Thursday, February 25, 2010

Some Very Crooked Cops Make Me Question My Ethical Consistency Concerning Katrina

On September 4th, 2005, a few days after the levees broke, several New Orleans police officers responded to a call of gunfire on the Danzinger bridge which spans the Industrial Canal in eastern New Orleans. Six civilians were shot, two of them fatally. One man, Lance Madison, was arrested and booked with attempted murder for allegedly firing at the officers. But it turns out now these civilians had no guns. The officers and their supervisors who arrived at the scene a short time later planted guns on the crime scene, picked up their own shell casings so it looked like they shot off less rounds, and then falsified the reports. One supervisor, Lt. Michael Lohman who recently retired, plead guilty yesterday in federal court to conspiracy to obstruct justice. I should add that all of the civilians who were shot were African Americans, and most of the officers were Caucasian. You might not think that race is relevant in this story, but my time in New Orleans, especially things I saw during the flood, lead me to believe that race has to be taken into account here.

This story is ongoing and I don't want to rush to judgment, but if it happened the way Lohman testified yesterday, I have to admit that I am sickened by the actions of these police officers. Crime is such a major issue in the New Orleans area, and this makes it even more challenging to believe police officers. Aside from the families of the shooting victims, I would imagine the people most upset about this cover up would be honest officers risking their lives daily to make the city safer. It shows that our next police chief will have an extremely difficult task in front of him/her to transform the department and to restore public confidence.

But this all makes me question the consistency of my ethical stance when compared to the events at Memorial Medical Center and Dr Anna Pou. I was outraged when Dr. Pou and two nurses were arrested and charged with homicide. They allegedly euthanized some very sick patients in the days after Katrina. Part of my reasoning in arguing in favor of Dr. Pou involved the chaos that followed the flood. So I can't personally figure out in my own mind how much the breakdown of civilization should be taken into consideration when judging the actions of these police officers.

This trial isn't alone, as the Feds are investigating several more incidents after Katrina involving police actions. These are going to unfold over a long period of time, and it is certainly going to pressure some strained relationships in the city. We might emerge from this a healthier society, but at this point I strongly doubt it.

Later Note: I'm told 4 of the "Danzinger 7" are African Americans. For more info see this post at thanks-katrina.


suspect device said...

I think the answer, Michael, lies in the observation that the police's conduct was not so far removed from business as usual. They were brutal before and brutal after; the flood didn't make them so, it just gave them license to be so without apology or fear of correction.

Mark Folse said...

I believe there is a clear difference between disaster triage, the acts of good people in a difficult circumstance, (and it was never clearly established that is what happened), and trigger-happy murder.

If you assume Dr. Pou did was was alleged, what it a decision she reached in a split second? What is a decision she should properly have been trained to make in a split-second? Did she (or her institution) have any pattern of similar (mis-)behavior in the past?

If you think about it a bit, I find it easy to seperate the two and come to seperate conclusions.

David said...

I don't understand your reaction on several fronts.

(If euthanization ocurred) The doctors were in an impossible situation and chose the best of a bunch of lousy choices to minimize their patients' suffering. While the cops were in a difficult situation, their indiscriminate shooting served no interest except their racism and was clearly of a piece with the Gretna police's preventing blacks from crossing the Crescent City Connection. It was a genuinely reprehensible display and speaks to the profoundly deep-seated racism of most of the local white community.

I really don't understand when you say that you doubt your society could end up healthier for bringing those murderers to justice. When is a society ever healthier for covering up an egregious crime, especially one committed by the agents of the state? (And I know that social justice is a big concern for you.)

It seems that the trial presents a clear opportunity for NOLA society to become much healthier. If the police are guilty, the white community could come out in support of the black victims. That probably won't happen though, in which case, nothing will have changed; the society's ugliness simply won't be as hidden as it was.

Michael Homan said...

SD and Mark and David make good points. I'm not at all saying society suffers by bringing murderers to justice. I'm saying our society in New Orleans is fragmented due to racial tension, and as difficult as it was to endure the Razzoo bouncer trial, this will be worse. It will likely make our new mayor's job more difficult, and it will certainly make the new police chief have a more difficult job. It will make it more difficult to convict violent criminals. For a society to look in the mirror and see ugly things is often difficult. So maybe I mean it's something that needs to be done, but the ride that coming up will be awful.

David said...

I knew the gist of your clarification was behind this post.

That said, in some ways, this egregious situation is an opportunity for the mayor and police chief to make a clear, principled stand about what kind of city they want to create. Yes, it would piss off a lot of people, and every one of them will be seething racists, most of whom reside in Jefferson Parish.

Michael Homan said...

I have no problem with upsetting white supremacists. They'll always be angry and I'll do what I can to keep them angry. But what about an African American family (or any family) who has their son murdered with many witnesses, a la Dinerral Shavers, and everyone knows who committed the crime but the DA can't get a prosecution because nobody trusts police, and the criminal murders again. I live in a city with about 2/3 of the population African American and the city just elected a Caucasian mayor for the first time in many years. I would love for race to become a non-factor, and I would love to live in a city with a much lower rate of violent crime. I fear the actions of these police officers, and the upcoming trials, will make the issue of racism even bigger in this city and also prosecuting violent crime will be more challenging.

David said...

You make a good point. While I think the mistrust of the obviously has a large racial component, I don't think that's entirely the issue. I mean, I'm white, and I don't trust the cops. (OK, not a great example.) I think the bigger issue is the institutional culture that of the police force.

Far too many police departments seem to operate as authoritarian bullies, essentially criminals with badges. Unfortunately, I'd say that applies to too many of the NOPD.

Again, though, the mayor and police chief have an opportunity to take that on and create an institutional culture of service, protection and professionalism. I know that'd be had, and as you point out, a lot of people would get pissed in the process.

David said...

*I know that'd be HARD

Judy Thorne said...

FWIW, four of the Danzinger Seven were African Americans.

Here's my post

David said...

Well, I guess we can take some small comfort from the fact that this was an equal-opportunity act of brutality, as opposed to an overtly racist one.

As I initially stated, I'm a law-abiding, middle-class, college-educated white person, and I don't trust the NOPD, and here's why. In all the years I've lived in NOLA, I've never, f'ing ever known of a single person who's had a problem, called the police, and had them do a single f'ing thing to make it better. Personally, when I lived in the Irish Channel, people would park in my driveway, I'd call the cops, they'd show up and refuse to ticket them, let alone tow them. I've known people, robbed at gunpoint by neighborhood kids in the Bywater. Though the victims could identify the kids and point out where they were, the police refused to do anything. I could go on and on and on.

And for every act of this incompetence, there are incidents like the Danzinger Bridge and on and on and on. (I won't bother to regurgitate the horrible record.)

Like I said, I consider the NOPD criminals with badges.