This week, I spotted two pieces of news that become quite unnerving when placed together.
First, this legislative session, no fewer than four lawmakers have filed bills seeking to authorize off-duty police officers to carry firearms in bars. The move comes in reaction to an opinion issued last summer by Attorney General Buddy Caldwell in which he advised that the practice is technically illegal under an existing Louisiana statute.
Secondly, former 6th District New Orleans police officer Desmond Pratt was sentenced to three years in prison after pleading guilty to two counts of sexual battery and one count of felony carnal knowledge of a juvenile. Pratt owed his light sentence to the reluctance of the victims to testify, a common factor in rape and incest cases.
These two stories are unnerving because the former story depends on the perception of police officers are more upstanding, responsible, and law-abiding than the general public. Pratt’s admitted pederasty and sexual battery muddies the waters. Worse, Pratt’s disgrace wasn’t an isolated embarrassment, but yet another sad reflection on a much-maligned department.
Here’s an uncomfortable fact some of you may have forgotten: Two former New Orleans police officers are currently on death row.
In 1995, Officer Antoinette Frank and an accomplice notoriously murdered a fellow NOPD officer working a security detail at a Vietnamese restaurant in New Orleans East. The pair also gunned down the restaurant owner’s two children as they were on their knees praying for their lives to be spared. She remains on death row.
The year before, in 1994, Officer Len Davis had orchestrated the murder of a mother-of-three after being tipped off by a fellow officer in Internal Affairs that she had filed a complaint against him. Davis, who was notorious for running a drug protection racket, had his drug contacts make the hit. He also was sentenced to death and remains on death row.
Sadly, the list doesn’t end there. Frank and Davis aren’t the only NOPD officers to be convicted of murder, nor are they even the most recent. A month before Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, Officer Melvin Williams beat a 48-year-old handyman to death, and then he and his partner attempted to cover up the crime. In 2011, Williams was found guilty and sentenced to over 20 years in prison. His partner was sentenced to five years for lying to the FBI and falsifying a report.
One could go on and on. In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we were confronted with (among other misconduct) the Danziger Bridge shooting and the murder of Henry Glover.
Finally, the US Department of Justice took notice in 2010 and opened an investigation of the NOPD. In 2011, it released its findings, which in part held that “the NOPD has engaged in patterns of misconduct that violate the Constitution and federal law, including a pattern or practice of excessive force, and of illegal stops, searches, and arrests.”
As you probably already know, the Justice Department filed suit against the NOPD and a consent decree was reached in 2012. The City, after fighting the very terms it previously agreed to, is wrangling with the logistics of implementing the decree.
The point of all of this? Against this backdrop, I’m not convinced that we should we be creating more special privileges for police officers. Can anyone still say, with nary a chuckle, that our officers are more responsible and law-abiding than your average citizen? Do they merit more special treatment?
The question crystallizes a matter of principle. My personal view on the proposed legislation to make it legal for off-duty police officers to carry their firearms into bars is that it probably won’t have any practical impact. I’m guessing that officers get away with doing so all the time and are rarely, if ever, charged with carrying illegally.
However, codifying a special rule for police in this area implies that police officers, even those off-the-clock, are more worthy of trust than the rest of us. I sincerely wish that were the case, but following years of entrenched corruption and the commission of some of the worst crimes imaginable, I don’t think it’s true for the NOPD. It may or may not be true for other departments, but I’m on the record as being less than impressed with the checks on police misconduct that exist statewide.
The NOPD is beset by many problems at present and I know it doesn’t need me piling on in my umpteenth column criticizing them. Moreover, I have always maintained that the lion’s share of officers aren’t bad eggs.
But the same is true for the general citizenry. I dare say we’re a generally law-abiding lot. That raises the question: If we’re willing to trust the NOPD in this way, why not everyone else? Why make a special carve-out for law enforcement if the statute is otherwise valid?
I just don’t see the reason.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.