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Katrina Officers stand trial in New Orleans

New Orleans: police on trial

We all remember the painfully slow response of the American government in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina five years ago.

The then President George Bush took days to send troops, the national guard, and relief aid to where it was needed. Despite the makeshift refugee camps in sport stadia, chaos and a lack of order sent New Orleans into a rapidly declining state of emergency.

Certain shortcomings on the part of the government were highlighted after Katrina hit. Criticisms were quite rightly aimed squarely at George Bush and his administration, and many felt that had the majority of the victims not been black the response time would have been swifter, and that launching a relief effort in a matter of hours rather than days, would have been a priority. It simply wasn’t.

Another fact which came to light in the days and weeks following the disaster was the state of the housing that some of New Orleans poorer, and vulnerable people had lived in prior to the disaster, and the state of the flood levees surrounding them.

In fact, so great was the extent to which impoverished communities-predominantly black communities- had their safety neglected that last year the government and various businesses between them were forced to pay compensation to some of the victims and victims families. There were also whispers that the authorities knew of the risks to the housing from floods, but saw no need to introduce appropriate security measures to safeguard them.

While the city has gradually begun to rebuild in the years that have followed, justice is still being demanded in some quarters. It is justice sought from a people who were impoverished before the 2005 disaster- and who were then made destitute following the disaster.

A further twist is now unfolding making a tragic picture even more so. Revelations regarding the actions of four police offices now facing federal charges have come to light, charges that could lead to maximum imprisonment or even a death sentence.

According to reports, the four police officers on 4th September 2005, on Danziger Bridge opened fire on 6 unarmed civilians. Four were injured and two people died. The federal charges were first levelled at the officers in 2006, but due to a series of legal loopholes the cases have not been heard until now.

While the charges are not of murder (officially the charge is deprivation of rights under colour of law), the officers have also been accused of concocting an elaborate cover up in order to hide their actions.

The officers who are now facing possible death sentences are Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius, and Anthony Villavaso. All pleaded not guilty on Tuesday.

One of the initial indictments filed in 2006, alleged that mentally disabled man Ronald Madison was shot in the back as he was running away from the officers. Madison died as a result of his injuries.

The defence attorney for one of the officers standing trial argues that the turmoil and the chaos of the city must be taken into account, and yet many people who were present on the fateful day contend that the facts are clear cut.

One New Orleans resident who lives in close proximity to the Danziger Bridge speaking to the Independent said:

“They put doubt in my mind about the police officers because, if they did that to those people, what are they (the police) going to do to us.”

But the outcome of this case has more than one implication. Brother of Madison speaking on the fact that the officers in question may be handed the death penalty commented;

“I don’t want to see anyone executed, but I guess I have to keep in mind that they executed my brother.”

Whatever the outcome, it seems that it will be some time before trust can be restored between the people of New Orleans, the government and the Police Force that should exist to serve them.

By Richard Sudan

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