A New Orleans police officer fatally shot a man late Wednesday night in a blighted section of Central City known as a hub for drug activity, returning fire after the still-unidentified man allegedly shot at the officer.
The incident came amid a national debate over the use of force by police departments and a sense of growing mistrust between officers and minority communities nationwide.
Yet there was little to suggest Thursday that the latest police shooting in New Orleans would spark anything like the outcry that resulted from recent deaths at the hands of police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City.
As with those incidents, the officer involved in Wednesday’s shooting was white, while the man killed was black.
But police in this case claim the officer involved was fired upon first and was not dealing with an unarmed suspect.
It also was the first such shooting captured on the Police Department’s new body cameras, which may help quell divisive speculation about the crucial seconds involved.
“We’re confident that the entire incident was captured on camera and all policies were followed at this time,” Police Superintendent Michael Harrison said during an afternoon news conference.
Two officers, Matthew Bencik and Devin Ashmore, approached a parked Chevy Avalanche truck at La Salle and Josephine streets about 11 p.m. after they noticed damage to the front of the car and smoke coming from the engine, Harrison said.
He said three people were inside the car and that the officers asked the driver to step out of the vehicle.
The man then ran down Josephine Street toward the river, pulling out a gun and firing at the officers, Harrison said.
According to Harrison, who went to the scene Wednesday night after the shooting, Bencik fired back, hitting the man in the torso and hip.
Officers said they found drugs and a semi-automatic gun nearby.
The man and a woman who were in the vehicle fled and are still at large.
Harrison said one of the people involved “is familiar” to one of the officers, but he did not elaborate.
The 37-year-old suspect, who has not been identified pending notification of his family, died Thursday morning at Interim LSU Hospital.
Harrison said the shooting will be investigated by the Force Investigation Team, a unit mandated by the consent decree the Police Department entered into with the U.S. Department of Justice in 2013.
The team is headed by Deputy Chief Arlinda Westbrook, who said having video footage of the incident will be critical.
“The camera captures it all,” she said. “Instead of having to depend on people’s recollection or testimony, we have the video evidence.”
Neither Harrison or Westbrook had watched the video when they spoke to reporters, but they said they had been briefed on it by investigators.
They both watched it later in the day, according to Tyler Gamble, a spokesman for the Police Department.
Under the terms of the consent decree, the Force Investigation Team must complete a preliminary report within 24 hours of the incident.
The independent police monitor also will complete a report within a week.
Most residents in the block where the incident occurred said they didn’t see the shooting.
One woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear for her safety, said she was in her home and heard a commotion.
“I saw two police officers chasing after one person,” she said.
She heard an officer yell, “Get down, get down, get down,” and then a gunshot followed by three or four more.
The block, peppered with abandoned buildings and blighted homes, has been plagued by drug dealing, residents said.
Lawrence Chainey, who owns three buildings near the shooting, said one of his unoccupied dwellings once was transformed into a crack house. He said he had written “Drugs Are Sold Here” on the building in an effort to dissuade users and sellers from congregating inside.
Paul Bougere, 56, who also owns property on the block of the shooting, agreed that the neighborhood is dominated by the drug trade.
“There’s a lot of dope-selling out here,” he said. “It’s hot.”
Neighbors described how certain “rock houses” — slang for a place where crack cocaine is used — have become known centers for the packaging and use of narcotics.
Despite a rash of protests aimed at police across the country over the past few months, there was no sign of anger in the streets where Wednesday’s shooting took place.
The reaction differed starkly from an officer-involved shooting in February in Hollygrove, where many bystanders became enraged in the hours after a white officer, Jonathan Hirdes, shot and killed a black man, Keith Atkinson.
The last time an NOPD officer was involved in a fatal shooting was when Officer Jonathan Smith fired at two men who allegedly shot at him while he was working a private detail in the 1000 block of Elysian Fields Avenue in September, killing one of them. Smith was seriously injured in the incident.
Bencik, a three-year veteran of the force, was reassigned to desk duty pending the outcome of the investigation.
He hung up on a reporter when reached Wednesday morning. NOPD officers are prohibited from speaking to the media under such circumstances.
Bencik’s attorney, Donovan Livaccari, said that based on conversations with his client, he believes the shooting was justified.
“Judging from what I know, it sounds like the stop itself was perfectly lawful, and then the shooting was in response to what they perceived as a deadly threat,” he said.
Livaccari said he was hopeful that the existence of the video would expedite the investigation.
Orleans Parish Coroner Jeffrey Rouse said the autopsy of the victim would be conducted using new protocols put in place by his office to provide more transparency in officer-involved shootings.
“There are no more sensitive cases for my office than these, and I am committed to both the highest standard of medical investigations and to the need for transparency in this unfortunate situation,” he said.
The results of Rouse’s investigation will be available for review by the FBI’s New Orleans field office.
Follow Benjamin Oreskes on Twitter, @boreskes and Dan Lawton, @dlawton.