statistics are not unique. Problems with the felony tallies that police departments turn into the FBI each year have emerged in Miami, Atlanta and New York City.
Police fudging generally occurs when image-conscious city leaders pressure cops to dramatically reduce crime rates so they can better compete for business and tourism. But Uniform Crime Reports (UCRs), which provide categories for eight major felonies, are not audited.
Crime stats did not become a big deal in New Orleans until 1997. That's when then-Mayor Marc Morial and Police Superintendent Richard Pennington journeyed to New York City to show financial powers that the city's violent crime rate had dropped dramatically. But NOPD cops alleged that numerous major crimes, mostly burglaries and thefts, were being incorrectly downgraded to enhance the status of certain district commanders who had been thrust into a citywide crime-reduction competition started under Pennington.
A city probe of the downgrading allegations ended with no charges being filed, after the investigators filed for whistle-blower protection from the Morial administration.
Mayor Ray Nagin had been in office a little over a year in June 2003 when the First District scandal broke, ultimately resulting in administrative charges against Orazio and five others. The private Metropolitan Crime Commission (MCC) asked Compass to expand the probe to districts citywide. Compass declined, apparently satisfied with the investigation of his internal affairs division.
MCC President Rafael Goyeneche says the crime commission wanted "a complete audit of the entire department and there was a cursory audit done" by NOPD. Even the internal affairs audit revealed some high error rates on police crime statistics and reports in other districts, he says.
"The Sixth District required an investigation but since the commander retired, the chief said the matter was moot and I certainly agree with that," Goyeneche says.
The MCC applauds the tough disciplinary action Compass took in the First District case. But the commission also favors annual, independent audits of the NOPD crime statistics -- one of several longstanding recommendations by the city Office of Municipal Investigation (OMI).
"There should be some method of uniformly auditing these statistics," Goyeneche says. "I don't know if there is a problem with downgrading on the department today. But there needs to be more stringent checks and balances in place to keep this from becoming an issue in the future."
But at a press conference earlier this year, a defensive Compass dismissed the OMI recommendations. The chief said any audits of the crime stats would continue to be done by his inspections division. "We clean our own house," Compass said.
But skepticism of NOPD's crime rates remains, even among the chief's supporters. Peter Scharf, director of the University of New Orleans Center for Society Law and Justice and a friend of the chief, also favors independent audits of the NOPD stats.
"The reality is we really don't know what the depth of the crime problem is," Scharf says. "We don't know how much trouble we're in because we don't have reliable statistics.
"NOPD and the mayor need to realize that they need to reassure the public of the city's financial reports and their business numbers are the crime numbers," Scharf says. "Subjective assessments aren't going work. Faith assessments aren't going to work. ... There has to be an objective accounting."
Murder rates nationwide are dropping sharply, except for New Orleans. "Many observers, myself included, are ranting for a baseline for what's going on. Get a hold of the problem. Find a strategy that is multi-agency. Then hold the system accountable to an outcome," Scharf says.
Asked if the Orazio trial has any bearing on the future of the NOPD beyond the individual careers of the First District Six, Scharf pauses. He then carefully replies: "The risk is that it becomes a trial of the credibility of the (NOPD crime reporting) system."