W.C. Johnson, of the group Community United for Change, protests outside federal court in New Orleans on the opening day of the Danziger trial in June. On Aug. 5, five police officers were convicted of various roles in gunning down innocent civilians in the days after Hurricane Katrina and then covering it up. Five other officers pleaded guilty.
W.C. Johnson, of the group Community United for Change, protests outside federal court in New Orleans on the opening day of the Danziger trial in June. On Aug. 5, five police officers were convicted of various roles in gunning down innocent civilians in the days after Hurricane Katrina and then covering it up. Five other officers pleaded guilty. Gerald Herbert/AP
On Aug. 5, a federal jury handed down one of the most sweeping verdicts in the modern history of American police brutality cases. Five New Orleans police officers were convicted of various roles in gunning down civilians in the days after Hurricane Katrina, and then covering it up. Five other officers pleaded guilty.
The Danziger Bridge case, as it's called, adds momentum to a reform effort already under way. The Department of Justice says it's committed to cleaning up the New Orleans Police Department, once and for all.
'This Will Not Stand'
After the grueling seven-week trial, Barbara "Bobbi" Bernstein, the lead prosecutor who came down from the Justice Department in Washington to try the case, decided to get out and enjoy New Orleans. And a remarkable thing happened. Everywhere she went — on the sidewalks, in her hotel, in a Catholic church — people came up to hug her and thank her.
Such was the gratitude of the people of New Orleans that someone had fought back against rogue cops, and sent a message to the police department — this will not stand.
Not The First Attempt To Reform Police
On Sept. 4, 2005, six days after Hurricane Katrina had flooded New Orleans, two groups of black citizens were making their way across the Danziger Bridge to get help. City police officers, mistakenly believing the civilians had been shooting at them, raced up in an unmarked truck and opened fire on the citizens. When the shooting was over, the police had killed two innocent men, and four other people lay on the pavement gravely wounded. None of the civilians was armed. The local district attorney filed charges of murder and attempted murder against seven officers, but the case collapsed when a judge declared prosecutorial misconduct.
In September 2008, the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI began investigating the case. Ultimately, Barbara "Bobbi" Bernstein, deputy chief of the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, led the team that prosecuted the officers. On Aug. 5, a federal jury in New Orleans convicted five officers of various charges including deprivation of civil rights, false prosecution and obstruction of justice for the wide-ranging cover-up. Five other officers pleaded guilty. All are expected to go to prison.
Reporter John Burnett spoke with Bernstein (pictured). Below are some highlights from the interview.
Ted Jackson/The Times-Picayune /Landov
Ted Jackson/The Times-Picayune /Landov
On reaction to the verdict:
It was amazing. I knew everybody was following it, but I didn't know people were paying attention to the faces behind it. The reaction and outpouring came from all different walks of life, from the City Council, from blacks, whites, people at the hotel, on the street, everywhere.
On talking with police officers after the trial:
In other conversations, I ran into a cop who was one of hundreds of officers I spoke to during our investigation; he had nothing to do with the trial. He was supportive of what we'd done, but he also knew it brings shame on the uniform, makes it hard to wear the uniform. I told him our sincere goal was to, ultimately, make it easier to wear the uniform.
On the jury:
I was pleasantly surprised at the caliber of jury. Everybody was impressed at the conscientious, responsible jury. There was not one late juror during seven weeks. We were prepared to accept the verdict. I had no idea what that verdict would be, but I knew it would be right.
With police cases, I don't ever guess what a jury will do. They're hard for the lawyers — hard for juries — to grapple with. It's one thing to convict a drug dealer who's led a life of crime, but to take a police officer and to turn that officer into a criminal, that's something a jury takes very, very seriously.
On the trial's scale:
By any measure, this trial stands out. This case was like an Innocence Project meets multiple murder meets public corruption case. Any one of those charges would be enormous on its own. But it was all three melded together. I've been doing this a long time and I thought I'd seen every kind of police misconduct, but I've never seen a case like this.
On preventing another 'Danziger':
One message I would like to get out — it was such a horrible tragedy for everyone involved. Much of it could've been stopped by any one officer saying, 'You know what, this is not right.' So many tragedies could have been averted that way. Once this thing happened, the cover-up [became] a whole other beast of its own.
On why it happened:
What I believe happened ... could only have happened because of Katrina. These officers had the mentality that they needed to take care of things themselves. The shooting wasn't a mistake — I said in opening arguments — the terrible mistake is that these officers adopted an us-versus-them attitude. Anybody on the bridge was a bad guy, undeserving of their concern and constitutional protection.
Once they made that mistake, they committed their crime. "It's post-Katrina, nobody is watching, we'll take back the streets our own way and deliver our own way of justice." That's a crime no matter where it happens and to whom. But in this case, it happened to very decent people, and that gave the case its emotional punch.
The eight people they shot at [two were killed and four were gravely wounded] all were remarkable citizens, good human beings. It wouldn't change anything legally if they'd all been criminals; our case would be the same legally. But it gave us what we needed to chase this case for three years, and work it nonstop.
These were absolutely innocent people trying to survive a natural disaster, trying to take care of each other.
On the rules of law:
This case is different from other civil rights cases. We're usually trying to convince a jury the rule of law applies even if person who got shot was a bad guy. The beauty of this case — never in my life have I seen or dreamed of a better example — is why our law is the way it is. Of course you can't decide who's guilty and mow 'em down, because you might be wrong. And when you're wrong you shoot at eight innocent people who are trying to get to a brother's dentist office to rescue their dogs or to a grocery store to get food because they're hungry.
This case is why our Constitution is so correct and so powerful.
The misdeeds of the NOPD are infamous.
"In the '90s, we had officers arrested and prosecuted and [who] went to jail for rapes, for arson, kidnappings, killings, drugs, bank robberies," said Mary Howell, a local attorney who has represented victims of police abuse for more than 30 years.
"We had a police officer who used to do bank robberies on his lunch break. He went to prison. He's out now. So we've been here before."
"Been here before" means attempts to reform the New Orleans police.
After a string of police atrocities in the '90s — which sent two officers to death row for capital murder — the Justice Department came to town to clean up the force. Prosecutors stayed from 1996 to 2004, at which time most people thought the problems had been solved.
Then came Katrina, during which there were many instances of police bravery, but also more misconduct
It became apparent that the eight-year effort overseen by the Justice Department did not hold.
"Sometime between 2005 and 2010 the train came off the tracks and crashed," says current police Superintendent Ronal Serpas. "It's really a frightening case study of how fast it can all come apart."
Detail System An 'Aorta Of Corruption'
Last year, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu invited the Justice Department back to town to help straighten out the police department again. In March, the department's Civil Rights Division released a scathing, 150-page investigation detailing "systemic" problems within the NOPD. Among them: excessive force, illegal stops and searches, uncontrolled attack dogs, sloppy investigations of officer wrongdoing, poor hiring, poor training, poor supervision, and the notorious detail system, whereby officers can earn extra money pulling off-duty security details for things like parades.
"Within the New Orleans Police Department there is a culture, and that culture is very unusual," said Tony Radosti, a 23-year veteran of the force who now works for the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a police watchdog group. Radosti says it was an open practice in the department for officers to use the detail system to enrich themselves and their buddies.
"We've had some issues that police officers during Carnival a few years back were paid $100 an hour, three of 'em, to protect a porno shoot in the French Quarter," Radosti said.
Tom Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights, oversaw the Justice Department's report on the NOPD. "The detail system was certainly an aorta of corruption in the police department," Perez said, in an interview from his Washington office.
The new chief, Serpas, spent 21 years on the force. He left to run other police agencies and returned, he says, anxious to bring about change. Serpas has tightened up the detail system, fired or sidelined bad commanders, and put teeth in internal affairs reviews of officer misconduct.
"If you are untruthful, first time, you're terminated," he said, "We have dismissed more than 35 people in the last 15 months. It's probably up to 37 or 38 now. And we have suspended 200 people."
Will Reform Stick?
But can the department change a culture of cover-up? The Danziger verdict was the third federal trial in the past eight months in which New Orleans police officers were found guilty of killing innocent suspects, then lying about it.
"We've had reform before," said lawyer Howell. "The question is, what's different now? How are we gonna be able to really have reform that will last?"
Washington's answer: This time the Justice Department is negotiating a consent decree with the NOPD, under which a federal judge will ensure that dozens of recommendations are carried out.
"With the benefit of our experience from the late '90s, we learned that we need a consent decree that has court oversight," said Tom Perez, of the Justice Department. We will have a monitor. We will stay in New Orleans as long as is necessary to get the job done and not a day longer."
Community Hopeful For Change
Winning the trust of the community will be a slow process.
The Madison family used to believe in the New Orleans Police Department. The family has relatives and friends known as good officers, though there were always rumors that the NOPD had a dark side. But the Danziger Bridge incident shattered the family's peace of mind.
In the days after the storm flooded the city, Ronald Madison, who was 40 years old and mentally disabled, along with his brother, Lance, were peacefully walking across the bridge when officers — mistaking them for hoodlums — opened fire. One officer fatally shot Ronald in the back, and another policeman stomped him as he lay dying on the pavement. Then the police falsely accused Lance of firing at officers; those charges were later dropped.
"We never thought something like this would happen to us. We're not scoundrels. We're law-abiding," said Dr. Romell Madison, a respected New Orleans dentist and brother of Ronald and Lance.
"They're going to have to look deep within the screening or psychological evaluation of the individuals they do allow to carry a badge and a gun," he continued, sitting in his office located near the base of the bridge where his brother died. "They have to be able to control their use of deadly force, not just let their emotions take over and say, 'OK, I think he has a weapon so I'm going to shoot him.' "
His sister, Jackie Madison Brown, a dialysis nurse, added that officers who do their job shouldn't have to cover up for one another with a "code of silence."
"We are hopeful there will be change," she said, "But we know it won't happen overnight."