New Orleans police charged in civilian killings in Katrina aftermath
NEW ORLEANS — In a case that rocked a city already torn by the horrors of Hurricane Katrina, four current and two former New Orleans police officers have been charged in connection with the killing of unarmed civilians on the Danziger Bridge in the chaotic days after the storm, federal law enforcement officials said Tuesday.
Four of the men — former officer Robert Faulcon, Sgt. Kenneth Bowen, Sgt. Robert Gisevius and officer Anthony Villavaso — were charged with federal civil rights violations in the killing of 17-year-old James Brissette and the wounding of four others, all members of the same family, when the officers opened fire on a group trying to cross the bridge in eastern New Orleans.
In addition, Faulcon, whom FBI agents ar- rested Tuesday morning in the Texas Panhandle town of Fresno, was charged with shooting Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old man with severe mental disabilities, in the back as he tried to flee. Bowen also is charged with stomping and kicking Madison while he was lying on the ground, wounded but still alive.
All four of the men could face the death penalty.
Sgt. Arthur Kaufman and retired Sgt. Gerard Dugue, who helped investigate the shootings, were charged with participating in a cover-up to make it appear that the shootings were justified. Charges against them include obstruction of justice.
Five former New Orleans police officers have pleaded guilty to helping cover up the shootings and await sentencing.
The Danziger case became a symbol of the violence, disorder and official ineptitude in Katrina’s wake. It shined a spotlight on New Orleans’ long-troubled police department, the target of a major corruption investigation in the 1990s.
In May, at the formal invitation of the city’s newly inaugurated mayor, Mitch Landrieu, U.S. Justice Department officials said they were conducting a full review of the police department, a process that often ends in a consent decree, a legally binding agreement for systemic reform.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who spoke at a news conference Tuesday in New Orleans, put the indictments in that context.
“It will take more than this investigation to renew the New Orleans Police Department and to allow it to thrive,” Holder said.
“We want to look at this in a holistic way,” he added later.
The four men who were charged with killing Brissette are in custody, federal officials said. Officials also said the investigation was continuing. The three officers have been suspended without pay, a police spokesman said.
The two other men charged Tuesday — Kaufman and Dugue — received summonses, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Louisiana said.
“We’ve known it was coming for at least six months and suspected it was coming for a year,” said Frank DeSalvo, a lawyer for Bowen. “It’s not a shock. We’re ready.”
Eric Hessler, a lawyer who represents Gisevius, said federal officials should have considered the chaos that the police were operating in during the first few days after Hurricane Katrina.
“The federal government has clearly forgotten or chosen to ignore the circumstances police officers were working under,” Hessler said.