Why You Should Care About the New Orleans Police Trial

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans police officers allegedly fired on two black families on the Danziger Bridge. Two people died. Now the officers are on trial in a case that exposes widespread corruption in the city's justice system.

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Danziger Bridge, New Orleans, July 2010 (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Witness testimony began Monday in a trial that has already shocked and polarized the city of New Orleans and brought urgent calls for reform of the city's entire criminal-justice system.

In an incident on Sept. 4, 2005, days after the storm, police officers are accused of raining a hail of bullets on two African-American families as they were fleeing Katrina's floodwaters. Ronald Madison, a mentally challenged man, was shot at least six times, while James Brissette, a high school student, was shot seven times. Both died at the scene. Four others were wounded, including a woman whose arm was shot off and a young man who needed a colostomy bag after the shootings.

The officers on trial are accused of engaging in an elaborate effort to cover up what happened by arresting innocent civilians, falsifying reports, conspiring in secret meetings, inventing witnesses and planting evidence. Three officers who were involved in the shooting and two officers who aided in the conspiracy have pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against their fellow officers.

The trial is expected to last eight weeks. The officers involved in the shooting -- Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius, Anthony Villavaso and Robert Faulcon -- could receive life sentences if convicted. Sgt. Arthur Kaufman, who was not on the bridge, is charged only in the cover-up and could receive a maximum of 120 years. Sgt. Gerard Dugue, who is also implicated only in the cover-up, will be tried separately, in September. He faces 70 years.

Defense attorneys for the accused officers have said that the officers were shot at before they began firing. The attorneys have also pointed to the chaos and confusion of post-Katrina New Orleans as a contributing factor. NOPD spokespeople and officials in the Police Association of New Orleans have distanced themselves from the accused officers while refusing to comment in depth. "We have faith in our legal system," NOPD spokeswoman Remi Braden told The Root, "and are confident that those who are found guilty of committing crimes will be sanctioned accordingly."

The story is devastating. For more than three years, every check and balance in the city's criminal-justice system failed. Activists complain of judges who are too close to prosecutors; a city coroner who sides with the police version of events; and an entire system that seems focused on locking up people for misdemeanors instead of stopping violent crime.

"We have an opening at this point," says Malcolm Suber, project director for the New Orleans chapter of the American Friends Service Committee, and a longtime activist against law-enforcement violence. "But unless we talk about the entire system, this will repeat again."

The shootings on Danziger Bridge are the most notorious of at least nine separate incidents -- most of which occurred in the days just after Katrina -- that are being examined by federal agents. "This trial is going to show the country and the world that we have a serious problem with our police department," says Eddie Jordan, the city's former district attorney. "This department is engaged in horrendous acts against its citizens."

Official Responsibility

In a wide-ranging 158-page report released this March, the U.S. Justice Department declared that the NOPD has deep structural problems, noting, "Basic elements of effective policing -- clear policies, training, accountability and confidence of the citizenry -- have been absent for years." The report criticized the department for "use of excessive force; unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests; racial and ethnic profiling and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) discrimination; a systemic failure to provide effective policing services to persons with limited English proficiency; and a systemic failure to investigate sexual assaults and domestic violence."

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