In New Orleans’ federal courthouse, five police officers are currently facing charges of killing unarmed Black civilians and conspiring for more than four years to cover-up their crime. The trial, brought by the US Department of Justice, has gripped the city, and daily coverage in local media has focused attention on a deeply troubled department that still has a long way to go before it can regain the trust of residents.
The charges stem from an incident on New Orleans’ Danziger Bridge on September 4, 2005, just days after Hurricane Katrina. Police officers, who apparently had misheard a distress call on their radios, piled into a Budget rental truck and sped to the scene. When they arrived, they came out shooting. James Brisette, a 17-year-old described by friends as nerdy and studious, and Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old man with the mental capacity of an 8-year-old, were killed. Four others were seriously wounded, including Susan Bartholomew, 38, who had her arm shot off of her body, and Jose Holmes, 19, who was shot point blank in his stomach. Susan’s son, Leonard Bartholomew, 14, was shot at by officers, badly beaten, and arrested. Ronald Madison’s brother, Lance, was 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. They have described shocking scenes of violence ? one officer is accused of kicking and stomping Madison to death after he had already been shot seven times ? and a wide ranging cover-up. “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.”
The New Orleans police department has developed a reputation as one of the most violent and corrupt in the nation, and the revelations in this case has 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 DOJ to launch a wide-ranging 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.
A Department With a Troubled History
Like most southern police departments, NOPD was explicitly segregationist for much of the 20th century. The first Black New Orleans police officer was not hired until 1950 and it was several more years before Black officers were allowed to carry a gun or arrest whites. In 1980, the city was rocked by protests when Sherry Singleton, a 26-year old African-American mother, was shot by police while she was naked in a bathtub, in front of her four year old child. Police said she was armed, but a neighbor testified that she heard her pleading, “please don’t shoot, please don’t shoot.”
The issue of police violence continued to dominate in the 1990s. Revelations of corruption in the force inspired both mass protest and Department of Justice investigations. Federal involvement combined with aggressive actions on the part of a new mayor and police chief led to 200 officers fired and criminal charges brought against more than 60 cops. Two NOPD officers received the death penalty for killing civilians. One of those officers, Len Davis, was caught on a federal wiretap ordering the assassination of a woman who had complained about police brutality. As officers were being fired and disciplined, the city’s murder and violent crime rates dropped dramatically, and the prosecution of corrupt officers was widely seen as making the city safer.
Advocates say that the changes begun in the 90s were cut short when Mayor C. Ray Nagin became mayor, at around the same time that the Clinton presidency ended and the Bush administration begun. Both Bush and Nagin seemed uninterested in continuing to prosecute police, and New Orleans slipped back into being the nation’s murder capital, as well as the capital of police violence.
Renewed Outrage Brings Energy for Change
The revelations of post-Katrina police violence have brought in a new era of outrage. Political and civic leaders, across boundaries of color and class, have called for systemic change in the NOPD. “The public has a right to know what really happened,” says Anthony Radosti, vice president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, which plays the role of an unofficial watchdog over the NOPD. “The police department failed in their mission,” adds Radosti, a 23-year veteran of the NOPD.
Ronal Serpas, who has hired by Mayor Landrieu to run the department in 2010, admits that the department has a long way to go. “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.”
Federal agents are looking into at least 9 cases of police killings from the past several years, but that is just one aspect of their involvement. In March, the DOJ released a 58-page report that describes a department 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.”
The bad news keeps coming out of the NOPD. In just the past two weeks since the Danziger trial began, scandal has reached the very top of the department. The NOPD’s second in charge, Marlon Defillo, was found in an investigation overseen by the state police to have neglected his duty to investigate police violence, in effect helping to hinder official investigations. Three police commanders ? the position under Defillo, and third in the overall NOPD hierarchy ? have also been the subject of internal investigation. One commander was accused of directing officers to specifically target young Black men for questioning during the city’s Essence Festival, one of the nation’s largest Black tourism events.
Criminal justice activists have demanded more federal investigations and a wider scope. “This represents a real opportunity for New Orleans to raise some fundamental questions about the nature of police and what they do,” says organizer Malcolm Suber. “But unless we talk about the entire system, this will repeat again.”
Jordan Flaherty is a journalist, an editor of Left Turn Magazine, and a staffer with the Louisiana Justice Institute. Haymarket Books has just released his new book, FLOODLINES: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is an expanded version of a story originally published on The Loop21 Black news and opinion website The Loop 21.