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New Orleans Police Officers Face Charges in Post-Katrina Deaths

July 14, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Margaret Warner speaks with a ProPublica reporter about the charges facing six New Orleans police officers in connection with killing unarmed citizens and covering up their deaths in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: What’s behind the criminal charges brought against members of the New Orleans Police Department?

Margaret Warner has the story.

CROWD: We want help! We want help! We want help!

MARGARET WARNER: In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, parts of the city of New Orleans spiraled out of control, and police struggled to keep law and order. But, since then, questions and charges have arisen over how some New Orleans Police Department officers conducted themselves in the days after the storm.

Yesterday, the federal government indicted four officers in the shooting deaths of two unarmed civilians on September 4, 2005.

They are charged with federal civil rights violations and using weapons in the commission of a crime. Convictions could carry the death penalty. Three of those officers pled not guilty today. Two other officers were charged with obstructing justice by trying to cover up the crime and making it appear that the shootings were justified.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder spoke in New Orleans yesterday just after the 27-count indictment was unsealed.

ERIC HOLDER, U.S. attorney general: Put simply, we will not tolerate wrongdoing by those who are sworn to protect the public. This will not stand. And we will hold all offenders accountable.

MARGARET WARNER: The shootings occurred on the Danziger Bridge, which spans the Industrial Canal in East New Orleans. A squad of police went there that day, after getting a call that officers had come under fire nearby.

The first victim, 17-year-old James Brissette, met his death on the east end of the bridge, as he walked with family friends to a supermarket. The indictment says police opened fire, shooting Brissette seven times and wounding four of his companions. Some of the officers continued westward on the bridge.

There, they encountered Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old man with severe mental disabilities, who was walking with his brother to a third brother’s dental office. The indictment charges one officer shot Madison in the back, and another officer kicked Madison as he lay on the ground, wounded, but still alive.

At the time, the police department said the officers had shot in self-defense.

WARREN RILEY, New Orleans Deputy Police Chief: They approached the subjects, who were several, several feet away, who fired on the police officers. The officers returned fire.

MARGARET WARNER: A state grand jury charged seven of the police with murder and attempted murder in the case in 2006, but the case was dismissed in 2008. Federal investigators picked it up then.

Kevin Perkins is assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division.

KEVIN PERKINS, assistant director, FBI Criminal Investigative Division: These police officers to oaths to protect the citizens of New Orleans. And, instead, as alleged in the indictment, they killed two people and wounded four others.

MARGARET WARNER: The current New Orleans police chief, Ronal Serpas, has expressed deep dismay, especially about the alleged cover-up. He spoke to producers of an upcoming documentary by the PBS program “Frontline,” with the online news organization ProPublica and the Times-Picayune newspaper.

RONAL SERPAS, New Orleans, Louisiana, police vhief: What appears to me is that the officers, based upon the admitted statements, immediately decided to not tell the truth. That’s just disgusting. It’s an insult to everybody who does this work. It’s an insult. It’s an insult to the community, obviously.

MARGARET WARNER: In May, Serpas’ boss, the city’s newly inaugurated mayor, Mitch Landrieu, asked the Justice Department to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the department, saying he feared he had inherited one of the worst police departments in the country.

There are additional probes under way into the shootings and killings of other civilians at the time of Hurricane Katrina, including Henry Glover. He was found shot, then incinerated in a car just a few hundred feet from a police station. Five officers were indicted last month in his death.

And for more, we turn to A.C. Thompson, who’s been reporting on this story for the independent investigative news site ProPublica. It is co-producing the documentary the excerpt of which you just saw.

And, A.C. Thompson, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

We laid out the chronology of that day. But tell us about the cover-up. What was involved in that allegedly?

A.C. THOMPSON, ProPublica: The allegations about the cover-up are that two homicide detectives sergeants, Gerard Dugue and Archie Kaufman, orchestrated a bogus police report, a police report that was full of lies and untruths about what happened that day.

Further, it’s alleged that Archie Kaufman planted a gun at the scene to make it look like the civilians were engaged in a gun battle with the police, and that he fabricated statements from the victims, the shooting victims, in the report, and created fictional witnesses to the incident that also appeared in the report.

MARGARET WARNER: And are they also alleging a conspiracy among all the officers to make sure that all their stories were the same?

A.C. THOMPSON: Exactly, that the — the officers conspired to tell this — this big lie, this massive lie, about what occurred that day when the six people were shot, that they all got together and strategized about how to do this.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, I imagine, in doing this documentary — and you have been working on it for a while — that they — the police officers must have some defenders. What do they say to explain this?

A.C. THOMPSON: We have interviewed a lot of officers.

And what they say is, look, you don’t understand what it was like on the ground or under the water at that time in New Orleans. It was chaos. The communication system for the police department collapsed. The command structure of the department collapsed. Basically, officers were in small groups and left to themselves, without clear directives and clear orders. So, the normal rules just were not able — were not happening.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, one, why were the state murder charges dismissed in ’08? And is that why we’re not seeing the federal charges until now, nearly five years after the event?

A.C. THOMPSON: So, the state charges were dismissed because of prosecutorial missteps. And, at that point, the federal government came in, and they looked at the case in an entirely different way.

They started looking at, hey, this looks like a cover-up to us. Let’s figure out if it is a cover-up. And that’s the angle that they have approached it from, is trying to figure out, who conspired to tell this story in such a way that’s fictional?

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you have also reported on some of these other probes that are supposedly going on. How soon do you expect to see charges in those?

A.C. THOMPSON: So, we have already seen indictments in the murder of Henry Glover, who was killed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. And we think that we may see more indictments, more charges in cases involving other shootings in the months leading up to the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in August.

MARGARET WARNER: Is there some sort of statute of limitations? Is the five years important?

A.C. THOMPSON: Now, the U.S. attorney for Eastern Louisiana, Jim Letten, has said, look, the statute-of-limitations issue is complicated.

But one thing is clear is, on some of these charges, there’s a five-year statute of limitation. And so that’s why we think that we’re going to see possibly more indictments, more charges, before we hit that five-year mark.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, meanwhile, the mayor, the new mayor, has asked for this top-to-bottom review from the Justice Department of the police department.

What is he looking for there? What does he hope to get out of it?

A.C. THOMPSON: Mitch Landrieu wants the Justice Department to come in and do several things: create an early-warning system for the department that will flag troubled officers, officers who are getting into altercations or shootings with citizens, to create a citizen complaint system, a legitimate citizen complaint system, so people can say, hey, I had this problem with an officer. He verbally abused me or she physically abused me, and I want to complain about it.

And, third, I think the third thing you will see is a push to create a real discipline system, so you don’t have officers who have been complained about and complained about and complained about 40 or more times, and still are on the force and haven’t been severely disciplined.

MARGARET WARNER: And, very briefly, because we’re just about out of time, why can’t the mayor and the new police chief do that on their own?

A.C. THOMPSON: Well, what we have seen is, wherever there’s been major reform efforts and a major transformation of a troubled police department — L.A., Cincinnati — these things have happened with the help of the Justice Department coming in and pushing these systemic reforms.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, A.C. Thompson, thank so you much. And keep up the good work.

A.C. THOMPSON: Thank you.