The families of James Brisette and Ronald Martin now have a measure of justice, more than six years after Brisette and Martin were killed by New Orleans police officers as they sought refuge from the devastation wrought by hurricane Katrina. The four officers involved in the fatal shootings on Danziger Bridge on the evening of Sept. 4, 2005, were all given long prison sentences last week after having been convicted in federal court of civil rights and obstruction of justice charges.
The people of New Orleans, however, cannot count on justice from the city’s flawed police department without new procedures and a new culture to control the use of excessive force, eliminate racial profiling and establish effective accountability and discipline for misconduct. Those changes may be coming, thanks to the aggressive stance the Justice Department has taken toward police misconduct under its civil rights chief, Thomas Perez.
Under Perez, the civil rights division’s “special litigation section” has been using, to the max, the power granted under a 1994 law to police law enforcement agencies across the country. The law (18 U.S.C. § 14141) allows the Justice Department to take legal action against a police department if it finds a “pattern or practice” of conduct that deprives persons of rights or liberties protected by the Constitution or federal law.
The Clinton administration used the law to force significant reforms in the Pittsburgh and Los Angeles police departments and to launch investigations that later resulted in similar changes in other cities, most notably, Detroit. Apart from finishing investigations already under way, however, the Bush administration dialed back on police department oversight. Staffing in the special litigation section was cut, and reports on police departments adopted a deferential tone of specifying that any changes in policies discussed were “recommendations,” not “mandates.”
Perez, who held civil rights-related posts in the Justice and Education departments in the Clinton administration, has reinvigorated the department’s police department oversight role in his two-and-a-half years as assistant attorney general for civil rights. The “pattern or practice” reports issued in the past year, starting with New Orleans in March 2011, have pulled no punches in criticizing use of force policies and racial and ethnic profiling. And Perez has raised the visibility of the issue by personally attending news conferences to release reports first in New Orleans and then in December in Phoenix and Seattle.
Perez was also on hand last week [April 4] for the sentencing of the five former New Orleans police officers convicted in August in the Danziger Bridge shootings. The feds won the convictions after state prosecutors had come up short. And they won it only by negotiating guilty pleas with five other officers, who agreed to break what Perez called the department’s “code of silence” and testify against their former colleagues.
The shootings are a dramatic example of out-of-control police officers using deadly force against unarmed, unresisting civilians. Admittedly, chaos reigned in post-Katrina New Orleans. And the four officers convicted in the shootings Sgts. Kenneth Bowen and Robert Gisevius and Officers Anthony Villavaso and Robert Faulcon were naturally agitated as they responded to a report of shots being fired at police.
Police have to keep their cool, however, even under trying circumstances. Instead, as soon as they got to the Danziger Bridge, the four officers opened wild gunfire that lasted more than a minute. Brisette, 17, and four others were hit as they tried to hide behind a concrete barrier. Brisette was shot several times; the fatal wounds were inflicted by shotgun pellets to the back of his head.
The officers then began to chase Lance Madison and his brother Ronald, age 40, as they ran from the gunfire. Faulcon shot Ronald in the back; Bowen later stomped on him. As often happens in police shootings, the civilian, Lance Madison, was arrested and charged, the charges later dropped.
All four former officers now face long prison sentences: 65 years for Faulcon, 40 years for Bowen and Gisevius, 38 years for Villavaso. A fifth defendant, Arthur “Archie” Kaufman, was given a six-year term for helping to orchestrate the attempted cover-up of the shootings. U.S. District Court Judge Kurt Engelhardt said he might have imposed longer sentences but for the favorable plea bargains earlier in the case.
The convictions, however important, are not a complete answer to the use-of-force problem in New Orleans, as longtime police accountability expert Samuel Walker remarked for my current CQ Researcher report, “Police Misconduct” (April 6). The underlying cause of a bad use-of-force incident, Walker says, “is some failure by the department: lack or proper training or lack of proper supervision.”
The Justice Department report addresses the broader problem by listing 20 specific recommendations (Appendix, pp. 1-3), including better training on de-escalation techniques and mandatory reporting and investigation of all use-of-force incidents. DOJ lawyers are negotiating with New Orleans officials on a consent decree embodying these recommendations to be enforced by a federal court.
To his credit, New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas has embraced the need for reform. Seattle officials have developed their own reform plan to answer DOJ’s criticisms. In Arizona, however, Maricopa County’s outspoken sheriff, Joe Arpaio, is daring the Justice Department to take him to court to answer charges of discrimination against Latino suspects and inmates. From all that appears, Justice appears unlikely to shrink from the challenge.