It seemed that the racial atmosphere couldn’t get any more tense after sheriff’s deputies Kenneth Bonura and Henry DeJean chased Eric Harris into New Orleans from a suburban mall and shot him dead in his car last month. Protesters already had taken to the streets.
But Deputy Superintendent Arlinda Westbrook, head of New Orleans Police Department’s Public Integrity Unit, up and added fuel to the fire.
After Harris, 22, joined the long list of black men to die at the hands of American law enforcement, Westbrook declared that, if New Orleans cops had done the shooting, they would have been “arrested on the spot.”
This was not some unguarded remark picked up by a sharp-eared reporter. Westbrook was speaking through a microphone to a crowd of Harris’ friends and relations, who already were eager to see Bonura and DeJean prosecuted. If no riot ensued, it was no thanks to Westbrook. The guy who shouts fire in a crowded theater is no bigger threat to civic order.
What Westbrook said was as nonsensical as it was inflammatory. By averring that New Orleans cops would have been arrested for the shooting, Westbrook was branding it a crime, so why weren’t Bonura and DeJean delivered to the slammer? Are invading cops subject to less stringent standards than the city’s finest?
Hardly. If there would have been probable cause for NOPD to book its own, there was no reason to let a couple of deputies in hot pursuit from Jefferson Parish off the hook. In fact, no way, if New Orleans cops had shot Harris, would they have been “arrested on the spot.”
It is a mystery how Westbrook could have risen so high in the ranks without any understanding of her own department’s procedures. When an NOPD officer is suspected of misbehavior in the line of duty, the District Attorney’s Office is called in to decide whether the law has been broken. Only in the event the district attorney advises the answer is yes is any arrest be made. Westbrook made her wild observations before a police report had even been forwarded to the district attorney. NOPD is still investigating, as is the FBI.
The New Orleans police union, with its members somewhat alarmed at the thought of arrest for confronting armed suspects, called on Westbrook to resign, noting she had “never been a police officer before” and does not understand “basic law enforcement concepts.”
Westbrook did, indeed, not come up through the ranks, but she has held this job since 2010. You might think she should understand probable cause by now, especially as she was a deputy city attorney when then-Police Chief Ronal Serpas hired her.
NOPD issued a statement claiming that Westbrook merely “misspoke.” What she had purportedly intended to convey was that NOPD and the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office have different policies when it comes to shooting at suspects in moving vehicles. If that had, indeed, been her intent, she could just have said that New Orleans cops in similar circumstances would not have opened fire. Her mention of arrest was so off the wall that it can only have been deliberate.
Bonura and DeJean set off in pursuit of Harris after he allegedly waved a gun at some women in the Oakwood Shopping Center, jumped into his car and drove onto the West Bank Expressway, ramming into a JPSO patrol car and proceeding across the Mississippi River Bridge. Bonura and DeJean gave chase until Harris crashed into a telephone pole. According to JPSO, Bonura and DeJean got out of their car and were approaching from behind when Harris started to back up. A hail of gunfire, and that was that.
Although Harris, who has been convicted on drug and firearms charges, was forbidden to carry a gun as part of a plea deal, a Glock, the hoodlum’s favorite, was found on the floor of his car, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand said.
It may be that New Orleans cops, who are forbidden by department rule to open fire unless “the occupants of the vehicle are using deadly force other than the vehicle itself,” would have forborne to kill Harris on the spot, with who knows what consequences. But JPSO has found nothing untoward in the shooting, and Bonura and DeJean have not even been reassigned. If they were out of line, state or federal authorities will presumably file charges. They will not be needing any advice from Westbrook.
James Gill’s email address is email@example.com.