In New Orleans’ federal courthouse, five police officers are currently facing charges of killing unarmed black civilians who were escaping floods from the failed levees that buckled during Hurricane Katrina. The police are also charged with conspiring to cover up their crimes.
The charges stem from an incident on New Orleans’ Danziger Bridgeon September 4, 2005, just days after Hurricane Katrina. Police officers, who claim they received a distress call on their radios, piled into a Budget rental truck and sped to the scene. When they arrived, the policemen came out shooting.
The trial, brought by the U.S. Department of Justice, and which started on June 27, has gripped the city, while media coverage has focused attention on a deeply troubled department that is struggling to gain the trust of New Orleans residents.
James Brisette, a 17-year-old described by friends as nerdy and studious, and Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old mentally disabled man, were killed. Four others were seriously wounded:
- Susan Bartholomew, 38, who was shot in the leg and had her right arm shot off of her body;
- Jose Holmes, 19, who was shot in his stomach, left arm, left hand and jaw;
- Leonard Bartholomew III, who was shot in the back, his heel and head;
- Lesha Bartholomew, 17, who was shot in the abdomen, buttocks and back
Ronald Madison’s brother, Lance, was also arrested by officers under false charges that were later dropped.
Witnesses for the government include survivors of the harrowing ordeal on the bridge, as well as several officers who have plead guilty to lesser offenses in exchange for their testimony. Shocking scenes of violence have been described from the witness stand: One officer is accused of kicking and stomping Madison to death after he had already been shot seven times.
Meanwhile, a wide range of cover-up schemes have been exposed during the trial that implicates law authorities all the way up to New Orleans Police Department leadership.
“When the shooting stopped, these men realized they had a problem,” said federal prosecutor Bobbi Bernstein during opening arguments. “They lied because they knew they had committed a crime.”
Revelations from the Danziger case have stoked anger and outrage, especially in New Orleans’ African-American community.
“This case shows the total dysfunction of the New Orleans Police Department,” says Malcolm Suber, a longtime activist against police brutality and project director with the New Orleans chapter of the American Friends Service Committee. “It shows they were just going wild after the storm.”
Suber and other activists have called for the Justice Department to launch a comprehensive investigation into a pattern of abuse they say goes back decades.
“What Danziger represents is for the first time there’s been acknowledgment that this police department is rotten to the core,” says Suber.
This is far from the first time that NOPD officers have been accused or convicted of shooting or killing black civilians. The NOPD developed a reputation as one of the most violent and corrupt police departments in the nation well before the Katrina disaster.
In 1980, New Orleans was rocked by protests when Sherry Singleton, a 26-year-old African-American mother, was shot by police while naked in a bathtub in front of her 4-year old child. The police were terrorizing a black neighborhood, brutalizing residents after a police officer was found dead. Police were never indicted in the killings, but three cops went to prison for abusing residents.
In 1996, NOPD officer Len Davis was sentenced the death penalty after he was caught on a federal wiretap ordering the assassination of a woman who had complained about police brutality. Davis was also convicted of protecting a cocaine distribution racket.
Federal agents are currently looking into at least nine cases of police killings from the past several years. In March, the Justice Department released a 58-page stinging report describing an NOPD facing problems that “are serious, systemic, wide-ranging, and deeply rooted.” The report highlighted a range of areas in which it found “patterns or practices of unconstitutional conduct and/or violations of federal law.”
“This represents a real opportunity for New Orleans to raise some fundamental questions about the nature of police and what they do,” says Suber. “But unless we talk about the entire system, this will repeat again.”
“The public has a right to know what really happened,” says Anthony Radosti, a 23-year NOPD veteran and vice president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, an NOPD watchdog. “The police department failed in their mission.”
Current NOPD police chief Ronal Serpas has admitted that the department has a long way to go before it can shake its corrupt reputation.
“Chief Serpas has always acknowledged that he inherited a fundamentally flawed department,” explains NOPD spokesperson Remi Braden. “He has done a lot, but there is much more to be done.