Each of the officers faces at least one charge of murder or attempted murder in the Sept. 4, 2005, shootings on the Danziger Bridge, less than a week after the hurricane hit New Orleans. Two people died and four people were wounded in the incident, which threatens to taken on racial overtones in a city where the black population was arguably hardest hit by the hurricane.
CBS News correspondent Lee Cowan says the officers – who had remained on the job while many others fled their beats – had been called to the bridge to investigate reports of gunfire.
The officers say they shot the men only after being fired upon themselves.
As the officers arrived at the jail Tuesday, supporters lined the street, stepping forward to embrace the seven men and shake their hands. One sign in the crowd read "Support the Danziger 7." Another read "Thanks for protecting our city."
One protester shouted "Police killings must stop" and "Racism must go" but was shouted down by the crowd yelling: "Heroes, Heroes."
While a local black activist earlier Tuesday maintained racism was a factor in the shootings - even though four of the officers, like the two victims, are black - another advocate said it was too early to say whether race was a motivation.
"We don't know that right now. We don't know all the facts," said Dannatus King, president of the New Orleans branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, arguing, however, that the officers' being greeted with applause at the jail was cause for concern.
"If the accused officers did commit murder and attempted murder, they are not heroes and should not be applauded," King said at an afternoon press conference.
Earlier, the Rev. Raymond Brown, of the New Orleans chapter of the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network, said racism was a factor in the shootings.
"We see the black officers as just following their master," Brown said. Defense attorneys say the seven officers are innocent of the charges. The officers are to be arraigned on Friday.
The facts of what happened on the bridge remain murky.
Police say the officers were responding to a report of other officers down when they came under fire. Police also claim one of the men, Ronald Madison, was reaching for a gun. Madison, a 40-year-old mentally retarded man, and James Brissette, 19, were killed on the bridge.
The coroner said Madison was shot seven times, with five wounds in the back, but the officers' attorneys said all the wounds could have come from a single shotgun blast.
Madison's brother Lance, who was also on the bridge and was cleared of attempted murder charges, said he and his brother were not armed.
Sgts. Kenneth Bowen and Robert Gisevius Jr., officer Anthony Villavaso II and former officer Robert Faulcon Jr., were charged with first-degree murder. Officers Robert Barrios and Mike Hunter Jr. were charged with attempted first-degree murder, and Ignatius Hills was charged with attempted second-degree murder.
New Orleans district attorney Eddie Jordan convinced a grand jury last week to indict the officers, whom he says shot the civilians "without justification like rabid dogs."
"They know full well that those people were shooting on the bridge," said Bowen's attorney, Frank DeSalvo, who says both sides of the story have not been heard. "They act like no one was shooting but the police."
"It took everybody by surprise," said Darren Hills, brother of indicted officer Ignatius Hills, who he describes as "totally blindsided" by the arrests.
A judge said there would be no bail for the four accused of first-degree murder. Bail will be $100,000 per count for the other three officers.
A first-degree murder conviction carries a possible death sentence. A spokesman for District Attorney Eddie Jordan said Tuesday that prosecutors have not decided yet whether to seek the death penalty in the case.
Six of the officers were suspended without pay pending the outcome of the case. The seventh, Faulcon, has left the department and is now a truck driver in Houston, said his lawyer, Franz Zibilich.