By Michael Deibert
(This article was cross-posted on the Huffington Post, where it can be read here)
When five New Orleans police officers were found guilty earlier this month of a series of murders, shootings and a subsequent cover-up in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, it seemed a symbolic coda to a catastrophic act of nature that descended upon the Crescent City six years ago today, abetted in its destruction by human failings both at the time and since.
The officers were convicted of killing two people and wounding four others on September 4, 2005 on the Danziger Bridge, an expanse that spans the city's industrial canal, in the chaos of a city largely left to fend for itself after being deluged by a Category 5 hurricane that the entire federal and state government saw coming but did little to prepare for.
Seventeen-year-old James Brissette and forty-year-old Ronald Madison were killed that day, though the conditions that set the stage for their killings had been in place long before and, despite progress in many areas since the storm, a number of them of them remain today.
But despite the city's population having been cut nearly in half since the hurricane, and though large sections of neighborhoods and landmarks such as the former Six Flags amusement part sit eerily abandoned, the heart of the city where jazz was born is still beating.
There is probably no city in the United States that possesses greater physical beauty than New Orleans. From the great mansions of the Garden District, to the latticed-balconies fronting the former pirate haunts of the French Quarter, to the creole cottages in the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods existing in various states of dilapidation, for much of its compact central area New Orleans represents a perfect merging of architectural ideas, similar to the aesthetic wholeness one finds in a place like Paris.
Likewise, its music and cuisine, unique and defiantly redolent of the city's individual flavour and history, make it a fascinating cultural quirk in a national landscape that is increasingly bland and homogenized.
But the revelry and indulgence take place to a backbeat of violence and urban dysfunction so severe that last year the city's homicide rate clocked in at 10 times above the national average, on par with those of violence-racked locales such as Guatemala, where warring street gangs and drug cartels do daily battle.
The prevalence of violent crime in the city would be a challenge for any police force, no matter how well-trained and equipped, but it has proved especially taxing for the 1,395-member New Orleans Police Department (NOPD), whose own struggles have often mirrored the city's larger ills.
An investigation of the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) published in March by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) concluded that "basic elements of effective policing--clear policies, training, accountability and confidence of the citizenry--have been absent for years" and that "constitutional violations span the operation of the entire Department."
The city's mayor Mitch Landrieu, the scion of a Louisiana political dynasty that includes a former mayor (Moon Landrieu) and a current United States senator (Mary Landrieu), came into office in May 2010 with a wave of optimism. He promptly appointed as the city's new police chief Ronal Serpas, who had previously served as police chief of Nashville but a sea of crises, some of them rooted in Katrina and beyond, awaited them.
On Sept. 2, 2005, four days after Katrina made landfall. Henry Glover, an African-American resident of the Algiers section of the city, was shot by an NOPD officer.
When bystanders took the grievously wounded Glover to an improvised police station, they were surrounded by policeman who handcuffed them along with Glover, who bled to death. Glover's body was then driven in a car commandeered by a policeman who burned both the vehicle and Glover's body after setting it aflame with a traffic flare.
Serpas' second in command, Assistant Superintendent Marlon Defillo, retired last month after criticism about his actions in the Glover case grew to a crescendo. A 33 page report from State of Louisiana's Department of Public Safety and Correction concluded that Defillo "repeatedly failed to acknowledge that the circumstances as presented to him were sufficiently suspicious as to require follow up" and that his actions "were neither reasonable or responsible."
This March, two NOPD officers received stiff sentences in connection with the case.
Further complicating matters, wealthy New Orleaneans have institutionalized the peeling off of active-duty police officers into what here are known as "paid details," whereby officers are allowed to work for private companies or individuals while in NOPD uniforms.
The DOJ report called the system an "entrenched and unregulated" phenomenon that facilitated corruption within the department. But the city's elite have been loathe to change it, no matter how much it undermines the capability of law enforcement over the urban landscape as a whole.
To his credit, Serpas in May announced that the NOPD was creating a civilian-administered Office of Police Detail Services that would set restrictions on how many hours officers could work and how they would be paid.
And amid the struggles, there are signs of hope.
The NOPD is currently in the process of negotiating a consent decree with the DOJ, a measure by which a federal judge would mandate and oversee that the report's dozens of recommendations be implemented. A newly invigorated body, the New Orleans Office of the Independent Police Monitor, is also now charged with overseeing the behavior of the NOPD and allegations of police misconduct.
This year, standardized test scores for students in the Recovery School District (RSD), a special state-wide school district administered by the Louisiana Department of Education and which took over most of the city's schools after Katrina, improved for the fourth year in a row.
Students from schools still within the Orleans Parish School Board - whose institutions mostly now fall within the mandate of the RSD - also improved.
This marks a dramatic change in momentum for a city that for decades had failed to provide even the rudiments of a good education to its youth, and one in which early interventions are the key to reducing the appalling homicide rate the now stalks its streets.
For much of its history, the aura of New Orleans has been informed by the interplay of light and shadow, comedy and pathos. A city at least partly built of the legacy of slavery nevertheless helped produced the most ebullient and expressive of African-American idioms, and continues today to hold a mirror up to the country at large of some of its best and worst qualities.
The struggle to rebuild New Orleans - and the debate about what kind of New Orleans that will be - continues six years on, as the winds and rain of a once-mighty storm grow ever more distant, but never fully disappear.