As far as anyone could tell on Tuesday, 20-year-old Stacy Johnson and his two friends were the victims, caught in a hail of gunfire that erupted as they sat in a parked car in Harvey smoking marijuana.
Johnson was killed, and neither of the friends who survived was arrested or charged with a crime.
But within 12 hours of the shooting, the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office had sent the news media the names and criminal histories of all three men, noting that Johnson had a long history of arrests and, at the time of his death, was wanted in New Orleans in an armed robbery.
In an email to local reporters, Col. John Fortunato, a spokesman for Sheriff Newell Normand, also included home addresses for Johnson and one of the surviving victims, even as their unidentified assailants remained at large.
The news release highlighted a controversial practice, avoided by many Louisiana law enforcement agencies, that has continued in Jefferson Parish despite an outcry that prompted officials in New Orleans to stop publicizing the criminal histories of murder victims three years ago.
Critics argue that publicizing that type of information — ostensibly to reassure law-abiding residents that drug dealers and career criminals, not innocent bystanders, are most often the victims of violent crime — diminishes the value of the victim’s life and shifts public attention away from the perpetrators.
Tamara Jackson, who runs the nonprofit Silence Is Violence campaign, said the dissemination of victims’ criminal histories also unnecessarily compounds the grief of family members and can even complicate efforts to win compensation from the board that governs Louisiana’s reparations fund for crime victims.
“It creates a bias, and it sends the board in the wrong direction,” said Jackson, an outspoken opponent of the practice. “Their criminal histories are not important. What’s important is the focus on the homicide investigation and offering support services to the family.”
Normand defended the practice during a news conference Wednesday, saying the Sheriff’s Office releases such information to stress the dangers associated with living a criminal lifestyle.
“We release the arrest history because they’re playing in the narcotics game,” Normand said.
He acknowledged that neither of the surviving victims in Tuesday’s shooting had been booked with a crime, and that investigators have yet to conclusively link the shooting with drug activity.
But he insisted that the men who were shot were “not truly innocent victims,” adding, “We believe there’s gonna be a connection” between the drugs they were using and the fact they were apparently targeted.
“I don’t want the general public thinking that this was some random shooting,” he said. “You play with fire, you’re gonna get burned.”
Tuesday’s shooting wasn’t the only example this week of the Sheriff’s Office taking its case to the court of public opinion. And it was not just criminal histories that the office thought worthy of disseminating.
Fortunato on Tuesday also sent out two emails pointing reporters to videos posted on social media of a rapping Desmond Willis, the man fatally shot by Jefferson Parish deputies Monday after he allegedly opened fire on them while fleeing a traffic stop.
In one video, Willis, 25, points two firearms at the camera, including the handgun he allegedly fired at deputies.
“Can’t trust cops/Soon as I spot ’em I’m running, f--- cops/And if they catch me I’m busting, f--- cops,” Willis sings in a shorter clip, which the Sheriff’s Office distributed.
The New Orleans Police Department’s former practice of releasing the criminal histories of murder victims sparked controversy when the NOPD released the criminal history of Harry “Mike” Ainsworth, a good Samaritan murdered in Algiers in 2012 as he attempted to stop a carjacking. Ainsworth had a history of drug-related arrests years earlier.
Tyler Gamble, an NOPD spokesman, said the release of victims’ criminal records “has been done off and on through various superintendents.” But the department ceased the practice shortly after the Ainsworth incident, he said, and hasn’t resumed it.
Around the time of Ainsworth’s death, state Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, drafted a bill that would have prohibited law enforcement officials in New Orleans from using any public funds to disseminate the criminal records of murder victims unless that information proved to be “directly related to the investigation of such murder” or the person releasing the criminal record “publicly states why such information is necessary.”
Morrell, in an interview this week, said he withdrew the bill after the NOPD voluntarily altered its policy.
“Generally speaking, I think that if a department is going to do something like this, they need to have an explanation for the policy beyond that they’re just releasing public information,” he said.
The NOPD’s current approach is in keeping with that of several other Louisiana law enforcement agencies, which typically avoid calling attention to the criminal records of murder victims, even though the information is considered public.
“A victim is a victim in our eyes, and we don’t want the public to perceive them in any other way than as a victim,” said Lt. Jonathan Dunnam, a spokesman for the Baton Rouge Police Department. Releasing the criminal history of murder victims, he said, “might tend to skew the public’s opinion. We just don’t make a practice of doing it.”
A spokesman for St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain said that, to the best of his knowledge, the office has no policy on how much information to release about murder victims. But it typically doesn’t release the criminal histories of victims, said the spokesman, Capt. George Bonnett.
“We are usually focused on the suspect,” Bonnett said, “not the victim.”
Staff writers Chad Calder and Faimon A. Roberts III contributed to this report. Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.