Oris Buckner, who as New Orleans’s only Black homicide detective in the early 1980s exposed one of the worst cases of police violence in the city’s history, leading to the conviction of three officers on civil rights charges, died on June 1 in Houston. He was 70.
His sister, Adrienne Jopes, confirmed his death, in a hospital. She said the cause was complications of leukemia and diabetes.
By the late 1970s, police officers in New Orleans were killing more civilians per capita than in any other city in America, even those with comparable crime rates — 7.7 people per 1,000 officers, or 9.5 times higher than it was in New York City, according to a study by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
The homicide division was especially notorious, not only for its violent record but also for its strict code of silence. Every killing by a police officer was labeled a “justifiable homicide,” with no questions asked.
Mr. Buckner joined the division in April 1980. A rising star in the department with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, he sought the assignment even though his father had died in New Orleans police custody decades before.
That November, the body of a young officer named Gregory Neupert was found in a ditch in Algiers, a predominantly Black neighborhood across the Mississippi River from downtown New Orleans. Even though witnesses said that two white men had been seen running from the scene of Officer Neupert’s murder, the police flooded the Black sections of Algiers, kicking down doors, rifling through apartments and hauling in witnesses, including two young Black men, Robert Davis and Johnny Brownlee.
The police wanted them to identify a pair of Black men, James Billy Jr. and Reginald Miles, as the suspects, but they refused. Mr. Buckner, who was on duty that night, watched as police officers tied Mr. Davis to a chair with cloth bandages and beat him. They then placed a plastic bag over his head and held it tight so he couldn’t breathe.
Before the interrogation started, another officer had taken Mr. Buckner aside and told him that the other detectives didn’t trust him. Not only was he Black, the officer said, but he only ever yelled at witnesses; he never beat them. Now, the implication went, was his chance to prove himself.
And so, during the questioning, Mr. Buckner approached Mr. Davis, still seated, and slapped him hard across the face.
Mr. Buckner immediately felt remorse, even disgust, he later said, and when the other officers resumed beating Mr. Davis, he tried to stop them. They kicked him out of the room.
Leaving Mr. Buckner behind, the rest of the officers took Mr. Davis and Mr. Brownlee separately to a swampy area outside the city. They hung them over a bridge and fired shotgun blasts around their heads until both men agreed to identify Mr. Billy and Mr. Miles.
A few hours later, dozens of police officers descended on the homes of Mr. Billy and Mr. Miles. Mr. Buckner was assigned to stand in the back of Mr. Miles’s house, in case he or his pregnant girlfriend, Sherry Singleton, tried to run.
Mr. Buckner later testified that he heard officers burst into the home and immediately start shooting. He also heard Ms. Singleton running; she was naked and had gone to the bathroom to hide. One of the officers followed and shot her with a shotgun blast to the stomach and a pistol shot to the head, killing her.
The police also killed Mr. Miles, while the other squad killed Mr. Billy. Another Black man, Raymond Ferdinand, had been killed by police officers earlier that evening. Mr. Buckner never drew his weapon.
A few days later Morris Reed, an assistant district attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana and the head of its civil rights unit, got a call from a friend of his on the police force. Mr. Buckner wanted to testify.
In exchange for immunity, he broke the homicide division’s code of silence, telling prosecutors about everything — the interrogations, the beatings, the killings.
But despite Mr. Buckner’s testimony, a majority-white grand jury in Orleans Parish twice refused to hand down homicide indictments in the case, which was brought by District Attorney Harry Connick Sr., the father of the musician Harry Connick Jr.
It was, Mr. Reed said, simply unthinkable at the time for a white jury to indict white officers for killing Black people.
“In any other scenario they would have easily been indicted for murder,” he said in a phone interview. “But you’re talking about 1980 in the South.”
The city erupted in protest. The police chief, James Parsons, whom Mayor Ernest Morial had brought in to reform the department, resigned. Demonstrators occupied Mayor Morial’s office at City Hall.
In July 1981, a federal grand jury handed down indictments against seven officers for conspiring to violate the civil rights of Mr. Davis and Mr. Brownlee. Concern about a fair trial ran high: It was moved to Dallas, and a judge tried to block “60 Minutes” from airing a segment about the case before the proceedings began. (He failed.)
Mr. Buckner’s lengthy testimony was damning. Defense lawyers tried to paint him as unreliable, given his own participation in the beating, but jurors were sufficiently persuaded to convict three of the seven officers. Each received a five-year sentence, and each was fired from the department.
As a result of Mr. Buckner’s testimony, lawyers also brought a series of civil suits against 55 defendants, resulting in a $2.8 million settlement by the city in 1986, the largest in New Orleans at the time.
Mr. Buckner suffered for his decision to come forward. He was ostracized by his colleagues. He received death threats. He was demoted from homicide detective to traffic cop. Though he was finally promoted to sergeant in 1995, his career was effectively over.
On Monday, the Louisiana State Senate unanimously passed a resolution honoring his decision to testify.
“Despite an awareness of what it would mean for him personally,” it read, “in one of the most pivotal moments of his life, he honored his oath as a law enforcement officer to uphold the Constitution and as a witness to testify honestly, and for his actions, he and his family paid a heavy price.”
Oris Benny Buckner III was born on July 16, 1951, in New Orleans. His parents, Oris Buckner Jr. and Marguerite (Bush) Buckner, had divergent experiences with the law — his father died in police custody when Oris III was young, while his mother was the first Black woman on the New Orleans police force.
He received a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Loyola University in New Orleans in 1978, and in 1991 he was ordained as a Baptist minister.
Along with his sister, he is survived by his wife, Stephanie Buckner; his son, Oris Buckner IV; his daughter, Amiya Lewis; his stepson, Ronnie Gilmore; his stepdaughters, Stephanie Powell and Tonette Vasquez; and several grandchildren. Another sister, the actress Carol Sutton, died in 2020. His daughter Angel Buckner died in 2010.
After he and his wife lost their home in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina, they moved to Houston. Mr. Buckner retired from the New Orleans Police Department and later taught criminal justice at Lee College, a community college in nearby Baytown, Texas.
Mr. Buckner’s decision to come forward may have derailed his career, but it exposed the widespread corruption and abuse within the New Orleans police force, which helped to pave the way for later civil rights cases and reforms, Mary Howell, a longtime civil rights lawyer in New Orleans, said in a phone interview.
“Oris had deep regret that he succumbed to hitting Robert Davis,” she said, “but didn’t regret telling the truth.”