UP FROM KATRINA
ROBERT LANDRY ILLUSTRATION
“This year, August ends with God banging on the door like the police.”
– James Nolan, New Orleans poet, 2005
“Trust only poets.”
– Mark Bowers, New Orleans-born artist, 1983
On a mid-summer morning, the door to the courtroom of U.S. Magistrate Louis Moore finally swings open.
Court security officers spring to life. Dressed in blue blazers, the retired cops form a gauntlet outside the court entrance, halting foot traffic through the busy fourth floor corridor of the Hale Boggs federal office building.
Some 20 inmates – handcuffed and shackled – march out of court single file. They are haggard-looking men in rumpled orange and gray prison-issue. Three atypical detainees bring up the rear, distinguished only by their forest-green prison jumpsuits. Unshaven, unassuming and small in stature, they are three veteran New Orleans police officers: Sgt. Kenneth R. Bowen, who also is an attorney; Officer Anthony Villavaso II; and Sgt. Robert Gisevius Jr.
Along with former New Orleans Police Department officer Robert L. Faulcon Jr., the defendants face a possible death sentence for the Sept. 4, 2005 shootings of six unarmed civilians – two fatally – on Danziger Bridge, one week after Hurricane Katrina.
Police also fired at a 14-year-old youth who fled from the bridge and escaped unhurt, U.S. Attorney Jim Letten says.
Officers Bowen, Faulcon, Gisevius and Villavaso have all pleaded not guilty to depriving the citizens of their civil rights and conspiring with NOPD detectives to cover-up their alleged crimes by falsely charging two innocent men with trying to kill police.
Bowen’s defense attorney Frank DeSalvo insists the government indictments include “manufactured evidence” – an allegation U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder angrily denied as “not true!”
In short, both sides insist New Orleans police officers are lying about Danziger Bridge. They just differ on whom among the 11 indicted cops is telling the truth – the six defendants or the five cops who have inked plea deals with the feds in exchange for their testimony in the case.
As the fifth anniversary (Aug. 29) of Hurricane Katrina approached, 18 officers were under federal indictment. In addition to Danziger, five officers were charged (four with obstruction of justice and one with murder) in connection with the mysterious post-Katrina shooting death of Henry Glover, whose burned body was found in an abandoned car in Algiers. In another case, two officers face lengthy prison terms if convicted in the alleged beating death of Raymond Robair on July 30, 2005 in Tremé, one month before the storm.
The public is understandably uneasy. The city’s stubborn violent crime rate has yet to yield, even as new Mayor Mitch Landrieu and new Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas vow fresh reforms of the NOPD.
“What happens at Camp and Poydras overshadows everything,” Rafeal Goyeneche, president of the private Metropolitan Crime Commission, says of cases brought to federal court as the result of an ongoing Justice Department probe of police misconduct.
The courts must decide the guilt or innocence of individual officers. However, the public needs to know what systems failed – and worked – in each case.
For example, records show six of the seven indicted officers who fired on citizens at Danziger Bridge joined the force at the height of the halcyon “reform” era of Superintendent Richard Pennington (1994-2001), an “outsider” named by then-Mayor Marc Morial.
The same six officers – Bowen, Gisevius, Falcoun, Villavaso, Robert Barrios and Michael J. Hunter Jr. – were still on the force on May 24, 2002, when new Police Chief Edwin P. Compass III called for public partnership with the 1,640 officers of the NOPD. “We have to change people’s mindsets and form a community of people working together in a partnership,” Compass, 43, a 23-year veteran of the NOPD and a self-described “street cop” told an inauguration audience.
Compass read the inspirational poem, “Bridge Builder.” He then promised to build a department of “bridge builders” that would unite New Orleans and its police force “like never before,” according to the NOPD’s 2005 commemorative album, published post-Katrina.
Compass was chief and Warren J. Riley was his second-in-command when the storm flooded 80 percent of the city, and one week later, the “Danziger 7” opened fire on six unarmed citizens at Danziger Bridge.
Both Compass and Riley, his successor, have denied any official responsibility for Danziger Bridge. Riley says he never read the NOPD investigative report that cleared the Danziger 7 of any wrongdoing.
Tulane University criminologist Peter Scarf says NOPD’s historic reputation for brutality and corruption will not improve by focusing on the behavior of individual cops, but by instilling “quality assurance” throughout the department protocols and policies.
The “road” to Danziger Bridge may be traced to the failure of such safeguards during the last quarter of Chief Pennington’s term, long before Katrina and Danziger.
Civil rights attorney Mary Howell says discipline and accountability at NOPD began to decline after Felix Loicano retired from NOPD (June 2000) as Pennington’s commander of the Public Integrity Division. “There was slippage,” Howell recalls.
Pennington’s “early warning system” for detecting police disciplinary problems “stopped functioning.” During the last two years of the Pennington era, Howell says, the police unions had “legitimate concerns” concerning the equitable administration of discipline and an administration emphasis on NOPD crime statistics. She also recalls national experts warning her that a department as “deeply troubled” as the NOPD required consecutive leadership from the outside, lest the Old Guard view the reforms as “transitory.”
“The kiss of death was Ray Nagin’s election,” Howell said, referring to the mayor’s decision to name top cops from inside the NOPD. Police shootings and high-speed chases followed Compass’ appointment as chief, as did confrontations with Mardi Gras Indian tribes; Danziger; the re-emergence of a nation-leading, drug-fueled homicide rate and the return of ignominy to NOPD.
However, an emphasis on police punishment can backfire, as Army National Guard Col. Mickey Evans (ret.) found in his pre-Pennington study of NOPD in 1994. Evans found a “generally defensive police force that answers calls for service and avoids situations that could result in complaints or the need to draw/fire their weapons.” The NOPD operated at 33 percent effectiveness amid a police belief of, “the less we do, the better off we are.”
That is no way to run a police department.
Eddie Compass’ vision of “building a bridge” between NOPD and the public remains a noble and necessary goal.
Chief Serpas, who already has his “bones” as a police disciplinarian, should consider an alternative mediation strategy for resolving minor complaints against police as a low-cost tool for increasing the peace, post-Danziger.
Meanwhile, some of the summer’s best news about Danziger may have come from Anthony Radosti, vice president of the Crime Commission. Radosti said publicly for the first time that three NOPD officers expressed concerns about the police shootings in separate complaints to the Metropolitan Crime Commission, during the early weeks after Katrina. The MCC later filed a formal complaint with the District Attorney’s office, helping to generate a body of evidence for the ongoing federal investigation.
What became of the three unnamed officers who quietly came forward almost 5 years ago? According to Radosti: “They are still on the force today.”