By John Simerman | NOLA.com | June 6, 2022
Oris Buckner III, a former New Orleans Police Department officer who broke ranks in the early 1980’s to help convict three other detectives for brutalizing residents in the notorious “Algiers 7” civil rights case, died Wednesday in Houston, where he lived. He was 70.
Buckner, who retired from the NOPD in 2002 and left the city after Hurricane Katrina, became a college criminal justice instructor in Texas. He died of sepsis after battling leukemia and diabetes, family members said.
The son of a man who died in police custody, Buckner grew up in Uptown New Orleans. He was a 9-year veteran officer when he exposed a litany of police abuses in one of the first sprawling civil rights investigations of the NOPD.
After a young White patrolman, Gregory Neupert, was shot dead on Nov. 9, 1980 in Algiers, the response from NOPD detectives was swift and merciless. Soon, four Black residents were dead, killed by police in a barrage of bullets during a pair of raids.
In the days after Neupert’s death, residents had complained that officers were rounding up Black people from the Fischer public housing project, beating them and forcing them into aggressive interrogations. Officers pounded suspects’ heads with hardbound books or thick city directories. Some detentions lasted up to 16 hours. Two subjects were “bagged,” their heads sealed in plastic to cut off air and prod their cooperation. Detectives drove two men to secluded areas, beat and threatened them, witnesses said.
The deadly raids came five days after Neupert’s death. Buckner spoke up about his and others’ actions. He was promised immunity and revealed a host of brutal tactics officers used to extract information about Neupert’s killer.
“The truth was out there in the community because people knew these things were going on. There were too many stories. But knowing it and proving it were two different things,” said civil rights attorney Mary Howell, who represented abused Algiers citizens in the case. “It’s because of Oris’ testimony that it was proven beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Though no officers were prosecuted for the killings, three of seven indicted cops were convicted in federal court for conspiring to violate the civil rights of people questioned during the investigation, and the beating and “bagging” of one subject, Robert Davis.
Buckner quickly became a pariah within the NOPD.
“He was vilified by his fellow officers for violating the blue code. He and his family were subject to physical threats,” said Morris Reed, then a federal prosecutor who worked on the case. “He was stigmatized. They ostracized him. I think it worked on his psyche.”
After the trial, a Times-Picayune editorial titled “Why not Buckner, too,” argued that he should be tossed from the force for admitting he participated in the beating.
“We wouldn’t know the truth if it wasn’t for him,” said community activist Ted Quant. “He was hated. He told the truth and paid a heavy price for telling the truth, and he never backed down.”
Buckner stayed on the force but was shunned for his whistleblowing. He ended up assigned to the city’s Taxicab Bureau. Buckner went from being the second Black homicide detective on the force to “checking taxicab medallions,” Howell said. In 1995, she urged the new police superintendent, Richard Pennington, to promote Buckner to sergeant, saying he was twice passed over for promotions while being harassed.
Officer Neupert’s killing remains unsolved.
Buckner was an ordained minister who earned a degree at Loyola University while on the force and became a criminal justice instructor at Lee College in Texas. Friends and family said his faith helped him come forward and endure ridicule.
“I think my father was more of a prophet of God than a crime-stopper,” said Oris Buckner IV, one of his six children. “His work is tied up to his faith, and that’s who he was. His life was walking with God and using what God had blessed him with to protect other people and try to do the right thing.”
Anthony Radosti, a former NOPD detective who later worked for the watchdog Metropolitan Crime Commission, said he counseled Buckner back then as he weighed coming clean.
“It caused turmoil within himself. He was divided, between loyalty to the department and doing the right thing,” Radosti said. “He said, ‘I need to do something.’
“He went against the grain of traditional law enforcement. But you have to understand, he had a religious thinking.”
Buckner, a star basketball player at Walter L. Cohen High School, earned his master’s degree with a focus on juvenile delinquency and later focused on issues around incarceration, said his son.
“He didn’t quit. He kept doing the work He was a very devoted cop,” he said. “Some people are fated to do certain things. It’s a calling. My dad wasn’t passing time, you know? He was working.”
The federal case exposed a police force run amok with corruption, freewheeling use of force and failed leadership. Reed, who later served as an Orleans Parish criminal court judge, described the NOPD then as “obviously out of control,” and Buckner as “courageous enough to step forward.”
Before long, then-Mayor Ernest “Dutch” Morial’s choice to lead the NOPD into an era of reform, Superintendent Jim Parsons, was gone.
The police brutality stirred racial tensions, protests and boycotts, and to some extent policing reforms, though they would prove fleeting. In the mid-1990’s, two NOPD officers perpetrated separate killings that landed them on death row. A decade later, fatal police shootings on the Danziger Bridge and outside an Algiers strip mall days after Katrina would ignite new civil rights prosecutions and federal oversight of the NOPD that continues today.
The NOPD now touts an initiative, Ethical Policing is Courageous, or EPIC, that’s designed to encourage officers to report misconduct by colleagues rather than bury it.
Howell said Buckner never wavered. She said she stayed in touch with the former officer, and they once lectured together at a University of Louisiana at Lafayette course on the subject of evil. Howell said Buckner spoke last.
“Oris’ message was always the same: Evil can only happen when good people remain silent,” she said. “Not only did he believe it, but he lived it, and he put it into practice.”
Buckner’s sister, film actress Carol Sutton, died in 2020. His wife of nearly 40 years, Stephanie Buckner, said Friday that his death came unexpectedly. Services were not yet finalized.