After Wendell Allen
Date: Fri, Jun. 01, 2012
COPS, COWBOYS, and the wild, wild South
By all accounts, the young cop who killed Wendell Allen last week was nervous, inexperienced, and probably startled into an action he now surely regrets. Officer Colpough's career is over, and he is likely to spend a good bit of time in jail for his mistake.
This will bring cold comfort to the family of Wendell, a promising college student and athlete who never got to celebrate his 21th birthday. And the trouble is, Wendell's loss does not feel very accidental. Somehow, in under two years, the Serpas administration has managed to dramatically exacerbate an atmosphere of fear, anxiety, distrust, and reactionism within the New Orleans Police Department that makes inappropriate police shootings all too likely.
Norris Henderson, the renowned activist who himself has been on the receiving end of more than a little police malfeasance, calls these edgy cops "cowboys." It's a vivid formulation that captures the Wild West feel in the streets of New Orleans right now. But it's time to go further, and to call a spade a spade: Chief Serpas and his administration have managed to re-ignite a degree and intensity of racism in his department's policies, practices, and attitudes that makes the shooting of an innocent young black man far too easy. In this context, Officer Colcough himself is the victim of a race-based deterioration of trust between cops and the community. He should and will pay for his mistake. But this kind of mistake will only become more common if a drastic change of direction in the NOPD does not take place.
Chief Serpas was away from New Orleans for many years, including during and after Hurricane Katrina. Upon his return in 2010, nobody seems to have given him the memo that racial profiling does not fly as easily as it did when he was here last. The lives and deaths of young black men are no longer the concern just of their families and immediate communities: the broader population of New Orleans has awakened to the fact that a life lost to violence inflicts a wound upon the whole city, upon each of us. Violence fuels violence, and Prentice Avenue is all of our backyards.
Mayor Landrieu is surely aware enough to perceive all of this. He surely is just as disappointed in his pick of Police Chief as his citizens are. The difference is, he can do something about it and help us turn the corner now. We call upon Mayor Landrieu to use his power to make a change at the NOPD before we find ourselves any further down this destructive and frightening road.