A man shot in the head last year by a New Orleans police officer has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city and the officer, who he claims opened fire on him “without reason.”
Armond Bennett, 27, spent several days in the hospital, including two in the intensive care unit, after the officer, Lisa Lewis, fired a bullet that sliced across his scalp.
The lawsuit, filed last week in U.S. District Court, claims Bennett did “nothing to provoke” the shooting, and that Lewis concocted a “false and misleading story” in an attempt to justify the use of force.
The shooting, which happened on Aug. 10, 2014, in Algiers, initially sparked controversy due to the unusual amount of time it took the New Orleans Police Department to alert the public that one of its officers had been involved in a shooting. Then-Superintendent Ronal Serpas called the two-day delay an embarrassing oversight, but he released few details of what had actually occurred.
The department remains equally reticent about the shooting today. Lewis was suspended for one day for failing to wear her body camera at the time of the shooting. She was placed on administrative reassignment after the shooting and remains there, pending “an ongoing criminal investigation,” Tyler Gamble, an NOPD spokesman, said Monday.
At the time of the shooting, Lewis and her partner, Patrick Guidry, had been trying to arrest Bennett in the 3700 block of Mimosa Court on a felony warrant — he was accused of illegally possessing a firearm and marijuana, charges that prosecutors later refused — stemming from a traffic stop nine days earlier.
During that initial stop, Lewis and another officer, Lucretia Gantner, pulled Bennett over in the parking lot of Davita Dialysis because of a “partially obscured license plate with only one light,” the lawsuit says.
Bennett, while searching for his registration, was asked to account for a gun holster the officers spotted in the back seat of his vehicle. “Mr. Bennett explained that he did not have a weapon in the car with him,” the lawsuit says, “but that he was a security guard at Davita Dialysis and was supposed to carry a weapon in that capacity.”
Lewis asked Bennett to step out of the vehicle, the lawsuit says, while Gantner drew her weapon and “started shouting for Mr. Bennett to show his hands.”
“Mr. Bennett was confused and terrified by this sudden escalation in the traffic stop,” the lawsuit says. “He attempted to explain to Lewis that he did not have anything on him to concern the officers.”
The lawsuit says Lewis grabbed Bennett by the hair and that he “ran away from the officers, in fear of his life.”
Nandi Campbell, Bennett’s defense attorney, said body-worn camera footage of the Aug. 1, 2014, traffic stop shows Bennett did not have a gun. She said it also shows that officers did not allege in any radio communications that they had seen a firearm until a sergeant arrived at the scene and suggested the presence of a weapon would allow them to apply for a felony warrant rather than a misdemeanor.
“It makes it clear that he didn’t have a firearm, and they knew he didn’t have a firearm,” Campbell said. “Bennett runs off and leaves some (dreadlocks) behind, because Lewis has him by the dreads.”
Bennett had outstanding warrants for failure to pay traffic tickets in Jefferson Parish at the time of the traffic stop, but he did not have a significant criminal history, Campbell said. “We’re not talking about somebody that’s been in and out of the system,” she said.
A drug-sniffing dog found a small plastic bag in Bennett’s car that authorities said contained marijuana residue. A magistrate issued a warrant for Bennett’s arrest on counts of possession of marijuana, illegal carrying of a weapon with a controlled dangerous substance and simple criminal damage to property — a count that apparently stemmed from damage to Lewis’ police radio during the encounter.
Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, said the charges against Bennett were refused in December. He did not offer any reasons for that decision.
Nine days after the traffic stop, Bennett again encountered Lewis on the West Bank as he and his brother were returning home in the early morning. Upon arriving at Bennett’s brother’s home, the lawsuit says, the men saw an NOPD cruiser begin to “creep toward them.”
Campbell said she believes the officers “knew eventually that there would be problems with the warrant and felt like if they arrested him — I don’t want to say they were trying to clean it up, but the video from the first stop was really compelling as to what their purpose was in finding him a couple weeks later.”
Lewis and Guidry got out of the vehicle with their guns drawn, the lawsuit alleges, and ordered the brothers to put up their hands.
“Suddenly, and without reason, justification or provocation, Lewis pulled the trigger on her weapon and shot at Mr. Bennett,” the lawsuit says. “Mr. Bennett had done nothing to provoke this use of excessive and deadly force.”
The lawsuit says Bennett ran away and stumbled and that Lewis fired a second time. One round grazed Bennett’s scalp but did not penetrate his skull. Still, he was unable to speak when he arrived at the hospital, the lawsuit says, and was so “unstable” that he had to be given a breathing tube.
“It was a lucky thing,” said Elizabeth Cumming, one of Bennett’s attorneys, noting that a different bullet trajectory could have proved fatal.
New Orleans police have offered a conflicting version of the shooting. Serpas said last year that Bennett had been in a fight with the officer when she opened fire.
An application for a search warrant that authorized investigators to take saliva samples from Lewis said that another officer had heard Lewis ask for help and say, “He’s got my gun!”
Bennett’s attorneys deny he made any attempt to take Lewis’ weapon.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.