Katrina, Six Years On: Criminal Justice and the NOPD

August 29, 2011

New Orleans Commemorates 5th Anniversary Of Hurricane Katrina
New Orleans Commemorates 5th Anniversary Of Hurricane Katrina, © 2010 Getty Images

The longstanding problems of New Orleans’ criminal justice system were documented by Amnesty in its 2010 report Un-Natural Disaster: Human Rights in the Gulf Coast.  Now, six years after the levees broke in New Orleans, there is an opening for deep, lasting change in New Orleans Police Department (NOPD).

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, when its community was most in need of protection, the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) was involved in a stream of deadly incidents. Officers reported that soon after the flooding began, they were given permission to shoot looters by their second in command.

On September 2, police shot and killed a young African-American man, Henry Glover, then dumped his body in a car and set it on fire.  That night, a police officer shot Danny Brumfield, Sr., a 45 year old African-American man, in the back, killing him in front of the convention center. Matthew McDonald was killed by police the next day.  Then on September 4, seven NOPD police officers opened fire on a group of seven African Americans crossing Danziger Bridge, killing James Brissette and Ronald Madison.

Justice in these cases has taken years.

Earlier this month, a federal jury found that NOPD officers had killed James Brissette and Ronald Madison on Danziger Bridge, and then huddled in secret to plan the cover-up.  Last December, three NOPD officers were convicted for their involvement in the killing and burning of Henry Glover. There are several more Department of Justice (DOJ) investigations into police shootings underway.

The community has come a long way since the first family members and eyewitnesses to the police killings who came forward with their stories were branded by the police as liars or delusional.  In post-Katrina New Orleans, organizers were pulling together African-American residents of the city’s poorer neighborhoods, who were most affected by the city’s sometimes deadly, often abysmal criminal justice system.

Working with lawyers and advocates, the grassroots effort led to a complete overhaul of the public defenders office.  Pre-Katrina, public defenders reportedly were often seen working crossword puzzles in court while their clients’ cases were being heard. Today, the Orleans Public Defenders has perhaps the highest trial win rate in the country.

Reforming the police department has been a longer haul.  The grassroots reform effort pushed for – and won – an Independent Police Monitor, a permanent oversight body which now fields complaints about police misconduct.   The Orleans Parish Prison has been under scrutiny as well, with the DOJ issuing a scathing findings letter in 2009 about unconstitutional conditions of confinement.

Most importantly, in addition to prosecuting individual officers, community groups are now asking the DOJ to take a more hands-on role in overseeing NOPD reform.  The DOJ has taken on such a role before, during the decade before the storm, with notable – but regrettably not lasting– results.  This time around, with the sustained pressure coming from those most interested in real reform, the DOJ has a chance to get the job done right.