On September 4, 2005, eight years before the #BlackLivesMatter movement was born, officers of the New Orleans Police Department opened fire on two families crossing the Danziger Bridge. Hurricane Katrina had ravaged the city six days before. The officers were on site for an unrelated distress call. All the innocent victims were black and unarmed. A harrowing story of blue on black violence, author and investigative journalist Ronnie Greene’s Shots on the Bridge vividly recounts the crime and the ensuing case. With the anniversaries of Katrina and the crime coming up, we caught up with Ronnie Greene to ask him a few questions about his book.
UPDATE: As of Tuesday, August 18, the New Orleans police officers accused of the shootings should get a new trial according to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
What caused you to write the story?
I was first drawn to this story in August 2011, when I happened to read an AP account of the federal court conviction of officers with the New Orleans Police Department, who had fired upon two groups of people on a small bridge and then covered up their crimes.
In reading that first story, I instantly felt these events were worthy of a book. I was struck in learning about the victims, including Ronald Madison, a forty-year-old with the mental development of a six-year-old. With Katrina coming, Ronald stayed back to be with the family dogs. His older brother Lance, a onetime professional football player, stayed to watch over him. Now I was reading that Ronald was killed—shot in the back—and his brother, his protector, had been falsely arrested for allegedly firing at officers. I read about the other family on the bridge, the Bartholomews, along with their nephew Jose Holmes Jr. and his friend James Brissette Jr. JJ, was killed, and several in the Bartholomew family were critically wounded. The mother, Susan Bartholomew, had to have her arm amputated. As the bullets were coming that morning, her daughter, Lesha, lay atop her mother to try to protect her.
In truth, each of the victims was unarmed, yet police hatched a cover-up to conceal their actions.
The more I looked into the story, the more deeply affecting it became. These were good families simply trying to survive the storm less than a week after Katrina’s arrival. This morning, September 4, 2005, they coincidentally were drawn to this small bridge, the Danziger Bridge, in east New Orleans. The Madison brothers had tried to get to the family home so they could hop on bikes and pedal as far from the misery as possible. They couldn’t get to their home, so they turned back, heading to their brother’s dental office at the foot of the bridge—their temporary home. The Bartholomews, Jose and JJ were heading to a store, to buy medicine for an ailing elderly relative and cleaning supplies for their hotel rooms. These residents happened to be on the bridge at the moment officers were responding to a distress call that had nothing to do with them.
What’s the story’s relevance today?
The police maintained they acted properly that day, and wrote reports saying the victims had been armed and police simply responded to their gunfire. Ultimately, the police account was proven to be fiction—but that truth was revealed only after the families pressed for answers and filed a series of lawsuits exposing the police actions. In the beginning, it took unyielding persistence from residents to pierce the police wall. Ultimately, the Department of Justice brought charges against many officers, among them five who went to trial and five others who entered plea deals.
The trauma suffered on this small bridge, and the police cover-up that instantly ensued, are among the most significant police Civil Rights abuses in recent time. The events speak to what can happen when city leadership loosens controls on police, and show the profound effort it can take for residents to unearth the truth.
Where does the case stand now?
The officers were convicted at trial, but the defense filed appeals. One of their key points centered on a prosecutor who had filed anonymous comments in the local newspaper criticizing police—in this case and many others. The defense argued this was part of a larger DOJ plan to essentially convict the officers before they stood trial. In 2013, the federal judge who heard the case vacated the jury verdict. The government appealed, and now everyone is waiting to see what happens with the appeals court. Either a new trial will be ordered, or the initial jury convictions will remain.
Either way, the legal turn is striking. Ten years after the shots on the bridge, the victims still are awaiting legal resolution.
This book is a real page-turner. How did you decide to approach the subject matter this way?
The events on the bridge, and the cover-up that followed, were significant. I felt the best thing I could do as a writer is let the story tell itself, to learn as much as I could about the events, the people drawn together that morning, and the history of the NOPD, and then to tell the story. I didn’t need to add commentary or hype. The events warranted a clear, direct recounting, and that is what I aspired to do.
About the Author
Ronnie Greene is an investigative journalist for the Associated Press who teaches graduate writing at Johns Hopkins University. Before joining AP, he edited a 2014 Pulitzer Prize–winning investigation for the Center for Public Integrity. Greene spent much of his career at the Miami Herald, and he is author of Night Fire: Big Oil, Poison Air, and Margie Richard’s Fight to Save Her Town. Shots on the Bridge is his second book.