Who goes to prison and who doesn’t

August 17, 2016

Daniel Werst explains how the case of a crooked cop in Louisiana illustrates the disparities that exist within the criminal injustice system.

EUGENE DARDENNE'S recent article about how a witness reported a hit and run by an NYPD cop, but the officer was protected by the department was absolutely right in its conclusions about what is called "the blue wall of silence" ("Putting the 'blue wall of silence on trial").

The phrase sums up the reality that police who commit crimes--from murder to evidence tampering to sexual assault to simple corruption--are typically protected by the willingness of other cops to cover up for them.

Last week, I picked up the Metro section of a local paper in New Orleans, the Advocate, and found a particularly crude story of how the "blue code of silence" works.

An ex-sheriff's deputy named Albert Morris was on the force for 13 years in Jefferson Parish, just outside New Orleans, until he was fired around 2000 for suspected crimes. Now he has been sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison. What makes the story surprising is that Morris is being given quite a brief sentence after an amazing string of serious violent crimes.

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This dismissed cop was sentenced for "false imprisonment" for trapping his ex-girlfriend in his home, throwing her to the ground and forcing her into a closet.

A court responded to this crime, but Morris was already on probation for another. He was previously convicted of attacking an undercover cop by chasing her vehicle, waving a pistol and trying to run her off the road. The undercover narcotics agent had been watching his home because he was suspected of dealing drugs.

Morris is not exactly comparable to the cops who have committed racist murders on patrol, like the police who killed Freddie Gray in Baltimore or Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. For one thing, much of what Morris was prosecuted for took place long he was fired, so it had nothing to do with crimes committed while on duty. But the same kind of protection kept him out of jail for a very long time.

Morris was treated with extreme deference in court. He was fired after being investigated for rape and charged, though not convicted, of extortion. Somehow, he managed to successfully sue the police department for back pay after this.

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Long after he was fired, Morris was treated with kid gloves even after he attacked the narcotics cop. He was convicted, but the judge gave him probation--even though the law allowed for up to 15 years in prison.

In the most recent case of domestic abuse, Morris' former department opened an investigation into whether he tried to take out a murder contract on the victim's mother, who intervened to protect her and have Morris arrested.

Again, even long after he had been fired as a cop, Morris got special treatment. At his recent trial, another retired Jefferson Parish cop and personal friend stood up as a character witness, pleading for leniency. This officer admitted he knew nothing about Morris' attack on his ex-girlfriend, but simply maintained to the judge he had never observed his friend "to be a criminal or to be violent in my presence."

LOUISIANA HAS the highest rate of incarceration in the United States. The state pours money into police forces and prisons. Poor people, especially people of color, regularly face judges for crimes real and imaginary. What does it mean that police can operate in this crude old boys' network fashion?

According to local radio station WHIV in New Orleans, the city was one of the epicenters of the deliberate expansion of the prison system. In 1970, 800 New Orleans residents were in prison. In 2005, at the time of Hurricane Katrina, that number was 6,700.

Morris benefitted from special favors during his probation as well. His probation officer discovered that he had over 100 firearms hidden in his home, including heavy police weaponry such as "an AR-15 with a grenade launcher attached." But he wasn't sent to jail for this parole violation. Instead, a judge accepted the story of a current Jefferson Parish cop that Morris had already privately asked him to take possession of the guns.

My conclusion is that mass incarceration is a cancer with a lot of tumors in complicated shapes.

What I mean is that this absurd tolerance for Albert Morris' violent crimes is just another side of the system that creates--and every day and week and year re-creates--the horrendous, racist and destructive Louisiana prison system. The state still has the name of an African country, Angola, as the name of its main prison. The recently retired warden of that prison was paid more than the governor.

When Alton Sterling was killed by two Baton Rouge, Louisiana, police officers, the department immediately tried to crush protests. They arrested around 200 people over the following week, including several reporters, and detained the main witness to the shooting.

Commenting on all this, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, nevertheless told the media that he was "very proud" of the "moderate" police response to protesters.

More recently, it has been announced that authorities have ordered the local coroner not to release the results of Alton Sterling's autopsy.

After I read the story about Albert Morris, on the next page of the same newspaper, I found another story that seems horribly like business as usual: An undocumented immigrant was tried and convicted at about the same time as Morris. He even received about the same sentence: three years. His alleged crime? Stealing several cars that were broken down and abandoned on the Interstate by their owners to sell them for scrap.

Who is protected by the way the courts handled Morris and the way they handle a nonviolent crime of poverty like stealing abandoned cars? Your article on the NYPD case has it right: The 1 Percent needs a crude and violent system to maintain extreme inequality and contain protest and dissent.

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