A New Orleans police officer who became a central figure in the prosecutions of former Officer David Warren for shooting Henry Glover in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is no longer in line to get her job back, following a recent state appeals court ruling.
The setback for fired Officer Keyalah Bell marks the latest victory for the city in its bid to defend the firings and suspensions of officers in cases where administrative actions were delayed while the officers faced criminal investigations.
Local officer organizations have argued that dozens of disciplined cops should get their jobs or pay and benefits restored because the city waited too long to resolve personnel matters against them.
The state’s Police Officer’s Bill of Rights sets a deadline of 60 days — 120 with an extension — for the city to complete that process.
A January 2013 ruling by the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal in a case involving a different officer, Tyrone Robinson, appeared to set the stage for numerous officers to score legal victories by citing the department’s failure to meet the deadline for internal investigations.
Bell, an eight-year veteran when she was fired in 2012 following an arrest for driving drunk, hitting a parked car and leaving the scene, was expected to be among the beneficiaries of that ruling.
But a Louisiana Supreme Court opinion in November changed course in the case of former Officer Patrick O’Hern, who had drained a bottle of whiskey in his car on the top floor of a downtown parking garage while on duty in 2009, popped anti-anxiety pills, Tased himself and fired off about 20 rounds through the windshield and roof of his car, court records show.
O’Hern pleaded no contest to illegally discharging a weapon. Later, an appeals court panel found he was unlawfully terminated because of the deadline issue.
In reversing that decision in November, the state Supreme Court ruled the NOPD’s administrative review of O’Hern’s actions didn’t really start until after the criminal investigation of his case ended.
At the end of February, the Supreme Court made the same decision in overturning the reinstatement of Thomas McMasters, who had been fired for allegedly signing a false arrest affidavit in November 2009.
The appeals court apparently got the message. It cited the O’Hern and McMasters cases on May 21 when it reversed the city Civil Service Commission’s decision to reinstate Bell last summer solely on the basis that the NOPD failed to complete the administrative process soon enough.
“It is undisputed that Officer Bell was at all times under investigation by the department for allegedly driving while intoxicated and for being involved in a hit and run. These allegations involve alleged conduct that is indisputably criminal in nature,” Judge Sandra Cabrina Jenkins wrote in the appeals panel’s ruling. The 60-day deadline “could not begin to toll until the criminal proceedings were complete,” she ruled.
The court sent the case back to the Civil Service Commission to review other arguments for Bell’s reinstatement.
By the time of her arrest, Bell, now 35, was known for her troubled testimony concerning Warren’s shooting of Glover at an Algiers strip mall a few days after Katrina made landfall.
At the time, Bell was a young officer with just a few months’ more experience than Warren when she was among the first to respond to a report an officer had fired a gun.
In a retrial for Warren in December that resulted in his acquittal, Bell recalled seeing Glover’s body inside a white car at Habans Elementary School, where three men rushed him for medical attention that he never got. At the time, Bell said, she didn’t completely connect the two incidents but “had a feeling that it may have been related.”
Still, she said nothing when she returned to the strip mall. Questioned about it three years later, Bell first failed to tell FBI agents about seeing the body in the car, then remembered it a few hours later and called them back. She testified that she’d blocked it out. Warren’s attorneys sought to cast her credibility in doubt.
Her attorney, Kevin Boshea, said Tuesday that charges against Bell for the drunken driving incident were dropped “by the same City Attorney’s Office that now wishes to have her removed as a police officer.”
Boshea said Bell “served with distinction. More importantly, in my opinion she’s being singled out for her role in the Glover case.”
He said he intends to argue before the commission that the city is being selective, allowing other officers back on the job after allegations of far more egregious offenses.
Officials for the city and the NOPD did not return requests for comment Tuesday on the court’s ruling.
Raymond Burkart III, an attorney with the local Fraternal Order of Police lodge, said evidence in criminal and administrative investigations is often the same when it comes to officer conduct, and the city is holding some officers hostage by letting the administrative cases linger, sometimes for years.
“The department has a bad habit of holding open criminal investigations, just because historically they’re backlogged,” Burkart said. “The way the Supreme Court has interpreted the Police Officer’s Bill of Rights quite simply makes it meaningless.”
It is unclear when the commission will again take up Bell’s case.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.