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Monday, September 7, 2009

Feds Focus on New Orleans Cops

Federal probe digs deeper into NOPD's actions after Hurricane Katrina
The Times Picayune by Brendan McCarthy and Laura Maggi - September 5, 2009

For the past several months, the federal building on Poydras Street has seen a steady stream of New Orleans police officers trudge in and out, all of them testifying before grand jurors gathering evidence of possible civil rights violations in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina -- allegations that center on police misbehavior. Alex Brandon / The Times-Picayune archivePolice handcuff a man Sept. 4, 2005, after a confrontation with police on Chef Menteur Highway near the Danziger Bridge. It is one of the incidents involving New Orleans police that is being investigated by federal agents. Federal agents, meanwhile, have been studying police e-mails and documents obtained by subpoena -- as well as through a surprise search warrant executed on the New Orleans Police Department homicide office -- in an attempt to ferret out exactly what happened in the chaotic days after the storm. The feds also have sent subpoenas seeking photographs to The Times-Picayune, and they have ordered a former photographer for the paper to testify before the grand jury. Observers and authorities say the investigations, and the charges they are likely to result in, could shake the very foundation of the New Orleans Police Department in ways that haven't been seen since the Len Davis murder-for-hire case in the mid-1990s. Davis, who essentially ran a drug-protection racket comprised of fellow NOPD officers, was sentenced to death for ordering the execution of a woman who filed a complaint against him. But the reverberations from the new cases could extend well beyond the department. The cases are likely to get international publicity and heighten already-deep mistrust of the Police Department. And, as did other notorious Katrina cases -- such as allegations of euthanasia at Memorial Medical Center and of gross neglect at St. Rita's nursing home -- the cases will force New Orleanians to confront an uncomfortable and perhaps unanswerable question: How accountable should people be for the actions they take in desperate times?

Led by prosecutors from the U.S. Department of Justice civil rights division and conducted by FBI agents, the simultaneous federal investigations are focused on two separate police actions -- one on the Danziger Bridge in eastern New Orleans and the other in Algiers. Federal authorities are also exploring allegations of vigilante violence by civilians in Algiers Point. The Danziger incident is well-known to New Orleanians: Police, responding to reports of shots fired at officers, shot six people on the bridge, killing two men and wounding four others. Alex Brandon / The Times-Picayune archiveLance Madison is arrested by State Police and NOPD SWAT members on Sept. 4, 2005, after a confrontation with police near the Danziger Bridge in eastern New Orleans. Ronald Madison, Lance Madison's brother, was shot to death that day. A state grand jury in late 2006 indicted seven police officers on murder and attempted murder charges, but a Criminal District Court judge last year dismissed the charges, concluding that prosecutor errors tainted the case. Federal authorities then agreed to pick up the case. The Algiers investigation is more recent and less publicly known. Though four years have passed since Katrina, the probe began only this year, after published accounts described a potential police role in the burning of a corpse that was eventually pulled from a charred car on a West Bank levee. That probe focuses on whether NOPD officers just days after Katrina played a role in shooting 31-year-old Henry Glover, beating him and his buddies, then later torching the vehicle where his body was discovered, sources close to the case have said. It is not clear whether the officers believed to be involved in the shooting and those who allegedly set fire to the car knew about each others' roles, sources have said.

The scope of the feds' inquiry -- and the expectation that the effort will bring results -- has led many observers to recall the mid-to-late-1990s, when FBI agents were actually stationed within the Public Integrity Bureau. That relationship resulted in some shocking prosecutions, among them the arrest and conviction of two police officer brothers who were part of drug kingpin Richard Pena's distribution operation. NOPD Superintendent Warren Riley, through a spokesman, declined to comment on the probes in detail. "The NOPD has cooperated with the U.S. attorney and the FBI and will continue to do so throughout their investigations, " said Bob Young, head of the department's public affairs division. Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said even without knowing what the results of the post-Katrina investigations will be, they must be considered to be serious, based on the resources the federal government has committed. "These investigations, should they result in any criminal charges, would be at least as significant and notorious and damning as the Len Davis case, " he said. Authorities, speaking on background, have given similar assessments. Each of the cases involve police officers possibly committing some wrongdoing while acting in their official capacities. Each also could result in charges related to civil rights violations, Goyeneche said. Obstruction of justice charges are also possible. "If they do result in indictments, I think there will be an international media feeding frenzy, " Goyeneche said.

Facing a deadline

The federal investigation into Danziger began last fall, and the Algiers probe was launched a few months later. It's unclear when the feds hope to wrap things up. But most of the relevant federal laws have statutes of limitations of five years, meaning any charges must be brought by next September. Since the probe got under way, agents from the FBI New Orleans office's civil rights division have been applying steadily increasing pressure on local police. Agents, along with prosecutors, have woken up officers at home. They have issued several subpoenas for a wide array of documents, including all Blackberry communications for officers in several police districts and in specialized units, sources said.

Federal prosecutors have also demanded that the NOPD preserve all such communications during an 11-month period starting in September 2005. Perhaps most dramatically, agents conducted a raid on the NOPD's homicide division in early August, showing up unannounced and executing a search warrant on the computers and files of two veteran homicide detectives -- both supervisors -- who had handled NOPD investigations of the Danziger and Algiers incidents. Though at least one member of the NOPD's internal investigative unit -- the Public Integrity Bureau -- accompanied the agents in the homicide office, detectives were caught unaware of the seizure. It was by no means a friendly visit, sources said. The probe has created a gnawing sense of anxiety within the department. Privately, officers have groused that the feds are using strong-arm tactics, not offering professional courtesy usually extended to fellow law enforcement agencies. In one incident that's become legend, the 2nd District commander argued with and nearly barred agents earlier this summer from entering his station house. Federal agents, along with at least one prosecutor, showed up at the Uptown station to interview a police officer. They were met by Maj. Bruce Little, who took umbrage with their presence, several sources said. Eventually cooler heads prevailed and the interview was conducted at a later time, though the incident did little to smooth relations. Officers have long been suspicious of the prying eyes of the feds. The Fraternal Order of Police, the largest police organization in New Orleans, sent an e-mail message to all of its members in late May reminding officers of their right to consult an attorney before submitting to an interview. The message recommended taking advantage of that right, regardless of whether the officer was being questioned as a target or witness.

Change in course

While the Algiers and Danziger cases are the focus of the probe, the federal examination of the department has not stopped there. For example, federal agents earlier this year began looking into the police shooting of 22-year-old Adolph Grimes in the 6th Ward on New Year's Day. The recent focus on possible civil rights abuses by New Orleans police seems to represent a new course for a Justice Department that was focused on terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. "We've gone a very long time with a Justice Department that had very little interest, if any, in either investigating or prosecuting corrupt or brutal police officers, " said Mary Howell, a veteran civil rights attorney and longtime NOPD critic who is also representing a family suing the department over the Danziger Bridge incident. Since the investigations are largely focused on incidents that occurred four years ago, Howell said it remains unclear whether federal investigators are planning to delve into more current wrongdoing in the department. Federal authorities, meanwhile, say privately that the probes are more a function of new evidence than a policy shift at the Department of Justice. Until an article about the Henry Glover shooting appeared late last year in The Nation, they said, they were unaware of the incident.

Focusing on rights

In both the Danziger and Algiers cases, federal investigators are focused on whether police violated citizens' civil rights, which is a federal offense. On Sept. 4, 2005, police acknowledge shooting two groups of people, killing two men and injuring four others. While the victims have said they were ambushed by the police, the officers have said they responded to reports of shootings and used their weapons only after first taking fire. Details of the Algiers incident are murkier, but sources close to the investigation have said the grand jury is trying to determine whether an officer or officers shot Glover, as well as if other cops are responsible for burning his body. Photo courtesy of Rolanda ShortHenry Glover with his daughter, Nehemiah Short, sometime before September 2005. Glover's charred remains were pulled out of a car weeks after the storm. After he was shot on Sept. 2, a man named William Tanner picked him up, along with Glover's brother, Edward King, and a friend, Bernard Calloway. Tanner, who had been talking to a woman near where Glover was shot, drove the injured man to the Paul B. Habans Elementary School, where the Police Department's SWAT team had set up a temporary headquarters. At the school, Tanner said, police officers did not help them. Instead, he said, they were abusive to the three men trying to help Glover, while leaving the injured man bleeding in the car. Eventually, one of the officers drove off in Tanner's Chevy Malibu, with Glover still inside. Tanner didn't see his car for weeks, until a federal agent told him that the burned remains were left on the Algiers levee, near the 4th District police station. The remains were retrieved by the 82nd Airborne, according to the Orleans Parish coroner's office.

Along with the subpoenas they've sent to New Orleans police, federal investigators looking into the case have subpoenaed The Times-Picayune, asking for photos taken by Alex Brandon, who was one of dozens of Times-Picayune photographers and reporters covering the chaos after Hurricane Katrina. Brandon has also received a subpoena to testify before the grand jury investigating Glover's death. Brandon was at Habans on Sept. 2, the day Glover was shot. Lori Mince, an attorney for the newspaper, said prosecutors have asked for any pictures he took at the school on that day. Mince said photographers' images normally are archived at the newspaper's office in New Orleans. But in the aftermath of Katrina, the newspaper was displaced. After the newspaper resumed normal operations, it collected the images its photographers shot and archived them. She said the newspaper does not have any photos taken by Brandon at Habans that show Glover or Tanner or the Malibu. Brandon, who spent several days after the storm photographing law enforcement officers as they tried to keep order in the city, was also at the Danziger scene shortly after the shootings there. Federal authorities have also subpoenaed the newspaper's photographs of that scene. Reached by telephone, Brandon, who left the newspaper in 2006 and now works for The Associated Press, declined comment. The story of Glover's death was first reported in The Nation magazine and Web site late last year. A companion report alleged that some white residents of Algiers Point turned into vigilantes after the storm, shooting at black people they considered possible looters. Federal agents have also been looking into those allegations. Brendan McCarthy can be reached at or 504.826.3301. Laura Maggi can be reached at or 504.826.3316.

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