Apr 082012
Authors: Seth Stern

In the midst of the hell that was Hurricane Katrina, several incidents around New Orleans offered even more nightmarish experiences for the victims. A court ruling last week provided a small form of closure, six and a half years later.

Carrying seven lanes of U.S. Route 90 traffic over the Industrial Canal, Danziger Bridge was the scene of a notorious shooting of unarmed civilians and cover-up by several former members of New Orleans’ police force.

The aftermath involved six unarmed civilians shot by New Orleans police, two of them – 40-year-old mentally challenged Ronald Madison and 17-year-old James Brissette – dead as a result of their wounds.

Proving true the old adage, “the cover up is always worse than the crime,” 10 officers in total were convicted or received plea bargains for their roles in covering up the shooting and although several officers were convicted of, “using a weapon in commission of a crime of violence,” none of the officers were convicted or plead guilty to any crime of violence.

Several officers were charged with either attempted murder or murder, but those charges were dismissed by the judge when he learned the jury had been improperly instructed during the criminal trial.

Colorado State Sociology professor Lori Peek conducted an in-depth study into the sociology of the disaster of Hurricane Katrina and published her findings in a book titled, “Displaced: Life in the Katrina Diaspora.”

Peek is one of a small educated minority to understand how complicated the aftermath of Katrina became and how chaotic life really was in the initial response.

Dr. Peek provided a guest lecture to a sociology class several semesters ago and explained how poorly the mainstream press covered the facts of the disaster and what was going on in and around the city.

In a true “wag the dog” situation, the media’s coverage of a handful of criminal looting incidents was so sensationalist and inaccurate to what was happening around the city, the government’s search and rescue mission shifted as a result to asset protection and population control.

Instead of going into the city with bottled water and Band-Aids, the activated National Guard and assisting police forces were armed for potential combat with the locals.

Disarming the population became a focal point of government efforts to protect the search and rescue forces instead of searching and rescuing. The irony, of course, is the majority of the looting taking place within the city was local-government sanctioned looting of perishable food items that otherwise would have gone to waste.

I asked Dr. Peek what she thought of the sentences handed down by the federal judge on the officers convicted last August.

“I think the prison sentences that were handed down on Wednesday to the five former officers who committed the shootings or were involved in the cover-up conveys a strong message that police are not above the law, even during times of disaster and extreme deprivation,” she said.

“I believe this will bring some sense of justice and closure to the families of the victims and to the people of New Orleans. This terrible incident, and the trial that followed, has served as a continual and exceptionally sad reminder that Katrina brought out the absolute worst in a select number of people.”

U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt chastised prosecutors for handing out what he felt to be excessively lenient plea bargains for the five officers who testified against the officers he was sentencing.

The entire situation became an absolute quagmire for everyone involved and by all appearances, had the officers not covered up the incident, none of them would have seen a moment of jail time.

Dr. Peek said of the case’s disposition, “I hope that some lessons can be learned from this event so that the next time a major urban area is struck low by disaster, there might be a different outcome.”

S. Jacob Stern hopes we can all get along. His column appears Mondays in the Collegian. Letters, job offers and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.

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