Watching Treme on HBO, like everyone here in New Orleans, I am prone to look for what is true New Orleans, and what is not. And being a criminal defense attorney (and one who was back working during the fall of 2005) I tend to be more critical of those parts of the show portraying the criminal justice system…and there are many. So I am going to throw my hat in the ring with the many Treme critics, but only insofar as my thoughts on the accuracy of the show’s depiction of crime and criminal justice after the storm. Below are my “grades” for accuracy, and thoughts on a couple of aspects of Treme, Episodes 1-3. Stay tuned for more…
Orleans Parish Prison/ Lost Inmates: Grade: A-
The story of attorney Toni Bernette’s search for an inmate who was “lost” after the storm is a simplified version of what was a complex problem, but is nonetheless essentially accurate. Inmates who had been housed in Orleans Parish Prison when Katrina made landfall were “evacuted” to prisons across the state, and in many cases were at least temporarily unaccounted for. Their stories were made public, after the fact, in a griping report by the ACLU highlighting the myriad problems and injustices they faced along the way. So I give Treme high marks for accuracy on this front.
But was this the norm, and were sheriffs and correctional officers around the state (as Episode 3 would suggest) deliberately thwarting the search for inmates for financial gain? Not so much, in my opinion (although I’m sure there were specific instances). So, I have to take a few points off for taking an anecdotal story and making it appear to be the rule. And the crusading civil rights angle the show seems to put forth as the answer (“We are just gonna have to sue someone”) was not the answer in my experience. Certainly the Katrina inmate diaspora was handled poorly by everyone involved, but it was ultimately sorted out through trial and error, and as much by throngs of public defenders with hundreds of clients as by any one lawyer on a mission for justice.
The New Orleans Police Department: Grade C
OK, so anyone who lives in New Orleans, or who has had the chance to experience one of New Orleans finest as a visitor, can tell you that cops here can be a little… well, eager. And as a criminal defense attorney for the last 15 years here, I wont give you much of a fight on that one. But in Treme, it seems that some a-hole group of cops is always right up in somebody’s business before they know what hit them. I have some specific thoughts on the various arrest scenarios presented so far in the show which I will detail in future posts, but overall, again, I think the writers have taken an exception and tried to make it seem like the rule.
Everyone is aware of the tarnished reputation of the New Orleans Police Department, and it was events just after Hurricane Katrina like the Danziger Bridge shootings that helped formed the basis for these judgments. And so, given that Treme is set in this immediate post-Katrina world, it is not surprising that the writers have set out to put forth this viewpoint. And they may be right to include this as a point of reference. But I have represented numerous NOPD officers (including one in the Danziger Bridge case) and have worked with countless cops as a criminal defense attorney over the years, and I know that while these events are symptomatic of a perceived “culture of corruption” within NOPD, they do not speak to the reality of how the average everyday cop handles his or her business on the streets.
I think Treme needs to decide if it wants to focus on some of the specific alleged police brutality cases after the storm (a direction it may well be headed) or on the average beat officer on the street (which it has done so far). But to meld the two and try to put the “Danziger 7″ brand on the whole of the NOPD is painting with too broad of a brush.