On the heels of a controversial involuntary manslaughter conviction in the Oakland BART shooting of Oscar Grant came the announcement by the Department of Justice that four current and two former New Orleans police officers have been charged in connection with the killing of unarmed civilians in the days following Hurricane Katrina. The officers face civil rights violations for killing 17-year-old James Brissette and wounding four members of his family as officers came upon the group on a bridge in eastern New Orleans. One of the men, former Officer Robert Faulcon, was also charged in the shooting of Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old man. Madison suffers from severe mental disabilities and was shot in the back by Faulcon.
The details of the incident provide a chilling look into the brutality facing New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Responding to a call that police were under fire, officers drove to the Danziger Bridge in eastern New Orleans in a Budget rental truck. Mr. Brissette and five members of the Bartholomew family were crossing the bridge to get food and other supplies from a grocery store when the officers opened fire.
Following that shooting some of the officers traveled to the other side of the bride where they found two brothers, Ronald and Lance Madison who were on their way to check on a dental office that belonged to their oldest brother, Dr. Romell Madison. For reasons that remain unclear and unexplained, Officer Faulcon shot Ronald Madison to death with a shotgun while another officer stomped and kicked the man as he lay dying on the ground.
The officers then met in the abandoned Seventh District police station to begin an elaborate coverup of the murders. They coordinated their stories, created fictional witnesses and planted a pistol at the scene of the shootings. The officers had been charged by the Orleans Parish district attorney but those charges were dismissed in 2008 by a judge for alleged improprieties in handling the case. The Department of Justice began investigating shortly thereafter.
If convicted four of the men could face the death penalty.
No one denies that in the days following Hurricane Katrina police officers in New Orleans faced a host of challenges, unimaginable by most of us. But there can also be no denying that as a citizenry teetered on lawlessness it was up to the police to create and buttress security, not undermine it. Kudos to Attorney General Eric Holder for showing that the Obama administration takes police brutality seriously and that murder will not be tolerated. As was the case in New Orleans and as we saw most recently with the Oscar Grant tragedy, it can be nearly impossible, on the local level, to convict an officer of murder, no matter how egregious the facts and circumstances.
That is precisely why the Department of Justice Civil Rights division exists and why federal investigation and jurisdiction in these kinds of cases is necessary–to provide a forum for justice when at the local level the chips are stacked against it. Attorney General Holder’s decision to indict shows guts and gives those of us still hurting from the Grant verdict hope that the arc of the moral universe does indeed bend toward justice.
photo courtesy of ryanjreily via Flickr
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