In 2010 and 2011, the US Department of Justice won several high-profile convictions against New Orleans police who had killed unarmed civilians in the days of crisis after Hurricane Katrina, but now those convictions are falling apart. Some community members in New Orleans say the lesson is that true justice will not come from the state. Or, in the words of Audre Lorde, “The master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house.”
In the days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall near New Orleans, as the levees failed, water rushed into the city. Images of desperate survivors played on television, and people around the world felt sympathy for the people of New Orleans who had been abandoned by the government. But soon images of families trapped on rooftops were replaced by stories of armed gangs and criminals roaming the streets. Gov. Kathleen Blanco announced she had sent in troops with orders to shoot to kill, and Warren Riley, second in charge of the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD), reportedly told officers to fire at will on looters.
The NOPD acted on those instructions. On September 2, a black man named Henry Glover was shot by a police sniper as he walked through a parking lot. When a Samaritan tried to help Glover get medical attention, he was beaten by officers, who burnt Glover’s body and left it behind a levee. The next day, a 45-year-old named Danny Brumfield Sr. was killed in front of scores of witnesses outside the New Orleans Convention Center when he ran after a police car to demand that the officers stop and provide aid.
The following morning, two families were crossing New Orleans’ Danziger Bridge – which connects Gentilly and New Orleans East, two mostly middle- to upper-class African-American neighborhoods. Suddenly, a Budget rental truck pulled up and cops jumped out and began firing before their vehicle had even stopped.
James Brisette, a 17-year-old called studious and nerdy by his friends, was shot nearly a dozen times and died at the scene. Farther up the bridge, Ronald Madison, a mentally challenged man, was shot in the back by one officer and stomped and kicked by another until he died. Four other people were wounded, including Susan Bartholomew, a 38-year-old mother who had her arm shot off, and her 17-year-old daughter, Lesha, who was shot while crawling on top of her mother, trying to shield her from bullets.
At the time, it was reported that cops “sent up a cheer” when word came over police radios that suspects had been shot and killed. Officers had heard a radio call about shots fired in the area and apparently were seeking to “take their city back.”
A cursory investigation by the NOPD justified the shooting, and it appeared that the matter was closed. No one was even looking into the Brumfield and Glover killings. Other elected officials, including the city coroner, went along with the police version of events. The coroner’s office, for example, never flagged Henry Glover’s body, found burned in a car and missing his head, as a potential homicide.
The city’s then-daily newspaper, The Times-Picayune, failed at its job. Alex Brandon, a photographer for the paper who later went on to work for The Associated Press, testified years later that he knew details about the police killings that he hadn’t revealed.
There was a flash of hope: Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan, the city’s first black DA, pursued charges in the Danizger killings in late 2006. When the Danziger officers went to turn themselves in, hundreds of cops came out to protest. The unruly crowd cheered and called the accused killers heroes. Before the case could be tried, it was dismissed by a judge with close ties to the defense lawyers and police union. Soon after, Jordan was forced to resign. His successor, Leon Cannizzaro, seemed to have little interest in pursuing police officers. Jim Letten, the US attorney at that time, was more focused on pursuing charges against black politicians than pursuing police corruption.
But the families victimized by police refused to be silent. They spoke out at press conferences, rallies and directly to reporters. They worked with organizations like Safe Streets Strong Communities, which was founded by criminal justice reform activists and advocates in the days after Katrina, and Community United for Change, formed by police brutality opponents a few years later. Monique Harden, co-director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, helped to bring testimony about these issues to the United Nations. Peoples Hurricane Relief Fund, an organization dedicated to justice in reconstruction, held a tribunal in 2006 that presented testimony about police violence, among other charges, to a panel of international judges, including parliamentarians from seven countries. Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick, two photographers based in the Lower Ninth Ward, did a post-Katrina series honoring “First Responders” that very pointedly focused on community members, not police.
As time went on, others began to tell this story. Spike Lee’s post-Katrina documentaries When The Levees Broke (2006) and If God Is Willing And The Creek Don’t Rise (2010) told of police violence and white vigilante violence after Katrina. In late 2008, a journalist named A.C. Thompson did what the local media had failed to do. He investigated these stories in detail and published an investigation in The Nation magazine and Propublica. Dave Eggers, in his book Zeitoun (2009), told of police harassing survivors and locking them up without evidence. Later, the HBO series “Treme” dramatized the investigations of the Danziger and Glover killings, and showed a hopelessly corrupt NOPD.
Activists took this opportunity of national press to lobby for change. After Thompson’s story was published, they lobbied the Department of Justice (now under Eric Holder after eight years of being dismantled by the Bush administration) and Congressional Black Caucus to push for an investigation.
Shortly after Holder took office, the Justice Department decided to look into the accusations of post-Katrina violence. That led to one of the most wide-ranging investigations of a police department in recent US history. Federal agents interviewed witnesses who had never been talked to, reconstructed crime scenes and even confiscated NOPD computers. On these computers, they found evidence that the Danziger officers had rewritten their version of what happened on the bridge that day. When FBI agents confronted cops involved in the Danziger case, five of those involved in the shootings and cover-up plead guilty to lesser charges and agreed to testify against the others. They revealed that officers had planted evidence, invented witnesses, arrested innocent people and held secret meetings during which they lined up their stories.
Community United for Change asked for federal investigations of other police murders committed in the past three decades. Activists cited a wide range of cases, from the death of 25-year-old Jenard Thomas, who was shot by police in front of his father March 24, 2005, to Sherry Singleton, shot by police in 1980 while she was naked in a bathtub, in front of her 4-year-old child.
From 2010 to 2011, the Justice Department won convictions against officers who shot Glover and burned his body, as well as of two officers who, in a case dating to just before Katrina, beat Raymond Robair to death and claimed (with the support of the city coroner) that he had sustained his injuries in a fall. A jury also convicted one of the officers who had shot and killed Brumfield, although of lesser charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. And in the most high-profile trial, five New Orleans police officers involved in the Danziger shooting were convicted of federal civil rights violations and received sentences of decades in prison.
The day of the convictions offered catharsis for many in the community. It had been a long struggle to reach that point, and it seemed like this could mark the end of one era and the beginning of another. It was hoped that the verdict would help bring a legal certainty to the counternarrative of Hurricane Katrina: the real heroes, the true first responders, were the people of New Orleans, including many of the working-class residents of black neighborhoods like the Ninth Ward and Gentilly, who were demonized as criminals. Police were, in fact, more often acting as dangers to the real rescuers: arresting and killing those who needed help.
But in September 2013, Federal District Judge Kurt Engelhardt overturned the Danziger convictions, ruling that because of prosecutorial misconduct, the Justice Department must retry the officers or let them go. In December of 2012, the Fifth Circuit also vacated the felony convictions against David Warren, the NOPD officer convicted in 2011 of killing Henry Glover. In most cases, the Fifth Circuit is hostile on the issue of post-conviction relief. But in this case, it found that Warren should have been tried separately from the officer who burned Glover’s body. The Justice Department retried Warren in December 2013 – and lost. A jury acquitted him of all charges. Travis McCabe, another officer involved in the Glover homicide, was convicted in 2010 and had his case overturned in 2011. On February 6, 2014, prosecutors announced they would not retry him.
While the Justice Department has appealed the Danziger reversal, it’s clear that families have not received the closure they hoped for. The US court system rightly has many checks and balances, but they are much more accessible to these officers than they have been to defendants caught up in a system that has been shown to be corrupt. Norris Henderson, a formerly wrongfully incarcerated person and director of Voice Of The Ex-Offender (VOTE), commented, “When regular folks go to jail, they don’t get these kind of considerations and reversals. With these (police violence) cases, the courts say, ‘We’re gonna send you to jail for five minutes.’ And like a pumpkin, before the clock strikes 12, you’re out. But we have all these little bittty cases where people don’t have resources to fight back: They get convicted of some small drug charges, and that’s it. They’re done.”
Some were skeptical from the beginning. Malcolm Suber, one of the founders of Community United for Change, never had faith in federal oversight as a complete solution. “I don’t think that we can call on a government that murders people all over the world every day to come and supervise a local police department,” he said at the time. For activists such as Suber who view the government as racist and corrupt, federal control will not offer the wider, more systemic changes needed. While Suber wants more federal investigations of police murders, he wants these investigations to go hand in hand with community oversight and control of the NOPD.
Organizers, including victims of police violence, drafted what they call a People’s Consent Decree, which outlines the changes they want to see in the NOPD. They then pushed the Justice Department to adopt this language in an official federal decree and won some important victories through this effort. For example, the Justice Department dictated major changes in the department’s policy toward members of the LGBT community, responding to pressure from BreakOUT, an organization that works with LGBT youths of color. New policies on interactions with immigrants were effected by the efforts of the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice, another activist group that worked in coalition with CUC and BreakOUT. The final agreement is one of the most far-reaching of its kind.
While the consent decree is still problematic, this oversight, won by organizing for systemic change, achieved more concrete success than relying on criminal prosecutions. And it empowered community members to continue to be involved. While family members could go to court and watch the Glover, Robair, Brumfeld and Danziger trials only as silent observers, they continue to be actively involved in the federal oversight process and struggles for systemic change. BreakOUT members continue to actively pressure the police to comply with implementation of the federal orders. Glover family members continued protests against the city coroner, who still has not ruled Glover’s death a homicide. Activists also protested for change at the city jail, which has been called one of the worst in the United States.
While the strategy of relying on criminal prosecutions led to frustration and disempowered the families, their organizing overall appears to have delivered some real results. Their protests have rewritten the story of what happened after the storm. This resistance also has won important changes in the city’s criminal justice system, including reform of a corrupt public defender’s office and the closing of a notorious youth prison. They won real changes at the jail – a massive reduction in size and a commitment by the sheriff to not accept federal immigration holds. After years of struggle, the people of New Orleans are finding that they can’t rely on the criminal justice system to police itself. But many are still pushing for change.