Five police convicted in post-Katrina shootings
Five current and former New Orleans police officers were convicted Friday on federal charges stemming from the Danziger Bridge case, perhaps the most notorious of several instances of violent police misconduct in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when the city was plunged into chaos and fear.
On Sept. 4, 2005, six days after the city flooded, a group of police, responding to a call that fellow officers had come under fire, rode to the bridge in a Budget rental truck and shot at the people walking on it, killing two and injuring four. Federal prosecutors alleged that the civilians were unarmed — and that the officers later took part in an elaborate coverup.
With Friday’s jury verdict, calls for closure rang out from City Hall and Washington. Mayor Mitch Landrieu said it closed “a dark chapter in our city’s history,” adding: “We now have an opportunity to turn the page and to heal.”
U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., in a separate statement, said he hoped the verdict “contributes to the restoration of public trust in the New Orleans Police Department.”
But others wondered whether the lingering bitterness over the case would taint efforts to reform a notoriously underperforming and corrupt department charged with maintaining order in a city suffering from a homicide rate 10 times the national average.
Peter Scharf, a Tulane University criminologist, said the Danziger decision could hinder the ability of the federal government to effectively carry out reforms under a consent decree being hammered out between city officials and the U.S. Department of Justice.
“The issue, I think, is: Does this help or hurt?” Scharf said. " And I think right now there is a fear among the police, and a sense of being attacked, and a sense of being a little paranoid.”
Moreover, Scharf said, there is a lingering feeling among some officers and residents that the post-storm climate of confusion, fear and near-anarchy has not been taken into account in the Danziger case and other Katrina-related civil rights investigations, nine of which have been confirmed by the Justice Department, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
The six-week Danziger trial featured testimony from five other NOPD officers who had already pleaded guilty to charges of obstructing justice and covering up the incident.
Prosecutors said four of the defendants — Sgts. Kenneth Bowen and Robert Gisevius, and Officers Robert Faulcon and Anthony Villavaso — fired on the Bartholomews, a family walking in search of food and supplies, killing 17-year-old family friend James Brissette and wounding four family members.
Minutes later, police shot at two brothers, Lance and Ronald Madison, according to a Justice Department summary. Faulcon shot the mentally disabled Ronald Madison in the back as he ran away, witnesses said. Bowen stomped and kicked him before he died, according to the summary.
Officers arrested Lance Madison and charged him with eight counts of attempted murder of police officers. But they collected no guns.
Prosecutors said the fifth suspect, homicide investigator Sgt. Arthur “Archie” Kaufman, joined the other four in covering up the incident, inventing witnesses, holding a meeting with the suspects to help them get their stories straight, and saying that a gun from his house was evidence discovered at the scene.
The four officers who were on the bridge were convicted of civil rights violations and charges related to the coverup. They face potential multiple life terms.
The jury was asked to determine whether the killings amounted to murder, which, while not a formal charge, would have resulted in potentially tougher sentences under federal statutes. But jurors declined to do so.
Kaufman, the investigator, faces up to 120 years in jail. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for Dec. 14.
A sixth suspect, retired homicide detective Sgt. Gerard Dugue, who was charged in the coverup, faces trial next month.
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