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'Transfer of Power' 

Thirty years ago, Larry Williams and six other black cops filed a suit that would change the face of the New Orleans Police Department. Here, he recounts NOPD life before the consent decree.

Thirty years ago this month, on March 9, 1973, Larry Williams and six other African-American officers on the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) filed a sweeping racial discrimination suit against the city in federal court. The suit alleged unlawful racial discrimination against blacks in police employment recruitment, testing, hiring, promotions, assignments and disciplinary action. The city and its co-defendants, NOPD and the city Civil Service Commission, all denied the allegations.

At the time, whites accounted for more than 54 percent of New Orleans' population of 593,471; blacks accounted for most of the 45.5 percent "non-whites." There were fewer than 100 black cops among the 1,340 officers on the NOPD. Whites dominated every phase of state and local government. New Orleans had not yet seen a black mayor, a black police chief or a police captain.

For months preceding the filing of the lawsuit, black NOPD officers -- including some who had worked undercover infiltrating black extremist groups -- met at bars along St. Bernard Avenue to plan strategies for addressing their grievances. The resulting suit later led to a court-ordered consent decree that changed the race and gender make-up of the police force. Known as the "Larry Williams consent decree," the case was named for the lead plaintiff, whose duties as a police intelligence officer included supervising NOPD informants inside the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party.

The following oral history is based on a series of interviews and conversations with Williams.


Joining the Force
I joined the New Orleans Police Department in November 1968 as a 19-year-old police cadet. I had two years of college at the time. As a part of the process, I took an eye examination administered by a physician employed by the city. The doctor told me I was color-blind. I had already been told that the eye test was used to discriminate against black applicants. After the city's finding, I had Dr. Carl Rabin, then the Orleans Parish Coroner, conduct an identical examination. I passed and he sent the results to Civil Service.

Later in the process, I was sent to the police polygraph examiner. During the pre-test interview he insisted that I call him "sir." I refused and laughed. He became incensed and canceled the test. Several days later, I went back and finished the test without his earlier request.

My first job assignment was the intelligence division. I spent four or five months there before starting the academy. The commander was Tom Drake. There were about two black detectives and probably others working undercover. I would read and file classified memos, and sometimes I would conduct surveillance of political subversives and organized crime figures. The plan was always for me to go back to Intelligence after some time on the street.

I entered the academy with five other black recruits. I believe it was the highest number of African Americans ever in a recruit class. During the first week, the black recruits were ushered into the office of Sidney Terrebonne, the white commander. He spent about 20 minutes preparing us for the possibility that some of the recruits and maybe some of the instructors might use racially derogatory terms. He encouraged us not to react but instead to report any such incident.

During hand-to-hand combat exercise, a white recruit refused to partner-up with a black recruit. And the white judo instructor, Officer Donald Duke, told the white recruit to practice with the black recruit or go home. I did not expect that. The white recruit stayed and worked with the black recruit.

An older white detective lectured the class. At least once during his lecture, he used the word "nigger" in the front of the entire recruit class. Two or three of us left the room. Later on, somebody apologized for him. Generally, I got along with most of the recruits and instructors.


'The Project Car'
From March 1969 to September 1970, I was assigned to the Sixth District, also the home of four public housing developments. Car assignments still were not fully integrated. Generally, black officers worked the "project car." But all platoons did not restrict the movements of black officers.

The last two digits of the "black car" or "housing project car" were "08" and "05" -- like car 608 and car 605. This system enabled the police dispatcher to know where the black officers were and to limit their movements. The primary reason for this was to control black officers' contact with the white community. The department feared the white community might not be ready for policing by black cops. The department's position was that the white community should be shielded from black officers, but white cops were free to "occupy" the black community.

Black officers assigned to the two-man car would get a different white partner almost every day. That way no one white officer was "burdened" with a black partner. Nevertheless there were cases of permanent black and white partners.

Although I viewed the car assignment policy and rotations of white officers as an insult, I preferred patrolling black neighborhoods with black partners. When I was not with a white officer, I had an easier time policing black neighborhoods.

Almost always, the white officer would drive the two-person car. Even the "project car." That way, he was able to avoid patrolling the housing developments except when there was a call for service. As a result, black citizens would complain that they saw patrol cars only when officers came to make arrests.

In the Sixth District, like all districts, there were three platoons. Two platoons pretty much limited the movements of black officers. The other platoon, which had a strong black sergeant named Perry White, had no such restrictions. Car assignments changed so all officers could learn the district. The other sergeant on the platoon was Manuel Curry. He did not practice discriminatory car assignments. I am fairly certain the fair treatment of black officers on that platoon was because of the relationship between White and Curry. That's when I understood the importance of African-American supervisors.

Small Talk and Excessive Force
In the Sixth District there was a white police officer that had a habit of, when he got excited and when he was in a chase, he would use the words "nigger male" on the police radio to describe a black suspect. Otherwise, he seemed to be in his right mind. I dreaded the days when I had to work with him.

Like most white officers I worked with -- with the exception of Curry and White's platoon -- we didn't talk. There was no small talk. Just business. When we ate, it was at the station -- the white officer would eat in one room while I would eat in another.

One day, that officer and I received a call that a representative of the New Orleans Public Service Inc. was trying to turn off the electricity at a house for non-payment. A black woman occupied the house with her five or six kids. When we arrived, the woman was crying. It was summer and she used fans to cool her small home. And this same officer, infamous for his use of the term "nigger male," told the NOPSI man that if he turned off the woman's electricity, he would put him in jail. I found this white officer had a natural and genuine manner when dealing with black citizens. And I found him quite fair and comfortable with black people.

I was working with another white officer one day in a mostly white sector. We didn't talk either. We arrested a white guy on Coliseum Street and when I tried to cuff him, he called me a "nigger." Without saying anything, the white officer struck him with a nightstick. We then drove to a wharf on the Mississippi River and there the white officer threatened to throw him in the river if he didn't apologize to me. He did -- profusely. All the way to Central Lock-Up, in fact. Now, I didn't expect the white officer's reaction, not at all. That was the first act of excessive force that I witnessed on the street. Although we did not talk for the rest of the watch, that was like a bonding incident for me. It taught me not to judge white officers.

I remember going with a white officer to a restaurant on Carondelet Street. We walked in together for lunch. The manager called him over and told him he would serve him but not me. This white officer asked me to step outside. Then he came back outside and told me to come inside. I asked him what happened. He told me he told the manager if I couldn't eat there, he was going to check his licenses. And this white officer never talked to me.

Regardless of their personal feelings, these two white officers did not allow a fellow officer to be insulted. Many times during a call for service to a residence, a black citizen would pull me on the side and say, "You can come in, but he can't," pointing to the white guy. In that situation, although I understood it, I would back up the white officer because I understood the white officer would back me up.

When you're in a police car, you really only have each other. I never had a problem getting back-up on the street even after I filed this lawsuit. Anytime I had a Signal 108 ("officer needs assistance") or a Code Red, I got back-up. During assistance calls, race never mattered.

Something as simple as eating lunch would cause problems. On the graveyard shift (11 p.m. to 7 a.m.) with limited places to eat and no one-person cars, white officers could hardly avoid eating with black partners. In the Sixth District that meant seeing black and white officers eating together at a place called the Meal-A-Minute on St. Charles Avenue. White officers would eat at one table, black officers at another table.

Working relationships with individual white officers, I found overall to be good. Most of the white males I count among my friends today are current or former police officers. It was the policies from headquarters that were discriminatory. Like the project car.


Watching the Klan

After I left the Sixth, I spent about a year in the Intelligence Division or, as it was known then, the Red Squad. It was the department's "spy unit." We worked with FBI agents from their subversive squad. We tracked the movements and activities of organized crime figures. There were other very sensitive assignments.

We were often assigned to dignitary protection details. Once, I was assigned to a protection detail for (U.S. Defense Secretary) Melvin Laird. I was assigned to protect Laird's daughter. The head of the secretary's plainclothes security detail remarked that it would be better not to have her protected by a black male. The Division Commander, "Silky" O'Sullivan, refused to change the assignment.

In our daily operation, we directed activities against the Klan and right-wing groups and left-wing organizations and black groups. Clarence Giarrusso said the black community felt that the department was paying too much attention to the Black Panther Party and the Republic of New Afrika but not the Klan. Giarrusso thought it would be better if a black detective would have some responsibility for the Ku Klux Klan file. So I was asked to find white guys and influence them to become informants in the Klan. Sometimes it was criminals; sometimes it was citizens. Some criminals could get their charges reduced in exchange for infiltrating the Klan. We made it known to officers at Central Lock Up that we were looking for people who might go into the Klan.

New Orleans is a strange place. Even the Klan was different. I once interviewed a young man who was living outside the French Quarter with a black transvestite, a white prostitute and a white transvestite. As I was interviewing him, the Klansman was constantly using the "N-word" while he was getting a shoulder massage from the black transvestite. That was bizarre.

The Klan here wasn't very violent. It was the bullshit Klan. Chicken shit. Like the Panthers here -- just rhetoric; a leaflet here and there. A demonstration.

Unlike in the districts, in Intelligence only your talents limit you. If I needed to develop information on a hate group, I was not restricted.


Filing the Lawsuit
Having a predominantly white police department responsible for patrolling a predominantly black city is a prescription for disaster. The question was power. And the only way to shift the balance of power was to reduce the influence of white officers -- especially in the black community.

At the same time, the white community needed to experience the influence of black police officers. A predominantly white police department bears watching. The most effective way to do that is through the presence of black officers. History shows that those who seek to limit the advancement of a people find no more effective means than an enforcement military agency. Since Reconstruction ended, the New Orleans Police Department served that purpose.

Detective Sergeant Samuel Reine (Ret.) who entered the Police Academy in 1954, during segregation, was the greatest influence on my decision to advocate for legal action. For me, the lawsuit was less a matter of job equity than the transfer of power. Otherwise, being a black policeman meant nothing. If you could not stand between a historically abusive white police department and your people, what was the point of having the job? And you are pathetic if you stand by and watch black people being mistreated.

Forget numbers and think control. It's where black officers are assigned that matters. It's whom they control: internal affairs, intelligence, homicide, public relations, the academy, applicant investigation, recruiting, the disciplinary boards and the most sensitive assignments. Put enough African-American supervisors and mid-level managers in those areas to keep tabs on what the white officers do, then I'm satisfied.

click to enlarge TRACIE MORRIS/YOUNG STUDIO
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