Another Setback for Prosecutors in Post-Katrina Police Shootings

August 20, 2015
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by Sarah Moughty

Five New Orleans police officers who were convicted on charges related to the shooting of six unarmed civilians on a bridge in the wake of Hurricane Katrina are entitled to a new trial, a federal court ruled on Tuesday.

The ruling is the latest setback for prosecutors, who have struggled in their attempts to hold a number of NOPD officers to account for killing civilians in the days after the storm and covering up what happened. The Danziger Bridge case, as it’s known, was the most notorious of six questionable police shootings that FRONTLINE, ProPublica and the New Orleans Times-Picayune have been following since 2010.

Federal investigators probed all six incidents, but only the Danziger case and two others went to trial — with mixed results. Here’s the latest on each case:

The Danziger Bridge Shooting

On Sept. 4, 2005, while responding to a call that officers were under fire on the Danziger Bridge, police opened fire on a group of civilians, who were later found to be unarmed and searching for food and medicine. Four were wounded, and 17-year-old James Brisette and 40-year-old Ronald Madison were killed.

Four of the five officers — Kenneth Bowen, Robert Faulcon, Robert Gisevius and Anthony Villavaso — were convicted of charges related to the shootings and an ensuing five-year cover-up and sentenced to more than 30 years in prison. A fifth officer, Sgt. Arthur Kaufman, who wrote a police report justifying the shooting, was sentenced to six years. An additional five officers cooperated with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to charges related to the elaborate cover-up, which involved a gun planted at the scene, as well as falsified witness statements and police reports.

But it later came to light that both before and after the officers’ 2011 trial, federal prosecutors in New Orleans had anonymously posted online critiques of the officers and the NOPD. In a blistering 2013 decision, U.S. District Court Judge Kurt Engelhardt ruled that the prosecutors’ conduct was a breach of professional ethics that had deprived the officers of their right to a fair trial. Tuesday’s decision, by a panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, upheld Engelhardt’s ruling.

U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite told the Times-Picayune that he is in discussions with the Justice Department about next steps in the case.

Henry Glover’s Death

On Sept. 2, Henry Glover, a 31-year-old African-American man, was shot by Officer David Warren, a rookie while Glover and a friend were walking through the parking lot of a run-down strip mall. Glover was last seen bleeding from a gunshot wound to the chest in the back seat of a car outside a temporary police compound in the Algiers neighborhood where he had been rushed for medical attention. His charred remains were later found on the banks of the Mississippi River inside a torched car.

Five officers were ultimately indicted: Warren for the shooting, and four additional officers on charges related to burning Glover’s body and obstructing a federal investigation. The five officers were initially tried together; three were convicted and two were acquitted. A federal appeals court later ruled that Warren should have been tried separately from his colleagues, and he was acquitted in a second trial.

After new evidence was found, a judge ordered a new trial for Lt. Travis McCabe, who was initially convicted of participating in the cover-up, but federal prosecutors dropped the charges.

Officer Greg McRae, who admitted to burning the body, was convicted of violating Glover’s civil rights and sentenced to 17 years in prison. He is appealing the conviction.

The Brumfield Shooting

On Sept. 3, Danny Brumfield, a 45-year-old African-American man, was shot in a confrontation with officers outside of the convention center where many evacuees had gathered. According to Brumfield’s family, he was trying to flag down a police car for help. Officers Ronald Mitchell and Ray Jones, who were in the cruiser, said Brumfield leaped onto their car, brandishing a pair of scissors. Mitchell and Jones were never tried for the shooting, but Mitchell was later convicted of obstructing justice and committing perjury in a civil suit brought by Brumfield’s family after a jury concluded he lied when he said he had left his police cruiser to offer Brumfield medical aid. Mitchell was sentenced to 20 months in prison. Officer Jones was acquitted of similar charges.

A “Troubled” Police Department

The New Orleans Police Department has had a long history of corruption and brutality and is currently in the midst of its second federal investigation by the Department of Justice. The first investigation was closed in 2004 without a formal citation after the department agreed to update its hiring and training practices and implement a system to track officer performance.

In 2011, noting that the NOPD had “long been a troubled agency,” the Justice Department found widespread constitutional violations, including excessive use of force, unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests, a failure to investigate violence against women, and discriminatory treatment of people based on race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. A year later, the NOPD agreed to enter into what is widely considered the most comprehensive agreement ever with the Justice Department, designed to overhaul the police department’s policies and practices. Known as a consent decree, the agreement is entered into federal court and allows the DOJ to sue the NOPD if it fails to implement promised reforms.

Today, the NOPD is working to implement the mandated changes. An independent monitor hired to track its progress noted “significant deficiencies” in training, supervision, record keeping and providing mental health and wellness support for officers in an April report.

Still, the report noted that NOPD leadership seemed personally committed to reform and concluded: “While their shared attitude does not mean NOPD is nearing the finish line, it does help ensure there is a finish line.”

Related Film: Law and Disorder

FRONTLINE, ProPublica and the Times-Picayune investigate questionable police shootings in the wake of Hurricane Katrina

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