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Katrina's Lawlessness Echoes In Shooting Verdict


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. A federal jury in New Orleans returned guilty verdicts yesterday against five current and former police officers who were charged with shooting at unarmed civilians in the chaotic days after Hurricane Katrina. They were also found guilty of creating an elaborate cover-up to try to absolve the officers of any wrongdoing. They face prison terms of 10 years to life. NPR's John Burnett has covered what's come to be known as the Danziger Bridge shootings for five years, and he joins us from New Orleans. John, thanks for being with us.

JOHN BURNETT: It's a pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: What's the reaction there in New Orleans to these verdicts?

BURNETT: There's a deep sense in the community that a wrong has been righted, that justice has finally been done. Not only the police shootings of two innocent civilians, but the police had falsely accused two other innocent citizens in this same case - they tried to frame them as gunmen who were shooting at police. And this is actually the second verdict of this kind. In December, another federal jury found that three officers were guilty of killing and burning a man named Henry Glover and then covering that up. So, I think New Orleanians are thinking that finally their police department is going to have to change some of its institutional problems of brutality and corruption.

SIMON: Of course, John, you were there during Hurricane Katrina and the weeks afterwards when the city went underwater. Help us understand what life was like there, the conditions that the officers claim can help explain what they did on the bridge that day.

BURNETT: You know, I was there with producer Anne Hawke, and I'll remember it as long as I live, Scott. This great American city disintegrating before our eyes, law and order completely broken down, a state policeman warning us, you know, do you all have guns - we didn't. There was no protection, every man for himself, looting and carjacking going on. And so in some ways I think New Orleanians are thinking that on the one hand Katrina showed the best of their officers who were rescuing people from houses on their own without command structure for days. I was with them, I saw it - I rode in an airboat. But also the storm revealed the worst of the police department. It showed the department's reputation for corruption and brutality and they watched officers take part in the looting. But the jury decided yesterday that when the going gets tough, that's not a pass for the police to act like lone wolves. The U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said - and I'll quote - "When our society is threatened, when our infrastructure melts away, when our city has broken down, that's when we need law enforcement the most. If we can't depend on them, who can we depend on?"

SIMON: John, what happens in the Danziger Bridge case now?

BURNETT: Well, four of police are already in jail. One is out on bond. The judge, Kurt Engelhardt, said he would sentence them in December. There is a sixth officer who is also in involved in the Danziger Bridge cover-up, and his trial will be held later this year.

SIMON: And what about reaction inside the police department?

BURNETT: Well, first of all, let me say that the NOPD is in the midst of one of its greatest house cleanings in modern history. The new mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, asked the Justice Department to come in and clean up his police department. It has been so perennially troubled. And the Danziger Bridge verdict strengthens and accelerates that I think the citizens hoped that reform effort. Chief Ronal Serpas of the police department released this statement on Friday, and in part I'll quote: "While a terrible dark chapter in the NOPD has closed, this and the Henry Glover verdict reaffirms that a small number of policemen created great pain for their victims." He said, "We must take the first steps to heal our relationship with the people of New Orleans," end quote.

SIMON: NPR's John Burnett in New Orleans. Thanks so much.

BURNETT: It's a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.