On Monday, the Department of Justice kicked off its trial against five former New Orleans police officers who are accused of shooting indiscriminately into a crowd of fleeing residents in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, killing two and wounding four others.
The trial is the largest of a string of prosecutions the Department of Justice has pursued against New Orleans police officers accused of civil rights violations for fatal shootings that took place in the days after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The incidents of misconduct were cleared or never pursued for investigation by the New Orleans police department, and the Department of Justice has also argued that the police officers then engaged in a massive cover-up of the incidents.
On September 4, 2005, police officers responded to a call that there were two snipers shooting on the Danziger Bridge, and that officers had been shot. Once they arrived, the DOJ has argued, they began shooting wantonly into the crowd, killing two men, a teenager named James Brissette and 40-year-old Ronald Madison, a man with mental disabilities. Four others were shot, including Susan Bartholomew, who lost an arm in the shooting.
“The police just kept shooting and I just kept feeling myself being hit,” Bartholomew testified on Monday, New Orleans’ WWLTV reported. “I prayed. I just called on the Lord. I didn’t know what else to do.”
Bartholomew said that the bridge was filled with people like her family, who were crossing in search of food and water. Instead, they were met with a violent spray of bullets from police, and that she and her family took refuge behind a concrete barrier.
During their opening statements, the defense argued that the officers standing trial should be considered heroes, and that the chaos that reigned in the days following Hurricane Katrina should be taken into consideration.
Kenneth Bowen, Robert Faulcon Jr., Robert Gisevius Jr., Arthur Kaufmann and Anthony Villavaso II have been accused of civil rights violations, and face charges including use of a weapon in a violent crime and obstruction of justice related to an alleged cover-up of the shooting, Reuters reported.
On Tuesday former Lieutenant Michael Lohman testified against his fellow officers, New Orleans’ WWL reported. Lohman is one of five other officers who have pleaded guilty to their involvement in the shootings and the subsequent cover-up. Lohman pleaded guilty to making up false witnesses, including a woman named “Lakeisha,” who helped corroborate the police officers’ story that they started shooting after they were shot at first, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported. Lohman was one of two officers who also admitted planting a gun and fabricating officer accounts in official police reports, the very police reports that the NOPD relied on when it did a half-hearted investigation of the incident and eventually cleared the officers who were involved.
Lohman and the other officers who pleaded guilty were required to testify against their former colleagues as part of their plea deal. Legal analysts have said that the testimony of the police officers’ former colleagues would be difficult for the defense to overcome, but that the central question of the trial would come down to determining whether or not police actually were shot at before they started shooting.
In March, two police officers received prison sentences for their role in the death of Henry Glover, a black man who was shot by a New Orleans police officer. NOPD officers later took Glover’s body and burned it in the back of a car, then shoved the car in a levee where it sat undiscovered for months. The Department of Justice has also prosecuted NOPD officers for fatal shootings that occurred before Hurricane Katrina.
The federal prosecutions have been part of a multi-year effort to clean up the New Orleans police department with a combination of federal oversight, internal reforms and the institution of external accountability measures.