Within hours of the video’s appearance online, Detective Nicholas Breaux had been tried dozens of times in the court of public opinion.
Viewers’ opinions split over the cellphone footage showing Breaux punching a high school student in the face. Some registered outrage over the plainclothes deputy’s use of force, while others insisted his tactics had been justified by 17-year-old Brady Becker’s resistance.
Breaux’s boss, meanwhile, seemed almost indifferent to the video for several days.
Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand refused to comment on Becker’s Feb. 13 arrest in the parking garage of the Lakeside Shopping Center, even as thousands of people watched the video on YouTube and noted Breaux’s background in mixed martial arts.
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Perhaps more strikingly, the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office initially refused to pursue an inquiry of any kind into the deputy’s actions, even after Becker’s attorney forwarded video footage of the arrest to the sheriff and filed a complaint on his client’s behalf.
Col. John Fortunato, the sheriff’s chief spokesman, promised a “full-scale investigation,” but on the condition that Becker, who faces four criminal counts, had first to appear in person at the Sheriff’s Office and give a statement.
“The moment that this young man appears in our Internal Affairs Division to file a formal complaint, we’ll investigate it fully,” Fortunato said several days after the footage surfaced.
That posture, which differs from the approach of other local law enforcement agencies, raised questions about the JPSO’s internal affairs protocols, even as Fortunato stressed that Breaux’s supervisors had seen no evidence he was guilty of wrongdoing. And in the wake of Becker’s arrest, the Sheriff’s Office has offered a muddled and at times contradictory account of its policies, some of which Fortunato said aren’t even committed to writing.
“If Brady had been in a coma for six months, they wouldn’t start the investigation until he got out of a coma and was able to walk in and sign a piece of paper?” David Belfield, Becker’s attorney, asked rhetorically. “It seems the investigation should have started the moment you got footage of your deputy beating the hell out of somebody.”
Matt Issman, a former sheriff’s deputy who worked for two decades in the internal affairs divisions of several federal agencies, said Normand should have been talking with internal investigators long before Becker appeared at the Sheriff’s Office on Feb. 20, a week after his arrest. By that point, the arrest had drawn the attention of the FBI, which confirmed last week that it has launched an investigation.
“Any agency can investigate any of its agents, and in high-profile cases, I would try and get out ahead of the controversy and take a proactive approach,” Issman said. “An agency doesn’t have to wait until someone walks in the door if there is enough credible information to at least initiate a preliminary inquiry, and they have more than enough information in this case.”
More than 321,000 people had viewed the video on YouTube as of Friday.
Howard Friedman, a Boston civil rights attorney who serves on the board of the National Police Accountability Project, also took issue with the Sheriff’s Office’s approach to Becker’s arrest.
“For the sheriff to say, ‘We’ll start an internal investigation once we get a complaint’ is complete nonsense,” Friedman said. “When I see something like that, it’s kind of enraging. He should know better than to say that.”
Interviews with a half-dozen former JPSO deputies revealed conflicting perceptions of what’s required for the agency to look into possible misconduct.
“As far as I know, if the person doesn’t show up, they don’t investigate,” said a former district commander, who discussed his experience at the Sheriff’s Office on the condition of anonymity. “You really cannot follow through on the investigation without the person showing up in person.”
On the other hand, Walter Gorman, a retired chief deputy, said the Sheriff’s Office “has always taken citizen complaints extremely seriously” and will continue to do so.
“I don’t think it’s hard to file a complaint,” Gorman said. “Newell Normand would not deny anyone the right to come in and file a complaint against one of his officers.”
In response to a public records request, the Sheriff’s Office provided The New Orleans Advocate with a single-page information sheet that Fortunato said represents the extent of the agency’s policies for fielding internal affairs complaints. The document, which provides answers to frequently asked questions and phone numbers of various JPSO districts, makes clear that the agency’s Internal Affairs Division may accept letters and telephone calls.
Complainants may request anonymity, the sheet says, though “in some instances” they will be “requested” to appear in person at the Sheriff’s Office. The document does not state that appearing in person is mandatory, nor does it say complaints may not be filed by the attorney of a defendant.
“To ensure the public’s trust and maintain the Sheriff’s Office integrity, all complaints are investigated timely and objectively,” it says. The filing of a “false complaint,” it adds, “may result in criminal or civil action as prescribed by law.”
Fortunato, in an email last week, said that letters or phone calls are permissible for “purposes of a complaint that could or will be forthcoming.” But after a complaint is filed, he added, “the complainant will be required to go to our IAD to sign a written statement, attesting to the facts of his/her complaint.”
“What that says is that if this young man lived out of state — let’s say he was visiting from someplace far away — he would have to come back to file a complaint against the people who abused him,” said Marjorie Esman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana. “That makes no sense.”
Fortunato did not respond to questions posed by The Advocate about cases in which a complainant — perhaps an alleged victim of police brutality — could not appear at the Sheriff’s Office due to hospitalization or other extenuating circumstances.
Normand did not respond to a request for an interview.
The Sheriff’s Office requirement that complainants appear in person differs from the policy of the New Orleans Police Department, which accepts complaints against officers in several forms.
“In the past, we’ve received anonymous complaints where someone slipped documents into the door at (the Public Integrity Bureau), and we opened an investigation based on that,” said Tyler Gamble, an NOPD spokesman.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.