Four New Orleans police officers could face the death penalty as a result of an FBI investigation into the notorious Danziger bridge shooting spree that left two dead and four wounded in the chaotic aftermath of hurricane Katrina.
The US justice department charged the four with killing a teenager and a man with severe mental disabilities, both of whom are alleged to have been unarmed.
The indictment, unsealed by the justice department yesterday, provides a harrowing account of incidents in which the police are alleged to have fired on a family walking across the bridge to get food and other supplies from a supermarket, and on two men, also on the bridge, on their way to check on damage to a dentist’s office owned by their brother.
The charges come on top of a long list of dark events involving the New Orleans police over the last two decades, much of them related to corruption.
The US attorney-general, Eric Holder said: “As our investigation of the Danziger bridge incident shows, the justice department will vigorously pursue anyone who allegedly violated the law. Put simply, we will not tolerate wrongdoing by those who have sworn to protect the public.”
The city descended into anarchy after the hurricane and the police were overrun. The four officers accused of the shooting on 4 September 2005 are Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius, Robert Faulcon and Anthony Villavaso. They are also accused of obstructing justice, along with two other officers, Arthur Kaufman and Gerard Dugue.
The police say the officers accused of the shooting and cover-up had acted appropriately and were responding to calls about gunfire. According to the indictment, the four officers fired on an unarmed family on the bridge, killing James Brissette, aged 17, and wounding four others.
The second shooting occurred minutes later on other side of the bridge, firing on two brothers, killing one of them, Roland Madison, aged 40, who had severe mental disabilities.
Faulcon is accused of shooting the latter in the back and Bowen is charged with stamping and kicking him while he was dying. The indictment accuses Kaufman and Dugue of joining the other four in attempting to cover up the shootings. The justice department said Kaufman is charged with getting a gun from his home and claiming to have found the gun at the bridge and creating statements from fictional witnesses.
Kaufman and Dugue are also accused of holding a meeting, at which sergeants instructed officers involved in the shooting to get their stories straight before giving formal taped statements, a justice department statement said.
Kaufman faces a maximum of 120 years in prison, and Dugue faces a maximum 70 years. Five other police officers have admitted attempting to obstruct justice and are awaiting sentencing.
Seven police officers were charged with the bridge killings in December 2006 but a state judge threw out the case in August 2008. The US justice department then launched its own investigation.
The bridge case is one of several investigations into New Orleans police behaviour after Katrina. Five officers were last month charged with killing a 31-year-old man.
As Barack Obama visited New Orleans.
To mark the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastating assault on the city by emphasising the dramatic shift in reconstruction policy since he took power after the failures of the Bush administration. But hanging over the trip was a widespread feeling along the Gulf coast that the president has faced his own Katrina with the disastrous BP oil spill.
Obama arrived under stormy skies that provided an appropriate backdrop to the remembrance of the hurricane that killed about 1,800 people.
He was expected to meet survivors and then talk about the huge reconstruction effort, as well as the problems posed by the BP blowout, in a speech at Xavier University, a historically black and Catholic university flooded by Katrina.
The federal government has spent $143 billion (£92bn) on rebuilding public infrastructure, such as schools and bridges, and private housing as well as reinforcing the levees that failed so spectacularly five years ago. The administration says it has freed up billions more dollars and cut through the red tape to allow many more people to receive help to rebuild their homes.
But a large part of the city’s population is still scattered across Louisiana and neighbouring Texas. New Orleans’ population has fallen by more than 20% and just a few thousand of the tens of thousands of homes that were destroyed by Katrina have been rebuilt.
Five years ago, the then Senator Obama criticised the “unconscionable ineptitude” of the Bush administration’s abandonment of hundreds of thousands of people without food, water or proper shelter in the days after the hurricane tore apart New Orleans levees and flooded the city. Later, Obama would also condemn a government that “sits on its hands while a major American city drowns before our eyes”.
But Obama arrived in the wake of what some in Louisiana regard as his own Katrina – the BP oil spill that has devastated the local fishing industry and blighted coastal tourism as well as the environment. The White House said the president talk about the oil spill clean up in his speech.
Even before the president arrived, the debate about the disastrous government failures over Katrina had been revived by Michael Brown, the former head of the much derided Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema). Last week, he sought to shift responsibility for its failures in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane by blaming officials in Washington for making the “fatal mistake” of talking up facts and figures as indicators of success without acknowledging the huge obstacles the agency faced in the wake of the hurricane.
Brown said he winced when he heard President Bush deliver his now infamous endorsement: “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”
“I knew the minute he said that, the media and everybody else would see a disconnect between what he was saying and what I was witnessing on the ground,” Brown said. “That’s the president’s style. His attitude and demeanour is always one of being a cheerleader and trying to encourage people to keep moving. It was just the wrong time and the wrong place.”
Two weeks later Brown resigned.
The city has also been unable to shake off the legacy of the violence as looters tore into shops, some out of desperation for food but many to profit from the disaster.
Federal authorities are investigating evidence that senior New Orleans police officers gave shoot-to-kill orders against looters. A public television documentary earlier this month revealed that in one instance a police captain, James Scott, told subordinates about to go out on patrol during the crisis: “We have authority by martial law to shoot looters.”
But there was no martial law and no legal authority to use deadly force against people stealing property.
Six police officers have already been charged over the shooting of unarmed civilians attempting to cross a bridge to escape the floodwater.
The coffin lay open. The mourners approached one by one.
Some spat their contempt and turned away swiftly. Others reached inside the grand, silver casket and kept a hand there for a moment as if trying to purge the years of terrible memories and suffering. Each left a handwritten note.
“Since this is a church, I’m going to be nice,” said one. “You made me lose my home. You may have taken away my life as I know it but you’ll never take away my spirit.”
Another said: “Thank God you are gone but unfortunately you will never be forgotten.”
The congregation had gathered to bury Hurricane Katrina five years after it smashed through New Orleans’ inadequate levees, flooded most of the city and erased entire communities. About 1,800 died and more than a million fled, many never to return. Tens of thousands are still living in trailers scattered across neighbouring Texas and beyond. Many of those who did come back faced desolation, the destruction of their homes, the loss of their jobs.
The Roman Catholic archbishop of New Orleans, Gregory Aymond, said the symbolic funeral would lay to rest “the hurt, the pain, the woundedness, the hopelessness”.
He then looked on slightly astonished at the vigour of an evangelical preacher, Jesse Boyd, who put it another way: “We’re here to say arrivederci, adios, goodbye to Katrina. Rest well.”
Five years on, the government has spent $143bn on the reconstruction of public buildings and private homes, roads and bridges, in one of the largest programmes of its kind in US history.
But the anger of the notes dropped into the coffin echoes across large areas of a city that has recovered so completely in parts that the only evidence of Katrina is how often it still comes up in conversation.
The money-spinning French Quarter is again busy with tourists, and white southern gentlemen in panama hats and bow ties populate the restaurants of the smarter ends of town as if nothing ever happened.
Then there is Ventura Drive, a few blocks from Katrina’s funeral in St Bernard parish. House number 3112 stands almost alone. There is a compulsory demolition notice taped to the window. There is no 3110 or 3114.
The blocks to the left and right, in front and behind have been wiped of all sign of the homes that once stood there. Today grass stretches right across the space where the houses stood close to an oil refinery at the water’s edge, which poured fuel into the flood five years ago.
More than one third of the population of St Bernard has still not returned.
Across the administrative line in the neighbouring Lower Ninth, the predominantly working-class African American district that bore the worst of the disaster, just one in four residents has moved back. One is Henry Irvin, whose house sits virtually alone on St Louis Avenue.
“The house next door had almost blown on top of mine but it didn’t. But my house did fill with water, covered with water. Everything inside was destroyed. All my personal stuff,” he said. “Volunteers gutted my house out. We had to air it out and then we had to rebuild. New insulation, new electrics, new everything.”
Irvin, 74, fled the day before the storm. For the next three years he moved around, living with relatives and in a trailer provided by the authorities. Finally he moved back home in 2008.
“I was just trying to hurry up and get home because there was nothing like living in that damn trailer. Most of my neighbours are gone. In my square I’m the only house. All around are empty lots. Turn the corner and there’s nothing there but grass and trees,” he said. “There was a time when everybody around here knew everybody. It changed. There’s not the people, not the community. Perhaps they can change it for the better, but they’ve got to give us a fair share of the pie. There’s a lot of people all the way to Texas that want to come back home but they can’t because they can’t afford to rebuild or bring their kids back here because we don’t have the schools. They give the grants to the people with the big houses.”
Only one of the five schools in the Lower Ninth has reopened. Hundreds of businesses have been abandoned. Where housing plots are not empty many are filled with rotting wooden buildings, disintegrating and overgrown. Irvin, like many residents of the Lower Ninth, thinks the city does not want the residents back.
“It’s racism. We’ve been suffering from racism down here for many, many years,” he said. “There are some who want to run us all out of here. Some big people in this town are trying to buy all that land and make it a green space with motels and gambling and casinos.”
It’s a common view in the Lower Ninth, though it has been dismissed by state and city leaders. But earlier this month, a federal judge ruled that the criteria for awarding grants to rebuild discriminated against black people.
The Louisiana state government offers up to $150,000 (£98,000) for people to reconstruct their homes, but applicants are not permitted to claim for more than the pre-hurricane value of their properties, no matter that the cost of repairing or replacing a house is similar city-wide. Those living in the Lower Ninth, where property values were the lowest in New Orleans, have been hit hardest by the rule.
A recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that a third of New Orleans residents say their lives are still getting worse because of the hurricane. African Americans were more than twice as likely as whites to say they had not recovered from Katrina.
The hurricane is often spoken of not as a passing disaster but as a living entity. People say “she” not “it”. Joey DiFatta, chairman of the local council at the time the hurricane struck, declared at the symbolic funeral: “Today we’re burying this witch.”
For Doris Voitier, who had not long been schools superintendent for the St Bernard parish when the hurricane hit, Katrina lives on in people’s anger at the human failings that compounded the disaster. These began with the collapse of the levees because of a lack of government investment and the disastrously slow response of the Bush administration – the first outsiders to arrive in St Bernard were the Canadian Mounties.
When the disaster struck, Voitier was looking after about 250 people who could not be evacuated and were sheltering in a school. These included an elderly woman who was a double amputee, people in need of dialysis and wheelchair users. Hundreds more arrived after the levees broke. There was little food or water, and no assistance came for days.
“There was no rescue. While the world was watching downtown New Orleans, we were under water and no one came for us for five days,” she said.
She has been at the forefront of rebuilding St Bernard. When the federal government failed to respond, she worked with the local oil refineries to bring in trailers to use as schools in order to help families return. Tears well up in her eyes as she speaks of those early days of the disaster.
“We had kids living in trailers, we had kids living in tents. People didn’t have running water or anything. Parents would bring their kids to school in pyjamas in the morning and we’d change them at school,” she said.
But even for those who returned, everything had changed.
“It’s been longer getting rid of that anger because we haven’t seen too much of a sense of normalcy returning. It’s been too catastrophic. When you lose everything, you’ve lost people and friends, you’ve lost homes, you’ve lost the sense of community that you’ve been involved with your entire life, and you felt that nobody cared enough, nobody would do something about it.
“I’m 61 years old. This has been the defining moment of my life. Everything we talk about is before Katrina and after Katrina. I think for people of my generation it will always be that way. On a personal level, it will never be buried.”