ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Four former New Orleans police officers pleaded guilty today in connection with the shooting deaths of two unarmed civilians. It happened on a bridge nearly 11 years ago in the chaos that followed Hurricane Katrina. A fifth officer acknowledged taking part in the cover-up. The defendants were sentenced to between three and 12 years in prison, far less than the Justice Department had wanted. Kenneth Polite is the U.S. attorney in New Orleans.
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KENNETH POLITE: For these families and these victims, this case was never about a particular jail sentence. No, this case was about one singular concept; it was about accountability.
SIEGEL: And with us to talk about this case is NPR's Carrie Johnson. And, Carrie, take us back to that day, September 2005. What happened on the Danziger Bridge?
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Robert, this was just six days after Hurricane Katrina. A group of people was on this concrete bridge near the Industrial Canal. They were going for supplies or to make their way home, and police rushed to the scene.
The police say they heard a call that officers were down, and they argued the civilians fired on them. But prosecutors say law enforcement was in the wrong. It was a bad shoot and none of the civilians were armed. Two people on the bridge died that day, including Ronald Madison who had severe mental and physical disabilities.
SIEGEL: Why did it take a while to figure out what happened that day on the bridge?
JOHNSON: One reason, a cover-up. From court records, we know that began immediately after this tragedy, police engaging in secret meetings to get their story straight. One officer told the Justice Department about planting evidence, going to a storage site to get a weapon called a drop gun and then acting as if the civilians on the bridge had used it. A jury heard all these arguments, Robert, and convicted these men in 2011. Many of them had been sentenced to 30 or 40 years or more in prison.
SIEGEL: Obviously, that was not the end of the story, though.
JOHNSON: Not hardly. Those convictions got overturned because of more misconduct. This time it was bad behavior by prosecutors, not the police.
SIEGEL: And what was the bad behavior by the prosecutors?
JOHNSON: You're not going to believe this. Top lawyers in the U.S. attorney's office in New Orleans were posting in the comments section of the local newspaper using fake names saying terrible things about the police, calling into question their competence, their behavior, and these prosecutors also blasted federal judges in the city.
A lawyer for one of the police officers in this bridge case noticed some odd language in the comments. He hired a former FBI agent to track this behavior, and he ultimately traced it back to people in the U.S. attorney's office. Three people there lost their jobs.
Now, the argument all along, Robert, has been that - by the Justice Department - that those online posts did not go to the substance of this bridge case. It wouldn't have affected the jury verdict, but a federal judge in an appeals court did not buy it and threw out the convictions.
SIEGEL: We're talking about shootings that occurred 11 years ago. What is the state of the New Orleans police force today?
JOHNSON: Well, nearly four years ago now, New Orleans police entered into a settlement with the Justice Department Civil Rights Unit to fix widespread problems with training and excessive force, unconstitutional stops. I talked today with Jonathan Smith, a law school dean in Washington who helped negotiate that settlement when he was at the Justice Department.
JONATHAN SMITH: There is reason to have some hope. There's a very comprehensive consent decree that's been entered in New Orleans to address the problems in the Police Department. There's much, much stronger measures of accountability. The city - the mayor and the chief of police have demonstrated a strong commitment to bringing about that reform.
JOHNSON: And, Robert, this chapter is not quite over yet, despite today's sentencing and guilty pleas. The producers of the FX TV series "American Crime Story," which got so much attention this year chronicling in the O.J. Simpson case, say their second season will focus on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath - safe to assume, I think, this is all going to be part of that story, too.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thank you.
JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.