On Sept. 4, 2005 — nearly a week after floodwaters submerged much of the city, a call came in to the New Orleans Police Department: Officers in distress, maybe under fire, at the Danziger Bridge.
But when the first officers arrived, they were the ones who ended up shooting at a group of unarmed people. One of those people was Susan Bartholomew. "When I looked we were all on the ground and all you could see is blood, you know, everywhere," she told NPR in 2006. "And everybody's just hollering and moaning, you know, everyone had been shot and in pain. I look over, my right arm was on the ground, like, lying next to me. It had been shot off."
Bartholomew and other victims challenged the police account of that day — an account that eventually fell apart. By 2013, five officers had been convicted in connection with the case.
And yet, it's still not over — news broke late today that a federal appeals court has agreed that the five officers convicted in the shootings are entitled to a new trial. The facts of the shooting remain the same, but the 5th U-S Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling by District Court Judge Kurt Englehart, who said Justice Department staff compromised the case by posting anonymous comments about police on online news articles.
Ronnie Greene is the author of the book Shots on the Bridge. He tells NPR's Audie Cornish that Susan Bartholomew and her family were one of two families on the bridge that day. "Both were just trying to survive Katrina. ... [Bartholomew's family] had found refuge in some really decrepit hotel rooms right off Danziger Bridge. After the storm, they were walking over the bridge to buy medical supplies, and to buy some cleaning supplies. The other family involved was the Madison family — it was brothers Lance and Ronald Madison, who had stayed back with the storm coming, because Ronald did not want to leave the family pets. And this day, this morning, they had been trying to walk home."
On what prompted "officer under distress" call, known as a 108
Apparently earlier that morning there had been a couple of people with guns, firing, and that's what prompted the 108 call. The officers stormed to the bridge in a Budget rental truck.
Two officers are in the front, nine are in the cargo area in back, back doors are open so the officers can see what's behind them, but not what's ahead. The officers pull up to the bridge, and one of the officers reached out with his handgun. He drove with one hand and fired with the other, and they started firing shots before they even came to a complete stop....
It speaks, I think in some measure, to the unprecedented craziness of these times. No one can say what the officers did was right that morning, there's no question. You can't shoot first, and then ask questions. I'm not even sure they asked questions.
There was very much a sense in the police department, "us versus them," because the officers had spent their days either rescuing people or arresting people. And one of their colleagues had just been shot in the head a couple of days earlier for stopping to pat down people walking through one part of town. They were way beyond high alert. They had their own weaponry — the driver of the truck had his own 30-inch AK-47 that he wedged in the seats every day going out. And I think that in some way speaks to the chaos of the times.
On the speediness of the cover-up
It started immediately. The cover-up began before the victims were even rushed to the hospital ... right on the bridge, while there were bodies around them, the blood was all around them, there was already discussions about planting a gun. There were already discussions that this case should be closed.
On prosecutorial misconduct, and what happened when federal prosecutors finally managed to convict five of the officers
[Two of the prosecutors] were filing anonymous comments on any local story in the Times-Picayune about police misconduct, including Danziger and others....
And ultimately, what the defense argued was, "we feel this was part of a larger plan to convict the officers before they went into court," and the trial judge in this case, Kurt Englehart, vacated the jury verdict and directed for a new trial, in large measure because of those issues.
On why this one shooting matters so much
At a time when the entire country is looking at police conduct, and police shootings, and actions involving unarmed people, this is such a striking and meaningful case study.
First off, were it not for the residents pushing for the truth, pushing past the police wall of lies, the truth — I don't think — would have ever come out in this case. And it was prompted by the residents pushing to get answers, and filing lawsuits that created a whole new narrative on what was being portrayed here. And I think that that's telling — that the department's fiction would have held, were it not for the residents' really, really pushing.
I think it raises real questions about, also, the supervision and the direction over which departments operate. In this case, it seems clear that the officers who were on the bridge, and the supervisors who helped them create — and I use the word create, because they created a fiction, their cover-up was a fiction — they did not seem to be worried about what the mayor or the bosses above them would be doing. And I think that speaks to the kind of culture you need not to have in a local department.