The family of a suspected car thief who was fatally shot by Kenner police last year has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the city and several unnamed officers.
The lawsuit, filed last week in U.S. District Court, claims Kenner police violated the civil rights of Don White, 24, and used excessive force in “attempting to frame an innocent man for crimes which he did not commit.”
The lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages and $9,216 in funeral costs.
Lionel “Lon” Burns, the attorney representing White’s children, said he believes the FBI should have investigated the case “long ago,” likening it to the death of Michael Brown, the unarmed teenager fatally shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri.
Burns charged that “it’s open season on black males in Kenner,” alluding to a separate fatal shooting in January in which a Kenner police officer killed a man who, like White, was seeking to elude police in a vehicle.
“There seems to be a disconnect when it comes to police recognizing the rights of African-American males to be in vehicles and be unarmed and have their right to life,” Burns said. “The only thing we’re looking for is justice and proper reparation for the survivors.”
Philip J. Boudousqué, an attorney for the Police Department, declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying city officials had not yet been served a copy.
Steve Caraway, who was the Kenner police chief at the time, told reporters last year that White’s shooting death appeared to have been justified because the officer feared for his safety. Police said the officer believed White was trying to run him over with a stolen vehicle.
The Police Department has declined to release reports related to the case pending a review by the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office. The New Orleans Advocate requested the case file in a public-records request in May.
Burns criticized what he called a lack of transparency in the Police Department’s investigation of itself. More than a year after the Nov. 8, 2013, incident, he said, the family still has not been able to learn which officer fired the shot that struck White in the head.
“No one who gets into a stolen vehicle decides to forfeit his life,” Burns said. “The officer made that decision.”
The shooting happened on a Friday evening in the back parking lot of a row of apartments at Martinique and West Esplanade avenues.
A camera scanning for stolen vehicles had alerted the authorities that a 2009 Nissan Altima, reported stolen about two weeks earlier, was entering Kenner’s city limits. An officer driving a marked unit found the car parked with its motor running behind an apartment in the 3500 block of Martinique, not far from where it had been reported stolen.
The officer, whom police have refused to identify, stepped out of his car, walked around the Nissan and shined his flashlight at its tinted windows.
Caraway said at the time that the officer approached the front door of the car looking for its vehicle identification number when he spotted White reclining in the front seat. With his gun drawn, the officer ordered White to get out of the vehicle and to show his hands.
White disregarded those commands, police have said, and began driving toward the officer. The officer fired a single shot, striking White in the head.
White was taken to Interim LSU Public Hospital, where he died after being taken off life support.
While Burns said White was unarmed, Kenner police said they found a 9 mm semi-automatic handgun inside the stolen Nissan. Investigators also have said they believe White had burglarized an apartment in the 3600 block of Martinique on Oct. 24, 2013, though a warrant had not been issued for his arrest in that case when the officer spotted him in the stolen vehicle.
Less than three months after White’s death, Kenner police shot another fleeing suspect, Eldrin L. Smart, 31, of St. James Parish, who allegedly threw a vehicle into reverse and sped away from a parking lot as officers tried to arrest him.
An undercover officer, whom police also have refused to identify, ended up sprawled out inside the car and, fearing for his safety, shot Smart four times, including once in the head. The officer was knocked into the car through an open door as it began to move, police have said, and allegedly had been struck by Smart inside the vehicle.
“I don’t think you have to wait until the gun is drawn or the knife is pulled,” Caraway said in January, speaking generally of officers’ decision to use lethal force. “This is a dangerous business.”
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