RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Police abuse is at the center of a high profile case that gets underway in New Orleans this week. Federal prosecutors allege police officers shot and killed two unarmed civilians and wounded four others in the chaos following Hurricane Karina. Prosecutors say the police engaged in an elaborate cover-up to make it look like self defense. As NPR's John Burnett reports, many in New Orleans are closely following the case, wondering if their troubled police department will finally be cleaned up.
JOHN BURNETT: Nearly six years later, the real story of what happened on the Danziger Bridge may finally come out. It was the morning of September 4th, 2005. The city had been underwater for six days. Civil order had broken down. A group of police responded to a call that civilians were shooting at cops and an officer was down. They raced to the Danziger Bridge in East New Orleans in a rental truck, bailed out, and started shooting.
This is where accounts diverge. Some of the officers maintain they were being shot at and they were justified in returning fire. But civilians on the bridge that morning have a very different story. Susan Bartholomew spoke to NPR in a 2006 interview.
Ms. SUSAN BARTHOLOMEW: When I looked we were all on the ground and all you could see is blood, you know, everywhere. And everybody's just hollerin' and moanin', 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.
BURNETT: Bullets struck five people in the Bartholomew group. James Brisette, a 17-year-old friend, died from his wounds. Police then proceeded over the bridge and confronted a second group of civilians they say had been shooting at them. A Federal Express employee named Lance Madison, then 48, described in an earlier interview how he and his younger brother, Ronald, were running away from the shooting when the police showed up. Ronald, 40 years old, was mentally and physically disabled.
Mr. LANCE MADISON: We just kept running up the bridge and that's when I noticed that one of the guys who jumped outta the truck had a rifle, pointed it towards me and my little brother, and he shot my brother in the shoulder.
BURNETT: Both Lance Madison and Susan Bartholomew are expected to testify. And a former New Orleans police officer who was on the bridge that morning, Michael Hunter, is also expected to testify. In a sworn affidavit, Hunter has stated that a policeman shot the disabled Ronald Madison in the back with a shotgun as he was running away. Then, as Madison lay dying, the officer began to kick him violently. Ronald Madison died from his wounds. Hunter says the bridge shootings were, quote, "bad shots" - they were a legally unjustified use of force.
Attorneys for both the defendants and the U.S. government declined to comment for this report because the trial starts this week. Hunter is one of five officers who have pled guilty for their roles in helping to cover up the police shootings. In affidavits, they describe an elaborate conspiracy that included a planted handgun, a fabricated witness, secret meetings to coordinate stories, and bogus after-incident reports.
DANE CIOLINO (Loyola University Law School Criminal Law Professor): Well it's a very tough case for the defense, because the federal government has officers who are flipping and testifying against other officers. They have covert audiotape of officers talking about the cover-up.
BURNETT: That's Dane Ciolino, criminal law professor at Loyola University Law School in New Orleans. This is the second high-profile Katrina case in which the U.S. Justice Department is going after New Orleans cops for their actions after the storm.
In December, a federal jury convicted three officers of various roles in the murder of civilian Henry Glover in the days after the storm. Court testimony showed the officers burned Glover's body, then concocted a cover-up story. Since then, a judge has ordered a new trial for one of the convicted policemen. In the Glover trial, defense attorneys tried to argue that the chaos after Katrina helps explain officers' actions. Again, law professor Dane Ciolino.
CIOLINO: As the jury in the Glover case decided, the storm was not a license to kill.
BURNETT: Captain Mike Glasser, president of the 800-member Police Association of New Orleans, agrees.
Captain MIKE GLASSER (President, Police Association of New Orleans): We still have an obligation to support the constitution. We have an obligation to exercise force and deadly force when appropriate. In spite of the scope of the devastation, those things remain in place.
BURNETT: Mike Glasser asserts that if the defendants are found guilty of civil rights crimes on the Danziger Bridge, they represent a tiny minority of an honorable, hard-working police force. In March, however, the Justice Department released a lengthy, scathing report on systemic problems inside NOPD. Among them: officers breaking the law with impunity, excessive use of force, illegal stops and arrests, and discriminatory policing. The department has agreed to a federally supervised consent decree to reform itself from top to bottom.
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Mr. GEROD STEVENS (Radio Talk Show Host): It's Gerod Stevens with you. Wednesday morning, conversation with you at 260-9265, the Danziger trial getting ready to come up, jury selection starts next week...
BURNETT: Gauging from calls to KBOK's morning talk show last week, the Danziger shootings confirm the worst fears of some citizens: that there was a sort-of open season on black people after Katrina.
Unidentified Woman: (radio caller): They don't see us as people, and this is why they do what they do. Because if you saw me as a person, you wouldn't do this to me.
Mr. STEVENS: So what do you think, Miss Bobbi, that this was target practice or something?
Unidentified Woman: Yes, of course, what else could it be?
BURNETT: The host pointed out that though all the Danziger victims were black, half of the police on trial are black, too. The outcome of the Danziger Bridge trial will intensify calls for sweeping changes in the New Orleans police department. Tamara Jackson works with a local grassroots group called Silence is Violence.
Ms. TAMARA JACKSON (Silence is Violence group): The department need a cleansing, like a colon cleanse. It's like the department need a pill to purge themselves, rid of all the bad officers.
BURNETT: Five former police officers are defendants in the trial, which is expected to take up to two months. Jury selection begins Wednesday.
John Burnett, NPR News.
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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.