If you are poor and black and live in the Fischer Housing Project of New Orleans, you are afraid of the police.
In November, police hunting the killer of a white patrolman swept through Fischer, killed four people in pre-dawn raids and injured at least a dozen others. Two years ago, police broke down doors and injured several residents after a police officer was killed blocks away.
"I'm more afraid of the police than the dope fiends in the ghetto," says Gloria Degree, 46, a tenant's council member and mother of eight.
Justice Department statistics tend to support what Fischer residents and other blacks in New Orleans have claimed for years: that a predominantly white police department rarely spares the rod in dealing with the black underclass.
The Justice Department receives more brutality complaints about New Orleans than any other city in the United States. Last year, the FBI investigated 105 brutality complaints against New Orleans, in a year when violent crime was down 8 percent.
Only Houston (101) and Los Angeles (100), both much larger, were close behind in police brutality complaints. Chicago was fourth with 52.
"New Orleans has a particular problem with police brutality and misconduct in relation to other cities," says Dan Rinzel, a director of the criminal section of the Justice Department's civil rights division.
But police officers like Jimmy Hernandez, 34, who cruise the impoverished neighborhood at night, also are afraid. A sniper sits atop a project high-rise and regularly fires at police, he says.
He noses his squade car past a police sunstation and points out bullet holes. "You realize anytime you could be next." Two officers were killed last year in the line of duty.
This dilemma is not unusual for an American city. But New Orleans is special because it wants people to believe it is a fun place, carefree, a booming port and party town. Its boosters wish they could draw the shades over black/police tensions and keep the $2 billion-a-year tourist trade rollicking along Bourbon Street.
And with the city hustling for the 1984 World's Fair, the last thing they people being beaten by police.
Three weeks ago, a grand jury ended investigation of the killings and alleged beatings by police in their November sweep through the Fischer project and returned no indictments.
Yet the city has paid more than $1 milliion since Jaunary to people hurt by police in other incidents, or to families of those killed.
The city settled one case in which an officer shot a 13-year-old youth who one witness said was lying "spread-eagled" on the ground after being arrested for allegedly stealing a car. The officer said his gun went off accidentally during a struggle.
In another case, the city paid the widow of a police garage mechanic $350,000 after two officers shot and killed her husband, having mistaken him for a robbery suspect.
A 26-year-old longshoreman received $108,000 after being shot by an off-duty plainclothes officer who tried to arrest him over a disputed restaurant bill for scrambled eggs. An Iowa tourist was awarded $7,500 for a police beating during a Mardi Gras parade.
Ernest N. (Dutch) Morial, New Orleans' first black mayor, has resisted outcries from the black community that he fire police who are accused of using excessive force. He says civil service regulations tie his hands.
But privately, he anguishes over his "Catch-22" dilemma. Firings that didn't stick would inflame police to brutalize more blacks to show that Morial is powerless to protect them. Firings also could cost him support among white police backers. Both would hurt his chances for reelection next year.
Since last fall, New Orleans police officers have shot nine blacks in incidents that some black critics say involved excessive use of force, and seven died. No police officer was injured. Among those incidents:
Two officers shot and killed a mentally deranged woman after she came at them with a metal rod they believed was a knife. A grand jury returned no indictments.
Two officers shot and kiled an alleged purse snatcher, then one officer planted a gun near the victim to make it appear he was armed, according to a statement by the police chief. A grand jury declined to indict the officer who dropped the gun, saying he had violated no state law. Both officers resigned.
A plainclothes officer drew his gun and accidentally shot a high school drum major and a tourist at a Mardi Gras parade after he got angry when the black band chaperone asked him to get out of the way of the marching band. The officer had been drinking. He was suspended. A grand jury indicted him on two counts of negligent injury, a misdemeanor.
A police officer shot and killed a 52-year-old epileptic, a burly 6-footer he says attacked him with a beer bottle and a brick after an apparent seizure. The officer had just waved off an ambulance, telling witnesses he would help the man. There was a hospital across the street. A grand jury is investigating.
But the icidents that most outraged the black community were the Fischer neighborhood shootings and beatings in November, when residents say they watched helplessly as 25 to 30 young blacks were rounded up at random, lined up against a project wall, frisked and cursed.
Louis Thorton, 18, was one of several youths who say they were plucked from the crowd and taken downtown for questioning about the murder of patroman Gregory Neupert, shot in the neck at close range when he came upon what police believe was a drug deal. He denied knowledge of the patrolman's murder.
Then, he says, police hit him repeatedly in the head with a blackjack and telephone book, kicked and stomped him, then advised him to tell his mother, "You fell down and bruised yourself."
Meanwhile, police shot and killed their informant, saying he pulled a knife after he was stopped for questioning about the Neupert murder.
But police soon obtained the suspects' names from two other informants who later retracted their statements, telling the grand jury they were beaten for the information. A black officer testified under federal and state grants of immunity that he participated in one of the beatings that produced the suspects' names.
Then, police moved in on two rundown frame houses near Fischer, shot and killed two blacks suspected of Neupert's murder, and one suspect's girlfriend. Police say all three were killed only after reaching for their guns.
The shooting awakened neighbor Floyd Davis, 74, who said in an interview he heard the suspect's girlfriend "holler for her life, "Don't kill me! Don't kill me!" Officials say balistics tests indicate her gun misfired. Frank Williams, 48, a disabled Korean war veteran, says he peered out his window and saw police "laughing and slapping hands like they'd had a good time."
Shirley Porter, president of the New Orleans NAACP, terms the killings "executions prior to conviction and sentencing. It reminds you of th Old South where the law of the jungle prevailed."
"The feeling among blacks and whites," says Rose Loving, a black community leader, "is that the deaths were uncalled for. If they were guilty, we will never know."
But the grand jury couldn't make a case against the police, although there is a possibility the case involving the girlfriend will be reopened. No one could identify the faces. Louis Thornton says he couldn't pick out his assailants because police placed a paper bag over his head during interrogation. Others refused to testify, said the district attorney. Neighbors say they were too scared.
Several New Orleans police officers questioned by the state grand jury took the Fifth Amendment, then returned later to deny they had beaten anyone, said one grand juror in an interview.
"I believe they beat and brutalized the teen-agers, but not one [of about a dozen youths] could identify the officers," said the juror, who asked not to be identified. "They'd say, 'He was a white guy with blue eyes and blond hair.' What can you do? Our hands were tied."
Police superintendent Henry M. Morris said in a recent press conference that he is "very much ashamed" of incidents involving his men and regrets the public perception that policemen are "shooting everybody they arrest." But he said he understands why some citizens might get the impression from news accounts that "we are a uniformed mob of undisciplined thugs."
Still, he says he believes that the department is basically sound, and that the public is not aware of how often officers get injured making arrests when they don't pull their guns.
Morris, a 34-year veteran of the force, became superintendent after former Birmingham, Ala., police chief James Parsons resigned under fire. Mayor Morial had imported Parsons to reform the department.
The district attorney concedes that police brutality still exists. "It happens," says Harry Connick, whose investigators found evidence of police abuse of blacks during the Fischer raids. "But it woud be unfair to say all New Orleans police are bad people because a few go around beating people up."
Other officials like Ronald Cannatella, president of the Police Association of New Orleans, defend the shootings as "isolated" incidents. "You'd have to look at each one to see what it involves," he says.
The New Orleans police department, however, refused a reporter's requests for details of the shootings and for the number of people shot by New Orleans police the last two years. "We're not going to release the raw data because it would not make the department appear in a favorable light," spokesman Gus Krinkie said. Nor, he added, "do we have the time to go over every case."
Many blacks say police brutality in New Orleans has long been a rite of passage for those growing up black and poor in a city where one of five blacks lives amidst garbage, rats, drugs and despair in projects like Fischer. bWhile the city is 56 percent black, only two of seven city council members are black. Less than one-fourth of the police force is black.
"What's going on now is nothing new," says Lolis Elie, a prominent black lawyer who once defended the Black Panthers. "We have a brutal police department with an almost total disregard for the rights and dignity of black people."
Blacks and whites live close together in New Orleans, with stately Victorian mansions owned by white gentry often mere blocks away from blacks in rundown frame houses. Such proximity has kept many whites' racial fears simmering for generations, contributing to the apparent carte blanche enjoyed by the police.
An ocasional French Quarter police beating of a rowdy white college student was tolerated by white leaders as a small price to pay for a force that kept blacks under control, some whites say.
"For a long time, the attitude was, 'If we just don't make too big a squawk about police excess, they'll keep the peace, and let's face it boys, they're the only thing that stands between us [whites] and them [blacks],'" one white businessman says.
"Powerful whites wanted police to enforce the social system," Elie says."Police were charged with keeping blacks so intimidated, they wouldn't raise questions about their pathetic economic conditions."
For Fischer residents like Gloria Degree, the November raid was a "horrible" flashback to a similar incident three years ago, when police swarmed into the project following the shooting of a white officer nearby. "They went crazy," she recalls. "They broke down doors, threw down my neighbor and stomped on her back, made little babies come out with their hands up. We were like lambs at the slaughter.
"It reminded me of movies they show about Hitler. It was like we lived in a concentration camp. We had nobody to turn to. We couldn't call the police."
She draws one conclusion from the grand jury decision: "That we are sitting ducks and the cops are the hunters."
Black merchants find themselves caught in a double bind. Joe Batiste, 38, a pharmacist who dispenses everything from cough syrup to Band-Aids blocks from the project, wonders, "Where do you draw the line?" He depends on the police to protect his business from break-ins and holdups. "You can't be totally against the police when you might need them to answer an alarm," he says. "You can't burn your bridges. You might need to cross back over."
Still, Batiste and others remain alarmed about the spate of recent shooting incidents involving mostly white officers and black victims, now under investigation by a federal grand jury. But federal invesigators say the cases are difficult ones to prove. "It's been a total stone wall," one official says.
Indeed, it took a court order to get the victims' weapons away from the local district attorney, Harry Connick, and into the FBI crime lab. Connick also sought to secure immunity for several of the Justice Department's key suspects in the civil rights cases, sources say. He says the Justice Department hindered his investigation by taking the weapons away from his investigators prematurely.
Blacks are curious to see if the recently authorized office of municipal investigation will have any teeth in dealing with complaints about the police. For the most part, black leaders have succeeded in calming emotions in a city where, several weeks back, some whites armed themselves and police were dispatched to Miami for training in riot control.
But the city remains tense, as the hot summer creeps in and drives Fischer residents into the streets. Said Tyrone Davis, 19, a $5-an-hour spray painter sipping a beer on the steps of the boarded-up green frame house where two shooting victims lived and died: Fischer "ain't nothing but a bomb waiting to explode."