Crime Fighting: A Danziger Summer
A bridge too far
CHERYL GERBER PHOTOGRAPH
In the early summer months, the implosion of individual careers at the New Orleans Police Department rivaled the Danziger Bridge police shooting trials for dramatic headlines.
On July 1, 2011, Police Chief Ronal Serpas and Assistant Superintendent Marlon Defillo presided over one of their last “Comstat” crime strategy meetings together.
Defillo, a 32-year NOPD veteran who was popular with the public and local news media alike, soon retired under a cloud.
On July 22, 2011, a bewildering press conference for Defillo began just a few puddle-jumps away from the Danziger Bridge trial at the U.S. Courthouse.
His voice breaking with emotion, Defillo formally announced his departure from NOPD at the office of lawyer Robert Jenkins.
“My record will reflect that I retired after 32 years of good service,” Defillo said. He retired rather than face a disciplinary hearing the following day for an administrative neglect of duty charge.
A State Police probe requested by Serpas found that Defillo failed to launch a timely investigation into allegations of police wrongdoing in the gruesome shooting-and-desecration death of Henry Glover Jr. following Hurricane Katrina. A federal jury last year convicted three cops of various crimes in Glover’s death (one conviction was reversed and a new trial ordered); two other cops were acquitted.
“The fact that the allegations in the Glover case turned out to be true … haunts me to this date,” Defillo says today.
As chief of detectives since August 2007, Defillo also insists the Glover case “would not have materialized” but for his actions. “I’ve yet to hear what more I could have done,” he said.
Defillo says he received a tip in June 2008 that investigative reporter A.C. Thompson of The Nation was preparing a story on police involvement in Glover’s death. Defillo said he could not substantiate the magazine’s allegations, after contacting the coroner’s chief investigator who informed him that “[Glover] was not shot” and his death was “unclassified.”
Defillo told New Orleans Magazine he was “too busy with investigations” to read Thompson’s report on the Glover case, published in Dec. 17, 2008.
That Christmas Eve, then-Police Chief Warren Riley issued a media advisory saying police had been unable to substantiate The Nation’s reporting on “vigilante-type” actions, asking anyone with information to call Defillo or Lt. Fred Austin.
Local reporters covering Defillo’s retirement focused on NOPD’s failed investigation of the Glover allegations – overlooking the department’s inability to effectively probe violent, post-Katrina “hate crimes.”
A.C. Thompson wrote two separate stories in the 2008 issue of The Nation that resulted in separate federal indictments. There was one article on Glover (“Body of Evidence”). The second story (“Katrina’s Hidden Race War”) focused on the failure of authorities to mount an investigation of “white vigilante justice” at the Algiers Point neighborhood – the shootings and wounding of three local black men.
In February 2009, Defillo reportedly said the investigation of the alleged incidents was stalled due to a lack of information.
U.S. Attorney Jim Letten and the FBI have said that they read The Nation reports, then immediately launched an investigation of Glover’s death, resulting in federal indictments of NOPD cops. It appears the feds also read the Katrina vigilante story.
In July 2010, a federal grand jury indicted Roland J. Bourgeois Jr. on civil rights violations in the shootings of three blacks on Sept. 1, 2005. However, Bourgeois has been gravely ill for months. U.S. District Judge Mary Anne Vial Lemmon has re-scheduled his trial for Oct. 31, 2011, pending medical and psychiatric evaluations of Bourgeois (U.S.A. vs. Bourgeois, 2:10-cr-207).
Defillo, the NOPD’s chief spokesman for 20 years, said he likened allegations about Glover’s death to the “bizarre stories” about people who were murdered, raped and robbed in the Superdome and the Convention Center after Katrina.
Seated next to Defillo at that moment was his longtime friend and former Police Chief Eddie Compass, a nationally recognized purveyor of post-Katrina rumors. “In fact, Mayor Ray Nagin and the Chief of Police [Compass] repeated rumors of rampant criminality to the national media, contributing to the exaggerated image of utter lawlessness,” a U.S. House bipartisan committee reported in a post-Katrina investigation, “A Failure of Initiative,” (February 15, 2006). “The hyped media coverage of violence and lawlessness, legitimized by authorities, served to delay relief efforts ... increasing the anxiety of those in shelters, and generally increasing the resources that needed to be dedicated to security.”
Compass indicates he has learned from his mistakes.
“I’ve learned to be very guarded in my remarks,” Compass said at Defillo’s press conference. Meanwhile, Defillo’s many supporters have expressed doubts about the State Police findings that preceded his retirement. “I have not had the opportunity to get that report,” Defillo told New Orleans Magazine.
This column has submitted a public records request was forwarded to NOPD’s public records unit.
Police spokesperson Hilal B. Williams said our request has been forwarded to NOPD’s public records unit on July 22, 2011. Until then, Defillo’s retirement may best be explained by the NOPD spokesman’s own comment to WWL-TV last year on Serpas’ “zero tolerance” policy for police misconduct: “Police officers are held to a higher standard and whenever there is a cloud of whether they may have done something inappropriate, certainly it’s the department’s position to take immediate and swift action,” Defillo said late last year.