While we in New Orleans bask in the glow of Super Bowl victory, Hurricane Katrina ghosts still haunt us. On February 24, yesterday, the story finally broke that Michael Lohman, a former New Orleans Police Department officer, had confessed to conspiring with other officers to cover-up the truth of what happened on the Danziger Bridge September 4, 2005 after the city flooded. On Wednesday, he pleaded guilty in federal court to obstructing justice and promoting lies about the shootings.
While Lohman was not one of the officers on the scene, he was, instead, responsible for supervising the NOPD’s investigation. Lohman did arrive on the scene shortly after the shooting, and according to the bill, he concluded that the shooting was justified. The 21-year veteran of the force abruptly retired earlier this month. (WWL-TV)
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation press release, " Lohman personally drafted a 17-page report, which he knew to be false, and provided that report to an investigator to submit as the official incident report."
Around the nation and here in New Orleans, many concerned citizens never bought the results of the 2007 report that said seven New Orleans police officers had acted righteously in the Danziger incident. The accepted final report relied almost solely on police officer accounts and ignored eye-witness testimony from civilians who were on the bridge that day who said officers shot without provocation at those attempting to cross it, killing two people and wounding four.
Lohman's admission validates stories that officers lied and also planted a gun near the fallen civilians. In the 2005 incident, one of whom was a mentally-handicapped man, Ronald Madison.
“Defendant Lohman, after realizing that officers had shot unarmed civilians, encouraged the involved sergeants to come up with a story justifying the shooting,” said the court document. (WWL)
Read more on this story at NOLA.com/the Times Picayune, including a pdf of the original bill document. This is a continuing investigation as the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice pursue the Danziger 7, the police officers originally charged with the shootings.
In August 2008, Louisiana Criminal District Court Judge Raymond Bigelow threw out local charges against the officers. He "concluded a prosecutor violated grand jury secrecy."
In addition to that information, readers may appreciate this 2007 article, "The Danziger Bridge Killings: How New Orleans Police Gunned Down Civilians Fleeing the Flood" at Democracy Now. Lohman's confession represents a big break in this case.
Maureen Miller reported for Anderson Cooper on this story in 2008, "What Happened on the NOLA Bridge?"
Here’s what we know happened around 9 a.m. on Sunday, September 4th, 2005.
Two men, Ronald Madison, 40 and James Brissette, 19, were killed and four others were wounded as they crossed the Danziger Bridge over the Industrial Canal in eastern New Orleans.
Autopsy results show Madison, a mentally ill man who had no criminal record, was shot in the back several times. No gun was found on him or near him.
Just before shots rang out, police received a Signal 108 – the code for an officer or officers in danger and in need of assistance. Seven officers heard the call at their makeshift office in a banquet hall they’d taken over after Katrina flooded their usual work space.
According to their statements in a police report, they thought two of their fellow officers were “down” – either wounded or killed – near the bridge.
The seven officers rushed to the scene. When they arrived they say at least four people were shooting at them. They say they only started shooting after they were fired upon.
But survivors of the shooting who were on the bridge say they were unarmed and ambushed by the seven officers. The survivors say they were simply walking across the bridge to a grocery store to get food. (CNN)
And here is a link to the NPR story of 2006, "What Happened?"
The story was also reported as it broke on local Fox 8.
The bill of information goes on to allege that police planned to provide false and misleading information on the shootings and would cover up other information in order to ensure the shootings would appear legally justified. Lohman allegedly went along with the plan and the "clean" gun was later used in the investigation, according to prosecutors.
Prosecutors say an investigator knowingly failed to take steps that would have allowed a proper investigation, including telling Lohman he planned to plant a gun and other evidence under the bridge to justify the shooting.
The current NOLA.com headline says Lohman's plea deal blows this case "wide open."
This story and other Hurricane Katrina stories of African-Americans being gunned down following the storm, fester as an open wound in the city's race relations. The families of the victims in this particular case pursued further investigation relentlessly, always maintaining that their dead or wounded loved ones were not the criminals the officers reported them to be. The case has been a symbol of how some in law enforcement and some in the media misrepresented certain events following Katrina, making it appear that New Orleans was a city of roving black looters, rapists, and snipers, and that perception made it easier for the police to tell whatever stories they chose about shootings.
I am one of the people who never believed the police officers' version. The victims were African-American, and the NOPD is not known for being trustworthy, a fact long-time New Orleans residents know. If black they may be doubly aware and instinctively question the police version of events when a case sags with media attention. For those who want to understand why that is, the problems of NOPD brutality in New Orleans have been documented in a book, Black Rage in New Orleans: Police Brutality and African American Activism from World War II to Hurricane Katrina, which will be released by LSU Press in April.
Having lived long enough to know that our racial problems would not disappear with our recent good news and anticipating that eventually our Super Bowl euphoria expanding good will to all will fade, I wrote a poem in early February called "Gaining Yardage." It hopes that New Orleanians won't let life's racial tensions and this kind of information keep our different ethnic groups from working toward what's best for the city in the future.
News of injustice fires anger and ferments bitterness, but bitterness rarely results in justice. I keep hoping we will learn from the past not to repeat its uglier stories, and so I look at this breaking news as a sign that gone are the days of sweeping this kind of ugliness under a rug. If we want a clean house, if we want to keep marching toward progress, we must be willing to sanitize every corner, and yet, being the practical woman that I am, I know dirt always comes back and some stains remain stubborn.
More from entertainment