Sept. 4 marks the 10th anniversary of an unthinkable police assault on unarmed citizens at the Danziger Bridge in New Orleans, a week after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city.
Responding to a false “officer down” report, a group of cops stormed the bridge in a commandeered truck and began firing before the vehicle had even come to a stand-still. Two people were killed, Ronald Madison, a developmentally disabled 40-year-old, and James Brissette, 17. Four others were wounded.
The officers and their supervisors quickly devised a vast cover-up, framing victims, inventing witnesses, planting a gun and drafting a narrative that portrayed the cops as heroes.
Ronnie Greene, a veteran journalist, explores the troubling case in his new book, Shots on the Bridge: Police Violence and Cover-Up in the Wake of Katrina (Beacon Press).
A full decade after the atrocity, the serpentine prosecution is unresolved. On Aug. 18, a federal appeals court confirmed a judge's decision that five convicted cops are entitled to a new trial owing to “novel and extraordinary” circumstances: the proceedings were tainted by prosecutors who used pseudonyms to post hundreds of comments about the Danziger case and others at NOLA.com.
In a conversation with David J. Krajicek, contributing editor of The Crime Report, Greene discussed the New Orleans police culture and why the Danziger shootings failed to raise outrage like the more recent headline examples of police-involved deaths in America. (Some of the exchanges have been condensed.)
The Crime Report: When and why were you inspired to write about this story?
Ronnie Greene: I was first drawn to this case in August 2011 when I happened to read an AP story describing the conviction. I instantly felt the events were worthy of a book. I wanted to suspend time and learn how every person atop this small bridge in New Orleans—both the residents and the officers—arrived there that morning and were drawn together by nature and fate.
TCR: You call the case “one of the most egregious police civil rights abuses of our lifetime.” What was worse: the shooting or the cover-up?
Greene: That's a tough question. In a sense, it's a combination of the two. The officers racing to the bridge that morning expected a gunfight, as they responded to a distress call of an officer under fire. As they pulled up to the bridge, they happened upon two groups of people who had been stranded by the hurricane.
(Editor’s Note: Brothers Lance and Ronald Madison were walking to the shelter of a sibling's nearby dental office. The Bartholomew family, including their friend Brissette, was making its way to a Rite-Aid store, hoping to find diabetes medication.)
Police were clearly on edge that morning. Days earlier, a fellow officer had been shot in the head after stopping looters. The officers in the truck racing to the bridge feared this was happening again. But as the Department of Justice (DOJ) prosecutor said in court, you cannot shoot first and ask questions later. And while some of the officers may have been haunted by their role, none stood up to tell the truth until a DOJ investigation led some officers to cross the blue line.
TCR: In the book, you generally let the facts—however outrageous–speak for themselves. Yet living this case surely affected you.
Greene: The last thing I wanted was to fill this story with commentary or hype. I aspired to write a narrative that was tautly, tragically suspenseful, mirroring the events on the bridge, and their consequence on residents, police and the city.
But, yes, exploring these events did affect me. Recreating the shooting on the bridge, describing the human suffering, was painful. In a sense, I thought of the victim families as I wrote every page. Yet I also tried to absorb the atmosphere under which the police were operating after Katrina. In many ways, the officers were as much a hostage to the storm as residents were. And they were operating amid a leadership vacuum.
TCR: You review a few of the NOPD's more infamous scandals, including “Robocop” and the Algiers 7 police brutality case. The department has long had a very poor reputation. Is there something unique about cop culture in New Orleans?
Greene: There's a serious crime problem there, making policing challenging. DOJ reports have consistently described how the NOPD failed in key elements of basic policing, and how the department arrested and fired at minority residents in numbers far out of proportion to the city population. There have been breakdowns in individual cases, like the ones you cite, and across the board.
But one theme I heard in interviews is that the police culture is set at the top, from the mayor's office down. When Marc Morial was mayor (from 1994 to 2002), he appointed an outsider as chief, Richard Pennington, who was known for disciplining wayward officers. During Katrina, Ray Nagin—a businessman with no prior political experience—was mayor, and he appointed a popular internal commander to run the force. Officers felt empowered to patrol as they saw fit. Add the unprecedented chaos of Katrina, and you have, as one lawyer told me, “the perfect storm.”
TCR: So while this was a moral failure and criminal act by the cops involved, they were placed at risk by the systemic failures engendered by the police brass and city officials?
Greene: There is no question about that. The city was totally unprepared for Katrina, and the state and federal government were nowhere to be seen. The police officers who stayed back were left on their own, having to fend for food and water, just like residents…As one supervisor later wrote, “Some officers who should have been decommissioned and sent for counseling were given rifles instead and allowed to continue working while choosing their own assignments.”
TCR: Predictably, the police union stood behind the accused cops. Doesn’t this case, perhaps like few others, display the consequences of the “police brotherhood” mindset
Greene: That's a fair point. When the officers first walked to court in 2007, during an ill-fated prosecution by the New Orleans DA, they were paraded as heroes. Police vilified the DA for bringing charges. It was such a politically tense atmosphere that the victims' families asked the DOJ to take over the case even while the local case was active. They felt the local system could not right the wrong, and they were correct.
TCR: One of the more confounding developments early in this case was its dismissal by a state judge, Raymond Bigelow, who was on the verge of retirement, ruling the prosecutor had tainted the grand jury process. Have his motivations been scrutinized?
Greene: After seven officers were initially charged in state court, Bigelow disclosed that three of his clerks had relationships with lawyers for the defense or the police department. One clerk was the wife, sister and daughter of lawyers representing an accused officer, and another was married to a spokesman for the Fraternal order of Police.
The judge disclosed those ties, but the DA didn't initially seek his removal from the case. The judge also granted bond to the accused officers, who went back to work on desk duty. Again, the DA didn't object. It was during this atmosphere that the Madison family pressed for the DOJ Civil Rights Division to step in. After the state court judge dismissed the case, the DOJ did just that.
TCR: And the feds were able to flip several cops and ended up winning convictions—at least temporarily. A lawyer for one of the victim's family posed an apt question: “How much justice do you expect when you've been shot by a police officer?” Is the takeaway that the justice system is rigged or that it kind of works, eventually?
Greene: The most striking element of this case may be that, 10 years later, the victims lack a legal resolution. They buried a brother and a son, but do not have closure. Their civil cases against the city remain at a standstill as the criminal case remains pending. As Marc Morial put it, “In order to convict a police officer, you don't have to convict him beyond a reasonable doubt. You have to convict him beyond all doubt.”
TCR: Your epilogue draws a narrative arc between the bridge shootings and the recent series of police-involved killings of black men that have made front pages. Why do you suppose Danziger didn't spark a Black Lives Matter-type of outrage?
Greene: That's a good question–and one I thought of as the other cases sparked something of a new civil rights movement across the country.
For one, the Danziger Bridge shootings were one of many horrors that unfolded after Hurricane Katrina. Secondly, the details of the shooting and cover-up didn't unfold rapidly, but spilled out over time. A year after the shootings, the families filed lawsuits that alleged, for the first time, a different version of events. The DA brought criminal charges, but the case was dismissed in 2008. The DOJ stepped in, and secured an indictment in 2010, with convictions in 2011. So the case unspooled one piece at a time, and that may explain why it didn't receive more national attention.
TCR: Do you think it was viewed as another example of “crazy” New Orleans being crazy again?
Greene: More to the point, I think the Danziger case became absorbed as one of so many post-Katrina horrors. There were so many accounts of tragedy that it became difficult, even for city residents, to know which were true and which weren't.
TCR: You note that criminal charges have been filed against several officers involved in recent controversial deaths. Is the tide turning against reckless police violence?
Greene: It might be. The charges in North Charleston and Baltimore were both filed this year. Just a year ago, other cases that drew such national attention, from Eric Garner's death in New York to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, didn't bring charges. I wonder if the momentum of civic protest is beginning to turn that tide.
TCR: The recent Danziger conviction reversals hinge on another bizarre twist in the story: Sal Perricone, a federal prosecutor (and aspiring writer), used pseudonyms to post more than 2,500 reader comments about this and other cases at NOLA.com. What was he thinking?
Greene: To be clear, Perricone was not involved in the Danziger prosecution, and his comments concerned any number of police misconduct cases in the news. But his comments about Danziger factored heavily in the judge's decision to vacate the jury verdicts. Yes, it was a startling development. But keep in mind these were comments that jurors likely never saw and had nothing to do with the events of Sept. 4, 2005.
TCR: So as the 10-year anniversary of the shooting approaches, what happens now?
Greene: Everyone awaits the next legal turn. The DOJ will now weigh whether to appeal the ruling to a higher court. The appeals ruling is significant. But, in a sense, it keeps the case at a status quo. A new trial is likely but not yet definite. For the families, it means more waiting.
TCR: To what degree did the Danziger massacre inform the protocols of the sweeping federal consent decree for the NOPD that has been in place since 2012?
Greene: The consent decree included stark findings about the NOPD use of force, breakdowns in policies and how the department's officers engaged physically — either through shootings or confrontations — with black residents far disproportionate to the city population. But the Danziger case and other civil rights violations related to Katrina were excluded from the findings–a sign, police watchers say, of how far the NOPD still must go.
TCR: Is there a Danziger lesson for law enforcement?
Greene: Everyone should pay more attention to the role that a mayor and police chief play in setting the tone for what happens along the front-line of law enforcement. If officers don't have a fear of someone looking over their shoulder, that can have dire consequences.
David J. Krajicek is a contributing editor of The Crime Report. Follow him on Twitter @DJKrajicek. He welcomes comments from readers.