Former New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) Officer Ignatius Hills pleaded guilty today in federal court to misprision of a felony and to conspiring with fellow officers to obstruct justice by covering up a police-involved shooting that occurred on the Danziger Bridge in the days following Hurricane Katrina.
The conviction was announced today by Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division; Jim Letten, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana; and David Welker, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI New Orleans Field Office.
On Sept. 4, 2005, Hills was one of several officers who rode in a large Budget rental truck to the Danziger Bridge, where officers engaged in two shooting incidents that left two civilians dead and four others seriously injured. According to court documents, officers first arrived on the east side of the bridge, where they fired at the group of civilians who were walking to a supermarket to get food and supplies. One of the civilians was killed, and four members of a family were severely wounded. Officers then traveled to the west side of the bridge, where they encountered Lance and Ronald Madison, who were crossing the bridge on their way to the dentistry office of one of their other brothers. An officer shot and killed Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old man with severe mental and physical disabilities. Officers then arrested Lance Madison and charged him with eight counts of attempted murder of a police officer.
Today in court, Hills admitted that he signed a sworn statement justifying Lance Madison’s arrest, even though he had no first-hand information about any wrongdoing by Madison, and even though he had concerns that Madison was being framed. Hills also admitted that he conspired with other officers and supervisors to give false statements about the shooting. During the investigation of this incident, Hills reported that he fired his handgun at a suspect who reached for a shiny object in his waistband. Today in court, Hills admitted that his initial claim was not true, and that he actually shot at a fleeing juvenile who did not reach for anything in his waistband or make any aggressive movements. Hills also admitted that he did not yell any commands or warnings, or hear any other officer do so, before he shot at the juvenile.
Additionally, Hills admitted that he attended a meeting at which an NOPD supervisor assigned to investigate the case instructed officers involved in the shooting to "make sure their stories were consistent" before giving formal statements on tape. Following this meeting, Hills gave a false statement to NOPD investigators. Sometime later, when state prosecutors called Hills to testify to a state grand jury investigating the shooting, Hills again lied about the shooting. Hills admitted today that he lied to the state grand jury when he claimed, among other things, that the civilian at whom he had shot turned toward Hills "as if he was, you know, kind of like drawing a weapon."
Hills also admitted that he knew that his fellow officers had knowingly falsified reports and given false statements, in violation of federal law, and that he failed to report those crimes.
The defendant explained that the purpose of the conspiracy he joined was to provide false and misleading information in order to ensure that the shootings on the bridge would appear to be legally justified and that the involved officers would therefore be shielded from liability. The defendant faces a possible maximum sentence of eight years in prison and a fine of $500,000.
"In the days following Hurricane Katrina, when residents of New Orleans should have been able to rely upon their city’s law enforcement officers to protect public safety, the officers involved in this incident instead violated the law and the public trust," said Assistant Attorney General Perez. "The crimes that this officer and others have admitted committing during and after the incident on the Danziger Bridge illustrate the need for systemic reform in the New Orleans Police Department."
"Today’s conviction arising out of the cover-up of the true events surrounding the unprovoked shooting of innocent citizens on the Danziger Bridge evidence our relentless pursuit of justice to hold accountable all those responsible for the injustices to which the victims were subjected," said U.S. Attorney Letten. "Just as important, we continue to fiercely defend the rights of everyone, including those most vulnerable among us, to enjoy the protection of honest, professional law enforcement."
"The FBI, along with our partners in the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Civil Rights Division, will continue to aggressively pursue any individual with culpability in this investigation," said Special Agent in Charge Welker.
Hills’ conviction today follows guilty pleas from four other former NOPD officers involved in the Danziger Bridge case. Michael Lohman, a former lieutenant, pleaded guilty to conspiring to obstruct justice, and admitted that he knew of, facilitated and participated in the creation of false reports about the shooting. Jeffrey Lehrmann, a former NOPD detective who then became an agent with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, pleaded guilty to covering up a felony, and admitted that he too participated in the cover-up of the Danziger Bridge shooting. Mr. Lehrmann admitted during his plea hearing that officers had coordinated efforts to provide false statements, and that a supervisor assigned to investigate the shooting had made up witnesses and planted evidence. In April, former NOPD Officer Michael Hunter pleaded guilty to conspiring to obstruct justice and to covering up a felony he observed while he was on the bridge on Sept. 4, 2005. Hunter admitted that he drove the Budget truck to the Danziger Bridge on the day of the shooting, and that he and other officers opened fire on civilians who did not appear to have any weapons, and who were "casually walking on the roadway" when the police arrived. Most recently, former Officer Robert Barrios pleaded guilty and admitted that he too participated in the conspiracy to cover up what had happened on the bridge.
This case, which is ongoing, is being investigated by the New Orleans Field Office of the FBI, and is being prosecuted by Deputy Chief Bobbi Bernstein and Trial Attorney Forrest Christian of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, along with Assistant U.S. Attorney Julia K. Evans for the Eastern District of Louisiana.