Someone asked me what I thought about the verdicts in the Danziger Bridge case. The first word that came to mind was “tragic.” Tragic for the convicted and their families; deadly tragic for the victims and their families.
If there was any light at all it was that the justice system worked. The jury got it right. Clearly there was a cover-up; clearly the “civil rights” of the victims were violated. But the jury also ruled that the convicted did not intend to create murder. The jury was right about that too. Danziger was about a whole chain of circumstances gone amuck.
Prisons around the world are filled with people who faced bad circumstances and did the wrong thing. Crimes must be punished, but what nags at me is a variation of what is commonly called “the Katrina defense.” The tension created in the aftermath cannot be overlooked. To me the most grievous problem was the total absence of high-level leadership. The mayor at the time, we would learn, was a little loony. The police chief at the time had melted down. True, the police at Danziger acted on their own, but there was no specter of someone in charge who they feared having to answer to; no voice in their head saying, “don’t do that;" no precedent for restraint. Indeed, in the uncertain days after Katrina, some of the officers thought they were being heroic.
I talked to U.S. Attorney Jim Letten last Friday after the convictions. He was hopeful that the verdicts would end the “culture of secrecy” within the department and that officers would know that protecting and serving included coming forth with the truth. Barbara “Bobbi” Bernstein, the Civil Rights specialist out of Washington who handled the case echoed the sentiment, referring to the “thin blue line” phenomenon under which police routinely protected their own in defiance of the truth.
There were no human winners at Danziger. Family members of the victims who say that the verdicts bring “closure” will find that the pain will never close. The convicted will spend many years painfully wishing they had been among those cops who simply abandoned the force at the city’s darkest hour rather than staying on duty.
Yes, the truth won, but too often in life, even victory is disturbing.
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