Five New Orleans former police officers have received harsh sentences from a federal judge for their role in the infamous killing of two civilians and subsequent cover up during the Hurricane Katrina disaster.
In what became known as the Danziger Bridge Shootings, six people were shot in all. The officers had opened fire on an unarmed family, killing 17-year-old James Brissette and wounding four others. Minutes later, Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old man with severe mental disabilities, was shot in the back as he was trying to flee the scene.
They received prison terms ranging from six to 65 years.
The murders had been covered up, with a number of other officers assisting. Louisiana had refused to prosecute the men, so some of the convictions were for civil rights violations.
U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt also accused prosecutors of cutting overly lenient plea deals with five other officers who cooperated with the civil rights investigation. The former officers pleaded guilty to helping cover up the shooting and are already serving prison terms ranging from three to eight years.
There have been a string of cases of officers convicted for killings or facing trial for murder following the hurricane.
Last year, two officers were found guilty in the beating to death of Raymond Robair, a handyman. In December 2011, a jury convicted three officers and acquitted two in killing 31-year-old Henry Glover and burning his body.
While many officers bravely helped citizens, 200 fled the city before Katrina hit and there have been extensive reports of some officers engaging in looting.
Last year, the Justice Department concluded that the New Orleans police department had engaged in patterns of misconduct. Their findings range from excessive use of force to poor training, lack of supervision and illegal profiling.
There have also been accusations of violence and torture by private security firms in the Hurricane’s wake, although no charges have been laid in those cases.
Several civilians — almost all of them African American — were killed under suspicious circumstances in incidents involving police and white vigilantes. For years, family members and advocates called for official investigations and were rebuffed. Activists even brought charges to the United Nations, filing a shadow report in February 2008 with the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in Geneva.
With the most notorious Danzinger Bridge case, it wasn’t until 2008 (three years after the event) when journalist AC Thompson, a staff reporter for ProPublica, became interested and justice came within sight. The following year the Justice Department took on the case and is now engaged in one of the most wide-ranging investigations of a police department in recent US history. Dozens of officers are facing lengthy prison terms, and corruption charges have reached to the very top of the department.
Watch PBS FRONTLINE: Behind the Danziger Bridge Shooting:
Photo credit: Susan Bartholemew, whose arm was shot off by New Orleans police; AP Photo/Gerald Herbert