A New Orleans police officer shot a 26-year-old man in the head in Algiers as she tried to arrest him early Monday, but the department failed to notify the public about the incident until late Wednesday.
At a hastily called news conference Wednesday evening, Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas described the matter as an embarrassing oversight. He said police had prepared a news release on the incident Monday, and, for some reason, did not send it out.
“I personally authorized a press release,” Serpas said. “Clearly it fell through the cracks.”
“I’m very disappointed and angry,” he added. “We normally put this information out right away.”
The NOPD has been dogged for years by questions about the possible overuse of deadly force by some officers and its failure to fully investigate some of those incidents. The federal consent decree the department signed with the Justice Department in 2012, which mandates a series of reforms, had its roots in a series of poorly investigated shootings and beatings by police in the days after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Hours after Monday’s shooting, police released a daily incident log that offered scant details about what happened.
It noted only that an officer was involved in a signal 108 — police code for “officer needs help” — and suffered a hand injury. It made no mention of an officer firing a gun or hitting anyone.
On Wednesday evening, after nola.com posted a story about the incident, Ursula Price, a spokeswoman for the Independent Police Monitor’s Office, confirmed to The New Orleans Advocate that an officer did, in fact, shoot a man in the head during the stop.
About the same time, police sent out a news release saying that Armand Bennett, 26, was shot during a traffic stop about 1:30 a.m. Sunday in the 3700 block of Mimosa Court, and that the officer suffered a contusion to the hand.
At his news conference, Serpas identified the officer who shot Bennett as Lisa Lewis. She was accompanied early Monday by her partner, Patrick Guidry; both are members of the 4th District’s task force.
Donovan Livaccari, a lawyer for the Fraternal Order of Police who is representing Lewis, said he does not believe she was wearing a body camera during the incident. The NOPD is in the process of distributing hundreds of the cameras so that every interaction between police and the public can be captured for later review.
“We will use the body camera in every event we have with a citizen that is business-related: a traffic stop, writing a police report, doing a felony stop, doing a ‘Terry stop,’ answering questions about directions,” Serpas said in April at a news conference announcing the new initiative. “If it’s a business-related activity, the officers will place the (camera) in the record mode, and the record system allows the prior 30 seconds to be captured once they turn the device on.”
According to the police log, the officer was nearby when she heard shots fired and got into an “altercation” with Bennett.
That account differed from what Serpas described Wednesday as the sequence of events that led to the incident.
Serpas said Lewis and Guidry had tried a week earlier to arrest Bennett, but he fled. Serpas could not provide details about that stop.
While on patrol early Monday, the officers recognized his car and pulled him over, Serpas said.
Nandi Campbell, Bennett’s attorney, said the officers approached with their guns already drawn. Serpas said he was not certain if that was the case but acknowledged that they could have had their weapons out. Because it was a felony stop, that would be allowed, he said.
At some point during the stop, Serpas said, Bennett and Lewis got into a fight and Lewis fired twice at Bennett, grazing him in the head.
Bennett, who was still hospitalized Wednesday evening, will be booked on five outstanding warrants for charges, including illegal possession of a weapon, resisting an officer in Gretna, resisting an officer in New Orleans, possession of marijuana and criminal damage to property, police said.
Bennett was in stable condition, police said.
Campbell described Bennett’s injury as a graze wound that required six or seven staples.
She also challenged the police account of the incident, saying Bennett made no attempt to resist but was still fired upon twice, once from nearby and once as he tried to run away. In addition, she challenged the claim that police pulled over Bennett’s car. She said Bennett and his brother, who also was in the car but was not wounded, had pulled up to the brother’s house and parked, and the two officers approached it in a much more aggressive manner than depicted by Serpas.
Serpas declined to address Campbell’s allegations in detail Wednesday evening, saying he would wait for the results of an internal investigation.
Asked if the daily police log should have noted the shooting as well as the officer’s hand injury, Serpas said it did. Told that the log mentioned only the injured officer, Serpas replied, “I don’t know. I’d have to go look at it.”
Price said the independent police monitor has been in touch with Campbell, Bennett and his mother and is monitoring the investigation.
Price said she couldn’t speak to NOPD policy on whether the department must notify the public anytime one of its officers shoots someone, but she said she believed the failure to alert the public in this case may result in part from the fact that the department is searching for a new spokesperson.
The consent decree calls for a series of internal steps to be followed anytime an officer uses deadly force. All such incidents must be reviewed by the NOPD’s Force Investigation team, a five-officer unit established within the Public Integrity Bureau.
Follow Danny Monteverde on Twitter, @DCMonteverde.