For years, there have been allegations of illegal searches and arrests of Black men by police officers in the French Quarter by the New Orleans Police Department. Now, there’s a video showing just how casual the coordination of corruption and racism can be.
Thomas Frampton, a former public defender from Orleans Parish and lecturer from Harvard Law School makes it his business to check in on his former clients in one of the country’s most punitive jurisdictions. The New Orleans Police Department has a troubled history and has made uneven progress in recent years. One recurring issue: the tendency of many officers to fabricate after-the-fact justifications for searches and seizures.
The new video shows four NOPD officers (Senter, Sherr, Knowles, and Collins) who work in New Orleans’s famous French Quarter on what is, presumably, a typical night out for them. (In five unrelated criminal cases in recent months, New Orleans courts have held that arrests made by this same crew of officers were unconstitutional. In each case the defendant was a young Black man.) The video shows the officers inventing a justification for an illegal search and arrest. This all-too-common type of policing erodes trust that law enforcement is actually out to protect and serve everyone in the community, to say nothing of the devastating effect it has on the lives of the young Black men most immediately impacted.
With the recent video of Ahmaud Arbery apparently being run down, gunned down, and murdered for the crime of going for a run in the wrong neighborhood, this video might seem less shocking. There are no gunshots, there are no pointy white hoods; but what we see is, in some ways, just as disturbing. What resounds is just how mundane their culture of corruption and racism is. For these four officers, it seems that the coverup is second nature — muscle memory.
Now, with a front page story in this week’s Sunday Times-Picayune, Frampton has finally forced the Department to face their alleged misdeeds in the public sphere. In response to Frampton’s complaint (and ongoing investigations by federal consent decree monitors), the Department announced Monday that it is "shutting down their task force units” pending investigation.
This is, of course, a good step. But it’s notable that NOPD didn’t act when they got Frampton’s complaint two weeks ago; they acted when local press began covering it. To paraphrase a recent widely shared meme: they didn’t act because they saw it; they acted because we saw it.
And despite moving to ensure better “supervision” of rank-and-file officers, the most serious action NOPD has announced thus far seems to be reassigning officers to other precincts. That means that the four officers who have repeatedly violated the Constitution (and even those who have been caught lying under oath in court) remain on the streets with guns and badges.
Another critical reform that’s needed? Getting rid of New Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, long regarded as one of the most reactionary and least ethical prosecutors in the country. In almost all of the cases Frampton’s complaint discovered, Cannizzaro went to bat for these NOPD officers, even appealing to the Louisiana Supreme Court on their behalf. And, in a particularly egregious example of his win-at-all-costs approach, Louisiana’s highest court almost never saw the video evidence above (the one showing the officers fabricating their account). When Cannizzaro appealed that case, his office omitted the video evidence that proved the officers were lying; his office later argued it was “irrelevant.”
With literal Nazis marching in our streets, it’s easy to forget just how much of the damage of American racism is carried out passively within our everyday laws and norms. Our worst tendencies don’t always shout, but, rather, whisper with a deafening persistence all around us.
It’s tragic that viral videos of heinous crimes against our most vulnerable seem destined to continue filling our feeds. But we must also teach ourselves to rethink the systems that weave webs of injustice all around us.