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Cops guilty in post-Katrina shooting. Can verdict help New Orleans heal?

Three of five New Orleans police officers on trial in the death of Harry Glover were found guilty Thursday. A central defense was police stress during extreme emergencies, such as hurricane Katrina.

By Staff writer / December 10, 2010

Rev. Audrey Wallace (l.) from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Rebecca Glover, aunt of Henry Glover, who police allegedly shot and later burned his body in a car in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, talk outside the courthouse where five New Orleans police officers are on trial in New Orleans, on Nov. 10.

Gerald Herbert/AP

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The conviction of three New Orleans police officers Thursday, for the shooting and subsequent coverup of the death of Henry Glover in the chaotic days after hurricane Katrina in 2005, marks a victory for federal agencies working for more than a year to root out corruption and lawlessness within the city police department.

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Arguments that the officers were working under apocalyptic and confusing conditions proved to be not enough to sway the federal jury. The guilty verdict against former officer David Warren for shooting Mr. Glover, Officer Gregory McRae for burning his body in a coverup, and Lt. Travis McCabe for lying in a police report about what happened came after repeated testimony about the challenges – physical and ethical – that face the police during a major disaster. Two other officers were acquitted on charges that they beat two men who'd arrived at a central police precinct to get help for Glover.

Twenty current and former New Orleans police officers face federal charges stemming from the period after Katrina made landfall, flooding the city and decimating law and order. The cases pit members of a historically corrupt police department against federal prosecutors, and some residents say they are a necessary part of New Orleans' recovery.

Still, the Justice Department's investigation of the New Orleans Police Department – and the subsequent prosecutions – may have some unforeseen consequences, Peter Scharf, a criminologist at Tulane University, has warned.

It is a "morally treacherous" gambit to measure by typical standards the actions of stressed people in a virtually lawless post-Katrina New Orleans, Mr. Scharf told the Monitor in 2009. The outcome, he worried, could affect the willingness of first responders – police, doctors, and nurses – to stay behind during a major emergency for fear of later repercussions.

"This was a very troubling trial," Scharf said in an interview Friday. "The question remains: How do you judge conduct in extreme stress and what context does an extreme environment put around erratic action?"

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