The New Orleans Police Department is reviewing whether a district commander acted appropriately when he twice tossed a woman to the ground while trying to break up a fight during French Quarter Festival over the weekend, officials said Monday.
Cmdr. Octavio Baldassaro, who was promoted last month to head the department's 8th District — which encompasses the French Quarter and Central Business District — stands out in a cellphone video of the fracas that was circulated online because he is wearing a commander's white uniform shirt.
Baldassaro’s arm was badly scratched and parts of his uniform were ripped while he tried to detain the woman, who police said was at the center of a fight that a group of officers — some of whom were on horseback — were trying to break up.
Nonetheless, NOPD spokesman Andy Cunningham said Baldassaro is being investigated on whether he used force appropriately during a brawl that led to the arrests of two women: Taylor Bruce, 21, and Torian Lewis, 26.
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Bruce apparently is the woman in the video.
Cunningham late Monday also said New Orleans Police Superintendent Shaun Ferguson had opened a separate, formal disciplinary investigation into Baldassaro's handling of the clash.
“I want our community to know we are taking this incident very seriously and you can be confident the NOPD is committed to conducting a fair and impartial investigation,” Ferguson said in a statement about a kind of probe that gauges whether an officer should be reprimanded, suspended or face some other type of discipline.
Ferguson's statement also said, “Please understand these investigations take time, but that we will continue to be transparent throughout the process.”
Since signing a federal reform pact in 2013, the NOPD has taught its officers to try to ease tensions whenever possible while confronting members of the public.
The agency ranks uses of force from 1 — such as hand fighting — to 4, such as a deadly shooting. An internal team of detectives who examine whether uses of force by officers were appropriate or excessive will investigate Baldassaro's actions as a level 1 use of force.
The inquiry will focus on whether Baldassaro's actions on the video were justified.
Cunningham said that the outside monitors who track the agency’s progress on the reform agreement as well as the city’s watchdog Independent Police Monitor's Office have both been notified of the probe to fulfill transparency mandates associated with the reform pact.
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Tonya McClary, of the Independent Police Monitor's Office, said the agency expects the NOPD to address whether Baldassaro used the "minimum amount of force that the objectively reasonable officer would use in light of the circumstances to effectively bring an incident or person under control,” as required by agency policy.
Details about the fight that drew in Baldassaro and other officers were limited on Monday. But a video clip showing the incident was posted on social media Saturday, apparently some hours after it had occurred.
It shows the melee occurring in the 300 block of North Peters Street amid crowds that had gathered for the French Quarter Festival's music and food.
Police said uniformed officers on horseback and on foot were struggling to separate two women who were fighting.
The officer identified as Baldassaro then approached one of the women from behind, grabbing her and hurling her onto a concrete crosswalk, a cellphone video that picks up in the middle of the altercation shows.
The woman then gets up and swings her purse at Baldassaro’s head as an officer on horseback momentarily crosses the camera’s viewpoint.
Baldassaro then comes forward as the woman stumbles back and, with his arms, throws her onto her back. He then unsuccessfully grasps at her head before grabbing her by the shirt and pinning her onto the ground before other officers arrive to handcuff her. A second woman is handcuffed as well, the video shows.
The person recording the video is heard loudly directing profanities toward Baldassaro while also calling out, “I got it on video.”
Bruce was booked on counts of disturbing the peace, resisting police, battery of an officer and interfering with law enforcement — indicating she was the woman involved in the encounter caught on the video. Lewis was booked on disturbing the peace.
While police didn’t elaborate on the investigations into Baldassaro, they said his actions are getting a close look based on his position as a supervisor.
Department higher-ups may also be sensitive to the racial overtones of the situation. Baldassaro is white, while Bruce is black.
Also, Baldassaro is in charge of police who patrol a part of the city that is frequently saturated with visitors and revelers enjoying New Orleans’ many festivals and sporting events.
Last summer, 8th District officers drew praise from NOPD brass for their handling of a wild melee on Bourbon Street, during which one participant stood behind officers and pulled out a gun while others attacked cops, injuring them.
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Police used a stun gun on one man charged with headbutting an officer and trying to flee from the scene. Other suspects in that incident, including the one who pulled a gun, were taken into custody without being seriously injured.
The 8th District had been under the leadership of Cmdr. Nicholas Gernon since 2016, but he was transferred last month to head up the agency’s crime lab, property storage and evidence processing personnel.
Baldassaro, a 21-year NOPD veteran, replaced Gernon as commander of the 8th District following a stint as a lieutenant heading the investigations unit and serving as the second-in-command in the 1st District, encompassing Mid-City and Treme.
He had also previously worked on gang and major drug cases and was a member of the NOPD’s SWAT team for seven years.
This post was updated since it was first published to add comments from the NOPD and the independent police monitor.