WASHINGTON – Former New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) officer Robert Barrios pleaded guilty today in federal court to conspiring with fellow officers to obstruct justice by covering up a police-involved shooting that occurred on the Danziger Bridge in the days after Hurricane Katrina.
Today’s plea was announced by Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, U.S. Attorney Jim Letten for the Eastern District of Louisiana, and David Welker, the Special Agent in Charge of the New Orleans Field Office of the FBI.
On Sept. 4, 2005, Barrios 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 for 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 and 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.
Today in court, Barrios admitted that he agreed with other officers to obstruct justice during the investigations that followed the shooting. Specifically, Barrios stated that he and other officers, including a supervisor who had been involved in the shooting, discussed the stories that they would tell about what happened on the bridge. The purpose of the discussions, according to Barrios, was for the officers "to get their stories straight."
Barrios also admitted that, prior to giving a formal, audio-taped statement to NOPD investigators, he and other officers participated in a meeting with two sergeants assigned to investigate the shooting, during which the officers were instructed to get their stories straight before giving their formal statements.
Barrios further admitted that he lied, in a formal NOPD statement, in order to help cover for his fellow officers. Although Barrios had not seen any civilians with guns, and had not fired his weapon on the bridge, he claimed in his formal statement that he had seen two of the civilians using handguns to threaten officers, and that he and other officers had fired back at the civilians. Today in court, Barrios admitted that he lied when he said he saw civilians with handguns, that he lied when he claimed that he shot at the civilians in self-defense, and that he lied when he said he had heard police officers announce "Police!" before opening fire on the civilians.
The defendant admitted today in court 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 five years in prison and a fine of $250,000.
"In the days following Hurricane Katrina, the people of New Orleans were relying upon law enforcement to protect public safety. Instead, the officers involved in this incident and its cover-up abused their power and violated the public trust. We continue to investigate incidents that occurred in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and we will aggressively prosecute any officer who violates the law either by engaging in misconduct or a conspiracy to deny justice," said Assistant Attorney General Perez.
"Today’s conviction of the fourth New Orleans police officer on federal felony charges arising out of the cover-up of the true events surrounding the unprovoked shooting of innocent citizens on the Danziger Bridge –as well as the earlier guilty plea by a civilian —evidence our commitment to relentlessly pursue justice and hold accountable all of 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. As we begin to enter the second, critical phase of this case, we will do whatever it takes to achieve true justice in the vindication of the precious rights of all citizens."
"Based on the statement of facts, it is apparent that yet another officer decided to play ‘follow the leader’ instead of demonstrating the character to stand up and do what is right and ethical. That failure to exhibit ethical and honorable behavior brings us to the results of today’s guilty plea of Barrios," said Special Agent in Charge Welker.
The charges against Barrios follow guilty pleas from three other former NOPD officers involved in the Danziger Bridge case. Former Lieutenant Michael Lohman, former Detective Jeffrey Lehrmann and former Officer Michael Hunter have pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the shooting and subsequent cover-up. Hunter, in his plea hearing, admitted that he drove the truck to the 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.
Hunter stated that a supervisor on the scene held out his assault rifle and, in a sweeping motion, fired repeatedly at civilians who had, by that time, taken cover behind a concrete barrier. Describing the shooting of Ronald Madison that occurred a few minutes later, Hunter stated that another NOPD officer shot Madison in the back, without warning, as Madison ran away, unarmed, following his brother toward a nearby motel. After Madison was shot, according to Hunter, the supervisor who had shot people earlier on the east side of the bridge, repeatedly kicked or stomped on Madison as he lay wounded and dying.
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.