The Advocate filed a lawsuit Friday against Louisiana State Police over the agency's refusal to release a trooper’s body camera footage from a November traffic stop involving an off-duty New Orleans police officer.
The officer, Sgt. Chantelle Davis, is now under investigation by the NOPD’s Public Integrity Bureau over her actions during and after she was cited for speeding on the West Bank Expressway in Jefferson Parish on Nov. 17, police records show.
Her supervisor, 8th District Cmdr. Nicholas Gernon, the city’s top cop in the French Quarter, also is under PIB investigation over his handling of a complaint by State Police over Davis’ “attitude” during the stop.
Davis, an 8th District detective under Gernon, was promoted to sergeant Dec. 28, with NOPD brass holding her up as an exemplar of departmental efforts to develop women leaders on the force.
The two PIB investigations both were initiated on Jan. 24, two weeks after The Advocate, checking out a news tip, filed a public-records request with State Police.
The newspaper sought all reports, memos and video related to the traffic stop. State Police released four pages of documents, including a copy of the speeding ticket that was issued to Davis, forms showing the ticket was torn up, and an unflattering account of Davis’ behavior as seen on the body cam video.
State Police, which only recently began equipping troopers with body-worn cameras, refused to provide the video itself to The Advocate, however.
Faye Morrison, assistant secretary of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety, which includes State Police, responded that releasing the footage would violate Davis’ “reasonable expectation of privacy.”
The Advocate's lawsuit, filed in the 19th Judicial District Court in East Baton Rouge Parish, claims the state had no valid reason to withhold the video of an incident that occurred on a public roadway.
"Body cameras may be new technology, but the public records law says that recordings are accessible by the public," said Scott Sternberg, The Advocate's attorney. "The Advocate filed suit today to ensure that the public has access to video recorded on a camera paid for with taxpayer dollars, worn by a public servant and which captures two police officers interacting on a public street."
The State Police documents show Davis, 33, was driving on the expressway a little after noon on a bright Saturday, headed for an LSU football game, when Trooper Jared Taylor pulled her over for going 83 mph in a 60-mph zone.
Davis exited her vehicle tapping away on her cell phone. She then “talked herself into a ticket by being dismissive, arrogant and disrespectful” to the trooper, according to a State Police review of the video.
Initially, Davis had complained that the trooper had pulled her over in an unsafe spot. But when Gernon called his counterparts at State Police, they reviewed the video and decided it was Davis who was out of line.
“She immediately had an attitude, tried to control the stop, volunteered that she was NOPD, challenged (the trooper) on where he told her to stand, shooed him disrespectfully and ordered him to write the ticket so she could go,” Troop B Lt. Jay Cripple wrote in an e-mail to Troop B Capt. Donovan Archote.
Still, Archote voided the ticket. “Matter handled with Commander Nick Gernon,” he wrote.
Andy Cunningham, the NOPD's communications director, acknowledged that Gernon's actions in response to the speeding ticket were "part of an ongoing investigation" but declined to provide details.
"While the investigation continues, we can confirm Louisiana State Police has stated Commander Gernon did not ask for the ticket to be voided," Cunningham said in an email. He also said, in reference to Davis, that the incident "does not rise to the level of denying someone a promotion."
Attorney Eric Hessler, who is representing Gernon, called the allegations “much ado about nothing.”
“I’ll submit that he didn’t report that to PIB. But had he reported it, it wouldn’t have been a prohibition on her being promoted,” Hessler said. “It’s a very, very minor violation, if it was a violation.”
Hessler said he has viewed the video and didn’t find Davis’ actions to be worthy of a write-up.
“Nick did exactly what a supervisor would do. He looked into it," Hessler said. "I think that’s a call a supervisor should be able to make under the circumstances.”
Under NOPD rules, supervisors like Gernon have little discretion when it comes to reporting even minor complaints lodged against subordinates, and it doesn’t take a signed complaint to trigger the reporting requirement.
Even when a supervisor “elects to address and resolve a minor violation/infraction through non-disciplinary counseling or training,” that supervisor must still report the matter to the Public Integrity Bureau, according to the NOPD’s operations manual.
Gernon’s alleged violations include fumbling a complaint of officer misconduct and neglect of duty for failing to properly supervise a subordinate.
Davis is accused of violating NOPD rules governing moral conduct, professionalism and an apparent failure to properly report her speeding infraction.
The mere allegations against Davis aren’t serious enough to have automatically stalled her promotion to sergeant, had they been referred to PIB earlier. But sources familiar with the NOPD’s disciplinary process said such allegations can have that effect in practice.
As a detective, Davis took the lead on a high-profile case involving two Boston employees of the Unitarian Universalist Association who were attacked and robbed in June 2017 on Bienville Street in the French Quarter. She ranked tied for 28th on the list of 96 sergeant candidates from which she was chosen.
Gernon, 39, is a 16-year NOPD veteran and long viewed as a rising star in the department. He was elevated three years ago to the high-profile commander’s post in the Eighth District, which includes the French Quarter, the Central Business District and a slice of Faubourg Marigny.
A lieutenant in rank, Gernon was previously assistant commander of the 6th District, covering Central City and Uptown neighborhoods. Before then, he commanded the NOPD’s homicide unit.
His supporters suggest the allegations against Gernon are slight. Some suggest a political motivation. The tip came to The Advocate days before former NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison announced he was leaving for Baltimore.
Gernon’s name was not on the unofficial short list of candidates that Mayor LaToya Cantrell was said to have considered before she swiftly named NOPD veteran Shaun Ferguson as Harrison's successor. But sources within the department say Harrison’s departure has spawned uncertainty in the pecking order, and thus backbiting.
Ferguson has yet to announce any significant changes in the NOPD’s command staff.
Gernon has faced previous discipline over allegations he may have tried to protect a subordinate officer.
In 2015, he was issued a letter of reprimand for waiting three hours to call internal affairs after he was alerted that one of his homicide detectives, Sgt. Daniel McMullen, had committed a hit-and-run in Jefferson Parish.
But seven months later, Gernon and the department reached an “amicable settlement” to remove the letter of discipline from his file. Jefferson Parish prosecutors also dismissed a misdemeanor hit-and-run charge against McMullen.
For her part, Davis has faced a variety of relatively minor complaints over her nine years on the force, Civil Service records show. Among them, she received a three-day suspension for taking unauthorized sick days in 2013.
Her supervisors caught on when a photo of Davis appeared in a local newspaper, showing her in uniform at an NOPD recruit graduation ceremony while she claimed to be ill. The photo captured Davis embracing her sister, who had just graduated from the NOPD training academy.