By Jordan Flaherty, Huffington Post
This week, federal officials charged six current and former New
Orleans police officers in connection with the killing of civilians
in the days after Hurricane Katrina. The six are not only accused of
murder but also of conspiring to hide their crime through secret
meetings, planting evidence, inventing witnesses, false arrests, and
perjury. Four of the officers may face the death penalty.
While the details of their charges are shocking, much of the media
has missed the real story: Corruption and violence are endemic to the
NOPD, and wider systemic change is needed not just in police
personnel, but in the city's overall criminal justice system.
Days of Violence
In the days after the flooding of New Orleans, police officers were
told they were defending a city under siege and were given tacit
permission to use deadly force at their own discretion. At the time, no
one in power seemed to be interested in looking into the details of who
was killed and why.
For more than three years, these post-Katrina murders were ignored by
the city's District Attorney, the Republican U.S. Attorney, and even
the local media. But in late 2008 ProPublica and The Nation
published the results of an 18-month investigation by journalist
A.C. Thompson. Under new leadership, the Department of Justice
began its own inquiries soon after Thompson's report.
FBI agents reconstructed crime scenes, interviewed witnesses and
seized officers' computers. Disturbing revelations have continued to
unfold since then, as the mounting evidence against them has forced a
growing number of cops to confess.
Among the most shocking cases:
On Sept. 2, four days after Katrina made landfall, Henry Glover was shot by one officer, then
apparently taken hostage by other officers who either killed him
directly or burned him alive. His charred remains were found weeks
Also on Sept. 2, Danny Brumfield Sr., a 45-year-old man stranded with
his family at the New Orleans Convention Center, was deliberately
hit by a patrol car, then shot in the back by police in front of scores
of witnesses as he tried to wave down the officers to ask for help.
On Sept. 4, 2005, on New Orleans' Danziger Bridge, a group of
police officers drove up to several unarmed civilians who were fleeing
their flooded homes and opened fire. Two people were killed, including a
mentally challenged man named Ronald Madison, and four were seriously
injured. Madison was shot in the back by officer Robert Faulcon, and
officer Kenneth Bowen then rushed up and kicked and stomped on him,
apparently until he was dead.
Faulcon and Bowen were among those charged this week in a 27-count indictment that
lays out the disturbing chain of events on the bridge.
The post-Katrina killings have also led investigators into further
inquiries. The feds have already announced that they are looking into at
least eight cases, including incidents that occurred in the summer
before Katrina and in the years after. And as high-ranking officers
confess to manufacturing evidence, their confessions bring doubt to
scores of other cases they have worked on.
A coalition of criminal justice activists called Community United for Change (CUC) has asked for
federal investigations of dozens of other police murders committed over the past three
decades, which advocates say have never been properly examined.
Activists named a wide range of cases, from the death of 25-year-old
Jenard Thomas, who was shot by police in front of his father on March
24, 2005, to Sherry Singleton, shot by police in 1980 while she was
naked in a bathtub, in front of her four-year-old child.
Several parents and other family members of victims of police
violence have joined in protests and community forums sponsored by CUC.
The parents of Adolph Grimes III, who was shot 14 times by cops on New Year's day in 2009,
are among those who have spoken out. "We want those officers
incarcerated, so they can live with it like we live with it," said
"This represents a real opportunity to raise some fundamental
questions about the nature of police and what they do," said Malcolm
Suber, project director with the New Orleans chapter of the American
Friends Service Committee and one of the organizers who formed Community
United for Change.
Civil rights attorney Tracie Washington has been among those leading
the call for federal intervention in the department.
"It is time for the U.S. government, through the Justice Department's
Office of Civil Rights, to step in and step up," she said. "We need a
solution that addresses the systemic nature of the problem."
Justice Department officials have indicated that they agree on the
need for federal assistance. "Criminal prosecutions alone, I have
learned, are not enough to change the culture of a police department,"
said Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu has also said he agrees on the need for federal supervision. In a
letter to Attorney General Holder, Landrieu wrote, "It is clear that
nothing short of a complete transformation is necessary and essential to
ensure safety for the citizens of New Orleans."
However, many activists fear that Mayor Landrieu is speaking out in
support of reform so he can maintain a level of control over the changes
dictated by the feds. They are critical of Landrieu's choices so far,
such as his selection of an insider -- NOPD veteran Ronal Serpas -- for the job of police
chief, and have expressed concern that he will not break with the
department's troubled history. "This is lukewarm reform," says Rosana
Cruz, the associate director of V.O.T.E., an organization that seeks to
build power and civic engagement for formerly incarcerated people. "This
is reaching the lowest possible bar that we could possibly set."
Beyond Bad Apples
While some form of federal supervision of the department seems
likely, Malcolm Suber doesn't think federal oversight is enough.
"I don't think that we can call on a government that murders people
all over the world every day to come and supervise a local police
department," he says. For Suber, federal control will not offer the
wider, more systemic changes needed in other aspects of the system.
While Suber wants more federal investigations of police murders, he
wants these investigations to go hand in hand with community oversight
and control of the department.
While activists may disagree on the role they see for the federal
government, one thing Washington, Suber and Cruz agree on is that the
problem runs deeper than police department corruption. They say any
solution needs to reach beyond the department to other facets of the
system like the city's elected coroner, the District Attorney's office,
the U.S. Attorney and the city's Independent Police Monitor, who many see as
limited by not having the ability to perform its own investigations.
"We have a coroner who always finds police were justified," said
Suber, referring to Frank Minyard, an 80-year-old jazz trumpeter who is
trained as a gynecologist. Minyard has been city coroner since 1974, and
has been the frequent subject of complaints from activists, who contend
that he has mislabeled police killings. "We've had independent
coroners, forensic doctors come after him," said Suber, "And we found
that basically all of his finding were bogus. Just made up."
Henry Glover, last seen in the custody of police then found burned to
death in a car, was not flagged by the coroner's office as a potential
homicide. In another case now under federal investigation, witnesses say
police beat Raymond Robair to death. The coroner ruled
that he "fell down or was pushed." This "fall" broke four ribs and
caused massive internal injury, including a ruptured spleen.
"If you ask any attorneys who have handled cases of police killings," continued Suber, "When
they have hired independent doctors to go after our coroner, nine times
out of ten he's wrong."
Activists also complain that the city's District Attorney Leon
Cannizzaro has been slow to pursue cases of police violence. "The
district attorney just does not file charges," Suber said. "When it's
involving police, he finds no crimes committed." Republican US Attorney
Jim Letten has also failed, Suber added. "A number of community groups
have gone and met with him, asked him to investigate and he didn't do
Organizers have put forward a range of proposals for the reforms they
would like to see, including institutional support for community-led
programs like CopWatch, the incorporation of a system for language interpretation, and a more powerful
Independent Police Monitor. But they all agree that not just the
department, but the entire system needs fundamental change, and that
change needs to come from outside of city government. "How you gonna get
the wolf to watch over the chicken coop?" asks Adolph Grimes, Jr. "It's
the system itself that is corrupted."
(An earlier version of this article originally appeared on