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COLUMN ONE : Corrupt Cops: The Big Sleazy? : Long plagued by police vice, even jaded New Orleans is chilled by slayings linked to officers. Crime on the force and in the streets spurs crackdown. ‘The city’s soul is in jeopardy,’ the mayor says.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The voice on the tape belongs to Officer Len Davis, but it sounds more like that of a gangster than a cop.

“Man, that whore’s standing out there right now with a black (expletive) coat on . . . with her (expletive) hair in that little bob . . . with (expletive) jeans on . . . standing in the middle of the (expletive) street,” Davis barked into a cellular phone from behind the wheel of his squad car last October. “Get that whore!”

The object of his venom, according to FBI agents who secretly recorded the conversation, was a 32-year-old mother of three named Kim Groves, who had filed a citizen’s complaint accusing Davis of pistol-whipping her neighbor. The officer’s crude description, authorities say, was for the benefit of a violent drug lord known as Cool, who allegedly drove up to Groves a few minutes later and fired a 9-millimeter bullet into her head.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah!” Davis exulted after appearing to confirm the killing--one of the record 421 homicides that made New Orleans the nation’s murder capital last year. “Rock, rockabye.”

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Brutality and vice long have been enmeshed in the fabric of this steamy Mississippi River port, which has weathered colonial rule, slavery, piracy, Civil War, ethnic rioting, political scandal and a tradition of police corruption matched by few other U.S. cities.

And many times, New Orleans has emerged from its misery even richer and more seductive: The music of slaves blossomed as jazz in the bordellos of Basin Street, the swampland that induced horrific yellow fever also spawned ornate above-ground cemeteries, and, every year about this time, the Lenten cycle of penitence inspires one of the world’s greatest drunk fests.

But even for a city that revels in extremes, recent headlines about crime and cops--especially crime being committed by cops--have pushed the Big Easy to the edge.

Since 1992, more than 30 of New Orleans’ 1,500 police officers have been charged with felonies, ranging from rape to kidnaping to extortion. Nine officers--including Davis, who has pleaded not guilty to all counts--were indicted last December for taking bribes from undercover agents posing as cocaine dealers.

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In less than a year, four officers have been accused of murder, including Antoinette Frank, who was arrested Saturday after three people were slain in a bungled restaurant robbery. One of the victims was her former partner.

As the police department has spiraled out of control, so have the streets of New Orleans, where homicides last year soared to a per capita rate more than triple that of Los Angeles’. The rise in violence is more than a coincidence, contend local watchdogs who blame police misdeeds for fueling the carnage directly or alienating the residents who are needed to restore peace. In one grim housing project, on a side of town that Davis and several fellow defendants patrolled, 26 people were killed last year, one murder for every 100 residents.

There’s “nobody left here but the young ones,” said Celina Dimes, 19, as she slouched on a sofa cushion along a rutted walkway of the city-run Florida complex, a corner of New Orleans long renowned for its rogue cops. On a brick wall behind her, in black and red spray-painted scrawls, wishes of R.I.P. had been left for Crazy E, Melvin, Big Kenneth and Food Stamp Ricky.

“Whose gun is that?” Dimes suddenly wanted to know. Her 2-year-old son, Erin, dressed in a rainbow-colored Polo shirt, was running in circles, waving a plastic assault rifle. He wailed in protest when she grabbed the toy, returning it to a tiny girl with braided hair and purple bows. “Go on,” Dimes ordered her son, prodding him with a gentle swat. “Go find your own gun.”

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After years of official denial, perpetuated by a culture of cronyism and patronage, New Orleans’ new administration is working overtime to clean house, candidly acknowledging the nexus between corrupt law enforcement and lawless streets.

There is no longer talk of aberrations, no defensive equivocating. “The city’s soul is in jeopardy,” says Mayor Marc H. Morial, a 37-year-old attorney elected last spring who likens his mission to “a crusade . . . a moral battle . . . a holy war.”

Son of the city’s first black mayor, Morial has used his popularity to plow forward boldly, taking steps that might have generated more controversy had New Orleans not been in such disrepair.

With little debate, he drafted an 8 p.m. weeknight curfew for anyone under 16, the strictest in the nation. Before picking a police chief--the NOPD’s fourth in four years--Morial fired or reprimanded 65 officers. When the post was filled by Richard J. Pennington, a veteran commander from Washington, he was only the second outsider asked to lead the force. The first, who resigned 15 years ago amid controversy, was hired by Morial’s father.

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“I’m stone serious about fixing this department,” the dapper mayor said in a recent interview.

Pennington, who was selected after a six-month national search, had the misfortune of being sworn in the same day Officer Davis allegedly ordered Groves’ execution. Although many of his reforms are standard practice in most big-city departments, they are considered nothing short of revolutionary in the laissez faire world of New Orleans law enforcement.

Among the firsts: hiring qualifications that will prevent recruits with criminal records from joining the force; an early warning system that will track abusive officers before they rack up dozens of complaints; limits on off-duty employment that will stop patrol officers from spending more time moonlighting than on the beat; in-service training requirements that will keep sergeants with no more than a high school education from leapfrogging to chief.

“Each and every day, I discover something new,” said Pennington, a soft-spoken man who wears a pistol on his right hip and a Mickey Mouse watch on his left wrist. In an unprecedented alliance, he has invited the FBI to overhaul the department’s internal affairs unit, now relocated outside police headquarters to encourage citizen complaints. He even cruises the city’s coffee shops, suddenly appearing in a starched blue uniform to roust slacking rank-and-file.

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“Business,” Pennington said, “will not be conducted as usual.”

The momentum generated by this new leadership has provided a much-needed boost for New Orleans, which had grown wearily accustomed to a somnambulistic city government. That hopefulness has been accompanied by an aggressive public relations blitz from the tourist-dependent business community, protective of the 1.7 million hotel nights already booked for 1995 conventions.

“New Orleans: Proud to call it home,” is the latest slogan, coined by a group of young professionals trying to restore the city’s image.

Yet behind that rosy veneer, New Orleans remains a complex bundle of contradictions, refined and excessive, sinful and redemptive, the kind of place where the coroner is a gynecologist and the district attorney, father of crooner Harry Connick Jr., has a lounge act at Maxwell’s Toulouse Cabaret.

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Haidy McHugh, a tourist from Santa Monica, measures the city in gastronomic terms: breakfast at Brennan’s, dinner at Rienzi’s, dessert at the Commander’s Palace. “Be sure,” she says in a conspiratorial whisper, “to have the chocolate mousse.”

Dionne Wilson, whose 17-year-old brother was among those slain last year at the Florida housing project, marks her loss with teardrop tattoos: “See these?” she asks, pointing to her left eye. “We in the midst of the worst.”

On Bourbon Street, as out-of-towners stumble by slurping hurricanes from oversized cups, an evangelist with an eight-foot-high wooden cross makes a tally of his own. “Where will your soul be while they are preaching your funeral?” ask his pamphlets, which litter the ground.

“You have to look at this city as a living, breathing being, a growing creature that’s going through some awkwardness,” says Brandi Kelley, manager of the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum, where a portrait of 19th-Century voodoo queen Marie Laveau greets visitors at the door. “The voodooist doesn’t think of life as a beginning or some catastrophic end, but as a series of stages, a cycle that’s always in constant change.”

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The painful chapter being played out has its roots in a social and economic transformation at least two decades in the making. A middle-class exodus to the suburbs--in part white flight--has eroded the city’s tax base, which is propped up by one of the steepest sales taxes in the nation. The oil industry, whose boom built the central business district’s glass-and-steel towers, sent many more skilled workers packing when it busted in the ‘80s.

Already-impoverished neighborhoods grew more desperate. Violence, although still largely a function of personal beefs, turned more reckless. About 60% of the city’s 500,000 residents are black, but they accounted for 90% of last year’s homicide victims.

Nine-year-old James Darby, who wrote to President Clinton last April “to stop the killing in the city,” was gunned down a week later in a drive-by intended for someone else. Mark McKnight, whose parents tried to shield him from the dangers outside their home, was killed in September by a stray bullet as he played Nintendo. He was 3. Just before midnight on New Year’s Eve, another random shot fell from the sky. It claimed the final victim of 1994: Amy Silberman, a tourist from Massachusetts, who was waiting for the fireworks to start.

“I think New Orleans will survive--it always has,” says Pat Kelly, 50, who had driven down from Baton Rouge to attend the much-heralded Claude Monet exhibit at the New Orleans Museum of Art. But her confidence now comes at a price. “My purse has nothing in it except for cigarettes,” she says, revealing a wallet hidden under her trench coat.

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The same strains that were fraying the city, experts say, had all but unraveled the police department by the early 1990s.

Mickey Evans, a retired Louisiana National Guardsman commissioned last year to study the NOPD, found that officers’ salaries had stagnated, equipment fell into disrepair, discipline eroded and the command structure withered under political meddling. The most corrosive outgrowth, he said, was a system of private work details that allowed officers earning as little as $8 an hour to double that wage as off-duty security guards.

“It was by far the worst organization I have ever seen . . . unhealthy, dysfunctional . . . with incompetent, uninspired, uncaring leadership at every level,” says Evans, who believes the department can be saved if the chief embraces the 80% of officers that he estimates are struggling to do good. “The sense of hopelessness and lack of value they feel for themselves is just incredible.”

The result has not just been cash-under-the-table shenanigans, although there’s been no shortage of that: The former chief of detectives, who’s running for lieutenant governor, was fired last year after reports that he earned $325,000 moonlighting for a video poker company. What has made the NOPD so vexing, experts say, is that graft frequently has been accompanied by stunning civil rights abuses--few of which result in any disciplinary action.

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Mary Howell, an attorney who has built a career out of defending the victims of police misconduct, is still outraged over the 1990 slaying of Adolph Archie, a black man suspected of killing a white officer during a downtown shootout. After the wounded Archie was taken into custody, a mob of more than 100 officers converged on the hospital, broadcasting threats against him over their police radios.

By the time Archie made it to a doctor, Howell says, his skull had been crushed. An autopsy showed he had been stomped to death, but no officer ever was reprimanded.

The NOPD, which is under a consent decree to hire and promote more minority officers, is 54% white and 43% black.

“I came to the really unhappy conclusion that we had the kind of police department that this city wanted,” says Howell, who believes New Orleans has tolerated police abuse for so long because the victims have been predominantly poor and black. “The power structure here is still the white community . . . which tends to view police as the thin blue line protecting us from the hordes.”

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Although Davis and his alleged victim were both black, many believe that the case may have shocked this jaded city into action.

Groves, after all, was not a suspect but a witness, one who had made a supposedly confidential citizen’s complaint. And Davis, who knew of her complaint less than three hours after she filed it at the internal affairs office, allegedly confirmed the slaying in police code: “N.A.T.,” Davis is heard to say on tape, believed to be a signal for “necessary action taken.”

Authorities wouldn’t even have linked Davis to the murder if they hadn’t already had him under surveillance as part of a yearlong drug sting. He is accused of organizing eight other officers to guard a warehouse full of cocaine. After Groves was killed, undercover agents halted the operation, even though federal prosecutors said that another 15 to 20 officers could have been indicted.

“We have to start from scratch,” concedes Officer Shelita Butler, a member of the new foot patrol that began policing the Florida complex last month. She and her partner, Larry Singleton, both grew up in or around the New Orleans projects. They are being touted as the next generation of community-oriented officers--young, sensitive and committed to restoring the trust their colleagues have shattered.

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“It’s harder, because the department’s been labeled, so we have to almost prove that we’re not like that,” Butler says, strolling by apartments that rent for an average of $58 a month, taking note of the broken windows and dozens of walls eerily adorned with hand-painted tombstones.

A few gold-toothed toughs glare her way, muttering about harassment. But Butler’s eyes have lighted up over the sight of twin 7-year-old birthday girls, walking home from school with Sesame Street balloons and Barney hats.

“This community is starving,” she says after giving each sister a lollipop and a dollar. A drunk, sipping from a brown paper sack, nods his approval. It’s only been a month, but--at least in the Florida complex--the killing has stopped.


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