The New Orleans Police Department officer accused of hampering the investigation into the June 20 slaying of fellow 5th District Officer Daryle Holloway by hiding and then disposing of a box of bullets that may have belonged to Holloway’s accused killer has a history of suspensions from the force for botching and outright ignoring incidents of domestic violence.
In one case, Officer Wardell Johnson confiscated two inoperable guns but disposed of them instead of writing up the incident and keeping the evidence, records show. In another incident, he failed to make a report on a case that supervisors deemed serious enough to warrant one.
A judge set bail for Johnson at $30,000 Tuesday, a day after he allegedly tossed a box of eight .40-caliber bullets found at the scene of the initial arrest of accused cop killer Travis Boys into a New Orleans East canal.
Johnson, who remained in jail at the time of his bail hearing a day after his arrest, bonded out Tuesday afternoon.
At a news conference Tuesday, Police Superintendent Michael Harrison ripped Johnson’s conduct and said he was “far past disgusted. I’m actually quite pissed off at it.”
Johnson was among the officers who responded to a domestic-violence call early on the morning of June 20, when Boys’ wife claimed he fired a black semiautomatic handgun at her. For reasons that are still unclear, Johnson tried to leave a .40-caliber shell casing at the scene rather than process it as evidence, the NOPD said.
When he was confronted Monday during a Public Integrity Bureau interview with body-worn camera footage exposing his sloppy police work, Johnson left abruptly, police said, claiming he had to pick up his child from day camp. While detectives tracked him, Johnson threw a box containing the .40-caliber bullets into a canal near Morrison and Downman roads.
Police brass do not believe that Johnson was trying to aid Boys, but simply covering up bad police work. He admitted throwing the ammo into the canal after returning to finish the PIB interview, police said.
“He was extremely remorseful and extremely upset,” PIB Chief Arlinda Westbrook said.
Johnson was booked on counts of malfeasance in office, injuring public records and theft.
Personnel records show he has been suspended twice before for botching investigations into domestic violence incidents.
Responding to the scene of one such incident in Bywater in February 2006, Johnson confiscated two inoperable handguns, police found. But he did not transport them to Central Evidence and Property, as he should have. Instead, he broke the guns into several pieces and threw them in a trash can in the victim’s home. Johnson then failed to write up a report. He was suspended for seven days by then-Superintendent Warren Riley.
In April 2010, Johnson again downplayed a domestic violence incident. He went to the scene of a domestic assault, police said, but classified the incident as only a “disturbance.” He then marked the call for service as simply “necessary action taken” instead of filing an incident report, as NOPD policy dictates. Then-Superintendent Ronal Serpas ordered Johnson suspended for five days.
Further details about the two incidents were not available Tuesday.
Tulane University law professor Tania Tetlow said Johnson’s disciplinary file underscores the force’s long history of falling short in domestic violence cases, an issue raised in a damning 2011 U.S. Department of Justice report about the department.
About half the department has since been retrained to deal with domestic violence under a large federally funded project, Tetlow said. “They have tried to require officers on the scene to do more work to avoid the kind of sloughing off of investigations into how dangerous the situation is,” she said.
To Tetlow, Johnson’s history of suspensions seemed like a reminder of the bad old days.
“The vast majority of officers are really good at the hard, complicated cases of domestic violence, but the danger is you get somebody who doesn’t care about it. Typically, the result of that is putting the victim in more danger,” she said. “Here, he put his colleague in more danger.”
Johnson’s most recent example of alleged poor police work extended beyond attempting to avoid logging the .40-caliber shell casing found at the scene, Harrison said Tuesday. And it may have had far graver consequences.
Harrison said body camera footage showed that Johnson did not do a thorough job of patting down Boys after arresting him on a count of aggravated assault for allegedly firing at his wife.
Hours later, police say, Boys managed to produce a .40-caliber weapon in the back of a police SUV, with which he then shot and killed Holloway, who was transporting Boys to Central Lockup.
Police are investigating whether that gun, which police recovered, was the same one fired at Boys’ wife.
“It’s just sloppy police work and complacency,” Harrison said. “What we saw was not excellent police work.”
NOPD spokesman Tyler Gamble said Tuesday afternoon that ballistics tests that would show any link between the spent casing found at the scene of Boys’ arrest and the gun that later killed Holloway were “not finalized.”
Police and Sewerage & Water Board workers spent several hours Tuesday scouring a New Orleans East canal for the small box of bullets Johnson tossed into it. But the search proved fruitless as of late Tuesday, police said.
Johnson was not present in court Tuesday morning as Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell set his bail at $30,000.
All three counts he faces relate to the box of eight live rounds that he allegedly kept for 16 days before tossing it out his car window into the canal, Assistant District Attorney Michael Henn said.
The 41st Judicial District Attorney’s Office had sought a total bail of $110,000. Johnson’s attorney, Kristie Holm, argued he should be released on his own recognizance.
“This is not a crime of violence. Mr. Johnson is a former Marine who served his country honorably in North Africa and Bosnia,” Holm said, adding that Johnson is a 13-year NOPD veteran who was a friend of Holloway’s.
“He did not deliberately do these things. He was under a lot of stress. He’s extremely distraught by this incident. It was not intentional. The evidence, he intended to log in. It was an oversight on his part,” Holm said.
Henn, the prosecutor, argued that Johnson’s distraught state didn’t explain why he tossed the box of bullets into the canal on Monday, more than two weeks after Holloway was killed.
Holloway’s uncle, criminal defense attorney David Belfield, walked out of the courtroom frustrated as Holm sought to portray Johnson sympathetically.
Later, Belfield said he wasn’t aware the two officers were friends.
“I take issue with her statement he didn’t intentionally do it,” Belfield said, adding that he thinks Cannizzaro’s office should add an obstruction count if and when it accepts the charges against Johnson.
After reading a police report on Boys’ arrest for allegedly shooting his wife that morning, Belfield said he’s convinced Johnson and the other responding officers never followed up on her allegation that Boys shot her with a black semiautomatic handgun.
The report, written by Johnson, says officers confiscated the wife’s .38-caliber pistol, live .38-caliber rounds and a single .40-caliber spent shell casing from next door.
“They never went back to what she said in the beginning,” Belfield said. “You should have turned that house upside down. That gun had to be somewhere.”
Belfield said he thinks the firearm the wife described was the same .40-caliber weapon used to shoot Holloway. “Or there’s a third gun we don’t know about,” he said.
Mostly, Belfield was irked by the explanation for why Johnson threw away the bullets.
“Being distraught in that Daryle, his friend, is murdered, I can appreciate that. But that’s after the fact,” he said. “Why not give them the box of shells? The easiest thing is (to say), ‘I forgot to turn it in.’ Just turn it in. To not turn it in reveals the fact that ‘I didn’t do something I should have done.’ ”
Donovan Livaccari, spokesman for the local Fraternal Order of Police lodge and the attorney for two other officers who were present during Boys’ arrest, said the officers didn’t simply take the wife’s .38-caliber pistol and move on. “It’s my understanding that they searched the residence for the .40-caliber weapon,” he said.
The police report on the arrest makes no mention of searching the house. But it does say Johnson searched Boys, whom he found asleep in a back bedroom. That search came up empty, the report says.
The initial police report on Johnson’s arrest, written Monday, says PIB investigators reviewed body camera footage and saw that Johnson was given a box of eight .40-caliber rounds at the time Boys was arrested.
Boys’ wife said those were for the semiautomatic firearm he used to shoot at her, the report says, and Johnson in the footage “is seen twirling the box of bullets while he talks to another officer relative to a spent casing that was eventually confiscated from the scene.”
Johnson turned Boys over to Holloway at the 5th District station after Holloway offered to take the prisoner to jail while Johnson wrote up his report.
Sgt. Kevin Burns, who reviewed Johnson’s report, noticed that it made no mention of the .40-caliber rounds seen in the body camera footage.
“Officer Johnson initially denied knowing the exact whereabouts of the box of bullets, citing that it may be in his bag,” the PIB report said. Then, while being interviewed, Johnson asked to pick up his child.
PIB officers “initiated covert surveillance” and watched Johnson stop at Morrison and Downman roads, get out, “open the trunk, remove a small white box, place the box inside of his right pants pocket and re-enter his vehicle and continue driving,” the report says.
The investigators lost sight of Johnson momentarily, the report says. It doesn’t say investigators saw Johnson toss the box from his car.
But “when confronted directly,” Johnson conferred with his attorney and then admitted tossing the bullets into the canal. He agreed to point out the spot.
“Officer Johnson intentionally removed the box of .40-caliber ammunition that could have provided a nexus to the spent casing and kept the box of bullets with him and failed to log the evidence,” the report says.