Trial Probes Alleged Corruption In Post-Katrina Crime

Testimony is under way in the trial of five New Orleans police officers involved in the 2005 death of two men and the wounding of four others on the city's Danziger Bridge. The U.S. Justice Department then accused the officers of covering up the crime. To learn about developments in the case and its impact on New Orleans, guest host Tony Cox speaks with ProPublica reporter A.C. Thompson and Metro Crime Commission director Rafael Goyaneche.

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TONY COX, host: I'm Tony Cox, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up: New data shows that the gap in digital access between minorities and their white counterparts is closing, thanks to the use of the mobile Internet. We talk about what this means for young people of color who are growing up in the fast-paced digital age. That's in a moment. But first, testimony is underway in New Orleans, where five police officers are standing trial for their roles in a 2005 shooting on the city's Danziger Bridge.

Two unarmed civilians were killed and four were injured in the incident which happened during the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Susan Bartholomew is a survivor of that shooting and lost her right arm. She was the prosecution's opening witness on Monday, providing a dramatic beginning to the trial when she was asked to raise her hand to be sworn in. Independent police monitor Susan Hudson was there.

SUSAN HUDSON: Susan Bartholomew gets up there and they're asking her to raise her right hand - well, it's not there anymore; in fact, her whole arm is gone. Her whole right arm is missing, so that was just really just something that got me in the gut.

COX: Despite initial police claims that they were being fired on and that deadly force was justified, the prosecution contends officers concocted a phony story in a cover-up that eventually lead to multiple cases against the New Orleans Police Department. Four officers are now charged with civil rights violations for the shooting itself and another is charged with crimes connected to the alleged cover-up. Joining us to talk about the case is A.C. Thompson. He is a staff reporter at the investigation journalism group ProPublica.

Thompson took part in a joint investigation with the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the PBS program "Frontline" looking into police violence after the disaster. He joins us now from our New York Bureau. Also joining us is Raphael Goyeneche of the Metropolitan Crime Commission. That's a civil watchdog organization in New Orleans. He joins us from his office there. Gentleman, welcome.

A.C. THOMPSON: Thanks for having me on.

RAPHAEL GOYENECHE: My pleasure.

COX: A.C., I'd like to turn to you first. On Monday, testimony began in a very dramatic fashion with the prosecution's first witness, one of the shooting victims, and yesterday, Tuesday, retired New Orleans police lieutenant Michael Lohman testified for the prosecution, saying that he took part in an attempt to cover-up the incident. Now, he has been described, Lieutenant Lohman, as a key prosecution witness and the cover-up seems to be a very important part of the whole trial. In what way is it?

THOMPSON: What's going on now, the federal case is built around the conspiracy and so it's saying, look, there wasn't just a shooting on that day on the bridge, there was a shooting and there was a fairly large effort by a number of different officers to lead people astray, to make the public believe that it had been a gun battle, that it had been a gun fight between citizens and cops. And the federal government built its case in this way, where they did it like an organized crime case and they found people within the department they could turn and get to paint the picture for them.

And so the witnesses who are coming forth who are former officers testifying for the government are playing that role. They're sketching out the conspiracy.

COX: Now, Raphael, some of these officers who are coming forth have already gone through the system and faced charges of their own with regard to their role in the cover-up. Is that correct?

GOYENECHE: That's right. Both on the state system - the local district attorney's office in Orleans Parish initially charged a number of these officers with state violations. That state case was ultimately quashed and that's when the Justice Department and FBI commenced their investigation, sometime after the state case collapsed.

COX: A.C., the defense is building its case here on the presumption that the officers were under fire. How much do you know about how strong a case the defense has?

THOMPSON: If you look at all the evidence, there are some things that indicate that there may have been some kind of gun fire going on in that vicinity. There's a lot of things that indicate that there was none, and that's something the jury's going to weigh. I think one thing that's going to be very strong for the prosecution is evidence suggesting that one of the officers who allegedly investigated the scene actually planted a gun there, and if the prosecution can put that in front of a jury and sell them on that notion, that an officer planted a gun at the scene to make it look like a firefight happened, I think that that is going to be a very strong piece of evidence in favor for the prosecution.

COX: I'm going to come back to you in a second, A.C., with a question specifically for you, but Raphael, in terms of looking at and investigating the New Orleans Police Department the accusations of corruption actually predate what has happened here in the Katrina-related case. Am I correct?

GOYENECHE: This police department has been beset with internal corruption issues going back for decades, and there has been investigations and reforms and what we're finding out is that the reforms never really sufficiently took root, and Katrina merely was the stage that this misconduct played out in. But what we're finding is the Justice Department through their investigation actually documented police misconduct that resulted in the loss of life by a citizen pre-Katrina, so this is a problem going back for decades with the New Orleans police.

COX: If you're just joining us, I'm Tony Cox sitting in for Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are talking about the Danziger Bridge shootings and the trial that began on Monday of this week. Joining us is reporter A.C. Thompson and the director of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, Raphael Goyeneche. You know, there is not as wide a knowledge perhaps around the country, I think it's fair to say - my question is whether or not the media, in your opinion, A.C. Thompson, has played a role in not bringing to the floor earlier the complaints of citizens who said, you know, this police department, they're out of control and somebody needs to do something about it.

THOMPSON: I think doing watchdog reporting on police departments in a place like New Orleans can be a challenge. Let me tell you why. When you want a document from the New Orleans police department, at least if you - you know, it's changed recently, but the old practice was under the old chief that you had to threaten a lawsuit to get the documents. But part of what's gone on also is that reporters like Laura Maggi at the Times-Picayune uncovered some of this that the government is now getting after.

She said in 2007, hey, look, it looks like there was a massive cover-up on the Danziger Bridge. It looks like the police have fabricated witnesses who didn't exist, and the government in New Orleans, the mayor's office, just snoozed on it. They paid almost no attention. So in some instances people have done very good reporting that has kind of gotten lost.

COX: Is it your opinion, Raphael, that this case, this trial, will be conducted in a way contrary to the state's case that went nowhere, that will return or restore confidence in the judicial system in New Orleans?

GOYENECHE: I think it would be the beginning of a healing process, but by no means is the outcome of this trial going to, you know, end the public's distrust for the police department. These problems, as I pointed out, have gone back decades. In mid-'90s there were two police officers that were charged with murder. One officer murdered her partner during an armed robbery and when she was working a detail at a restaurant in New Orleans East.

Another officer had somebody kill a woman that had filed a complaint, an internal affairs complaint against him. So that was in the 1990s. Here we are 2011, talking about bringing to justice officers that killed people in 2005. I think that the police department is going to have to re-earn the public's trust one encounter with the public, one day at a time, going forward. This is just bringing these officers and holding them accountable for killing and massacring people on the bridge.

COX: How much of that will be dependent, do you think, A.C., on the outcome of the case, meaning a conviction? If there is not a conviction in the case, does that return things to as they were?

THOMPSON: You know, I think the two most significant things that are going on now is that there's a new regime, there's a new chief who is moving towards being a much more accountable department. The other thing that I think is key that's going on is the federal government saying, hey, we are going to have to change this department from top to bottom. We're going to have to create real discipline systems, real citizen complaint systems.

And I think in the long run, those pieces are what you need for long-term accountability. The federal government in the 1990s, when officers down there were murdering people, considered taking this step of saying, hey, we're going to civil court. We're going to demand top-to-bottom reforms, and they didn't.

And if you speak to the Justice Department now, what they'll say is maybe we should've done that. And we are definitely doing it now, because if you don't institute those kind of reforms that are backed up by a court, what you get is one chief will make reforms and the next chief will undo them. And that's what we've seen in New Orleans.

COX: Here's my final question for the both of you. In the past, the issues in New Orleans, and elsewhere, has been, with regard to alleged police misconduct, white police officers, African-American victims. That does not appear to be - completely, at least - the case here. Am I right?

GOYENECHE: That's true. That's true. We've had, just in the recent past, including two of the defendants in this Danziger case, are African-Americans. It's not a matter of white or black officers versus the community. I think it's blue, police officers versus the community. And all too often, the most vulnerable people in the community are the lower socioeconomic people, which are going to be predominantly the most adversely affected population in this community, are going to be African-Americans.

COX: You agree with this, A.C.? Is this insignificant that it is not race-based?

THOMPSON: You know, what we've seen in the last 10, 15 years with police scandals across the country is that's the pattern, is often, we are seeing officers of color who are victimizing or allegedly victimizing people of color. And I think that's the current sort of dynamic. Sometimes you have white officers. Sometimes you have black or Latino officers. But what you're seeing often is that it's African-Americans or Latinos that are being victimized quite frequently in a lot of places.

COX: A.C. Thompson is a staff reporter for ProPublica. Raphael Goyeneche is the director of the Metropolitan Crime Commission in New Orleans. It describes itself as a nonprofit citizens' organization dedicated to exposing and eliminating public corruption throughout Louisiana. Gentlemen, thank you both.

GOYENECHE: Thank you.

THOMPSON: Thank you.

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