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Inquiry Begins Into Police Refusal to Let Katrina Evacuees Enter Town

August 04, 2006|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — A grand jury investigation into the actions of suburban police officers who barred New Orleans residents fleeing Hurricane Katrina from entering the town was announced late Thursday by Dist. Atty. Eddie Jordan.

Law enforcement officials from Gretna prevented the evacuees, most of them black, from crossing a Mississippi River bridge into the predominantly white suburb.

The New Orleans residents, who tried to escape the city three days after Katrina hit, said their path was blocked by armed officers, some with dogs.

The Sept. 1 incident on a nonpedestrian toll crossing sparked charges of racism against the Gretna Police Department and City Council, and exacerbated already strained relations between the two cities.

District attorney spokeswoman Leatrice Dupre said in a statement that Jordan's office had "received findings" from Louisiana State Atty. Gen. Charles C. Foti Jr. that would allow Jordan to begin a grand jury investigation of the incident, which she said "involved several hundred evacuees claiming that law enforcement officers denied them access to safety while attempting to flee New Orleans."

Dupre did not return calls for further comment.

Gretna police and city officials could not be reached for comment Thursday.

In an interview with The Times in November, Gretna Mayor Ronnie C. Harris said the city stood by its decision to block the bridge.

"We were concerned about life and property," he said. "It was quite evident that a criminal element was contained in the crowd of probably mainly decent people."

Gretna Police Chief Arthur S. Lawson Jr. proposed the blockade after someone set fire to the local mall Aug. 31. Lawson has denied his decision was racist.

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