By Michael Kunzelman
NEW ORLEANS — The Justice Department's push to clean up New Orleans' troubled police department reached a milestone as a federal judge sentenced five former officers to prison terms of up to 65 years for their roles in the deadly shootings of unarmed residents on a bridge after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city.
That effort is far from over, however. Now the focus shifts from the criminal courts to the civil arena, where federal and city officials are negotiating terms of a consent decree that would impose court-ordered reforms on the New Orleans Police Department.
Tom Perez, head of the Justice Department's civil rights division, said after Wednesday's sentencing hearing that he is confident a consent decree will be finalized in the "near future."
"Culture change does not occur overnight," Perez said. "The challenges that we saw manifested in the Danziger Bridge trial were many years in the making and they will take many years to resolve."
Police shot and killed two people and wounded four others on the Danziger Bridge less than a week after the 2005 storm plunged the city into chaos.
A sweeping criminal probe of police misconduct before and after Katrina yielded charges against 20 current or former officers, including the five who were sentenced Wednesday for their roles in the shootings and a subsequent cover-up that included a planted gun, fabricated witnesses and falsified reports.
U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt expressed frustration that he was bound by mandatory minimum sentencing laws to imprison former Sgts. Kenneth Bowen and Robert Gisevius and former officers Anthony Villavaso and Robert Faulcon for decades when other officers who engaged in similar conduct on the Danziger Bridge — but cut deals with prosecutors — are serving no more than eight years behind bars.
"These through-the-looking-glass plea deals that tied the hands of this court ... are an affront to the court and a disservice to the community," he said.
Police gunned down 17-year-old James Brissette and 40-year-old Ronald Madison, who were both unarmed, and wounded four others on Sept. 4, 2005, less than a week after the storm devastated New Orleans. To cover it up, the officers planted a gun, fabricated witnesses and falsified reports. Defense attorneys have indicated they will appeal.
Engelhardt also criticized prosecutors for the different ways they charged those who didn't cooperate with a Justice Department civil rights investigation and those who did. The charges were filed in such a way that they left judges with little discretion in handing out sentences in each set of cases, Engelhardt said.
Faulcon received the stiffest sentence of 65 years. Bowen and Gisevius each got 40 years while Villavaso was sentenced to 38. All four were convicted of federal firearms charges that carried mandatory minimum sentences ranging from 35 to 60 years in prison. Faulcon was convicted in both deadly shootings.
"The court imposes them purely as a matter of statutory mandate," Engelhardt said.
Retired Sgt. Arthur Kaufman, who was assigned to investigate the shootings, received six years in prison — a sentence below the federal guidelines. Kaufman wasn't charged in the shootings but was convicted of helping orchestrate the cover-up.
During a scathing lecture that lasted roughly two hours, Engelhardt questioned the credibility of officers who cut deals and testified against the defendants during last year's trial.
"Citing witnesses for perjury at this trial would be like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500," Engelhardt said.
Justice Department attorney Bobbi Bernstein defended prosecutors' tactics, saying the officers who cooperated with the probe gave them the breakthrough they needed to reveal the cover-up.
"Those deals are the reason that the whole world now knows what happened on the Danziger Bridge," she said.
Steve London, one of Kaufman's attorneys, said his client was pleased that the judge gave him a sentence below the guidelines, which had called for a sentence ranging from a little over eight years to a little over 10.
"This judge recognized that the government put liars on the stand to testify and convict other people," London said.
Lindsay Larson, one of Faulcon's attorneys, said the judge "laid out the blueprint" for how defense attorneys will challenge the firearms convictions and sentences.
"We have only just begun to fight," he said.
Wednesday's sentencing isn't the final chapter in the case. The convicted officers are expected to appeal, and Gerard Dugue, a retired sergeant, is scheduled to be retried in May on charges stemming from his alleged role in the cover-up.
Perez expressed hope that a consent decree will provide a "comprehensive blueprint for sustainable reform" that will reduce crime and restore the public's trust in the police department.
"Reform, reconciliation and rebirth cannot occur in New Orleans unless those who are held accountable are indeed prosecuted criminally, yet we must also respect and understand that criminal prosecutions are not enough to bring about sustainable reform," Perez said.
Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas said he and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu "stand lockstep" with the Justice Department in the effort to overhaul the police department and develop "a consent decree that will have the force of law to make sure we never go down this dark horrid path ever again."
Landrieu said the convictions and sentence "provide significant closure to a dark chapter in our city's history."
"We now have an opportunity to turn the page and to heal," he said in a statement. "The citizens of New Orleans deserve a police department that protects, serves, and partners with the community to keep New Orleans safe. It is my commitment to the people of New Orleans to rebuild and reform the NOPD."
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Copyright 2012 Associated Press