By MICHAEL KUNZELMAN GRETNA, La. (AP) — A grand jury will not charge anyone in a police blockade that kept hundreds of evacuees from crossing a Mississippi River bridge on foot after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, authorities said Wednesday. Several hundred people claimed police from suburban Gretna blocked them as they tried to flee New Orleans on Sept. 1, three days after the storm hit.
Many evacuees, who had been stranded at the New Orleans convention center without food and water, said they were told to cross the bridge to be evacuated from the city, only to be forced to turn around upon reaching the other side. Police later said they blocked the evacuees because there were no supplies or services for them on the other side.
Gretna Police Chief Arthur Lawson also acknowledged that one of his officers fired a shot into the air during the blockade in an attempt to quell what he described as unrest among the evacuees. The case raised widespread allegations of racism and spurred two marches across the bridge by national civil rights organizations in the months after the hurricane. Lawson called Wednesday “a day of vindication for the Gretna Police Department.” He said one of his officers fired a shot in an effort to quell unrest among the evacuees.
Some of the people in the crowd acted aggressively and threatened to throw one of the officers off the bridge, the chief said. The shot was fired over the officer’s shoulder and over the side of the bridge, he said. Franz Zibilich, a police department lawyer, questioned why Jordan’s office waited more than a year to present the case to a grand jury.
“I don’t know what this was about, but it was absolutely never a crime,” Zibilich said. “You didn’t need a grand jury to determine whether there was an illegal discharge of a firearm. Katie Schwartzmann, a lawyer for the New Orleans chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said assault charges may have been warranted if officers had fired shots over the heads of unarmed citizens.
The ACLU filed a public records request with Jordan’s office, seeking copies of police reports and other documents linked to the probe of the blockade. Jordan’s office refused to turn over the records, citing the ongoing investigation. “We just wanted to see it investigated fully and see the criminal justice system respond,” Schwartzmann said. Wednesday was Jordan’s last day in office. In announcing his resignation, he cited a $3.7 million discrimination verdict against his office in a separate case.