It began as the story that no one was interested in. No one in the media wanted to believe that officers of the New Orleans Police Department had murdered unarmed civilians and then engaged in a massive and wide-ranging conspiracy to cover it up. And no one wanted to pursue evidence that revealed a department plagued by systemic corruption.
In a remarkable chain of events, the story that no one wanted has become the story that everyone knows. After nearly four years of media silence and official neglect, a combination of grass-roots activism, independent journalism and federal intervention shoved the truth out. Federal investigators opened at least eight investigations, are pursuing criminal charges against more than a dozen officers and have accepted plea deals from several more, with additional cops implicated seemingly every week. And as high-ranking officers admit to manufacturing evidence, their confessions bring doubt to scores of other cases they have worked on. Public support for changes in the department has never been so high, and even Mayor Mitch Landrieu has said that "a complete transformation is necessary and essential."
Last week, Landrieu and his new police superintendent, Ronal Serpas, released a 65-point list of steps they are taking or have taken to rebuild the NOPD. While some have lauded the mayor for taking proactive steps, critics have said that the mayor is trying to institute small changes to avoid a full federal takeover of the department. "This is lukewarm reform," complains Rosana Cruz, the associate director of VOTE, an organization that seeks to build power and civic engagement for formerly incarcerated people. "This is reaching the lowest possible bar that we could possibly set."
The Storm and Aftermath
In the days after Hurricane Katrina, rumors and panic ruled the streets. There were stories of snipers and mass murder, and armed gangs controlling some neighborhoods. CNN reporter Chris Lawrence commented that there were no "normal" people left in New Orleans, only armed ones. As he said this, images of black people at the Superdome flashed on the screen. City officials helped fuel the panic with exaggerated reports. Police Superintendent Eddie Compass told Oprah Winfrey, "We had little babies in there [the Superdome], some of the little babies getting raped."
On Sept. 2, 2005, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco announced that National Guard troops had arrived in New Orleans. "They have M-16s and they are locked and loaded," she warned. "These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary, and I expect they will." Witnesses from the NOPD have said that Warren Riley, who was then second-in-command of the NOPD, added to this dangerous atmosphere by telling officers that they had permission to shoot and kill as many "looters" as their conscience allowed: "If you can sleep with it, do it." Riley denies the claims, although he does say that he "may have said" that officers needed to "take back the city."
On the same day that Blanco made her threat, Henry Glover, 31, an African-American resident of New Orleans' Westbank neighborhood, was shot by one officer and then was apparently taken hostage by other officers who either killed him directly or let him bleed to death, according to published reports. His burned remains were found weeks later in the back of a car with a bullet wound in his skull. Sometime between the discovery and the coroner's report, the skull disappeared and the case was not flagged by the coroner's office as a potential homicide.
Also on Sept. 2, Danny Brumfield Sr., a 45-year-old man stranded with his family at the New Orleans Convention Center, was deliberately hit by a patrol car, then shot in the back by police in front of scores of witnesses as he tried to wave down the officers to ask for help.
Two days later, seven officers killed two unarmed New Orleanians and injured several more in a hail of gunfire on the Danziger Bridge. This bridge crosses the Industrial Canal, connecting New Orleans East with the rest of the city, and was one of the only routes survivors from that part of town could travel to escape the floodwaters.
Amid a hail of police gunfire on the bridge, a mentally challenged man named Ronald Madison was shot in the back by officers. According to Thompson's reporting, Madison was shot by officer Robert Faulcon. Officer Kenneth Bowen then rushed up and kicked and stomped on him, apparently until he was dead. One of the other civilians who survived had her arm shot off; another was so badly injured that he now requires a colostomy bag.
The officers involved arrested Madison's brother Lance under false pretenses and later had secret meetings at which they conspired to invent a cover story, including planting a gun, hiding evidence, inventing witnesses and writing coordinated statements, rewritten multiple times to be believable. Lance Madison spent months in jail facing charges that officers now admit were based in fiction.
Vigilantes began patrolling the city, apparently having received the same message that killing suspected looters was now officially approved. A young black man named Donnell Herrington was shot by a gang of armed white vigilantes in the Algiers neighborhood. Neighbors reported hearing the white man who shot Herrington — Roland Bourgeois Jr., 47 — promise to shoot anybody with skin "darker than a brown paper bag."
In their complaints, according to the Baton Rouge Advocate, the out-of-state police described widespread beatings, search and seizure, spraying of mace and arrests — all of which were apparently random and unprovoked. One trooper complained that "Baton Rouge officers referred to black people as 'animals' that needed to be beaten down." Another state trooper reported, "Each time [Baton Rouge Police Officer Chad King] would make contact with a Caucasian person, he would be friendly and pleasant. But when he spoke to a black person, he was very loud, rude and demeaning." A Michigan cop reported that officers offered to let him beat a prisoner as a "thank-you for helping out with relief efforts."
These stories were open secrets. Chilling reports made it into interviews with survivors, independent media like the TV-and-radio program Democracy Now! and a 2006 People's Tribunal convened by People's Hurricane Relief Fund, a Gulf Coast coalition. But the corporate media, including New Orleans' own daily paper, all but ignored the story. The U.S. attorney, the city district attorney and the coroner — every check and balance built into the system — all failed to investigate. Police Superintendent Warren Riley said he never even read the report on the events at Danziger Bridge.
Finally, Thompson, writing for ProPublica and The Nation in December 2008, documented the shooting of Herrington and the deliberate killing of other black men fleeing the storm. According to Thompson's reporting, the men were killed by those vigilantes with the endorsement and even the participation of local police. Thompson had been urged by writer Rebecca Solnit to investigate the story. Solnit, in turn, had heard about the accusations of vigilante violence — and the lack of an official investigation — from community activists such as former Black Panther Malik Rahim.
In 2009, working with a team of reporters from the Times-Picayune and Frontline, Thompson documented at least 10 shootings by police in the aftermath of Katrina. In every case, local police mounted little, if any, investigation into the incidents. Police told the family members of Matt McDonald, a young man who was killed by an officer, that their son had been killed by a civilian. His parents didn't find out that a New Orleans cop had killed their son until a reporter called them in 2009.
The post-Katrina killings have also led federal investigators to further scrutinize the NOPD. The feds have announced that they are looking into incidents that occurred in the summer before Katrina and in the years after.
Madison's family members and the families of the others shot that day kept the case alive for years while the media dismissed them. When the Justice Department became involved in 2009, they found evidence of fraudulent investigations conducted so openly that one officer, Sgt. Arthur Kaufman, reportedly felt comfortable shouting out to a room full of cops, "Hey, somebody give me a name," as he invented a witness and testimony on the spot. In response, another officer shouted back, "Lakeisha."
A coalition of criminal-justice activists called Community United for Change has asked for federal investigations of dozens of other police murders committed over the past three decades, which advocates say have never been properly examined. Activists named a wide range of cases, from the death of 25-year-old Jenard Thomas, who was shot by police in front of his father on March 24, 2005, to Sherry Singleton, who was shot by police in 1980 while she was naked in a bathtub. Her 4-year-old witnessed everything.
Several parents and other family members of victims of police violence have joined in protests and community forums sponsored by CUC. The parents of Adolph Grimes III, who was shot 14 times by cops on New Year's Day in 2009, are among those who have spoken out. "We want those officers incarcerated so they can live with it like we live with it," Grimes' father told The Root.
Justice Department officials have indicated that they agree on the need for federal assistance. "Criminal prosecutions alone, I have learned, are not enough to change the culture of a police department," Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez told TPM Muckraker.
While some form of federal supervision of the department seems likely, Malcolm Suber, a longtime police-accountability activist who is also project director of the New Orleans chapter of American Friends Service Committee, doesn't think federal oversight is enough.
"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," Suber told The Root. For Suber, federal control will not offer the wider, more systemic changes needed in other aspects of the system. 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 department.
While activists may disagree on the role they see for the federal government, one thing community members agree on is that the problem runs deeper than police department corruption. They say any solution needs to reach beyond the department to other facets of the system, like the city's elected coroner, the district attorney's office, the U.S. attorney and the city's independent police monitor, whom many see as limited by not having the ability to perform its own investigations.
Organizers have put forward a range of proposals for the reforms they would like to see, including institutional support for community-led programs like CopWatch, the incorporation of a system for language interpretation and a more powerful independent police monitor. They all agree that not just the department, but the entire system, needs fundamental change, and that change needs to come from beyond the city government. "How you gonna get the wolf to watch over the chicken coop?" asks Adolph Grimes Jr. "It's the system itself that is corrupted."
Jordan Flaherty is a journalist based in New Orleans and the author of the book Floodlines: Community and Resistance From Katrina to the Jena Six.