The baby thought it was all just a game. But for the grandmother shielding the child from gunfire, the day in August 2013 when a police chase swept past her block was a frightening illustration of the dangers posed by cops who are too quick to pull the trigger.
Officer Isaiah Shannon’s single shot at what the New Orleans Police Department concluded was an unarmed, fleeing suspect that day ended his career with the force. The shooting was caught on video and was detailed at length in a Public Integrity Bureau investigation.
The event captures both the progress that the NOPD has made in trying to reduce potential harm to bystanders as well as the risks that still remain.
A December report from the federal monitor appointed to oversee a reform agreement between the NOPD and the U.S. Justice Department found that in many cases the local force still fails to adequately investigate these kinds of incidents. And civilians are still frequently endangered when police encounter suspects.
According to the Office of the Independent Police Monitor, there were at least seven such incidents in 2014. In six of those incidents, members of the public were put at risk when officers, like Shannon, fired their weapons. Those cases aroused the Independent Police Monitor’s “concern” in a March report.
At the same time, Shannon’s case suggests that the department’s Force Investigation Team, created as a part of the court-ordered reform plan, is at least capable of thorough reviews. The department won praise from the monitor after Shannon was fired in November.
For the grandmother who witnessed the August 15, 2013, shooting, the dangers of ill-advised use of force could not be more clear. The woman, who declined to be named, was returning to her Mid-City apartment from work that day about 6:30 p.m. when she saw a fleeing suspect’s car crash into a white pickup truck at Iberville and North Miro streets.
A police cruiser followed, carrying Shannon and Officer Shelton Abrams. As the officers jumped out, they confronted the two suspects inside the car. One of the two was able to slip out of the vehicle and run toward Canal Street.
Shannon drew his weapon and fired a shot at the fleeing, unarmed man, the PIB report found.
The grandmother said she jumped to cover her daughter’s year-old baby. A surveillance video taken from a nearby business shows three children being hustled to safety across the street in the moments after the officer’s gunshot.
Ultimately, no one was injured, and the suspect escaped.
Shannon told investigators during the PIB inquiry that he actually fired his gun inside the suspect’s car after a struggle. Investigators would eventually conclude to the contrary based on surveillance video, a mound of forensic evidence as well as written statements and interviews included in the PIB report’s 39 exhibits.
The department’s Force Investigation Team considered evidence including a 9mm gun, a spent bullet casing, samples tested for gunshot residue and several DNA samples. According to the report, “there were no strike marks or damage to any portion of the interior of the suspect vehicle.”
When Shannon was asked how that could be, according to the report, he “indicated he was not a crime lab technician and was not good at geometry.”
The officers’ dashboard-mounted video camera was not operating at the time. But there was video from a camera mounted outside a business on the block. According to the PIB report, that video, while grainy and low-quality, would prove to be “the strongest article of evidence” in the case.
The video shows a suspect running toward Canal Street, the report states, and “as the unknown male distanced himself approximately 15 to 20 feet away from the vehicle … the crowd of witnesses become startled and run for cover. A man of reasonable thinking could conclude it was at that time the shot was fired.”
Every eyewitness interviewed by the PIB agreed: Shannon fired while the man was running away.
“There are damn good officers on the force,” one witness later told police investigators. Shannon was giving “good officers a bad reputation and should be removed from the streets or fired.”
In November 2014, Superintendent Michael Harrison accepted his investigators’ conclusions and dismissed Shannon. The officer’s attorney has declined to comment on his pending appeal to the Civil Service Commission.
“We have a strong Force Investigation Team that conducts full investigations,” department spokesman Tyler Gamble said. “If we find policy violations, we initiate discipline, as we did in the Shannon case.”
In recent months, the NOPD has rewritten its policy on use of force and gained approval for the changes from the Justice Department. The federal consent decree monitor praised the new policy in April for providing “clearer definitions and guidance concerning levels and types of force.”
For the residents of the little patch of Mid-City where Shannon fired his shot in August 2013, however, even with reforms, the memories will linger.
“I’ll never forget it,” the grandmother said. “Those kids could have got killed.”