“I knew this was a bullsh*t story, but I went along with it”: Police violence after Katrina and how it was covered up

The truth behind the Danziger Bridge killings in New Orleans has been hard to unravel . Here's how it went down


Ronnie Greene
August 30, 2015 6:00PM (UTC)
Excerpted from "Shots on the Bridge: Police Violence and Cover-Up in the Wake of Katrina"

ON THE BRIDGE

It is 9:00 a.m. on the first Sunday after Hurricane Katrina, September 4, 2005, and azure skies greet a city buried in water, panic, and death. New Orleans Police Department officers are gathered at their makeshift nerve center, the Crystal Palace banquet hall at Chef Menteur Highway and Read Boulevard, fueled up on Vienna sausages and bracing for another day of hell. The Crystal Palace CP insignia is scripted in cursive atop the building façade, an elegant touch capping a structure that rises on a crest set back from the highway, apart from used auto-parts stores, fast-food chicken drive-thrus, and quick cash payout hubs. The Palace features winding staircases, crystal chandeliers, a streaming water fountain, and a ballroom grand enough to hold seven hundred people. Its “romantic atmosphere” is perfect, its proprietors say, for the loveliest of weddings. Now it is ground zero for law enforcement in a swath of eastern New Orleans flooded in despair.

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Six days earlier, Hurricane Katrina thrashed lower Louisiana in the eerie early hours of Monday morning August 29, an onslaught that began with menacing winds that held the city’s inhabitants in lockdown, and then biblical floods. Fifty minutes after Katrina’s landfall southeast of New Orleans, a levee collapse at the Industrial Canal sent oceans of water pouring into neighborhoods through a breach two football fields in width. In twenty-three minutes, water rose to fourteen feet in height. City 911 dispatchers, fielding six-hundred emergency pleas for help in those initial twenty-three minutes, began sobbing between calls, helpless to aid the voices on the other end of the line. Adults floated toddlers in plastic buckets, searching for safe harbor. Personal boats piled up against bridges like toys flung against a wall. Survivors climbed to the top of minivans and rode where the waters took them as frantic hangers-on raced to grab a piece of the roof as a post-hurricane lifeline. A police car was buried by the waters, the red lights on its roof barely visible. “This whole place is going under water!” a storm chaser uttered as he contrived to navigate his way out of New Orleans and its failed levees.

New Orleans was profoundly unprepared for Katrina. The city had no plan in place to aid the one hundred thousand souls who stayed behind as the hurricane advanced, and as the storm swallowed homes and buried victims, the police chain of command collapsed. “There were no rules in place other than ‘Wait it out and, when the winds wind down, begin your patrols,’” said Eric Hessler, a former narcotics officer who returned days later to help search for bodies. “Basically they gave you nothing. You might see a case of bottled water. Other than that, you were on your own.” Each day after Katrina’s landfall, the officers of the New Orleans Police Department ventured into the city’s streets with two core missions: To save the residents who, by poor judgment or misfortune, made the choice to stay in their homes as the mayor practically begged his constituents to flee Hurricane Katrina’s approach. And, to accost the opportunists and window smashers who turned the hurricane’s misery into a wheel-of-fortune grab from stores stocked with goods on their shelves but no one at the cash register. Officers headed into New Orleans’s streets prepared for combat, occasionally passing dead bodies floating face down, and on high alert for the desperate or the deranged. Some officers toted their own AK-47s, keeping their assault rifles wedged in the front seat beside them as they navigated the streets in vast rental trucks commandeered after Katrina. Like the rest of New Orleans, many officers were prisoners of the hurricane’s wake—barely connected to the outside world, sustained by shared rations, and searching for sleep in the pitch-dark nights.

In this new world, the Crystal Palace became the department’s command center for a pocket of east New Orleans that instantly felt like a war zone. The Palace stood on the highest ground in that section of the city, making it a home port for police. Officers slept on its carpeted and gleaming floors, on chairs, on any space they could find each night. In the morning, they gathered underneath the chandeliers and staircases to plot their day’s patrols.

This Sunday morning, the sun announcing itself overhead, the officers await their command.

One, Robert Faulcon Jr., at forty-one, is older than most, and a black former military man and son of a minister who sent his pregnant fiancée away to higher ground as he stayed behind to report for duty. Before this day, he had never fired his police firearm while on patrol. Another officer, pale skinned, black haired, had beat back a second degree murder charge three years earlier in the shooting death of a black man—and then, like his father before him, Sergeant Kenneth Bowen was a police officer by day and law school student at night. Another young white officer sent his wife and four children to Houston before Katrina’s arrival, and then headed into the New Orleans streets each day with his thirty-inch personal assault rifle tucked between the two front seats. Discharged early from the marines, Officer Michael Hunter had twice been suspended by a New Orleans police force noted for leniency when investigating its own.

Over the years, the NOPD had generated a lengthy rap sheet. In the 1990s, one burly black officer, Len Davis, nicknamed Robocop in the housing projects, ran a business protecting cocaine dealers while donning the badge. He also amassed a log of abuse complaints so thick local attorneys likened it to a phone book. Most times, the department and district attorney turned the other way—until Robocop, enraged that a young black mother filed an abuse complaint against him, ordered a hit man to kill her. Robocop was a symbol of the NOPD at its most severe, but the department’s wayward ways were not limited to one outlaw with a badge.

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In 1995 a black female officer and her teenage accomplice took three lives in an armed holdup at a Vietnamese restaurant where she had worked security, killing a white off-duty officer and two children of the proprietors of the Kim Anh restaurant. After the melee, the officer dropped her partner off, heard the 911 call about the shooting, and returned to Kim Anh in uniform. A restaurant worker, cowering for safety in a walk-in cooler during the bloodshed, pointed at Antoinette Frank, the twenty-three-year-old officer. Hired at the NOPD despite scoring low on her psychological exam, Frank today sits on death row.

Fifteen years earlier police found one of their own, a young white officer, dead aside a ditch in the city neighborhood of Algiers, a bullet in his neck. Soon, scores of young black men were whisked into police headquarters, some at gunpoint, where they suffered strong-arm interrogation until police got what they sought: names. Within five days, four black residents were killed by police fire, including a twenty-six-year-old woman, riddled with bullets as she lay naked in her bathtub. The force said it fought fire with fire, killing those responsible for the officer’s death. Then a black officer turned and unmasked the lies. The victims were unarmed. Activists launched marches at city hall, yet convicting police in their hometown of New Orleans would be no easy task. A state grand jury refused to indict officers in the so-called Algiers 7 case. A federal grand jury did return an indictment: not for the deaths but for the roughhouse treatment of witnesses that violated their civil rights. When officers were finally put on trial, it was in Dallas, not New Orleans. Three white officers went to prison.

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The ghosts of Algiers 7 and Robocop haunt the city still.

New Orleans Police Department officers continue to aim their muscle, and fire their weapons, at black targets in numbers out of context even for a city with a majority black population. “If you are a black teenager and grew up in New Orleans, I guarantee you have had a bad incident with the police,” an Orleans Parish judge acknowledged to the US Department of Justice. Each time a city officer fired a weapon in a seventeen-month period from 2009 to 2010, the target was black. When the community complained about the police use of force, the department most always closed ranks. The NOPD did not find that a single officer-involved shooting so much as violated departmental policy in at least six years, a 2011 Justice Department civil rights review found. “Even the most serious uses of force, such as officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths, are investigated inadequately or not at all.” Exploring abuses long after Robocop’s horrors were supposed to have triggered change, the Justice Department report concluded, “NOPD’s mishandling of officer-involved shooting investigations was so blatant and egregious that it appeared intentional in some respects.”

Critics say the problems start at the top, at city hall. Three years before Katrina’s arrival, a cable company executive with no political experience won the mayor’s seat, defeating a former New Orleans police superintendent who came from Washington, DC, and had built a record of disciplining wayward officers and working with the FBI. New mayor Ray Nagin appointed an insider to run the force, a jovial commander known for befriending fellow officers. The FBI was no longer embedded within the department.

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Months into this new administration the force had cheered when a judge tossed out the second degree murder charge against Kenneth Bowen, one of the men now gathered for duty on this Sunday, the one soon to become a lawyer. Other officers huddled alongside him had developed their own logs of abuse complaints while serving a tough urban core with a murder rate at or near the top for the entire country. Like Robocop a decade before them, the officers were almost always cleared of wrongdoing. One heavy-eyed, broad-shouldered white sergeant awaiting his mission this Sunday had been the subject of seven unauthorized force and abuse complaints in a five-year stretch before Hurricane Katrina. Each time, internal police files show, the department cleared Sergeant Robert Gisevius Jr. “Exonerated,” the police Public Integrity Bureau reports say. “Not sustained.” Like many of his brethren, he had sent his family to safety as the killer hurricane approached. To the police brotherhood, the officers who stayed behind as Hurricane Katrina churned toward their city did so for all the right reasons: to put the safety of others above their own. They found themselves largely alone in the fight, the federal government barely visible, the state leadership ensconced in safe bunkers. “They didn’t desert,” said Paul Fleming Jr., a local lawyer. “They rescued people. They pulled people off of rooftops, pulled people out of their attics. . . . Some of these men were rescued themselves; one off his own rooftop. And right after that, they jump right in and they get to work. They do the best they could without adequate leadership, without adequate food, without adequate shelter, without adequate clothing, without adequate rest, without adequate supplies, and without adequate support.”

This morning a mix of black and white officers stand ready at the Palace. In the days after the hurricane the Katrina police corps bonded deeply, their connection intensified by their experience of the storm, the chaos, and their survival. More than race, the men and women of the NOPD were tethered by the blue cloth of their police-issued uniforms. Five days earlier a black officer, turning out to quell looting at a Chevron gas station, took a bullet to the head as he began to pat down a group of men. The bond grows tighter. “It was just a horrible time where anything could happen,” one veteran lieutenant said. Another officer said, “My self-preservation mode went way up.”

Not every resident these officers encountered in the city’s streets stayed back solely on blind faith. Some did so because they felt they had no choice but to hunker down, say their prayers, and brace for Katrina’s advance.

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The mother of one New Orleans family wouldn’t flee the coming storm because she had just one van, but eleven family members needing a way out, all huddled in her apartment looking to her for answers. If they all could not go, Susan Bartholomew decided, they all would stay. She prayed her second-floor apartment, off the Interstate 10 service road near Walmart, would provide refuge.

In another corner of east New Orleans, two brothers of the long established Madison family stayed behind because the younger brother, a forty-year-old with the mental development of a six-year-old, refused to leave his family dachshunds behind. The family always kept a close watch on Ronald Madison, a gentle figure who waved at passersby whether he knew them or not. Now his older brother Lance, a onetime football player who landed two NFL tryouts before settling into a job working for Federal Express at the airport, stayed back to watch over him, and the dogs, at his two-story New Orleans condo.

Katrina’s wrath forced the Bartholomew and Madison families from their homes, the roiling waters chasing them to their respective rooftops, where they begged for a helicopter rescue that did not come. This Sunday, as police stand poised for duty at the Crystal Palace, the two families venture out into the morning glare. The Bartholomews and a teenage friend, James Brissette Jr., are headed toward a Winn-Dixie in search of medicine for a sick grandmother and cleaning supplies for their decrepit hotel rooms. On foot, the Madison brothers set out for their mother’s home two miles away. They dream of hopping on bikes and pedaling as far from the misery as they can.

Each family will traverse the Danziger Bridge to reach their destination.

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Named after a former lawyer for Governor Huey Long, the bridge stretches a mere seven-tenths of a mile and takes less than one minute to travel by car. The overpass rises just a breath and runs parallel, like a little brother, to the more expansive I-10. Going up, the eye scans billboards, looks down upon a body of water, the Industrial Canal, and over to the higher reaching I-10. The Danziger Bridge is largely forgettable, the kind of thruway residents pass hundreds or thousands of times in their lifetimes without much thought. The two families cross paths this morning without exchanging a word, stepping upon a bridge that rises from Chef Menteur Highway, the same road housing the makeshift police headquarters, a straight shot not five minutes away.

* * *

“ONE-O-EIGHT! OFFICER NEEDS ASSISTANCE!”

At the Crystal Palace, rage and fear suddenly mix like a bomb. Over the police radio, the 108 call registers. “Officer’s life in danger! Shots being fired!”

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Officers sprint to a behemoth Budget rental truck commandeered after the storm, pile in, and race to the Danziger Bridge, the scene of the reported shooting. They grip police issued Glocks and their own personal weaponry: AK-47s, pump-action shotguns, an M4 high-powered rifle. The truck driver, Michael Hunter, has his thirty-inch assault rifle at the ready. Kenneth Bowen sits beside him in the passenger seat, and nine other officers scramble to the cargo area in back, holding steady as the truck rumbles forth. The back doors swing open, allowing the officers in back to see the hurricane-ravaged buildings they pass, but not what’s ahead. The officers barely speak, the truck’s gears grinding over pavement as it speeds the 3.3 miles separating the Palace from the bridge, busting through intersections where lights don’t work and spinning past Lucky’s Lounge, Jack’s Motel, and Dollar Store.

Steering with his right hand, the ex-marine leans out the window and fires a handgun with his left toward a pack of people he glimpses ahead, gathered at the foot of the bridge. The truck screeches to a halt, sending some in back tumbling over, and officers pour out. They say nothing. One, Anthony Villavaso II, rips nine shots from his AK-47. Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop. Officer Faulcon hits the ground, pumps his shotgun, then fires. He pumps again, then fires. He pumps a third time, and fires. And then a fourth pump, and fire. Police aim for backs, arms, necks, legs, feet, heads, and stomachs of two groups of people now diving over a concrete railing or scattering atop the bridge. One officer aims his pistol at the back of a slight figure sprinting away from the bridge, and pulls the trigger twice. Another points his rifle toward two men trying to race up and over the bridge for cover, and fires. The cacophony is so deafening the truck’s driver has to flap his arms, using a command he learned in the marines. “Cease fire!”

When the shooting stops, seventeen-year-old James Brissette Jr. is dead, bullets riddling his nearly six-foot, 130-pound body from the heel of his foot to the top of his head. Susan Bartholomew is trying to crawl on the pavement, her right arm dangling by a thread. Her daughter’s stomach is shredded by a bullet. Her husband’s head is pierced by shrapnel. Her nephew Jose is shot in the neck, jaw, stomach, elbow, and hand. A paramedic arriving soon after says not to bother with him; the teen is too far gone. “Don’t give up on me,” Jose Holmes Jr. pleads. Ronald Madison is slumped over the pavement, the back of his white shirt turned red, with seven gunshot wounds in his back. As Madison wheezes his final breaths, federal authorities will later say, Hunter watches former supervisor Bowen storm to Madison, yell, “Is this one of them?” and stomp on his back, leaving a boot print upon the slight figure sprawled in pools of blood. Like every one of the victims, he is black, and unarmed.

In just moments, before police gather a single piece of evidence or question a single potential witness, with blood and bodies splayed around them, the NOPD officers and brass standing atop the Danziger Bridge will decide that the people they just fired upon, two lying dead and four maimed, are criminals. A well-regarded white police lieutenant, his square jaw the visage of a tough cop, arrives at the bridge moments after the gunfire quells and takes in the scene. Lieutenant Michael Lohman sees no guns by the dead teen and wounded family on one side of the bridge. He sees no gun by the forty-year-old slumped over on the other side of the expanse. The cop’s cop makes a choice. “I knew this was a bullshit story, but I went along with it,” he will later admit. So did his colleagues, the men who shot at the people on the bridge and the supervisors who were supposed to ferret out the truth. In the coming days and months, police will plant a phony gun, invent witnesses, craft fictional reports, and launch a public relations campaign portraying the officers as heroes infused with bravery amid the horrors wrought by a hurricane. Behind the scenes, a racial divide is exposed within the ranks. When a group of white sergeants and lieutenant begin putting their tale on paper, they initially report that only the black officers struck the victims with bullets atop the Danziger Bridge, separating the white officers from the bloodshed. Another fiction.

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For a decade the families of the victims will press for truth, pierce the police façade, and uncover the lies buried with their kin. Justice for these families will not come swiftly or kindly after the shots on the bridge.

Excerpted from "Shots on the Bridge: Police Violence and Cover-Up in the Wake of Katrina" by Ronnie Greene (Beacon Press, 2015). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.


Ronnie Greene

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