By A.C. Thompson, ProPublica
Former New Orleans Police Department Lt. Michael Lohman pleaded
guilty to a single count of conspiring to obstruct justice, in
connection with one of a string of violent encounters between police
and civilians in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Police
shot at least 10 people during the week after the storm made landfall.
(We have been investigating the shootings, along with our partners the New Orleans Times-Picayune and PBS "Frontline.")
Lohman's guilty plea stems from the so-called Danziger Bridge incident
of Sept. 4, 2005. Responding to an emergency call that day, New Orleans
police officers shot six citizens -- killing two -- on and around the span.
Lohman helped orchestrate the police's investigation of the
shooting, a probe portrayed in the bill of information as an attempted
cover-up. The former lieutenant was involved in planting a handgun at
the scene, drafted phony police reports, and lied to federal agents,
according the court document. (The New York Times has good details on the alleged cover-up. And we at ProPublica have posted the bill of information in our easy-to-read document viewer.)
Lohman's plea is the clearest indicator yet that the federal
government -- which for more than a year now has been investigating the
New Orleans Police Department's actions in the aftermath of Hurricane
Katrina -- is mounting a two-pronged probe: federal prosecutors and the
FBI are scrutinizing incidents in which police shot civilians in the
chaotic days after the storm, as well as the alleged efforts of other
officers to cover-up those shootings.
Defense attorneys familiar with the widening federal probe say the Justice Department is looking at the death of Henry Glover as a possible cover-up, as well. Glover was shot on Sept. 2, 2005 -- possibly by NOPD officer David Warren -- and
died, according to three witnesses, at a makeshift police compound in
the Algiers section of New Orleans. His charred remains were later
discovered in an incinerated car dumped on a Mississippi River levee.
Federal agents began examining Glover's death after ProPublica, in conjunction with The Nation magazine, reported on the case in late 2008.
In recent weeks, the Justice Department has begun looking at three other post-Katrina incidents -- the shootings of Danny Brumfield, Matthew McDonald and Keenon McCann,
all of whom were shot by NOPD officers in the week after the hurricane
made landfall. Brumfield and McDonald died; McCann was injured but
survived to file a lawsuit against the police department. He was shot
to death by an unknown assailant in 2008 while the suit was pending.
The NOPD, like most police departments, conducts an investigation every
time an officer opens fire on a citizen -- the goal is to make sure the
shooting was proper and justified. As a general rule, officers are
allowed to use deadly force only when confronted by a person posing a
physical threat, either to the officer or another civilian.
However, a joint effort by reporters with ProPublica, the New Orleans Times-Picayune
and PBS "Frontline" found that NOPD investigators did little to
determine whether officers acted appropriately when they shot
Brumfield, McDonald and McCann. NOPD detectives collected little
physical evidence, spoke to few civilian witnesses, and conducted brief
interviews -- ranging from seven to 12 minutes -- with the officers involved
in the shootings.