New Orleans Shooting Cover-Up: The Worst Type of Police Corruption

It has been nearly five years since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city of New Orleans. In that time, neighborhoods have been rebuilt, businesses reopened, and, perhaps most importantly, civic spirit reawakened. And, in what some believe was the very hand of Providence at work, even the once lowly Saints won the Super Bowl just in time for Mardi Gras.

But even as things appear to be looking up for New Orleans, there remains in the Crescent City a stubborn stain, one that won’t be as easily painted over or washed away as the high-water marks still visible in some parts of town. Last month, a former New Orleans Police Department lieutenant pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiring to obstruct justice in the aftermath of a September 4, 2005, police shooting in which two people were killed and four wounded.

The former lieutenant, Michael Lohman, admitted that he orchestrated a cover-up after coming to the scene of what has come to be called the Danziger Bridge incident and concluding that the shooting could not be legally justified. According to the Bill of Information filed in the case, Lohman “tacitly encouraged” officers to provide false and misleading information about the shooting to investigators. He also failed to ensure that a thorough investigation was conducted at the scene of the shooting by failing to see that evidence be collected, witnesses be interviewed, and a diagram of the scene be created, all of which are the most rudimentary of steps in any such investigation. Even worse, Lohman encouraged an investigator to plant a “clean” gun, i.e., one whose chain of possession cannot be traced, beneath the Danziger Bridge in a post facto effort to provide justification for the shooting.

This is the very worst type of police corruption. Lohman was a lieutenant, and as the senior officer at the shooting scene he had a duty, both moral and legal, to provide leadership to subordinates who, in the aftermath of Katrina, were working under conditions no police officer who didn’t experience them can imagine. He failed miserably, and in that failure he exposed those subordinates to legal jeopardy far beyond that which may have been warranted had they all simply told the truth about what had occurred.

Granted, if the conspiracy existed as described in the Bill of Information, all the participants should be held accountable. But there are questions that demand answers: When the first officer opened fire at the Danziger Bridge, what threat, if any, did he perceive that prompted him to shoot? And once the first shots were fired, did the others shoot at perceived threats, or was it a case of “contagious gunfire”? Finally, after the shooting had stopped, at what point and at whose direction was it decided to fabricate the account of the incident?

Had Lohman done his duty and seen to it that a genuine investigation be completed, some or all of the involved officers may nonetheless have found themselves in legal jeopardy, but they would not today be burdened with the presumption that inevitably accompanies a cover-up. By coming to the Danziger Bridge and participating in the whitewash of a “bad” shooting, Lohman denied his officers the opportunity to defend their actions as reasonable under the circumstances. Any such claims made in the future will ring hollow in the light of what Lohman allowed to occur.