WHAT CONGRESS WASN’T TOLD
CHERYL GERBER PHOTOGRAPH
One of the biggest challenges facing newly elected Mayor Mitch Landrieu is how to reform a police department that can’t seem to tell the truth – not even to Congress.
In 2006, the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs published a 738-page investigative report titled “Hurricane Katrina: A Nation Still Unprepared” following seven months of investigation, 22 Senate committee hearings with 85 witnesses and formal interviews with 325 individuals – including city officials and New Orleans’ top cops. Senators called their investigation “the most comprehensive of the Katrina reviews.”
Yet there’s no mention in the Senate report of the Sept. 4, 2005 police shootings of six unarmed black citizens – two fatally – at Danziger Bridge in eastern New Orleans. The report’s Katrina “time line” lists no activity at all on that date.
Lieutenant Michael Lohman, a former New Orleans Police Department supervisor, who recently pleaded guilty in federal court to obstruction of justice in the Danziger cover-up case, also failed to even mention the shootings in a report requested by Senate investigators probing post-Katrina public safety issues, New Orleans Magazine has learned.
Police Chief Warren Riley and his command staff apparently didn’t mention the incidents either, according to a review of after-action reports the NOPD submitted at the request of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs and published congressional testimony.
On Oct. 7, 2005, senators Susan M. Collins and Joseph Lieberman formally asked Mayor Ray Nagin for numerous city records, including all of NOPD’s Katrina-related records from Aug. 23 to Sept. 6, 2005, “that refer or relate to lawlessness, looting or other law enforcement, public safety or public order issues.”
Then-Interim Police Superintendent Warren Riley expanded the time frame for NOPD’s after-action reports until Sept. 28, the last day of his predecessor, Eddie Compass.
Lieutenant Heather Kouts, commander of the research and planning division, chaired a small group of police and federal agents who were tasked with organizing after-action reports from Riley’s 45-member command staff. “The goal of this committee is to create an honest in-depth evaluation of the department’s performance,” Kouts wrote in October 2005.
Lt. Lohman, of the Seventh Police District, was among the first NOPD supervisors to file a report, records show.
Since Sept. 4, 2005, according to the Factual Basis of Lohman’s guilty plea in federal court, Lohman had been busy helping the shootings at Danziger Bridge. Two died – James Brissette, 18; and Ronald Madison, 40, a severely mentally challenged man, who stayed in New Orleans with his brother Lance Madison, a 25-year Federal Express employee, rather than evacuate without the family dogs, “Bobbi” and “Sushi.”
After determining that some fellow officers had been involved in a legally unjustifiable “bad shoot,” Lohman later admitted he helped plant a gun, create fake witnesses and repeatedly met with NOPD investigators and police “shooters” at the Crystal Palace banquet hall on Chef Menteur Highway and elsewhere, to cover up the shooting.
Where newlyweds once danced, Lohman and his police cohorts sat at a roundtable, fabricating stories to keep cops out of jail for killing and wounding innocent people.
Former 7th District Detective Jeffery Lehrmann – the first to plead guilty in the federal Danziger probe – related how cops schemed to jail Lance Madison on eight trumped-up charges of attempted murder of police officers. Lehrmann recalled that he, Lohman and two sergeants, “also discussed how they could use Hurricane Katrina as an excuse for failures in the investigation of the Danziger Bridge shootings … to help make the entire situation ‘go away.’”
Before Katrina’s floodwaters had been pumped out of the city, the Danziger cops were hard at work on a cover-up story: disposing of real evidence and ignoring actual witnesses, creating fake witnesses and phony facts. Lehrmann, who left NOPD in 2006 to become a federal ICE agent, recalled driving an NOPD “shooter-sergeant” back to Danziger then watching as he kicked spent shell casings off the bridge. On another occasion, an NOPD investigator retrieved a paper bag from his home, described as a “ham sandwich,” Lehrmann recalled. Inside the bag was a pistol, a “drop gun” to support the police version of events at the bridge – which kept changing over time.
By the time the Senate request for NOPD’s Katrina reports arrived in early October 2005, Lt. Lohman was already bickering with an unnamed investigator in the case over the best way to falsify the report in the case, according to his guilty plea.
The Danziger shootings clearly fit both the criteria and timeline for the Senate investigation. However, Lohman made no mention of the incidents in his one-page after-action report to Seventh District Captain Robert Bardy dated Oct. 6, 2005 – though the lieutenant did offer a general statement about issues officers were dealing with: “Each officer was burdened with protecting and caring for their family members that could not or did not evacuate. This increased the stress level of the officers and presented additional problems for rank.”
Other NOPD after-action reports noted 10 deaths in the Superdome, the shooting and wounding of Officer Kevin Thomas by suspected looters and other Katrina-related incidents. Captain Mark Willow of the Homeland Security Division remarked that there was no concerted effort to pick up the bodies of the dead for approximately 10 days after Katrina. “This included two perpetrators shot by police and one officer who committed suicide,” Willow wrote, but didn’t elaborate.
Sergeant John Deshotel, of the NOPD recruitment division, wrote of an absence of psychological support for working officers who had lost their homes and families to the floods. “Animosities grew and many things were said out of stress and anxiety that probably would not have been said under normal circumstances,” Deshotel wrote. “Some officers who should have been decommissioned and sent for counseling were given rifles instead and allowed to continue working while choosing their own assignments.”
The Danziger Bridge incidents occurred Sept. 4 – one day after the arrival of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne provided, which had what city Homeland Security Director Terry Ebbert described as a “calming effect” on the populace. By Sept. 3, the evacuations of thousands of residents at the Superdome and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center were safely completed, according to the Senate report. Yet, the NOPD initial homicide investigation report on the Danziger incidents, emphasized: “Officers from throughout the city were taking fire from pockets of insurgent citizens which remained after evacuations were complete.”
By any measure, the Senate committee didn’t get the full story on Katrina-related “lawlessness” in New Orleans. The “definitive” Senate report on Katrina is riddled with police “doughnut holes.” Today, the federal Department of Justice is currently investigating seven incidents involving possible criminal misconduct by NOPD officers after Katrina – including Danziger Bridge.
As the fifth anniversary of Katrina approaches, Mayor Landrieu should invite the Collins and Lieberman committee to New Orleans. The truth still must be told; those responsible for crimes and misconduct must be held accountable.
Only then can we truly begin to reform our police department and begin to understand the real lessons of Katrina.