New Orleans: Systemic Police Brutality Exposed

New Orleans: Systemic Police Brutality Exposed

Flaherty: During Katrina police murdered and covered up - a continuation of systemic abuse of the poor -   September 18, 2010
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Jordan Flaherty is a New Orleans-based journalist and works with the Louisiana Justice Institute. He was the first writer to bring the story of the Jena Six to a national audience, and his award-winning reporting from the Gulf Coast has been featured in a range of outlets including the New York Times, Mother Jones, and Argentina's Clarin newspaper. Jordan just published released his new book called “FLOODLINES: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six”.


New Orleans: Systemic Police Brutality ExposedPAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay. And now joining us again from our studio in Washington is Jordan Flaherty. He's the author of the book Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six. Thanks for joining us again, Jordan.

JORDAN FLAHERTY, AUTHOR AND JOURNALIST: Thank you, Paul. It's a pleasure.

JAY: So one of the things that people have talked about after Katrina is the role of the police and the Armed Forces particularly. But a lot has come to light about the role of the New Orleans police and abuses of power. Tell us a bit about what people are looking at. But also, was this an anomaly, where, you know, police went nuts in the course of a storm? Or was this kind of normal New Orleans police behavior that is just getting looked at because of the storm?

FLAHERTY: The first thing to understand, Paul, is in those first days after the storm, suddenly the media coverage shifted from sympathy to the people trapped on rooftops, the victims of this disaster, to portraying people as criminals, as looters, as armed gangs roving the streets, shooting at police helicopters, raping infants. We later found out those stories were false. But they were propagated by the chief of police, who said that infants were being raped in this Superdome; by the mayor, who said that there was lawlessness on the street, that he declared martial law, even though no such thing exists under Louisiana law. The governor of the state of Louisiana—Kathleen Blanco at the time—said, I'm sending in the National Guard troops; they're locked and loaded, they've been trained to shoot to kill, and I expect they will.

JAY: Now, hang on for a sec. You're saying there were no incidents? Or some incidents were exaggerated to look like it was a bigger phenomenon than it was?

FLAHERTY: I'm saying those incidents that were specifically talked about that were incredibly outrageous, like infants being raped in mass numbers in the Superdome—there was no raping of infants that anyone's documented that happened in the Superdome. Shooting at rescue helicopters—again, no one's documented where that happened, although that was widely talked about at the time. Another incident that was talked about, the second-in-charge of the police department said he heard officers radioing in saying they needed more ammo, they were running out of ammo, like they were in a wartime situation. Again, this call never actually happened. So these major incidents that were talked about never happened. There were certainly people, both police officers and regular civilians, that were taking goods out of stores, mostly food and water to feed people in their community. But the massive, violent outbreak that was talked about in the news that was used to demonize people, that actually didn't happen.

JAY: So why do people think the police were doing this? I mean, what's in it for them to exaggerate the issue?

FLAHERTY: I think it was a time of chaos. It's hard to imagine, if you weren't in the city, what it was like there, but we never imagined this entire city would be underwater. Everything was unimaginable. Everything seemed like we were in a fantasy world. And so many of the things that actually did happen seemed like they couldn't possibly have happened. For example, one thing that really did happen is people were trying to cross out of the city over the Crescent City Bridge, and they were met by armed police from the suburb of Gretna that didn't want people of New Orleans in their city, and they shot at the people from New Orleans and forced them to turn back. This seemed like fiction when we first heard about it. Many of the police killings that happened in that period after Katrina seemed like fiction. It was hard to believe any of this. It was a time of almost mass hysteria.

JAY: To what extent did all of this have a class character? Meaning—I mean, obviously the poor were more affected and more of them were on the bridge, but was this actually, like, defending wealthy neighborhoods? Or just police afraid of some general anarchy?

FLAHERTY: It was both race and class. Overwhelmingly the people left in the city were poor and working-class African-Americans. There were many white folks that were left in the city, there were many middle-class and upper-class African-Americans left, but the majority were poor and working-class African-Americans. And the fear was of poor black people in the city. That was what the fear was. And these incidents came out of this fear that these were criminals, these were gangs, and anything that needed to be done should be done to stop them. The second-in-charge of police department told officers, it's between you and your conscience what you want to do; if you can sleep with yourself at night, then you can do it.

JAY: And we have evidence of those instructions?

FLAHERTY: We have officers that testified that he heard that, that the second-in-command at the police department, who later became the chief of police, Warren Riley, has said he didn't say that, although he did say that we need to reclaim the streets—he says he did say that. And even that, according to criminal justice experts, sends a very mixed message to officers about what's right and what's allowed and what isn't.

JAY: But what investigations are going on, and what's come out of them?

FLAHERTY: Well, some of the most notable ones are Henry Glover [inaudible] an African-American man on the west bank who was shot by one police sniper as he was picking through some bags that were in the back of a supermarket, looking for supplies. He was then taken captive by other officers, who saw a wounded black man and thought he must be a looter. And the next anyone saw of his body, it was burned to a crisp in the back of a car that was about a block from the police department. So people are investigating those officers. It seems likely that several officers will be charged. Some already have been charged with killing and setting his body on fire. On the same day, Danny Brumfield Sr. was one of thousands of people outside the convention center in New Orleans. He saw officers drive by, with no help, no food, no water. He went running up to one police car. The police car deliberately hit him, and then officers shot him in the back in front of his family. This is another case that's being investigated. Perhaps the most notorious case is Danziger Bridge. Several civilians were fleeing New Orleans east into the center of New Orleans. They were unarmed. Police rolled up, again assuming that these were criminals, that these were looters, and they just started firing on these unarmed civilians. Two were killed, four were wounded, including Ronald Madison, a mentally challenged man who was shot in the back by one officer. Another officer ran up and kicked and stomped on him until he was dead. Among those people that were wounded, very serious injuries. One woman had her arm shot partly off. Another man required a colostomy bag. But it goes beyond the killings. When senior officers came upon the scene, they realized that this would not stand up well, and so they began a process of fabricating evidence, inventing witnesses, planting bullets, planting guns. They arrested Lance Madison, Ronald Madison's brother, and charged him under false charges of shooting at officers, held him in jail for several months. They had secret meetings over the following weeks to conspire and get their story straight. And none of this came to light for years, even though the Madison family and others were trying, against a wall of silence, to get these stories out.

JAY: So how did they finally come out?

FLAHERTY: It's a really exciting and inspiring story, actually. Those families at the center were joined by grassroots activist groups, like Safe Streets / Strong Communities, which was a criminal justice reform organization, and the People's Hurricane Relief Fund, which was another organization. A former Black Panther who founded an organization called Common Ground, named Malik Rahim, told the story to whoever he could. Eventually, these documented stories were used as evidence. They were passed on to Rebecca Solnit, a journalist from California, who passed it on to another journalist, named A. C. Thompson, who wrote about it for Pro Publica and The Nation. Armed with A. C. Thompson's investigation, activists then went to a new Justice Department under Eric Holder and lobbied them to perform the investigations. And finally the investigations began to happen. But this now, we're talking about 2009 that we finally saw those investigations of what happened in 2005.

[Michael] Lohman admitted he helped cover up for seven fellow officers who shot [snip] federal officials say Lohman allowed an investigator to plant a clean gun under the bridge to make it look like the victim shot at officers first, even though he knew they were in fact unarmed.

JAY: And what other evidence that this isn't just a few sociopathic cops or freaked out cops, what other evidence is showing this is more a systemic or coming from a culture established at more senior levels?

FLAHERTY: Well, A. C. Thompson has documented ten separate shootings around the city within a period of a couple of days, of unarmed civilians being shot. So already the widespread nature of it is one aspect of the evidence. But the details of the crimes, I think, show the systemic nature of this as well. For example, on Danziger Bridge you had one officer, as he's writing the report, he's in a room filled with officers, and he yells out, "I need a name." Another officer yells back, "Lakeisha", and he writes down "Lakeisha Smith". And this later became one of the fabricated witnesses that they used. The fact that they felt comfortable inventing witnesses in front of a room full of officers shows that this goes beyond bad apples and goes to systemic problems [inaudible]

JAY: To what extent do people involved in this think this is an extension of a police culture that existed before Katrina? Or is it something that happened in the craziness of Katrina?

FLAHERTY: You know, we have two officers that are facing the death penalty for pre-Katrina crimes from the '90s, for assassinations that they carried out. They're locked in prison currently. We have—some of the cases that the feds are investigating right now include Raymond Robair, who was badly beaten by officers in the months before Katrina. There's dozens of other cases from the period, from the years before Katrina that activists are asking the Justice Department to look into. So definitely there's a feeling that this is a department with a long history of corruption. The police chief from 1994 to 2002, Richard Pennington, ended up firing or disciplining or transferring more than 500 officers during his time. He worked with the federal government to try and root out corruption. And even many of the observers from that time said he'd only began to scratch the surface of a notoriously corrupt department.

JAY: Are people satisfied with the role of the federal attorney general or no?

FLAHERTY: People are saying that the feds need to go further. It seems very likely that there'll be some form of federal oversight of the department. The new police chief admits it. The mayor admits it and says that he welcomes it. The question is: what form will this oversight take? Will it bring the systemic change that people are asking for? Or will it be small, cosmetic change? And that's the battle that's happening right now in the streets of New Orleans.

JAY: Thanks for joining us.

FLAHERTY: Thank you, Paul.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

More Info

New Orleans: Systematic Police Brutality Exposed
Jordan Flaherty: Investigations into police brutality and coverup after hurricane Katrina, indicate ‘long history of corruption’ in department.

Sept. 18 - TRNN Investigations into police brutality in the aftermath of Katrina revealed police felt they were directed to ‘take control of the city’ by whatever extreme means their conscience would allow, said journalist and author of Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six, Jordan Flaherty. In an interview with The Real News, Flaherty said this manifested in multiple incidents where police fired on unarmed civilians. The notorious incident on Danziger Bridge, where two people were killed and four others were wounded, was just one of the ten documented incidents of police shooting unarmed civilians in the days following Katrina, said Flaherty.

Flaherty said in addition to the extreme violence used against civilians, evidence has come to light that reveals elaborate police cover-up.

“When senior officers came upon the scene, they realized that [the shooting on Danziger Bridge] would not stand up well, and so they began a process of fabricating evidence, inventing witnesses, planting bullets, planting guns,” Flaherty told TRNN.

He said much of the evidence that substantiates coverup, indicates departmental corruption that pre-dates Katrina.

“For example, on Danziger Bridge you had one officer, as he's writing the report, he's in a room filled with officers, and he yells out, ‘I need a name.’ Another officer yells back, ‘Lakeisha’, and he writes down ‘Lakeisha Smith’. And this later became one of the fabricated witnesses that they used. The fact that they felt comfortable inventing witnesses in front of a room full of officers shows that this goes beyond bad apples and goes to systemic problems.”

Flaherty said the evidence only came to light through the persistence of grassroots activist organizations in New Orleans, who spread the first-hand accounts of these incidents wherever they could until they found their way to journalist A.C. Thompson. Through Tompson’s published writing on the subject, activists were able to demand investigations from the Justice Department under Eric Holder.

In order to remedy the corruption within New Orleans’ police department, it is likely that a form of federal oversight will be implemented, said Flaherty.

“The question is: what form will this oversight take? Will it bring the systemic change that people are asking for? Or will it be small, cosmetic change? And that's the battle that's happening right now in the streets of New Orleans,” he said.


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