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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.

March 08, 1995|JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW ORLEANS — 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."

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.

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."

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.

"I'm stone serious about fixing this department," the dapper mayor said in a recent interview.

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