In yet another blow to a New Orleans Police Department beleaguered by recent losses of officers and loved ones, Officer Vernell Brown, 47, a 17-year veteran of the department, died Friday night at Interim LSU Hospital after spending almost a week there since being hit by a car last weekend while investigating a traffic problem.
“He was one of our great police officers. He’s the type of officer that we’re training the rest of our department to be,” said Police Superintendent Michael Harrison, who said he had spent time with Brown’s family every day since he was hospitalized and went into a coma.
On Friday night, as part of a prayer vigil held by a group of female officers, Harrison had walked from NOPD headquarters to the hospital, where they stood in front of the building and prayed for Brown’s recovery.
Instead, he had to hold a news conference Saturday morning to discuss his colleague’s death. He stood near the eternal flame in front of NOPD headquarters and the roll of fallen officers that soon will include Brown’s name.
Brown, who worked out of the 6th Police District in Central City, was struck by a car on the shoulder of the Pontchartrain Expressway on July 12 as he responded to an early morning vehicle fire at the roadway’s split with eastbound Interstate 10.
According to police accounts of the incident, Brown was hit by a Ford Mustang about 5:40 a.m., moments after getting out on the passenger side of a marked NOPD car. He was walking along the road’s shoulder, near the guardrail. “Within seconds of stepping out of the car, this incident happened. Almost immediately,” Harrison said.
No one has been arrested or charged in what Harrison said is an ongoing investigation.
The initial investigation showed that the Mustang likely left the road because it first collided with another car, a Toyota Scion. Both drivers suffered minor injuries. They remained on the scene and were interviewed by investigators.
Two police recruits in field training were with Brown at the time but were not injured.
Brown was considered an expert in traffic fatality reconstructions for court cases. Harrison characterized him as highly trained and “one of the best fatality reconstruction investigators the department has ever had.” Sadly, Harrison said, he fell “victim to the very type of incident that he once investigated.”
Brown’s death comes less than a month after the death of Officer Daryle Holloway, who was fatally shot June 20 as he drove 33-year-old Travis Boys to Central Lockup.
Like Holloway, Brown was popular within the NOPD ranks and was well known and respected within the community he served. “Vernell was a people person. People loved him; people were attracted to his personality,” Harrison said, noting that he had watched Brown work from two perspectives because Brown had once investigated a traffic accident in which Harrison was involved.
Tamara Jackson, of the city’s Social Aid and Pleasure Club Task Force, said Brown was often assigned to provide a motorcycle escort for Sunday second-line parades. He kept a close eye on the music and the clubs’ outfits and colors, she said. “He loved all that,” she said. He also kept an eye on the crowd and called for more officers if needed. “He made sure that the cultural community was safe,” she said.
She said both Holloway and Brown “worked closely with the community, whether they were in uniform or not.”
Watching the outpouring of affection for Holloway and Brown affirmed Harrison’s sense that police work is “a job of personalities,” he said. Over the years, he said, he has seen many officers who were outgoing and well regarded in their communities but who attracted little public notice.
Except for the manner of his death, Brown might have remained just another unsung officer.
“Vernell was a great guy,” Harrison said. “Everybody just felt relaxed around him. ... I think that’s the way he affected the community, and that’s the way he affected his colleagues. It’s such a shame that we don’t always hear about that until it’s too late.”