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It is 9:00 a.m. on the first Sunday after Hurricane Katrina, Sept. 4, 2005, and azure skies greet a city buried in water, panic and death. New Orleans Police Department officers are gathered at their makeshift nerve center, the Crystal Palace banquet hall at Chef Menteur Highway and Read Boulevard, fueled up on Vienna sausages and bracing for another day of hell. The Crystal Palace CP insignia is scripted in cursive atop the building façade, an elegant touch capping a structure that rises on a crest set back from the highway. It is ground zero for law enforcement in a swath of eastern New Orleans flooded in despair.
Six days earlier, Hurricane Katrina thrashed lower Louisiana in the eerie early hours of Monday morning, Aug. 29, an onslaught that began with menacing winds and then biblical floods. Fifty minutes after Katrina’s landfall southeast of New Orleans, a levee collapse at the Industrial Canal sent oceans of water pouring into neighborhoods through a breach two football fields in width. In 23 minutes, water rose to 14 feet in height. City 911 dispatchers, fielding 600 emergency pleas for help in those initial minutes, began sobbing between calls, helpless to aid the voices on the other end of the line. Adults floated toddlers in plastic buckets, searching for safe harbor. Personal boats piled up against bridges like toys flung against a wall. “This whole place is going under water!” a storm chaser uttered as he contrived to navigate his way out of New Orleans and its failed levees.
There were no rules in place other than ‘Wait it out and, when the winds wind down, begin your patrols.’ ... you were on your own.
Former narcotics officer who returned to help
New Orleans was profoundly unprepared for Katrina. The city had no plan in place to aid the 100,000 souls who stayed behind as the hurricane advanced, and as the storm swallowed homes and buried victims, the police chain of command collapsed. “There were no rules in place other than ‘Wait it out and, when the winds wind down, begin your patrols,’” said Eric Hessler, a former narcotics officer who returned days later to help search for bodies. “Basically they gave you nothing. You might see a case of bottled water. Other than that, you were on your own.”
Each day after Katrina’s landfall, the officers of the New Orleans Police Department ventured into the city’s streets with two core missions: To save the residents who, by poor judgment or misfortune, made the choice to stay in their homes as the mayor practically begged his constituents to flee Hurricane Katrina’s approach. And, to accost the opportunists and window smashers who turned the hurricane’s misery into a wheel-of-fortune grab from stores stocked with goods on their shelves but no one at the cash register. Officers headed into New Orleans’s streets prepared for combat, occasionally passing dead bodies floating face down, and on high alert for the desperate or the deranged. Some officers toted their own AK-47s, keeping their assault rifles wedged in the front seat beside them as they navigated the streets in vast rental trucks. Like the rest of New Orleans, many officers were prisoners of the hurricane’s wake — barely connected to the outside world, sustained by shared rations, and searching for sleep in the pitch-dark nights.
In this new world, the Crystal Palace became the department’s command center for a pocket of east New Orleans that instantly felt like a war zone. The Palace stood on the highest ground in that section of the city, making it a home port for police. Officers slept on its carpeted and gleaming floors, on chairs, on any space they could find each night. In the morning, they gathered underneath the chandeliers and staircases to plot their day’s patrols.
This Sunday morning, the sun announcing itself overhead, the officers await their command.
One, Robert Faulcon Jr., at 41, is older than most, and a black former military man and son of a minister who sent his pregnant fiancée away to higher ground as he stayed behind to report for duty. Before this day, he had never fired his police firearm while on patrol. Sgt. Kenneth Bowen, another officer, pale skinned, black haired, had beat back a second degree murder charge three years earlier in the shooting death of a black man — and like his father before him, was a police officer by day and law school student at night. Another young white officer sent his wife and four children to Houston before Katrina’s arrival, and then headed into the New Orleans streets each day with his 30-inch personal assault rifle tucked between the two front seats. Discharged early from the Marines, Officer Michael Hunter had twice been suspended by a New Orleans police force noted for leniency when investigating its own.
Even the most serious uses of force, such as officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths, are investigated inadequately or not at all.
2011 Justice Department civil rights review
Over the years, the NOPD had generated a lengthy rap sheet. In the 1990s, one burly black officer, Len Davis, nicknamed Robocop in the housing projects, ran a business protecting cocaine dealers while donning the badge. He also amassed a log of abuse complaints so thick local attorneys likened it to a phone book. Most times, the department and district attorney turned the other way — until Robocop, enraged that a young black mother filed an abuse complaint against him, ordered a hit man to kill her. Robocop was a symbol of the NOPD at its most severe, but the department’s wayward ways were not limited to one outlaw with a badge.
New Orleans Police Department officers continue to aim their muscle, and fire their weapons, at black targets in numbers out of context even for a city with a majority black population. “If you are a black teenager and grew up in New Orleans, I guarantee you have had a bad incident with the police,” an Orleans Parish judge acknowledged to the U.S. Department of Justice. Each time a city officer fired a weapon in a 17-month period from 2009 to 2010, the target was black. When the community complained about the police use of force, the department most always closed ranks. The NOPD did not find that a single officer-involved shooting so much as violated departmental policy in at least six years, a 2011 Justice Department civil rights review found. “Even the most serious uses of force, such as officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths, are investigated inadequately or not at all.”
Exploring abuses long after Robocop’s horrors were supposed to have triggered change, the Justice Department report concluded, “NOPD’s mishandling of officer-involved shooting investigations was so blatant and egregious that it appeared intentional in some respects.”
Critics say the problems start at the top, at city hall. Three years before Katrina’s arrival, a cable company executive with no political experience won the mayor’s seat, defeating a former New Orleans police superintendent who came from Washington, D.C., and had built a record of disciplining wayward officers and working with the FBI. The new mayor, Ray Nagin, appointed an insider to run the force, a jovial commander known for befriending fellow officers. The FBI was no longer embedded within the department.
To the police brotherhood, the officers who stayed behind as Hurricane Katrina churned toward their city did so for all the right reasons: to put the safety of others above their own. They found themselves largely alone in the fight, the federal government barely visible, the state leadership ensconced in safe bunkers. “They didn’t desert,” said Paul Fleming Jr., a local lawyer. “They rescued people. They pulled people off of rooftops, pulled people out of their attics. … Some of these men were rescued themselves; one off his own rooftop. And right after that, they jump right in and they get to work.”
Not every resident these officers encountered in the city’s streets stayed back solely on blind faith. Some did so because they felt they had no choice but to hunker down, say their prayers, and brace for Katrina’s advance.
The mother of one New Orleans family wouldn’t flee the coming storm because she had just one van, but 11 family members needing a way out, all huddled in her apartment looking to her for answers. If they all could not go, Susan Bartholomew decided, they all would stay. She prayed her second-floor apartment, off the Interstate 10 service road near Walmart, would provide refuge.
In another corner of east New Orleans, two brothers of the Madison family stayed behind because the 40-year-old Ronald, with the mental development of a six-year-old, refused to leave his family dachshunds behind. Now his older brother Lance, a onetime football player who landed two NFL tryouts before settling into a job working for Federal Express at the airport, stayed back to watch over him, and the dogs, at his two-story New Orleans condo.
Katrina’s wrath forced the Bartholomew and Madison families from their homes, the roiling waters chasing them to their respective rooftops, where they begged for a helicopter rescue that did not come. This Sunday, as police stand poised for duty at the Crystal Palace, the two families venture out into the morning glare. The Bartholomews and a teenage friend, James Brissette Jr., are headed toward a Winn-Dixie in search of medicine for a sick grandmother and cleaning supplies for their decrepit hotel rooms. On foot, the Madison brothers set out for their mother’s home two miles away. They dream of hopping on bikes and pedaling as far from the misery as they can.
Each family will traverse the Danziger Bridge to reach their destination.
Named after a former lawyer for Governor Huey Long, the bridge stretches a mere seven-tenths of a mile and takes less than one minute to travel by car. The overpass rises just a breath and runs parallel, like a little brother, to the more expansive I-10. The two families cross paths this morning without exchanging a word, stepping upon a bridge that rises from Chef Menteur Highway, the same road housing the makeshift police headquarters, a straight shot not five minutes away.
“One-oh-eight! Officer needs assistance!”
At the Crystal Palace, rage and fear suddenly mix like a bomb. Over the police radio, the 108 call registers. “Officer’s life in danger! Shots being fired!”
Officers sprint to a behemoth Budget rental truck commandeered after the storm, pile in, and race to the Danziger Bridge, the scene of the reported shooting. They grip police-issued Glocks and their own personal weaponry: AK-47s, pump-action shotguns, an M4 high-powered rifle. The truck driver, Michael Hunter, has his 30-inch assault rifle at the ready. Kenneth Bowen sits beside him in the passenger seat, and nine other officers scramble to the cargo area in back, holding steady as the truck rumbles forth.
Steering with his right hand, the ex-Marine leans out the window and fires a handgun with his left toward a pack of people he glimpses ahead, gathered at the foot of the bridge. The truck screeches to a halt, sending some in back tumbling over, and officers pour out. Police aim for backs, arms, necks, legs, feet, heads and stomachs of two groups of people now diving over a concrete railing or scattering atop the bridge. One officer aims his pistol at the back of a slight figure sprinting away from the bridge, and pulls the trigger twice. Another points his rifle toward two men trying to race up and over the bridge for cover, and fires. The cacophony is deafening.
When the shooting stops, 17-year-old James Brissette Jr. is dead, bullets riddling his nearly six-foot, 130-pound body from the heel of his foot to the top of his head. Susan Bartholomew is trying to crawl on the pavement, her right arm dangling by a thread. Her daughter’s stomach is shredded by a bullet. Her husband’s head is pierced by shrapnel. Her nephew Jose is shot in the neck, jaw, stomach, elbow and hand. A paramedic arriving soon after says not to bother with him; the teen is too far gone. “Don’t give up on me,” Jose Holmes Jr. pleads. Ronald Madison is slumped over the pavement, the back of his white shirt turned red, with seven gunshot wounds in his back.
Like every one of the victims, he is black, and unarmed.
I knew this was a bullshit story, but I went along with it.
NOPD lieutenant overseeing the internal inquiry
In just moments, before police gather a single piece of evidence or question a single potential witness, with blood and bodies splayed around them, the NOPD officers and brass standing atop the Danziger Bridge will decide that the people they just fired upon, two lying dead and four maimed, are criminals. A well-regarded white police lieutenant, Michael Lohman, arrives at the bridge moments later and sees no guns by the dead teen and wounded family on one side of the bridge. He sees no gun by the 40-year-old slumped over on the other side of the expanse. The cop’s cop makes a choice. “I knew this was a bullshit story, but I went along with it,” he will later admit. So did his colleagues, the men who shot at the people on the bridge and the supervisors who were supposed to ferret out the truth.
In the coming days and months, police will plant a phony gun, invent witnesses, craft fictional reports, and launch a public relations campaign portraying the officers as heroes infused with bravery amid the horrors wrought by a hurricane. Behind the scenes, a racial divide is exposed within the ranks. When a group of white sergeants and lieutenant begin putting their tale on paper, they initially report that only the black officers struck the victims with bullets atop the Danziger Bridge, separating the white officers from the bloodshed. Another fiction.
For a decade the families of the victims will press for truth, pierce the police façade, and uncover the lies buried with their kin. Justice for these families will not come swiftly or kindly after the shots on the bridge.
When Susan Bartholomew heard an order to shut up, not look up and raise her hands in the air, she thought it was a death sentence. The officers had raced over to their victims and were standing over them.
“They were telling us to hold our hands up, raise both our hands up, and, of course, I couldn’t because my arm was shot off, and I just thought they were gonna — gonna kill me, and they said that they would kill us,” she said later. “We weren’t allowed to look to see who they were, turn our heads the other way.”
“I raised the only hand I had.”
In the madness, Bartholomew glimpsed the garb of one officer. It was NOPD.
Officer Hunter stood beside Susan and her daughter Lesha Bartholomew as they lay on the bridge, clutching each other and wailing in pain. Lesha suffered a gunshot wound in her leg so wide “I could stick my fingers in it,” Hunter would later testify. The officer said nothing to the women. He didn’t call for help. He was taken aback by what he saw. “I thought it was kind of messed up, that the females got shot,” he said.
Meanwhile, Lance and Ronald Madison sprinted to escape the bridge. Lance ran faster than he had in his football days, believing a pack of criminals had stormed the bridge to shoot unarmed residents and steal their possessions. Ronald was already pierced by gunfire and bleeding through his white shirt, wailing in pain. Lance raced over, lifted him under the shoulders, and tried to rush him to cover. Ronald, breathless, stopped him. “Tell Mom I love her,” he said. “We got to go!” Lance shouted.
He and Ronald began descending the bridge, and Lance led his brother toward the Friendly Inn, at 4861 Chef Menteur Highway, just off the foot of the bridge’s west end. “I’m going to get help!” Lance told Ronald, trying to calm him. “Just be quiet. You’re hurt real bad.” Lance turned a corner toward a hotel courtyard, with Ronald staying behind. Separating from his brother would haunt Lance Madison as the most wrenching choice of his life. He ducked through the hotel lobby and searched for someone, anyone, who could help. Behind him, the gunfire continued.
In moments Sgt. Bowen, by now on the west side of the bridge, stepped out of the Budget truck and walked over to Ronald Madison, as Officer Hunter witnessed the scene unfold. The 40-year-old Madison, hit several times in the back, was wheezing, breathing his last breaths.
“Is this one of them?” Bowen screamed, his eyes filled with fire. Ronald Madison, donned mostly in white, from his T-shirt to his white socks and tennis shoes, lay slumped in the hotel driveway next to an abandoned Chevrolet van. Hunter watched as Bowen, wearing his police-issued boots, stomped on Ronald Madison’s back, again and again.
Hunter was startled. He yelled at Bowen to stop.
Later, Bowen would deny stomping Ronald Madison, would say the image took place solely in Hunter’s mind.
Just then Robert Rickman, a maintenance worker, security guard and all-purpose troubleshooter for the Friendly Inn, happened to be snapping pictures of the hotel’s water damage for insurance purposes. Rickman heard gunfire crackling in the air and looked up to see Lance treading through the water flooding the hotel’s courtyard, with officers in pursuit. Moments later Rickman stepped outside and saw Ronald Madison’s bloodied body on the ground. Rickman had two cameras with him, one in hand and the other in his pants pocket. He began snapping photos, focusing his lens on Ronald’s body and on the mass of law enforcement swarming the bridge.
An officer rushed to the scene, ordered Rickman to get away from the area, and snatched the camera from him. Then he stomped it to pieces on the ground. The other camera remained in the worker’s pocket.
Finally, the shooting stopped. The officers arrested Lance.
Packed inside the police truck, with his hands behind his back, Lance Madison turned to an officer. “Why were you all shooting at us?”
“I should have shot you,” one of the officers told him, “and I wouldn’t be going through this.” If Lance were dead, he’d have nothing to explain.
Two to three hours after the gunfire had quelled, Friendly Inn troubleshooter Robert Rickman walked back outside. Ronald Madison’s body remained on the pavement. No officers were around, the lifeless figure left unguarded. Rickman pulled camera two from his pocket and began taking pictures. He snapped photos of the man lying before him and of shell casings around the body. No one from NOPD asked him a question about that morning, but Rickman kept the photographs. They might be important one day, he thought.