NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (AFP) – Five New Orleans police officers accused of indiscriminately shooting people in the chaos unleashed by Hurricane Katrina face a high-profile trial in the coming week.
The deadly 2005 shooting on the Danziger Bridge and resulting cover-up came to epitomize the city’s failure to protect its citizens and exposed deep-rooted corruption in the police department which many say remains unaddressed.
“This trial is going to show the country and the world that we have a serious problem with our police department,” said Eddie Jordan, the city’s former District Attorney.
“This department is engaged in horrendous acts against its citizens.”
Fear soon followed the deadly floodwaters which swallowed 80 percent of New Orleans and left thousands stranded on their rooftops after Katrina smashed through the city’s poorly maintained levees on August 29, 2005.
Reports of widespread looting and armed gangs roaming the city shifted the government’s already botched response from humanitarian aid to a military operation.
Then-Governor Kathleen Blanco sent in National Guard troops, announcing “These troops know how to shoot and kill and I expect they will.”
Warren Riley, then-second in charge of the New Orleans police department (NOPD) reportedly instructed officers to “take the city back and shoot looters.”
In the following days, six people — almost all of them African American — were killed under suspicious circumstances in incidents involving police. Scores more were injured.
“We had more incidents of police misconduct than civilian misconduct,” Jordan, the former district attorney, told AFP. “All these stories of looting, it pales next to what the police did.”
The Danziger Bridge case is the most notorious of at least nine incidents being investigated by federal agents.
A group of officers, who had apparently heard a misleading radio report about shootings in the area, began firing on two families who were simply trying to escape the floodwaters.
Ronald Madison, a mentally challenged man, was shot in the back at least six times, then stomped and kicked by an officer until he was dead, officers who pleaded guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence have testified.
James Brissette, a high school student, died after he was shot seven times.
Four others were badly wounded, including Susan Bartholomew, 38, whose arm was shot off her body.
For years, family members and advocates called for official investigations and were rebuffed.
That changed when President Barack Obama’s newly appointed attorney general took over in 2009 and the US Justice Department decided to look into the accusations.
It has been one of the most wide-ranging investigations of a police department in recent US history. Dozens of officers are facing lengthy prison terms, and corruption charges have reached to the very top of the department.
In a scathing 158-page report released in March, the Justice Department declared that the New Orleans police department has deep structural problems beyond what has been revealed by the Danziger incident.
“Basic elements of effective policing — clear policies, training, accountability, and confidence of the citizenry-have been absent for years,” the report concluded.
Assistant District Attorney Christopher Bowman said public distrust in the police department is real.
“We see the effects of that on a daily basis in criminal court. When we question jurors, there are jurors that say they don’t trust the police.”
But positive changes have already taken hold, Bowman said.
“You have to look at an entire criminal justice system that is reforming itself,” he told AFP.
Criminal justice reformers disagree, saying that the problems are systemic and that even the Justice Department investigations, which have focused mostly on the NOPD, don’t go far enough.
They complain of judges who are too close to prosecutors, a coroner who sides with the police version of events, and a city jail that is the largest per capita jail in the United States.
“Danziger is not something that happened in isolation,” said Rosana Cruz, the associate director of V.O.T.E., an organization that seeks to build civic engagement for formerly incarcerated people.
“Everyone’s job in the criminal justice system depends on there being a lot of crime in the city. As long as that’s the case, we’re not going to have safety.”
Jury selection in the Danziger Bridge trial begins Wednesday and opening arguments are expected the following week.
Sergeants Kenneth Bowen and Robert Gisevius and Officers Anthony Villavaso and Robert Faulcon are accused in both the shooting and the cover-up and face life sentences if convicted.
Sergeant Arthur Kaufman, who was not present at the shooting, is accused only in the cover-up, and faces a maximum penalty of 120 years in prison.