Four police officers, charged with shooting and killing two unarmed civilians on a bridge in the days after Hurricane Katrina, could face the death penalty.
Those four officers and two others are accused of gunning down citizens and trying to cover it up. Five other former police officers have already pleaded guilty to helping cover up the killings, bringing the total to 11 charged so far. The entire New Orleans police department is under investigation, stemming from allegations of misconduct.
"We will not tolerate wrongdoing by those who are sworn to protect the public," said Attorney General Eric Holder, who was in New Orleans Tuesday to announce the charges in the civil rights investigation. "This will not stand."
In the chaotic days after the August 2005 storm, a family tried to cross the Danziger Bridge to get to the supermarket for food and supplies, and two other men were on the bridge on their way to check on their brother's dental office when, justice officials allege, the shootings took place.
The FBI said New Orleans police showed up, responding to reports of gunfire, and opened fire with assault rifles and a shotgun. When it was over, two unarmed citizens were killed and four wounded. One of the victims was a severely mentally disabled man, who was allegedly shot in the back as he tried to flee.
"These police officers took oaths to protect the people of New Orleans and instead, as alleged in the indictment, they killed two people and wounded four others," said Kevin Perkins, assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Investigative Division.
Initially, police said they fired in self-defense. "They approached the subjects who were several, several feet away, who fired on the police officers. The officers returned fire," said former deputy police chief Warren Riley at a September 2005 press conference.
Tuesday, the Justice Department said that statement was based on a lie, and that the officers shot civilians without cause and planted a gun at the scene as part of an elaborate cover-up, which included creating fictional witnesses and falsifying police reports.
"We recognize that for prosecutors and police alike, our integrity is our most important currency. Without it we lose the confidence ... and respect of the community," said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division.
Sgts. Robert Gisevius and Kenneth Bowen, officer Anthony Villavaso and former officer Robert Faulcon were charged with deprivation of rights under the color of law and use of a weapon during the commission of a crime.
A lawyer for Gisevius told The Associated Press that Tuesday's indictment did not come as a surprise. "We have long anticipated that this day may come," Eric Hessler said.
The Justice Department got involved in the case after a state judge threw out the charges of murder or attempted murder in August 2008.
Justice Department officials vow to help clean up corruption in the New Orleans police department, which has been stewed in controversy for alleged misconduct after Katrina.
Tuesday's charges come one month after five current or former New Orleans police officers were accused of fatally shooting 31-year-old resident Henry Glover, and then burning his body in a car to cover up the crime.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.