On September 4, 2005, the New Orleans Police Department, allegedly responding to a call of an officer under fire, shot and killed 2 civilians, a 17-year-old boy and a 40-year-old man. 4 other civilians were wounded, and all of the victims were Black. None had committed any crimes, were carrying any weapons, or were doing anything that could be perceived as a threat.
The murders took place only 6 days after Hurricane Katrina had stuck the city. In the wake of the deaths, the NOPD tried to cover up the shooting and falsely reported that 7 officers responded to a police dispatch, and at least 4 of the victims had been firing weapons at the police upon their arrival.
On August 5, 2011, nearly 6 years after the murders, a federal jury convicted 5 NOPD officers of charges related to the cover up and the deprivation of the victims' civil rights. However, the charges were vacated in 2003 due to prosecutorial misconduct.
Ultimately, in 2016, 5 former officers pleaded guilty and received reduced sentences, ranging from 3-12 years for their involvements in the shooting.
It had been a week since Hurricane Katrina had first struck and devastated New Orleans on September 4, 2005, when several NOPD officers arrived at the Danzinger Bridge. Allegedly, an unidentified person had called to report gunfire at the bridge.
The officers were Sgt. Kenneth Bowen, Sgt. Robert Gisevius, Officer Anthony Villavaso, and officer Robert Faulcon. They arrived in a rental car in plain clothes, but were armed with rifles, including AK-47s and a M4 carbine assault rifle. At least one of the guns was not authorized.
Without warning, and seemingly entirely without reason, the officers opened fire on the Bartholomew family and a friend who were walking to a grocery store. They took shelter behind a concrete barrier when the shots rang out. They were causing no trouble... they were simply trying to survive in the wake of the devastating hurricane.
The Bartholomew family had run into James "JJ" Brissette while walking to get cleaning supplies for their hotel rooms that had seen some damage from the storm. In the shooting, 17-year-old JJ Brissette was killed. Susan Bartholomew's arm was partially shot off, and would later be amputated. Her husband was shot in the back, head, and foot. Their teenage daughter was shot 4 times, and James' friend, Jose Holmes Jr., was shot in the abdomen, hand, and jaw.
2 brothers who fled the scene when the shots started, Ronald and Lance Madison, were pursued down the bridge by Gisevius and Faulcon in an unmarked police car. They had been holed up in their brother's dental office before trying to embark on the 2 mile journey to their home when the officers began pursuing them
Faulcon fired his shotgun at Ronald, a 40-year-old developmentally disabled man, who was running away. He sustained 7 gunshot wounds, 5 of them to his back. He died later from his injuries. Bowen stomped on the man's back before he died.
No weapons were recovered from the scene. In fact, both police and civilian witnesses testified that the victims were entirely unarmed. They had not committed any crimes, or done anything wrong.
THE INVESTIGATION AND COVER-UP
Before the paramedics even finished tending to their victims, the officers were hatching their cover-up plan. A planted gun. A phony witness. A provable fiction that the victims were terrible criminals. In fact, Lance Madison was handcuffed and charged with attempted murder of the police officers as his brother lay dead next to him. He spent 25 days in jail on false charges as they attempted to use him to cover up their crime.
The NOPD killers stated that they had been approaching the Danzinger Bridge, and when they did, they were fired upon by civilians, leaving them with no option but to return fire. Archie Kaufman, a homicide detective, was made the lead investigator on the case. However, he would later be found guilty of conspiring with the officers to conceal the evidence in order to make the shootings justified. NOPD Lieutenant Michael Lohman encouraged the officers to provide false stories, and to plant a firearm near the scene.
It wasn't until January 2, 2007 that the officers were taken into custody and indicted for murder and attempted murder. Gisevius, Bowen, and Villavaso were charged with the murder of James, while Faulcon was charged with the murder of Ronald. Additionally, officers Michael Hunter, Ignatius Hills, and Robert Barrios were indicted on charges of attempted murder related to the other 4 wounded victims.
But on August 13, 2008, the indictments ere dismissed by a District Judge due to prosecutorial misconduct. 2 weeks later, the FBI and the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ began their investigation.
In 2010, a series of guilty pleas came in from the officers. Between February and April of 2010, Lohman pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, one Jeffery Lerhman pleaded guilty to misprision of a felony for failing to report the coverup, Hunter pleaded guilty to misprision of a felony and obstruction of justice.
On April 16, Barrios was charged with conspiring to obstruct justice, and resigned from the force. On May 21, Hills was charged with the same, and also resigned from the force. A former police officer testified against Hills in his trial, saying that he used a racial slur when describing how he tried to "pop a round off" at Leonard Bartholomew, who was only 14.
On July 13, 2010, a federal grand jury indicted Bowen, Gisevius, Faulcon, and Villavaso in connection to the murders and the cover-up. In addition, Kaufman and Gerard Dugue, the original investigators on the case, were charged with falsifying reports and conspiring to cover up the killings. All 5 were found guilty, and were sentenced on August of 2011.
Kenneth Bowen was sentenced to 40 years in prison for various charges related to the murder and the cover-ups (but not the murder itself.) Robert Faulcon was sentenced to 65 years for the same slew of charges. Robert Gisevius and Anthony Villavaso were charged with the same crimes, and the former got 40 years and the latter got 38 years. And the investigator who lied to get them off was sentenced to 6 years.
But the officers appealed their convictions on May 18, 2012, and on September 17, 2013, the convictions were vacated. Again, prosecutorial misconduct was cited, and the judge claimed that information leaked to the media affected the outcome of the case.
Ultimately, on April 20, 2016, the 5 officers pleaded guilty to various charges including deprivation of rights, obstruction of justice, and conspiracy to obstruct justice. They got significantly reduced sentences because of their plea. Bowen and Gisevius got 10 years, Faulcon 12, Villavaso 7, and Kaufman 3.
After the 2011 convictions, the families embraced, finally getting justice for their lost loved ones, or for the ordeal they went through after dealing with a horrific natural disaster, only to be shot for no reason. But the closure was short lived.
When the killer cops were finally convicted again, James' mother, Sherrel Johnson, said, "I finally got what I wanted. Someone confessed, 'I did it'". She remembered her son, a sweet teenager who dreamed of going to his school's prom in a stretch limousine. A prom he'd never get to attend because his life was senselessly taken.
"I hope and pray that no other family ever has to go through what we have gone through," Lance Madison said of his murdered brother, and the years-long legal proceedings to get justice for him. He said he was thankful that his elderly mother lived to see justice served.
"I never thought I'd be shot. And I never thought I'd be shot by the police. I thought the police were there to protect," said Susan Bartholomew, who remembers seeing her right arm laying on the ground next to her, held on by a single piece of skin.
It seems like now, every other week we hear of another Black person wrongfully shot or killed by police. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake, these are all names are attached to stories that we all know just from this year. We, rightfully, give more and more media attention to the racism deeply present within American law enforcement, partially because of its extreme importance, but partially because it just happens so often.
But I have never heard of this case. 6 Black people, trying to survive in the wake of one of the worst natural disasters in modern American history, all shot for seemingly no reason at all. A full-blown police coverage. An eventual confession. The names of Ronald Madison and JJ Brissette just aren't ones that we know.
Police and law enforcement were, of course, absolutely overwhelmed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. When the entire area becomes so quickly devastated, crime is natural. There are horror stories about surviving Katrina that don't involve the actual disaster, but surviving the coming days and weeks with limited food and water, and with people desperate for anything willing to hurt or kill to survive.
But this is unforgivable. 6 people shot. 2 killed. The arrest of a man who was entirely uninvolved. The plan to plant a gun and make witnesses lie on the stand. Over 11 years before justice was served. Reduced sentences for admitting guilt 11 years later. It is all so extremely horrific, but also so very calculated, that the fact that anyone would believe the police aren't capable of doing such a thing are sorely mistaken. They did it. They admitted it. And it certainly isn't an isolated incident.
JJ Brissette and Ronald Madison may not be household names. You may not hear their name and immediately recognize their own gut-wrenching story of police brutality. But they are victims of the same racist system that takes black lives on a regular basis today. Black Lives Matter, today and every day.