A lengthy police chase ended in Slidell last month when officers from three law enforcement agencies said they returned fire on Lucien Rolland, striking the man 18 times and leaving his body so riddled with bullets that the coroner could not determine which shots proved fatal.
State Police last week identified Trooper Raymond Martinez as having been part of the Sept. 19 shootout, but St. Tammany Parish Jack Strain has refused to release the names of a half-dozen of his deputies who contributed to the volley of gunfire. A Slidell police officer who opened fire also has remained anonymous.
Had any of these lawmen arrested Rolland for, say, driving while intoxicated, they would have been identified in an initial police report, which by state law must include the names of the “investigating officers.” However, Louisiana’s public records law makes no such requirement when, in the aftermath of a police shooting, officers become the subject of a criminal or administrative inquiry — as they typically are in such cases.
The result is a patchwork of conflicting practices when it comes to law enforcement publicizing the names of officers who use lethal force, leading to incongruous results in which officers at some agencies are identified after police shootings and those at others are not, even in the same incident.
The New Orleans Police Department and Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, for their part, routinely release the names of officers within hours or days of a fatal shooting, pointing to the need to promote transparency, especially in cases that often become contentious. In most cases, releasing an officer’s identity allows journalists — and the general public — to request personnel records to determine whether the officer has been involved in similar incidents in the past or has a history of disciplinary problems.
“Police officers should be treated the same way civilians are treated,” said Howard Friedman, a Boston civil rights attorney who noted that authorities typically release not only the names of people shot by police, but also their criminal histories. “Giving preferential treatment to police officers supports the view some officers have that the laws that apply to everyone else do not apply to them.”
Some agencies, including the FBI, are far more guarded with the identity of officers involved in shootings. St. Bernard Parish Sheriff James Pohlmann, for instance, has not released the name of a deputy who fatally shot a man in Chalmette last month, saying he will wait for the State Police to conclude their investigation.
FBI won’t name agent
The disparities are seen across the state. Livingston Parish Sheriff Jason Ard has declined to name the deputy who shot and wounded a 19-year-old man in French Settlement several months ago — a decision that stands in stark contrast to the practice of the nearby Baton Rouge Police Department, which waits 48 hours to release the names of officers involved in shootings.
The FBI, meanwhile, still has not identified the agent who fatally shot Allen Desdunes more than two years ago during a drug investigation in New Orleans East.
A wrongful-death lawsuit brought by Desdunes’ family identifies three FBI agents and four New Orleans police officers involved in the murky encounter. Oddly, however, it shields the identity of the agent who fatally shot Desdunes. The family’s attorney, Stephen Haedicke, said the plaintiffs agreed to a protective order under the federal Privacy Act in which they refer to the agent publicly as “John Doe #1” and keep his identity under seal.
Pointing to safety concerns for officers beyond the issue of privacy, Donovan Livaccari, an attorney and spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police Crescent City Lodge, said the New Orleans Police Department should be more circumspect in releasing the names of officers involved in shootings.
The NOPD has no written policy but generally provides the names of officers involved in shootings as quickly as possible, according to a spokesman. “Oftentimes, the facts are not immediately apparent, and sometimes people react unpredictably” in the wake of police shootings, Livaccari said.
J.B. Slaton, a State Police spokesman, said that while his agency has no written policy on the matter, it attempts to address both concern for officers’ safety and the public’s desire for information.
“Every situation is different. If it calls for waiting 24 hours, then releasing the name, then that’s what we do,” Slaton said. “Generally, we don’t hide anything. We’re transparent. But there is a time period there, where in a traumatic event like that, we feel the thing to do is not to jump on it and release the trooper’s name.”
‘The climate is changing’
Police agencies’ caution appears to have increased in the wake of controversial police shootings such as that of Michael Brown last year in Ferguson, Missouri, a case that fueled widespread calls for reforms in law enforcement accountability. Like many small agencies, the Ferguson Police Department seemed ill-equipped for the national attention that erupted after Brown was fatally shot.
Thomas Jackson, the city’s police chief at the time, at first said he would release the officer’s name only if he were ordered to do so by a court. Only after nearly a week of fiery protests did he identify the officer as Darren Wilson.
In the wake of such incidents — Wilson was driven into hiding after death threats — at least two states have considered legislation this year that would delay or completely prohibit the naming of officers involved in fatal shootings. One such bill was vetoed by Arizona’s governor, while a lawmaker in Pennsylvania recently proposed shielding the identities of officers involved in shootings unless they are charged criminally.
“The climate is changing,” said Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, who described a delicate balance between the transparency the public expects and law enforcement agencies’ concern about officers’ safety. Normand said he has had to provide security for officers at times but that shootings by deputies “are so public in nature that we’ve always felt it was appropriate to release the officer’s name.”
Reticence about releasing officers’ names, said Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation, a nonprofit agency that seeks to improve law enforcement, is “just part of the policing culture for a lot of agencies.” Bueermann said he thinks chiefs have legitimate concerns for officers’ safety. But he warned that “in the absence of official information delivered quickly and in a trustworthy way, people will fill that information void with their own narratives.”
Many small agencies may never have considered how to handle an officer’s shooting and killing of a suspect in the post-Ferguson era, Bueermann said. But any one of them could find itself in the center of the storm. “No matter how big or how small your agency is, everybody is subject to those same forces,” he added, “and at any time, they could wind up the lead story on the national nightly news.”
With no uniform standards in place, the question of whether an officer is identified or kept anonymous can boil down to geography or the whims of a sheriff.
No answers in St. Bernard
Last month’s fatal shooting in Chalmette, in which a St. Bernard deputy opened fire on a man accused of attacking him with a railroad spike, remains steeped in secrecy.
Few details of the Sept. 15 incident have emerged, although authorities quickly identified Tyrone Bass, 21, as the man shot three times and portrayed him as the aggressor.
A pair of recently released State Police incident reports provide a handful of additional details. The encounter between Bass and deputies began as a “suspicious person stop,” according to the initial report.
“During this encounter, Bass attacked a deputy by stabbing him in the head with a railroad spike,” the document says. “The deputy responded by shooting Bass, who died on the scene.”
That initial report, released Sept. 30 pursuant to a public records request from The New Orleans Advocate, differs from an earlier one released Sept. 29 by State Police. That report, marked “Draft,” listed a different investigating officer and omitted the details about the railroad spike.
Slaton, the State Police spokesman, said the first draft report was released in error, before its final version was approved.
Neither report makes any reference to two other deputies who State Police have said responded to the scene. Nor do the reports list the names of any of the deputies involved in the shooting. Slaton said the State Police defer to individual sheriff’s offices’ wishes on whether to release the names of their deputies.
“It’s their personnel. It’s their guys, their officers. We release the names of ours, and they make that decision on their own personnel,” Slaton said.
The shooting of Bass appears to have caught St. Bernard Parish off guard and without a policy. Pohlmann, the sheriff, said it was the first fatal encounter involving deputies since he was elected in 2011. He added that he intends to release the name of the deputies involved in the shooting at the conclusion of the State Police investigation, which he believes should take no more than a month.
Spokesmen for Strain, the St. Tammany sheriff, and the Slidell Police Department said they, too, will withhold the names of officers involved in the fatal North Shore chase and shooting until the investigation is complete.
“I just don’t want to be in conflict with any information that I release prematurely,” Pohlmann said. “Different sheriffs and different police departments do it different ways. I don’t know if there’s a right or a wrong way.”
Staff writers Faimon A. Roberts III and Maya Lau contributed to this report.