In April, masked gunmen forced two terrified employees back inside a Dollar General store in New Orleans East just after closing time and took thousands of dollars in cash from a pair of safes.
They didn’t realize that a silent alarm had tipped off police, who would arrive within minutes. Two 7th District officers showed up as the robbers were fleeing, capturing one on the scene and fatally shooting another, 22-year-old Jared Johnson.
At a news conference the next day, Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Police Superintendent Michael Harrison praised the way police had handled themselves and said footage from an officer-worn camera proved they had acted heroically.
Soon, members of the public may get to see whether they agree.
In two separate incidents caught on officer-worn body camera video this year, New Orleans police have killed suspects. In each case, the officers involved have been cleared of any wrongdoing following internal investigations.
But so far, the crucial video evidence has not been released. The department has yet to issue a written policy on when this type of footage should be made public — a question that has taken on new urgency after the recent release of long-withheld video of a police shooting in Chicago sparked protests and led to the firing of that city’s top cop.
So far, there’s little reason to think the NOPD will hold back any of the footage in question, marking the start of an era when body-worn cameras — introduced on a widespread basis in New Orleans only in 2014 — give the public an unprecedented window on police conduct during deadly incidents.
U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan, who is overseeing implementation of the department’s 2012 reform pact with the federal government, has ordered the NOPD to compile a written policy for the release of videos of shootings and other “critical incidents.”
Jonathan Aronie, one of the federal monitors overseeing the reform pact for Morgan, said, “The judge is pushing for transparency, and the judge is pushing for a policy so there’s consistency.”
The department voluntarily elected to outfit its officers with body-worn cameras and crafted a detailed policy outlining when the officers must activate them.
When it comes to releasing officer videos of police shootings, however, department policy is fuzzier. Spokesman Tyler Gamble said that for now, videos are treated no differently from any other piece of evidence in a shooting investigation.
The department’s current posture is that it will release the videos at the close of investigations by the Public Integrity Bureau, the department’s internal affairs unit.
As the Chicago killing shows, however, videos of police shootings are far from ordinary pieces of evidence. They capture scenes far more graphically and have far greater power to inflame public opinion than an interview transcript.
In Chicago, a police car’s dashboard camera caught the moment that Officer Jason Van Dyke unloaded 16 shots into the body of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. The city fought fiercely to prevent the release of the video. When a judge finally ordered the city to make the footage public, protests flared — and a local prosecutor belatedly charged Van Dyke with murder.
Body-worn cameras have been deployed on a wide scale in New Orleans only since 2014. Videos of contested encounters are regularly released to defense attorneys in court cases. But no written policy outlines when New Orleans police would release video of a controversial shooting to the public, should one occur here in the future.
Aronie, the federal monitor, said the lack of a plan alarmed Morgan, who has put a singular focus on police cameras during hearings.
“There needs to be a policy so release decisions are not made ad hoc, while in crisis,” Aronie said. “Because it’s still in the works, I can’t comment on the content of the policy, but the judge and we (the monitors) believe strongly that there should be a policy. Cities and states across the country are struggling with exactly the same issue. It’s not an easy task.”
At least one incident from earlier this year suggests that Morgan is wary of the release of some contentious videos. She was angered in July when the Office of the Independent Police Monitor released surveillance video of a police officer striking a 16-year-old female inmate with shackles in September 2014. The Police Department fired the officer after the incident, but Morgan called Police Monitor Susan Hutson into her chambers to discuss the video’s release.
Morgan described the release of the video as “inappropriate” and chided Hutson for “attempting to ‘sensationalize’ police incidents,” according to witness accounts detailed by Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux. The judge reportedly said that she “wanted to ensure that videos were released as soon as possible, but only within the confines of the law.”
The judge then ordered the NOPD to restrict the independent police monitor to “read-only” access to documents, meaning the office will not be in a position to release similar videos in the future.
The New Orleans Advocate filed a public records request with the Police Department in November for videos of the fatal shootings of Johnson in April and 37-year-old Omarr Jackson in Central City in January.
Police have said little about the shooting of Johnson beyond that initial news conference. A police report does provide some additional information, however, on the initial stage of the Public Integrity Bureau’s investigation.
Detective Ashley Boult, of the PIB’s Force Investigation Team, wrote in her first report on the shooting that Johnson exited the Dollar General “with an unknown object” and then “fired gunshots” at police during an exchange of fire. She did not indicate which side fired first. Boult also wrote that the man police believe was the getaway driver in the robbery, Spencer Banks, said in an interview that Johnson entered the store with a black-and-silver handgun.
Boult’s initial report noted that the investigation was still ongoing, and it was not clear what findings internal investigators ultimately made about who shot first.
Since then, Gamble said, the PIB has closed its criminal investigations of the officers involved in both the New Orleans East and Central City shootings without filing charges. Both cases were also referred to the District Attorney’s Office for “consultation.”
In the Jackson case, said DA’s Office spokesman Chris Bowman, “pursuant to the request of the New Orleans Police Department for a consultation, the District Attorney’s Office reviewed the matter. At this time the office did not find a basis for criminal charges.”
The DA’s Office’s consultation on the Johnson shooting is ongoing, but there is no outward indication that it will come to a conclusion different from the NOPD’s.
“The officers involved acted in self-defense and were not charged,” Gamble said. “They have returned to full duty.”
Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to reflect that there have been three fatal police shootings this year, but only two were caught on officer-worn body cameras. In the third incident, in July, an off-duty homicide detective shot and killed a man in the Lower 9th Ward. The Public Integrity Bureau has also returned that detective, Timothy Bender, to full duty without charges.