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From heroes to villains: NOPD verdict reveals post-Katrina history

August 12, 2011

by Jordan Flaherty

Illustration of the Danziger Bridge tragedy - Photo: Jordan Flaherty
In an historic verdict with national implications, five New Orleans police officers were convicted on Friday of civil rights violations for killing unarmed African Americans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and could face life in prison when sentenced later this year. The case, involving a grisly encounter on the Danziger Bridge, was the most high-profile of a number of prosecutions that seek to hold police accountable for violence in the storm’s wake.

The officers’ conviction on all 25 counts – on two counts, the jury found the men guilty but with partial disagreements on the nature of the crime which could slightly affect sentencing – comes nearly six years after the city was devastated by floodwaters and government inaction. The verdict helps rewrite the history of what happened in the chaotic days after the levees broke. And the story of how these convictions happened is important for anyone around the U.S. seeking to combat law enforcement violence.

The results of this trial also have national implications for those seeking federal support in challenges to police abuses in other cities. New Orleans is one of four major cities in which the Department of Justice has stepped in to look at police departments. Any success here has far reaching implications for federal investigations in Denver, Seattle, Newark and other cities.

The Danziger Bridge case begins with Hurricane Katrina. As images of desperate survivors played on television, people around the world felt sympathy for people waiting for rescue after the storm. But then images of families trapped on rooftops were replaced by stories of armed gangs and criminals roaming the streets.

News reports famously described white people as “finding” food while depicting Black people as “looting.” Then Chief of Police Eddie Compass told Oprah Winfrey that “little babies (are) getting raped” in the Superdome. Then Gov. Kathleen Blanco announced she had sent in troops with orders to shoot to kill; and the second in charge of the police department reportedly told officers to fire at will on looters.

Evidence suggests that the NOPD acted on these instructions. On Sept. 2, just days after the storm, a Black man named Henry Glover was shot by a police sniper as he walked through a parking lot. When a Good Samaritan tried to help Glover get medical help, he was beaten by officers who burnt Glover’s body and left it behind a levee.

New Orleans' citizens take to the streets to march for justice in the Danziger Bridge trial - Photo: Jordan Flaherty
The next day, a 45-year-old named Danny Brumfield Sr. was killed by officers in front of scores of witnesses outside the New Orleans convention center when he ran after a police car to demand that they stop and provide aid.

The following morning, two families were crossing New Orleans’ Danziger Bridge, which connects Gentilly and New Orleans East, two mostly middle-to-upper-class African American neighborhoods. Without warning, a Budget Rental truck carrying police officers arrived and cops jumped out. The officers did not identify themselves and began firing before their vehicle had even stopped.

Officers had heard a radio call about shootings in the area; and according to prosecutors, they were seeking revenge. James Brisette, a 17-year-old called “studious” and “nerdy” by his friends, was shot nearly a dozen times and died at the scene. Many of the bullets hit him as he lay on the ground bleeding.

Four other people were wounded, including Susan Bartholomew, a 38-year-old mother who had her arm shot off of her body, and her 17-year-old daughter Lesha, who was shot while crawling on top of her mother’s body trying to shield her from bullets. Lesha’s cousin Jose was shot point-blank in the stomach and nearly died. He needed a colostomy bag for years afterwards.

Further up the bridge, officers chased down Ronald Madison, a mentally challenged man, who was traveling with his brother Lance. Ronald was shot in the back by one officer and then stomped and kicked to death by another. Lance was arrested and charged with firing at officers and spent weeks behind bars.

At the time, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that officers “sent up a cheer” when word came over police radios that suspects had been shot and killed.

Photo: Jordan Flaherty
A cursory investigation by the NOPD justified the shooting and it appeared that the matter was closed. In fact, for years every check and balance in the city’s criminal justice system failed to find any fault in this or other officer-involved shootings from the days after the storm.

Eddie Jordan, the city’s first Black district attorney, pursued charges against the officers in late 2006. When the cops went to turn themselves in, they were greeted by a crowd of hundreds of officers who cheered for them and called them heroes. Before the case could make it to trial, it was dismissed by a judge with close ties to the defense lawyers and soon after that Jordan was forced to resign.

After the dismissal of Jordan’s charges, the story of police violence after Katrina remained untold. Jordan believes an indifferent local media bears partial responsibility for the years of cover-up. “They were looking for heroes,” he says. “They had a cozy relationship with the police. They got tips from the police. They were in bed with the police. It was an atmosphere of tolerance for atrocities from the police. They abdicated their responsibility to be critical in their reporting. If a few people got killed that was a small price to pay.”

Other elected officials, like the city coroner, went along with the police version of events. For example, the coroner’s office never flagged Henry Glover’s body, found burned in a car, as a potential homicide.

But the Madisons, the Bartholomews and the Glovers, along with family members of other police violence victims, refused to be silent. They continued to speak out at press conferences, rallies and directly to reporters. They worked with organizations like Safe Streets Strong Communities, which was founded by criminal justice activists in the days after Katrina, and Community United for Change, which was formed in response to police abuses.

NOPD has finally been found culpable for the heinous murder of Ronald Madison on Sept. 4, 2005.
Monique Harden, a community activist and co-director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, helped to bring testimony about these issues to the United Nations. Another post-Katrina organization, Peoples Hurricane Relief Fund, presented the charges to an international tribunal.

Activists worked to not only raise awareness of specific issues of police violence, but to say that these problems are structural and that any solution must get at the root causes.

“This is about an entire system that was completely broken and in crisis,” says former Safe Streets co-director Rosana Cruz. “Everyone’s job in the criminal justice system depends on there being a lot of crime in the city. The district attorney’s office doesn’t work on getting the city safer; they work on getting convictions at any cost. As long as that’s the case, we’re not going to have safety.”

Former District Attorney Jordan feels that investigators should pursue charges up to the very top of the department, including Warren Riley, who was promoted to police chief shortly after Hurricane Katrina and served in that role until 2010. “Riley, by his own admission, never even read the report on Danziger,” Jordan points out. “It’s so outrageous, it’s unspeakable. It’s one of the worst things that anyone can do. It’s hard to understand why he’s not on trial as well.”

“Fish start rotting at the head,” adds Jordan. “This was all done in the backdrop of police opposition at the very top. It’s not surprising that there was a cover-up. You just have to wonder how far that cover-up went.”

In 2008, journalist A.C. Thompson did what New Orleans media had failed to do and seriously investigated the accusations of police violence. His reporting, published on ProPublica and in The Nation, spelled out the shocking details of Glover’s killing and pointed toward police coordination with white vigilantes in widespread violence. It brought national attention to the stories that had been ignored. Activists took advantage of the exposure and lobbied the Congressional Black Caucus and the Justice Department for an investigation.

Blacks “loot,” while whites “find” food as the levees fall and floodwaters rise.
In early 2009, a newly empowered civil rights division of the Justice Department decided to look into the cases. Federal agents interviewed witnesses who had never been talked to, reconstructed crime scenes and even confiscated NOPD computers. They found evidence that the Danziger officers had radically rewritten their version of what happened on the bridge that day.

When FBI agents confronted officers involved in the Danziger case, five officers pleaded guilty and agreed to testify about the conspiracy to cover-up what happened. They revealed that officers had planted evidence, invented witnesses, arrested innocent people and held secret meetings where they worked to line up their stories.

Before last week’s verdict, the Justice Department had already won four previous police violence convictions, including of the officers who shot Glover and burned his body as well as of two officers who killed Raymond Robair – a pre-Katrina case in which officers beat a man to death and claimed, with the support of the city coroner, he had sustained his injuries from falling down.

About half a dozen other investigations are ongoing. The Justice Department is also looking at federal oversight of the NOPD, a process by which they can dictate vast changes from hiring and firing to training and policy writing.

The Danziger trial has been the most high-profile aspect of the federal intervention in New Orleans and this verdict will have far-reaching implications for how the effectiveness of federal intervention is perceived. The convictions and guilty pleas in the case reveal a wide-ranging conspiracy that reaches up to sergeants and lieutenants. Marlon Defillo, the second-in-charge of the NOPD, was recently forced to retire because of his role in helping cover up the Glover killing.

After murdering his mentally impaired brother Ronald, New Orleans police humiliated and jailed Lance Madison. – Photo: Alex Brandon, New Orleans Times-Picayune
Most importantly, the verdict has helped shift the narrative of what happened in those days after Katrina.

The defense team for the Danziger officers was steadfast in describing their clients as heroes. Attorney Paul Fleming described the cops as “proactive,” saying: “They go out and get things done. They go out and get the bad guys.” Police attorneys in the Glover and Danziger trials also sought to use the so-called “Katrina defense,” arguing that the exceptional circumstances following the storm justified extra-legal actions on the part of officers. With these convictions, the juries have definitively refuted this excuse.

During closing statements, lawyers for defense and prosecution directed what often sounded like personal attacks against each other as well as key witnesses while laying out very different versions of what happened on that fateful day.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Theodore Carter said that officers deliberately did not follow procedure, and that if they had done what they were supposed to, no one would have died that day. “It was unreasonable for these officers to fire even one shot,” said Carter, who referred to video footage from that day which he said showed at least “54 seconds of gunfire.”

In a spirited defense that seemed to echo Tea Party themes, police attorney Frank Desalvo told the jury, “We know that the United States is the greatest country on earth; and the only thing wrong with it is the people running it.” Depicting Justice Department attorneys as furthering an anti-cop agenda, he told the jury that the prosecutors in this case do not represent the United States and that they are the true Americans.

Desalvo also accused the prosecution of speaking “meaningless, emotional drivel” and giving ammunition to “a segment of the community that believes police are always brutal.”

In her closing arguments, Bobbi Bernstein, deputy chief of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, fought back against the claim that the officers were heroes, saying the family members of those killed deserved the title more. Noting that the official cover-up had “perverted” the system, she said, “The real heroes are the victims who stayed with an imperfect justice system that initially betrayed them.”

The police officers who came to be known as the “Danziger Bridge 7” and their attorneys walk between lines of hundreds of police supporters to turn themselves in on Jan. 6, 2007, confident they’ll be exonerated. – Photo: Ellis Lucia, New Orleans Times-Picayune
Officers went out with a mission to deliver “their own kind of post-apocalyptic justice,” she added. “The law is what it is because this is not a police state.”

In comments immediately after the verdict, family members of those killed on the bridge expressed gratitude for those who had helped them reach this point, but stressed that their pain continued.

Speaking outside the courthouse after the verdict, Sherrel Johnson, the mother of James Brisette, said that the officers “took the twinkle out of my eye, the song out of my voice and blew out my candle,” when they killed her son.

Jacqueline Madison Brown, the sister of Ronald Madison, told assembled press, “Ronald Madison brought great love to our family. Shooting him down was like shooting an innocent child.” Commenting on officers who had testified for the prosecution in exchange for lesser charges, she added, “We regret that they did not have the courage and strength to come forward sooner.”

Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius, Anthony Villavaso and Faulcon, the officers involved in the shooting, could receive life sentences. Sgt. Arthur Kaufman, who was not on the bridge but was convicted of leading the conspiracy, could receive a maximum of 120 years. Sentencing is scheduled for December but will likely be delayed.

Jordan Flaherty is a journalist and staffer with the Louisiana Justice Institute. His award-winning reporting from the Gulf Coast has been featured in a range of outlets including the New York Times, Al Jazeera and Argentina’s Clarin newspaper. He is the author of FLOODLINES: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six. He can be reached at neworleans@leftturn.org and more information about Floodlines can be found at floodlines.org. For speaking engagements, see communityandresistance.wordpress.com. This story first appeared on ColorLines. Added to it are excerpts from the previous piece in this series; headlined “Deliberations Begin Today in Danziger Trial,” a version of that story first appeared on the New Orleans Tribune/TribuneTalk website.

 

7 thoughts on “From heroes to villains: NOPD verdict reveals post-Katrina history

  1. Paul Harris

    As a former Calif. Probation Officer I can attest that in far too many law enforcement agencies there's a code of "loyalty". If you narc out another officer you will probably pay for it. It may be a simple slashing of your car tires, or worse, someone not backing you up in a dangerous situation. Until this culture of protecting the guilty, just as it was in the Catholic Church is dismantled we will continue to see these situations arise.

    Also I wish the media would still concentrate more on correcting the mistakes it made in its reporting after Katrina. While we believed the rumors inside, the murders and rapes in the Superdome were not supported by evidence. We all were controlled by fear and rumor, but this in no way excuses the police behavior.

    Paul Harris
    Author, "Diary From the Dome, Reflections on Fear and Privilege During Katrina"

    Reply
  2. Dr. Firpo Carr

    N.O. DANZIGER BRIDGE MURDERS — Hal Clark interviews Dr. Firpo Carr on WYLD-FM's Sunday Journal — Sunday, August 14, 2011‏

    Sunday Journal with HAL CLARK

    WYLD-FM's [Radio Dial 98.5] Sunday Journal (New Orleans, Lousisiana)
    Sunday, August 14, 2011
    7:00 am to 9:00 am Central Time

    Dr. Firpo Carr's portion of the program will air at about 7:30 am. He will be interviewed by Mr. Harold (Hal) Clark. The listening audience will be made aware of the reasons why the unjust charges against Sgt. Gerard Dugué should be dropped.

    —————————————————————————————————————

    Additionally, please click “Dugué Defense” link at the http://www.firpocarr.com website. Articles on Dugué’s innocence have already appeared online—in 34 languages. There is a keen worldwide interest in his case.

    Dr. Firpo Carr
    213.220.0926 http://www.firpocarr.com
    firpocarr@aol.com

    Reply
  3. Dr. Firpo Carr

    Following is a link to the 8/14/2011 Sunday Journal WYLD discussion in which Dr. Firpo Carr is interviewed by Mr. Hal Clark regarding Sgt. Gerard Dugué's innocence regarding the Danziger Bridge murders and why the case against Sgt. Dugué must be dismissed.
    http://www.wyldfm.com/cc-common/mediaplayer/playe… Journal August 14, 2011-Dr. Firpo Carr.mp3?CPROG=PCAST&CPROG=RICHMEDIA&MARKET=NEWORLEANS-LA&NG_FORMAT=&NG_ID=&OR_NEWSFORMAT=&OWNER=&SERVER_NAME =www.wyldfm.com&SITE_ID=2110&STATION_ID=WYLD-FM&TRACK=

    Reply
  4. Dr. Firpo Carr

    Following is a link to this week's "Dugué Defense Part 6." Dr. Firpo Carr develops the theme, "Innocence Held in Abeyance." Dr. Carr continues to expose the Justice Department's sham case against Sgt. Gerard Dugué. It is quite evident that they recognize the public is aware of Sgt. Dugué's innocence regarding the bogus charges which must be dismissed.
    http://www.firpocarr.com/duguedefensepart6.html

    (For updates, at any time go to http://www.firpocarr.com and click on "Dugué Defense.")

    Reply
  5. John

    Nice blog right here! Also your website quite a bit up very fast! site What web host are you using? Can I am getting your affiliate hyper link on your host? I want my web site loaded up as quickly as yours

    Reply

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