Five current and former New Orleans police officers were convicted on August 5, 2011, of civil rights violations for unlawfully shooting and killing two people, wounding four other people, then covering up their conduct by bringing false criminal charges and lying to the FBI. Four of the officers shot at unarmed innocent people on the Danziger Bridge in September of 2005, five days after the horror of Katrina. The fifth officer helped them cover up their conduct, rewriting reports to explain why the victims had no weapons. Six years later, they have been held accountable for their conduct. This result was not certain; these officers almost got away with their crimes.
In September 2007, I was in New Orleans. My friend Mary Howell, a civil rights lawyer there, invited me to watch a motion in the state murder prosecution against four New Orleans police officers for their conduct on the Danziger Bridge that day. A young state prosecutor was arguing a motion. The police officers were free on bail, sitting in sport jackets with their criminal defense lawyers. The officers were leaning back in their chairs and laughing. That’s right, police officers charged with murder were laughing in court. The judge had to remind them that they were facing serious charges and laughing was not appropriate.
The police officers had reason to laugh; everyone in the courtroom knew that they would not be convicted in that Louisiana state court. It was not a surprise when in August 2008, a state court judge dismissed the murder charges. The case was dismissed because the prosecution had improperly disclosed grand jury testimony. The officers were free from charges for almost two years, then, in July 2010, they were indicted in federal court by lawyers from the Justice Department’s civil rights division.
In September 2010, I was back in New Orleans and the officers were back in court facing criminal charges. This time it was a federal court. I went to watch the proceedings again. This time the officers were in jail-issued orange jumpsuits instead of sport jackets. Their lawyers were arguing that they should be released on bail. No one was laughing. The atmosphere in court was different. This judge was less deferential to the police officers; it was obvious he was not going to release the defendants. The police officers remained in custody.
This case shows the power of our federal civil rights acts in pursuing criminal charges against police officers. District Attorneys work with local police daily. The officers they investigate are friends and colleagues. In Massachusetts, District Attorneys are not able to pursue criminal charges that police officers illegally shot at civilians and covered up their misconduct by bringing false criminal charges. District Attorneys are elected officials who could face reprisals from other police officers. They do not want to lose the officers’ cooperation on their other cases or their support when they run for reelection. Rarely do local prosecutors indict police officers for civil rights violations using excessive force. Typically, they investigate but they do not prosecute.
Federal prosecutors, on the other hand, look at these cases seriously. They only take select cases of police misconduct. When they take a case, it changes everything. FBI agents investigate; they are not likely to have close ties to local police officers.
In the Danziger Bridge case, the FBI searched police computers and obtained the series of draft reports trying to explain the shootings. The cover-up was not sophisticated. Bobbi Bernstein, one of the federal prosecutors, said, “They were cavalier because they didn’t think they had to bother dotting any i’s or crossing any t’s.” Five police officers cooperated with the federal prosecution, pled guilty and agreed to testify against the others. One of those officers, former Lt. Michael Lohman, admitted he knew the officers illegally shot at civilians but he helped the officers he supervised draft a false report that would explain the lack of evidence. You can see this information by clicking here.
No longer laughing, the New Orleans police officers face many years in prison. Other police officers should take note: if they act like criminals, they may be treated as criminals. Police brutality is not a laughing matter.
By Howard Friedman, Law Offices of Howard Friedman, P.C.