At the time, the New Orleans Police Department saw the shootings at the Danziger Bridge as a turning point in its attempt to recapture the city from criminals running amok amid the confusion after hurricane Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005.
Nearly six years later, the convictions of five current and former police officers for their actions on the Danziger Bridge – and their attempts to cover them up – mark the latest chapter in the city's efforts to bring the heartbreak of Katrina to a close.
"This was a critical verdict. I cannot overstate the importance of this verdict. The power, the message it sends to the community, the healing power it has," Jim Letten, the prosecuting US attorney, said after the verdict was announced Friday.
The federal convictions on civil rights and obstruction charges for the five officers – Sgt. Kenneth Bowen, Sgt. Robert Gisevius, Officer Anthony Villavaso, retired Sgt. Arthur Kaufman, and former Officer Robert Faulcon – represent a victory for the US Justice Department, which is engaged in a massive effort to clean up the historically corrupt New Orleans Police Department. It's the third of nine separate US civil rights probes into post-Katrina police action to go to trial, with all three producing convictions.
The officers' attorneys said the group had responded to a report of people on a bridge with guns. Stressed after six days of operating in what seemed to be essentially a lawless war zone, the officers were keen to send a message to lawbreakers that the authorities were back in control.
After arriving at the bridge in a rent-a-van, the officers unleashed nearly a minute of gunfire, killing two people and injuring four. All the victims were unarmed, and one victim, a mentally disabled man, was shot in the back. The civil rights convictions are for shooting people who were not armed and when no one had fired on police.
The only officer to testify, Mr. Faulcon, said he was "paralyzed with fear" during the encounter, after days of dealing with what one defense lawyer called the "terrible, horrible circumstances" after Katrina.
"At this point, I don't think it's possible for a New Orleans police officer to get a fair trial in the city of New Orleans," said defense attorney Roger Kitchen after the verdict was announced. "And I don't think they got one today."
At their arraignment in 2006, the so-called Danziger Seven officers were cheered and patted on the back by fellow police officers. In 2008, a state case against the officers fell apart. Then, as part of a corruption investigation of the police department, the Department of Justice took over the case, finally bringing it to trial five weeks ago. Just five officers went to trial after some who'd originally been charged reached plea deals. Though acquitted of murder charges, all five could face life sentences in prison.
The Danziger Bridge shooting, in particular, had become a symbol of the city's need to confront the troubling legacy of Katrina and to use the storm's lessons to create a more professional police department.