The Fraternal Order of Police has called on the head of the New Orleans Police Department’s Public Integrity Bureau to resign over comments she made Tuesday about a controversial shooting involving Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office deputies.
NOPD Deputy Chief Arlinda Westbrook told family members of Eric Harris, the 22-year-old man shot to death by Jefferson deputies in Central City after a car chase on Feb. 8, that if New Orleans police officers had shot him, they would have been arrested “on the spot.”
NOPD policy bans officers from shooting at moving vehicles unless suspects are employing another form of deadly force, such as a gun.
“If that was our police officer, because it’s so contrary to our policy, they would have been arrested on the spot,” Westbrook was quoted by nola.com as saying. “We would not have been authorized in New Orleans to take any of those actions.”
The NOPD is investigating the shooting because it occurred inside city limits. Westbrook’s statement was made off-the-cuff to Harris’ family members at a community forum focused on his death.
The police union reacted angrily. “These statements are ludicrous, reckless and unnecessarily inflammatory,” Fraternal Order of Police spokesman Donovan Livaccari said in a statement on behalf of the group’s executive board. “Westbrook has proven that she is not fit to be a member of the New Orleans Police Department.”
Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand has said Harris was shot after backing up his car toward deputies who had pursued him after a confrontation at the Oakwood Mall in Gretna. The Sheriff’s Office said Harris had a gun in his vehicle but did not point or shoot it at the deputies.
JPSO policy allows deputies to shoot at moving vehicles if they feel their life is in danger, even in the absence of a second form of deadly force.
As the police union noted in its statement, the decision on whether to criminally charge officers is distinct from whether they violate department policies.
Livaccari said he had received a statement from the NOPD suggesting that Westbrook was simply trying to explain to Harris’ family the differences in the two agencies’ policies on use of deadly force.
Livaccari said he believed Westbrook’s comments were “intended to placate the grieving family.” But he said they seemed to show a misunderstanding of the probable cause necessary for a criminal arrest, raising questions about any investigation handled by her office.
“Perhaps Ms. Westbrook got caught up in the moment and misspoke,” Livaccari said. “However, the damage has been done.”
Westbrook, a civilian who previously served as a deputy city attorney, has been in charge of the Public Integrity Bureau since 2010. As a deputy superintendent, she has a large say in whether to discipline or criminally charge officers accused of misconduct, which means she is often at odds with police unions.
Seeking to tamp down anger among rank-and-file officers over Westbrook’s comments, Police Superintendent Michael Harrison addressed what he called “the elephant in the room” at a weekly departmental commanders’ briefing on Wednesday.
“It was a mistake,” Harrison said of Westbrook’s comment. “She acknowledges the mistake of the thing she said.”
“We have never arrested any officer on the spot who in the performance of their duty was acting under color of law. Never,” Harrison said. “FOP came out rather strong, asking for her to step down and resign. That’s an overreach and an overreaction.”
Harrison said he also had reached out to local sheriffs, including Normand, to assure them that their deputies should not fear pursuing suspects into Orleans Parish.
“They have committed to me that they would pass that message on to their department,” Harrison said. “I’m now asking you (departmental commanders) to pass that message on to the men and women who work for you.”