In Katrina’s wake

A view from Danziger Bridge

Hurricane Katrina attacked New Orleans in August 2005. Among the many ways in which the city was unprepared for the disaster was the absence of a chain of command among local police. “There were no rules in place other than ‘Wait it out and, when the winds wind down, begin your patrols,’ ” a former narcotics officer tells Ronnie Greene in Shots on the Bridge.

Greene compiled disturbing information like this by mining tens of thousands of pages of documents and interviewing some 200 key players in an effort to reconstruct one of the most heinous incidents of police brutality in the past 15 years. The result is a comprehensive if disjointed and awkwardly structured recounting of the fatal shootings on the Danziger Bridge following Katrina.

It is telling that the author of Shots on the Bridge is an investigative journalist for the Associated Press based in Virginia. In earlier times, a book like this would more likely have been written by a reporter at a local paper. But the New Orleans Times-Picayune has shared the fate of many small metro American newspapers in recent years. Since it won a Pulitzer for its coverage of Katrina, it has suffered numerous cutbacks. In May 2012, the paper announced it was moving to a thrice-weekly schedule, and about 200 jobs were cut, most from the newsroom. In June of this year, a local news-site reported that the paper’s staff would be cut further.

As a result, the only pivotal role the newspaper had in the Danziger Bridge case came not from any investigative journalism it conducted but from the ramifications of some anonymous comments left on the paper’s website. That fact says much about the problems and possibilities of criminal-justice journalism in the digital era. Even as crime reporting flourishes in national publications, local papers that once provided the backbone of cops and courts coverage have suffered. Cities like New Orleans are far poorer for it. If not for a national AP reporter’s interest, the whole story of the terrible events that occurred on the Danziger Bridge following Katrina might never have been told.

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The fate of journalism was not prominent in the minds of New Orleans residents in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Greene makes clear that what was true of the city as a whole was true of the police department: No planning was made for food, water, weapons, medical care, or even basic hygiene. The radio system crashed, depriving the New Orleans Police Department of a central command system. Cops were facing the same conditions as other stranded citizens, with a few key differences: They were armed, authorized to use force, and tasked with stopping crime.

Officers had two missions. First, to save the 100,000 residents who remained in the city during the storm. And second, to stop looters who were raiding shops for everything from food to furniture.

Greene disrupts tension in the narrative by shifting from past to present and introducing characters who disappear for dozens of pages only to reappear later, indistinct from other individuals. But the Danziger Bridge story is gripping enough on its own. And much of that story as told in Shots on the Bridge was previously available only in trial transcripts, court filings, police reports, and Justice Department documents. It has never been told in full before.

It began when calls came over the police radio six days after the Hurricane hit: “Officer’s life in danger! Shots being fired!” Eleven cops jammed into a Budget rental truck to respond to the shooting, carrying their assigned handguns as well as privately purchased pump-action shotguns and assault rifles they were permitted to carry.

Arriving at Danziger Bridge, where a cop was thought to have been shot, the officer driving leaned out the truck window and fired toward a pack of people. Another officer fired nine shots from his AK-47 at the group, and still another unloaded his shotgun at them. Police aimed at fleeing figures, people who were diving over concrete railings, running up the bridge, or lying unarmed. The shots kept coming, even as their targets were defenseless, harmless, and in some cases, wounded, according to both the shooters and the victims.

Even as crime reporting flourishes in national publications, local papers that once provided the backbone of cops and courts coverage have suffered.

At the other end of the bridge, police spotted two men fleeing, tracked them down, and shot them. Perhaps most sickeningly, one officer stood over a man who had been wounded with a shotgun blast and stomped on his back repeatedly, another officer later testified.

All told, two of the eight people were killed, and four others were wounded. As it happens, they were not shooting at police, or even looting. They were members of two unrelated families looking for supplies and ways to escape the sinking city.

The cover-up began immediately. The investigating officer was told by the police that officers arrived at the bridge and were fired at, and that bodies on the other side of the bridge were from the same group that had earlier attacked police. The main problem with the story was that no guns were found among or near the supposed would-be cop killers.

One officer offered to the investigator that he had kicked the missing guns over the side of the bridge so the attackers couldn’t get to them. And then, somehow, someone came by and stole the guns. “I knew this was a bullshit story, but I went along with it,” the police supervisor later testified. “The guys who were involved in this were co-workers, and some of them were friends of mine. I didn’t want anyone to get in trouble; I didn’t want anyone to have to have any problems, including them and myself, and that’s why I participated and went along with the cover-up.”

It was an honest admission, but it came years after the NOPD had already officially absolved itself for the killings. Even worse, one of the civilians wounded by police gunfire, and whose family member was killed, was charged with attempted murder.

All of this came out only when the Department of Justice was forced to involve itself in the investigation. A local judge dismissed the district attorney’s charges of murder and attempted murder against the seven cops because of minor procedural errors; the prosecutor had apparently sullied the grand jury process by showing a bit of testimony to one of the defendants’ supervisors.

Shots on the Bridge: Police Violence and Cover-Up in the Wake of Katrina, by Ronnie Greene; Beacon Press, 264 pages, $24.95

Two months later, the Justice Department took over. They managed to flip several of the officers, who gradually revealed the murders and subsequent cover-ups. Officers had written multiple contradictory reports about the shootings, and they had fabricated witnesses. A grand jury indicted all the officers who fired their weapons, and every supervisor who lied on their behalf.

And then justice was served. Those officers who cooperated with US attorneys and testified to the cover-up they participated in—but who hadn’t been among the shooters—still received prison sentences. Those who cooperated but had fired their guns were given stricter sentences. Those who denied any wrongdoing were found guilty of most of the charges against them and sentenced to stiff terms.

But in a remarkable 21st-century twist on an old story of New Orleans police violence against black civilians, it was revealed that a DOJ prosecutor in the city had for years been commenting under multiple pseudonyms on NOLA.com, the website of The Times-Picayune. The attorney, Sal Perricone, wrote scathingly about the NOPD on several occasions. Though he was not involved in prosecuting any of the officers in the Danziger case, the defense team argued that there was a “secret public relations campaign designed to make the NOPD the household name for corruption,” thereby prejudicing juries and forcing officers to plead guilty under pressure. It was discovered that other Justice Department lawyers, including one who had worked on the Danziger Bridge case, had also posted comments on NOLA.com critical of the NOPD.

In September 2013, A judge said that the online comments had created a “carnival type atmosphere,” even though there was no evidence any of the jurors saw the comments on NOLA.com, which in any case were posted anonymously. The judge further argued that the DOJ had been coercive in getting a plea bargain. He ordered a new trial for every single officer who pled guilty. New trial dates have not been set.

But since those who flipped are already serving sentences, they will have little incentive to testify again against their co-officers, if indeed there are retrials. “It’s a setback, but I don’t know if you can say they expect a whole lot of justice to be served,” Greene quotes the lawyer of some of the people who were targeted on the bridge as saying. “I mean, how much justice do you expect when you’ve been shot at by a police officer?”

For all Ronnie Greene’s immense research, he didn’t rely much on The Times-Picayune’s in-depth investigative coverage. That’s because there wasn’t much. In fairness, The Times-Picayune did truly heroic work in the wake of Katrina, and they couldn’t devote resources to every story. But the Danziger Bridge case was the most significant police shooting of New Orleans civilians in the city in a decade. Metro papers are, or were, frequently best-positioned to report on crime simply because the reporters and editors lived in the areas they were covering and were consistently on the same beats for years. In good times, it might not take AP reporters from across the country to compile the definitive story of police brutality.

Alas, these are not good times for the local newspaper business. The decline of print is so familiar it no longer astonishes. But there are 25 percent fewer newspapers than existed in 1940, according to the Newspaper Association of America, and many of the papers that have disappeared have been local ones.

The fate of The Times-Picayune is instructive. At least three major books about post-Katrina New Orleans had their genesis in The Times-Picayune newsroom: Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children (2014), by education reporter Sarah Carr; Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City (2008), by city editor Jed Horne; and 1 Dead in Attic: After Katrina (2007), by columnist Chris Rose.

These books have three things in common: All are serious investigative works, all are written by long-time local reporters, and all are authored by individuals who are no longer employed at The Times-Picayune.

There was an era, one that peaked around 2008, when it looked like serious journalism itself was at risk. Politico was perfecting horse-race journalism, vacuuming up the readership, talent and resources of The Washington Post and National Journal in the process. The Huffington Post was exploiting unpaid “citizen bloggers” for its Off the Bus project, thereby destroying the idea of professionally trained, reasonably paid journalists. And BuzzFeed was proving that lists attract a far higher viewership than any publication devoted to serious topics could ever match.

And yet, all three of those publications have morphed into enterprises that produce first-rate journalism—even on criminal-justice issues. Indeed, even as local crime reporting is at a nadir, we are experiencing a renewed era of criminal-justice journalism at the national level. Politico Magazine, founded by former Post editor Susan Glasser to balance the publication’s emphasis on quick hits, publishes top-notch longform journalism, and not just on issues related to events in Washington. Its special March/April “Justice” issue contained stories on the Oakland Police Department, a profile of NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton, a photo gallery of Ferguson months after the riots in that city, and an essay co-published with ProPublica on why African Americans fear the police.

The Huffington Post has initiated a long-form project that had as its first story a 20,000-word piece on the failures of drug-addiction treatment centers. It included videos and scanned journal entries from addicts who had died soon after leaving the ineffectual centers. HuffPo has since published long pieces on prison life for children and a decades-old rape case in a rock band. (It should be noted, however, that The New York Times Magazine ran a story on HuffPo’s labor practices that called it a “surpassingly difficult place to work,” because it’s so focused on incessant content production.)

BuzzFeed, for its part, has progressed beyond the feline beat to become among the best websites for journalism devoted to crime on the internet. From a piece on an alleged rape of a transgender woman in a Georgia prison to a story on a mentally ill woman who was shot eight times by San Francisco police, BuzzFeed both produces and curates high-quality journalism devoted to systemic and individual criminal justice issues. And these are not shallow stories with click-bait headlines but thoughtful, investigative reporting in pieces thousands of words long.

All of this, of course, is in addition to regular important stories in traditional outlets like The New Yorker and The Atlantic, as well as on new sites like The Marshall Project and ProPublica.

But even as high quality criminal-justice journalism is more plentiful and widely available than ever, the migration to the Web era has come at a steep cost that includes the gradual decline of local newspapers like The Times-Picayune. Shots on the Bridge illustrates that, even as it shows what in-depth reporting can still achieve. 

Research assistance for this piece was provided by Tracy Walsh.

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Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing writer at Salon and the Christian Science Monitor.