- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 14, 2010

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Four police officers are accused of gunning down two unarmed people in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the latest twist for a corruption-plagued police department that already faces several federal investigations.

The four officers could face the death penalty. They were charged along with two others in a 27-count indictment unsealed Tuesday. Five former New Orleans police officers already have pleaded guilty to helping cover up the shootings on the Danziger Bridge that left two men dead and four wounded just days after the August 2005 hurricane. In one instance, a mentally disabled man was shot in the back and stomped before he died.

Prosecutors say officers fabricated witness statements, falsified reports and planted a gun in an attempt to make it appear the shootings were justified. It was a shocking example of the violence and confusion that followed the storm.

The case is one of several probes of alleged misconduct by New Orleans police officers that the Justice Department opened after the August 2005 storm. Last month, five current or former officers were charged in the shooting death of 31-year-old Henry Glover, whose burned body turned up after Katrina.

With 80 percent of New Orleans underwater, officers from a department with a history of corruption were forced to battle rampant crime, and some became criminals themselves. Dozens of officers were fired or suspended for abandoning their post.

The latest indictments have come shortly after the city’s new mayor replaced its former police chief and invited a Justice Department team to overhaul the police department.

Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department is working with city officials to restore residents’ trust in the police department.

“Put simply, we will not tolerate wrongdoing by those who are sworn to protect the public,” Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday in New Orleans.

In the bridge shooting case, seven officers were charged with murder or attempted murder in December 2006 but a state judge threw out all the charges in August 2008. Federal authorities then stepped in a month later to launch their own investigation.

So far, five former New Orleans police officers have pleaded guilty to lesser charges of helping cover up the shootings on the Danziger Bridge and await sentencing.

Tuesday’s indictment charges Sgts. Robert Gisevius and Kenneth Bowen, officer Anthony Villavaso and former officer Robert Faulcon with deprivation of rights under color of law and use of a weapon during the commission of a crime. They could face the death penalty if convicted, though U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said prosecutors haven’t decided whether to seek that punishment.

Sgt. Arthur Kaufman and retired Sgt. Gerard Dugue, who helped investigate the shootings, were charged with participating in a cover-up to make it appear the shootings were justified. Charges against them include obstruction of justice.

It’s not the first time Justice has intervened. In the 1990s, the Justice Department investigated several high-profile police corruption cases, including a police officer convicted of arranging a woman’s 1994 murder.

The new batch of federal probes are bearing fruit as the city welcomes a new mayor, Mitch Landrieu, and his new police superintendent, Ronal Serpas. At Landrieu’s request, the Justice Department launched the top-to-bottom review of the department.

Mary Howell, a civil rights attorney who represents relatives of one of the Danziger bridge shooting victims, said the police department has been plagued by a pattern of “episodic crises” that have eluded lasting reforms.

Story Continues →