Thursday, February 25, 2010

Charges Filed in Katrina Inquiry

Charges Filed in Katrina Inquiry


By Campbell Robertson

New York Times

February 24, 2010


NEW ORLEANS - On Sept. 4, 2005, with floodwaters of

Hurricane Katrina still standing in much of the city,

Lt. Michael J. Lohman of the New Orleans Police

Department arrived at the Danziger Bridge in eastern

New Orleans. A group of police officers had rushed

there just ahead of him in response to a radio call for assistance.


At the bridge, Lieutenant Lohman found that six

civilians had been shot by police officers, two

fatally. None of them had weapons.


Almost immediately, federal authorities said Wednesday

in a blistering series of accusations, he and the other

officers began to plot a cover-up, planting a gun near

the site to make the shootings appear justified.


That action led to Lieutenant Lohman's appearance in a

federal courtroom on Wednesday afternoon, where he

pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to obstruct

justice. It is the first charge in a wide-ranging

inquiry into police misconduct that led to civilian

deaths in the chaotic days after Hurricane Katrina, and

it is unlikely to be the last.


"Know this," Jim Letten, the United States attorney for

the Eastern District of Louisiana, said to reporters

after the hearing. "The investigation continues. It is ongoing."


It is also not the only federal investigation into

civilian deaths caused by the police force in the days

after the hurricane. The fact that the accusations go

beyond the shooting to a larger cover-up "is really

indicative of a systemic integrity issue," said Rafael

C. Goyeneche III, a former New Orleans prosecutor who

is the president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission,

a watchdog group. "It's going to rock the Police

Department to the core."


A spokeswoman for the Police Department declined to comment.


The bill of information, which contains charges but is

not an indictment, and was unsealed Wednesday, is the

clearest picture yet of the federal investigation into

the Danziger Bridge shootings.


The documents filed by the authorities said that five

of the civilians had been walking to get food and

supplies, and that the other two were on their way to a

family member's dentistry office when they were fired

upon by police officers. Four were seriously injured.


James Brissette, 19, and Ronald Madison, who was 40 and

mentally disabled, were killed. Mr. Madison's brother

Lance, who was in the courtroom on Wednesday, was

arrested and charged with eight counts of attempted

murder in trumped-up charges related to the cover-up,

but was later cleared.


Lieutenant Lohman, 42 and now retired, concluded

shortly after arriving on the scene that the shooting

was "legally unjustified," federal authorities said. He

encouraged the officers to "come up with a plausible

story" that would allow him to conclude that the

shooting was justified, the authorities said.


When another police investigator told Lieutenant Lohman

that he was going to plant a gun under the bridge to

bolster the story that the officers were being fired

at, Lieutenant Lohman went along, and even asked if the

gun was traceable, the authorities said.


At the encouragement of Lieutenant Lohman, the officers

who were involved made up details, the authorities

said, like a claim that one victim had reached for a

"shiny object" in his waistband.


At one point, according to the documents, Mr. Lohman

was frustrated that the cover-up story in the report,

which was drafted by a police sergeant, "was not

logical," so he drew up one of his own, which broadly

changed details to fit the false story. The sergeant

later replaced that report with a shorter one that was

changed to fit the audiotaped statements of the police

who were involved.


That sergeant is unnamed by the authorities, but the

police report is signed by Sgt. Arthur Kaufman, who was

assigned to investigate the Danziger shooting. He

prepared a supplemental report later with another

police sergeant, which was widely criticized.


Sergeant Kaufman and at least one other officer, who

was directly involved in the shooting, have received

letters informing them that they are targets in the

investigation, their lawyers acknowledged.


Lieutenant Lohman faces up to five years in prison, but

Mr. Letten said the officer had been cooperating with

the authorities, an indication that charges against

others might be coming.


In 2006, the seven officers who were directly involved

in the shooting were charged with murder and attempted

murder, but the charges were dismissed in late 2008 by

a judge who cited improprieties in the handling of the

case. The United States Attorney's Office, along with

the F.B.I. and the civil rights division of the Justice

Department, picked the case up soon afterward.


During the federal investigation throughout 2009,

dozens of police officers testified before grand

juries, federal agents seized files from the police

homicide division, and the Danziger Bridge was shut

down for hours as agents looked for evidence.


Several other cases are under investigation by the

federal authorities, including the shooting death of

31-year-old Henry Glover, whose remains were eventually

discovered in a burned car parked behind a police

station in the Algiers section of New Orleans. That

case was brought to the attention of the authorities by

an article that appeared in The Nation magazine in

December 2008 and on the Web site


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