TOPICS > Politics

After Danziger Shooting Sentencings, Feds Look to New Orleans Police Reforms

April 5, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
A federal judge in New Orleans Wednesday sentenced five former police officers for killing and covering up the deaths of two unarmed people on the Danziger Bridge after Hurricane Katrina. Jeffrey Brown and Gordon Russell of The Times-Picayune discuss the legal proceedings and Justice Department aims to reform the city's police.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And now an update on deadly shootings by New Orleans police officers and the cover-up that followed. Sentences were handed out to several officers yesterday, but there were questions even then about how the case was resolved.

Hurricane Katrina assaulted the Gulf Coast nearly eight years ago, drowning much of New Orleans and leaving chaos in its wake. There was looting, disorder and police misconduct. The worst incident came less than a week after the storm, at the Danziger Bridge, over the Industrial Canal in East New Orleans.

On Sept. 4, 2005, police answered a call that other officers were under fire near the bridge. They responded, and opened fire at two places, killing two people, both of them unarmed, and wounding four more. Last August, five former officers were convicted on federal civil rights violations in the shootings and ensuing cover-up.

Yesterday, a federal judge sentenced four of them to prison terms ranging from 38 to 65 years. The fifth got six years behind bars.

The FBI special agent in charge of the case, Dave Welker, welcomed the outcome.

DAVE WELKER, FBI special agent: This has probably one of my most significant cases in my tenure here in New Orleans, really probably one of the most significant civil rights cases in the country.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of those killed was Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old with mental disabilities. His brother Lance was with him on the bridge that day.

LANCE MADISON, brother of Victim: Me and my brother Ronald, we was very close. He’s very special to me and we loved each other. I really miss him. I’m just so thankful that we found some justice for him.

JEFFREY BROWN: Three other officers entered plea bargains in the shootings and received lesser sentences in exchange.

That led the federal judge in the case to complain at length yesterday about the disparity in punishment. Still, Assistant U.S. Attorney General Tom Perez maintained the case was a successful prosecution.

TOM PEREZ, assistant U.S. attorney general: Everyone will have their own thoughts about the sentences. Some may think they’re too high, some may think they’re too low, but whatever you think at this time, these sentences represent the great success of the various parts that make up an outstanding criminal justice system.

JEFFREY BROWN: The case was also a key element in the Justice Department’s ongoing efforts to clean up longstanding corruption in the ranks of the New Orleans police. The two are now working on a consent decree spelling out reforms to change the culture of the police department.

And we’re joined from New Orleans by Gordon Russell, city editor of The Times-Picayune.

So, Gordon, the judge handed down sentences, but expressed a lot of frustration and anger at the same time. Tell us what was going on there.

GORDON RUSSELL, “The New Orleans Times-Picayune”: Well, I can’t speak for the judge, but he seemed to be frustrated by the plea bargains in particular.

He seemed to feel that — he had — he made a comment to the effect of, it bothers him to use liars to convict liars. And he seemed to feel that the sentences granted to some of the officers who cooperated and agreed to testify against their fellow officers were too lenient and that he was sort of boxed in by having to give long sentences to the officers who went to trial.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, fill in that picture a little bit for us. The people that he’s talking about, he called using some liars to convict other liars.

GORDON RUSSELL: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: He’s talking about people who pled and worked with the feds?

GORDON RUSSELL: He’s talking about — yes, there were five officers who pled and testified against the five officers who went to trial, and he seemed to think that some of their testimony was self-serving.

One of the officers who had a plea deal was Michael Hunter. He was driving the Budget rental truck that went to the scene of the bridge. And he received an eight-year sentence. He admitted to a lot of — participating in the shootings similarly to the three guys — the four guys who were sentenced to very long sentences yesterday.

And I think the judge felt that his testimony was self-serving, some of it maybe wasn’t true, and he was sentenced to eight years, and these other guys were looking at 38 to 65 years.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the response from the federal prosecutors was, this is the way we had to do it.

GORDON RUSSELL: Yes.

Obviously, they’re very careful in what they say about a federal judge’s words, but I think — yes, Tom Perez said something to the effect of we don’t get to go to the witness store and pick the witnesses. And this is kind of the way criminal cases are made, is their view, especially when you have a conspiracy involving — that lasts for years, in which you really need to — somebody who is involved in the conspiracy to come forward to crack the case.

If they had tried to make this case simply on the testimony of the victims, it might have had a totally different outcome. And I think, for the jury, the testimony of cops testifying against other cops was very powerful. And even though they did get plea bargains, the cops who signed plea deals are all going to jail for a good bit of time, too.

Their sentences range from three years to eight years, but they’re — they’re — it wasn’t like they got off scot-free either.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what did your reporters hear from family members? I know a lot of the families got to speak earlier in the day yesterday. What were they saying and what was the reaction after the sentencing?

GORDON RUSSELL: They were generally satisfied with the sentences.

I mean, I think the one person who got a little bit of a break was Archie Kaufman, who was the lead detective in the case. And he was — he got a six-year sentence. And the sentencing guidelines had called for more like 10 years, and the prosecution had wanted 20 years because they felt he really went far and above the call of duty in orchestrating this cover-up.

He was accused of inventing witnesses and planting a gun that he kept at his house that he referred to as a ham sandwich. He went and retrieved this gun and put it into evidence and said it had belonged to the victims.

So, going back to the victims, I think they were a little bit surprised that he got a lighter sentence than that. But the other sentences, they were pleased with generally. And they sort of seemed taken aback by the judge’s critiques of the Justice Department, which I think — I think the families feel like the Justice Department really stayed with them on this and did a pretty good job.

This was a case that had been prosecuted locally initially by the district attorney, and it completely fell apart. And the Justice Department kind of inherited it three or four years after the storm and had to start from scratch, essentially, and was able to — you know, in the end, they have convicted — well, they have convicted 11 people so far, and there’s one officer who still is scheduled for trial next month.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Gordon, just tell us briefly, if you would, about the larger reforms that I referred to in the setup, where the Justice Department is working with the police department on a civil case.

GORDON RUSSELL: Sure.

JEFFREY BROWN: What are they after there?

GORDON RUSSELL: Well, there’s a whole range of things.

I mean, it’s expected to be the most wide-ranging consent decree that the country has ever seen. These are documents that the Justice Department negotiates with local police departments that they — when they find a pattern in practice of civil rights abuses typically. And they have done them in Los Angeles and Cincinnati and Pittsburgh and some other places.

But something that’s directly related to this case that will come out of it is, they’re going to definitely change their policies on use of force investigations, like police-involved shootings. And, typically, the feeling here is that they haven’t been investigated particularly well in the past, and the Danziger Bridge case is an example of that.

The NOPD found that nothing untoward happened here. So that will be one thing that the Justice Department will insist on changes in the way those are investigated. But it’s going to span a whole bunch of other things, including maybe how officers are deployed. It’s going to probably — definitely, it will involve the use of police details which have been criticized by the Justice Department here.

A lot of officers spent a lot of their time working on private details.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

GORDON RUSSELL: And the criticism has been that they care more about those than their jobs in some cases.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Gordon Russell of The Times-Picayune, thanks so much.

GORDON RUSSELL: Thank you.