Three times in the early evening hours of Nov. 20, 2012, Covington Police Officer Nicholas Harper used a stun gun to subdue George Davis, a shoplifting and battery suspect who was handcuffed and in the Covington Police Department’s holding cell.
On Tuesday, 22nd Judicial District Court Judge Richard Swartz found Harper guilty of simple battery and sentenced him to 10 days in jail for the misdemeanor, saying that while his first use of the stun gun may have been defensible, the second and third were not. Swartz also fined him $500 and added a 90-day suspended jail sentence and a year of supervised probation.
Swartz’s decision came at the end of a single-day trial during which Harper argued that he was under threat from Davis who, just prior to being stunned, had bitten another Covington police officer, Anthony Adams, breaking the skin and announcing that he had AIDS.
Prosecutors countered that Harper should never have gone into the holding cell in the first place and that while the first use of the stun gun may have been justifiable, the second was not and the third was “way beyond the pale.”
Harper’s actions clearly met the definition of simple battery, defined by the criminal code as the use of force without the consent of the victim, Swartz said in delivering his verdict.
The case centered on interpretations of a nearly two-hour video, taken from a camera mounted high in the Covington Police Department’s booking room, where Davis was being held. The video began with a handcuffed Davis being brought into the room after being arrested by Harper.
After Davis was put in the holding cell — a metal cage really, with room for him to stand — he began to plead with Harper to let him go with just a citation. He also complained that his handcuffs were too tight and that because his belt had been removed, his pants had fallen down around his ankles.
Harper read Davis his Miranda rights and tried to get him to sign a paper saying he understood them.
“How can I sign with my hands tied behind my back, sir?” Davis asked.
The two went back and forth in this manner for about 30 minutes, with Davis alternately shouting and pleading, and Harper encouraging Davis to calm down and saying he was not going to let him go. A little over a half hour in, another officer, not visible on the screen, came into the room and asked Harper why he didn’t tell Davis to “shut the f*** up.”
Davis erupted in a profane tirade at the officer, and after that alternated between pleading and anger. After about 50 minutes, he began to say he had to go to the bathroom.
Adams then entered and decided to enter the cell. A scuffle between Davis and Adams ensued, with Harper backing Adams while Adams reacted to apparently being bitten. During the scuffle, Harper stunned Davis, and then did it again about a minute later.
About 12 minutes later, after EMTs examined Davis, Harper stunned him yet again.
Soon afterward, medics escorted Davis to an ambulance so he could be taken to the hospital.
Davis, shackled and clad in a green and white striped jumpsuit Tuesday, testified he was “not very polite” to the officers, but insisted that his behavior didn’t rise to the level of “resisting” because he was handcuffed the entire time.
The March 2013 arrests of Harper and Adams — whose case is still pending — were the latest in a string of allegations of excessive use of force by Covington police officers.
Police Chief Richard Palmisano, who already had a rocky relationship with Mayor Mike Cooper, eventually lost his job because of the Harper arrest.
Six months later, Cooper hired former St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Tim Lentz to head the department.
Tuesday, Lentz was one of the witnesses called by Assistant District Attorney Jack Hoffstadt. Lentz said Harper’s actions had “no justification” and were “troubling.”
“I don’t know why they went into the cage in the first place,” he said. “There was no impediment to (Harper) leaving the cell at any time” during the confrontation, he said.
Harper also claimed he was following the orders of his supervisor, Lt. James Beach, who testified that he told Harper to use the stun gun if Davis was unruly or uncooperative.
Harper’s attorney, Christine Voelkel, said she would appeal the decision to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal. Harper also has sued the city in district court.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.