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A Decade After Horror of Katrina, New Orleans Police Brutality Still Remains

The deaths of several black men in New Orleans at the hands of police and the subsequent lack of accountability have left many Big Easy residents wondering if the troubled city's police department is beyond reform.
El cráneo de Henry Glover se encuentra en la parte posterior del vehículo que fue incendiado por los oficiales del Departamento de Policía de Nueva Orleans tras el huracán Katrina en septiembre de 2005. (Imagen por Rebecca Glover)

On September 2, 2005, a few days after Hurricane Katrina essentially rendered New Orleans a ghost town, 31-year-old Henry Glover was walking through the parking lot of a strip mall in a section of the city called Algiers when he was shot in the chest by a police officer standing on the mall's second-floor balcony. The circumstances surrounding Glover's death remain mysterious. What is clear is that Glover was unarmed, and that no police officers attempted to assist him after he was severely wounded.


William Tanner, a private citizen who happened to be passing by the scene in his car, dragged Glover to the back seat of his Chevy and drove around the nearly-deserted city looking for help. He finally found another group of police officers. Those officers, instead of assisting Glover as he bled out in Tanner's Malibu, cuffed Tanner. One cop drove Tanner's car away.

Tanner's car was found days later on a levee near a police station with Glover's body inside, burned beyond recognition.

It would take years, the involvement of several investigative reporters, and an inquiry from the US Justice Department before any police were indicted for Glover's death and the burning of his body. The investigations found that police not only killed Glover, but attempted to cover up his death by tampering with evidence and a heavily editing the paper trail.

Related: Police Have Killed at Least 1,083 Americans Since Michael Brown's Death

Five cops were eventually charged for the murder and other charges related to the cover up. The officer who shot Henry Glover — David Warren — was convicted of manslaughter in 2010 and sentenced to 25 years in prison. But an appeals court threw out his conviction, deciding that Warren should be tried separately from the other officers, whose charges related to burning Tanner's car and obstructing justice. In 2012, a new jury acquitted Warren.

Gregory McRae is the only officer out of the five who is serving time in prison for a charge related to Glover's death, for obstruction of justice. Just a few weeks ago, McRae was granted a new court hearing that could see his sentence reduced.


Meanwhile, Henry Glover's skull, which may have contained clues to how he was murdered, has mysteriously gone missing.

For members of Glover's family, who've spent the ten years since Katrina grappling with the trauma of losing Henry, the decision was a stark reminder that justice is still hard to come by for African-Americans who are victims of police-perpetrated violence.

"Had any one of us in here did what they did to Henry, we'd be jailed, they'd be sitting on top of us, you'd never hear from us again," Rebecca Glover, Glover's 70-year-old aunt said. "But the police just go around killing black people and think they're just going to get away with it. That's not right."

Since the shooting of unarmed African-American teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri a year ago, police brutality has become a near-constant national conversation. Protests have erupted throughout the country, from New York to Ferguson, Baltimore to San Francisco. The national Black Lives Matter movement has touched a nerve in New Orleans as well. Demonstrations were organized in the city after the deaths of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin.

But while increased attention is being paid to the issue of police brutality here, activists and those affected by police violence in New Orleans say hope is in short supply. For many in New Orleans the death of Henry Glover, the deaths of several other black men since then, and the subsequent lack of accountability and and seeming white-gloves treatment of police by the courts, have been proof that maintaining hope is often a way to be disappointed time and time again.


Related: Backlash Against Police Use of Force Is Making Its Way into US Courtrooms

Edna Glover, Henry's mother, has a hard time speaking about her son's death without crying. She had a simple answer when asked if she thought anything within New Orleans' police department had changed since her son was killed: "No."

Hope was in short supply at Sherrel Johnson's household too.

A week after Katrina, Johnson's son James Brissette had left the house their family had taken refuge in to search for help and supplies. That was the last time Johnson saw her son. It would take a year before she found out what happened: James, along with five others, had attempted to walk over a section of highway called the Danziger Bridge which connects two sections of New Orleans separated by a canal. According to witnesses, without any clear reason, a group of officers fired on the crowd, hitting James several times, including in the back. He and one other man were killed. James was 17.

On their reports of what happened, Brissette was listed as an, "unknown black male."

Police then attempted to cover up the bridge shooting, inventing nonexistent witnesses. It wasn't until independent prosecutors began looking into the case that Sherrel Johnson found out what happened to her son.

"I thought he had drowned," Johnson said. "I waited and waited. I had been sick at heart for months and months and months."

Several officers were sentenced for the crimes, but because of alleged misconduct during the first trial, the officers will soon face a new trial, and have a chance of being set free. For Johnson, who said she still suffers nightmares over losing her son, even a lifetime in prison wouldn't be enough for her to feel like justice had been served.


"I want to stand by the window and watch them take their last breath," she said. "They blew my child to pieces… I want them dead."

The police-involved killings after Katrina were only the most blatant violence perpetrated by the NOPD. Life in New Orleans as a Person of Color, according to activists, is life under constant suspicion and frequent harassment from police. The tensions between the community and police were high enough that in 2010, the US Department of Justice began investigating the NOPD. They found myriad civil rights violations. In 2012, the DOJ instituted a 490-paragraph consent decree detailing ways in which the department must improve — the most comprehensive consent decree in the nation.

The vast majority of city residents also voted in 2008 to create an independent organization to monitor the police. So the city now has two offices — the voter-created Independent Police Monitor, and the Consent Decree Monitor — watching over its police department.

"When I came in, training was really non-existent," head Police Monitor Susan Hutson said. "Officers were doing everything their own way. This is like the Wild West sometimes"

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Things have gotten better, Hutson said: training is more comprehensive, allegations of abuse and brutality are now investigated by a new, independent unit within the department. But there's still a long way to go and the department seems to be slow in implementing reforms.


"We had asked initially for the Justice Department to take over the police department to begin with, because we knew the police department was not going to change," Wes Johnson, an anti-police brutality advocate said. "We are three years into the consent decree and they're dragging their feet."

While Johnson is pessimistic about the possibility of changing the NOPD culture, some are more optimistic. Perhaps the most hopeful people in the city are those connected to the national Black Lives Matter movement, which has grown quickly in the last year amidst the high profile deaths of dozens of black men and women like Michael Brown, Eric Grimes and Sandra Bland. Protests in response to the violence across the country have drawn hundreds of protesters to New Orleans' streets.

"I don't believe in operating without hope," Westley Bayas III, a young activist said. "You can feel the sense that something is going to happen."

While Bayas and others involved in the Black Lives Matter movement don't believe change will come quickly at NOPD, they're hopeful that the national movement will eventually make lives easier for black people in the city.

But for those directly impacted by police violence in New Orleans, it's hard to rustle up any positivity, even as more activists take to the streets.

Patricia Grimes' 22-year-old son Adolph was visiting her from Texas on New Years Eve in 2009 when he was killed. He was sitting in his car outside Patricia's house when police pulled up, apparently thinking he was a suspect in a recent robbery. They shot Grimes 14 times, including 12 times in the back. Police claim Grimes fired at them first, but neighbors have maintained Grimes never pulled his legally licensed gun on police.


Earlier this year, the Department of Justice announced it would not pursue charges against the officers involved in the shooting. Shortly afterward, Patricia's husband had a nervous breakdown. His health began deteriorating, he spent months in the hospital, and eventually passed away, Patricia says from the stress.

"He couldn't deal with it no more," Grimes said. "He couldn't get no justice for his son. He could not deal with that."

Patricia Grimes now spends most of her time attempting to remain strong as the remaining member of her nuclear family. She fields interviews when she can, participates in activism when she can, but mostly she just tries to remain sane, she said.

"I deal with it day by day," Grimes said. "I just don't let it overwhelm or take over me. I ain't gonna let them win all the way. That's what I keep in the back of my mind: I'm not going to let them win."

Watch VICE News' Talking Heads: A Look Back at the Violence in Ferguson: