The trial of five New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) officers charged with shooting Henry Glover to death and burning his body brought some sense of closure to the Glover family and to citizens of New Orleans, particularly African-Americans. A federal jury convicted three officers and acquitted two others, essentially rejecting the defense's argument that the chaos and stress of Hurricane Katrina somehow excused the decision to shoot Glover in the back and torch his corpse with a road flare. Officer Greg McRae, Lt. Travis McCabe and former officer David Warren were convicted on numerous charges. The three men will be sentenced in March and April. Two other officers, Lt. Dwayne Scheuermann and Lt. Robert Italiano, were acquitted on related charges.
The convictions may bring some closure, but the subtext of the culture inside NOPD is disturbing. As A.C. Thompson of the nonprofit journalism site ProPublica points out, "Nobody within the New Orleans Police Department ever tried to bring Warren, McRae and the rest to justice. Nobody went to the chief. Nobody went to internal affairs. Nobody went to the local district attorney or the state attorney general or the U.S. Department of Justice. Every single officer who knew about the circumstances of Glover's demise, and there were easily a dozen of them, was content to simply let him disappear."
That, in a nutshell, is the culture Police Chief Ronal Serpas inherited when he accepted his position in June. Serpas began his law enforcement career at NOPD in 1980, rising to the rank of deputy chief over the next two decades before moving on. Though he was lauded for his work elsewhere — chief of the Washington State Patrol and police chief of Nashville, Tenn. — some skeptics wondered if a third-generation NOPD officer with more than 20 years on the force was really the person to bring about the reforms so desperately needed here. Others noted Serpas worked as deputy chief under Richard Pennington, the last chief to attack the code of silence that still permeates NOPD.
When Gambit interviewed Serpas in June, he was proud of his "you lie, you die" policy, which he instituted as police chief in Nashville. "We implemented a policy that if you're untruthful in the workplace, you're terminated — presumptive termination, no progressive discipline. We prevailed at the Tennessee Court of Appeals in January 2010 [after] we fired a police officer for being late and lying about it. That's what we're going to do here."
How Serpas handles the admitted liars at NOPD will be the first big test of his no-excuses policy. Sgt. Ronald Ruiz and Sgt. Jeffrey Sandoz, who admitted on the stand that they lied to the feds, are on administrative leave while Susan Hutson, the independent police monitor, reviews their cases with the Public Integrity Bureau. The investigation is both welcome and necessary, but both men, by their own admission, lied to federal investigators. Some worry that firing Ruiz and Sandoz will make other cops think twice about coming clean, but they should have come clean in the first place. Serpas' duty is clear — to the public, which deserves honest cops, and to honest cops who don't deserve to be tainted by bad apples. If they remain on the job, cops who lie will be forever tainted in any future collars they make; if a case goes to trial, all it will take is a defense attorney asking them, "Have you ever lied under oath or to federal investigators?" and the case will dissolve.
While it's laudable that Sandoz, Ruiz and others fessed up, the fact remains that not one NOPD officer who knew of the circumstances of Henry Glover's death approached a superior, Internal Affairs or the FBI. The facts only emerged after a federal investigation began shaking loose the truth — and even then, some NOPD officers chose to lie to a federal grand jury. They should pay a price for that. Amid the relief that justice has been served in the federal case, Chief Serpas and the citizens of New Orleans need to remember that the code of silence still stands strong in a department racked by corruption for decades. That code needs to be broken.