NOPD video

New Orleans police are investigating whether the officer in the white shirt used an appropriate amount of force in detaining a woman who was involved in a fight in the French Quarter, authorities said Monday, April 15, 2019. (screenshot via video)

An attorney for a New Orleans Police Department commander who twice appeared to toss a woman to the ground while trying to arrest her Saturday for fighting during French Quarter Festival rejected the notion Wednesday that his client used excessive force during an encounter captured on a widely viewed cellphone video.

Cmdr. Octavio Baldassaro of the NOPD’s 8th District, which includes the French Quarter, suffered two scratches on his left arm from the elbow to the wrist and was also hit in the chest with a metal water bottle before officers managed to restrain the woman, said his lawyer, Eric Hessler of the Police Association of New Orleans.

Meanwhile, the attorney for the woman — who is accused of fighting and resisting arrest — said she is a nursing student who did nothing to warrant rough treatment from Baldassaro.

The woman, 21-year-old Taylor Bruce, was allegedly among at least three people fighting at Bienville and North Peters streets on Saturday, the third day of French Quarter Festival.

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Bruce and one other woman were arrested following the melee. Bruce was booked on counts of disturbing the peace, resisting police, battery of an officer and interfering with law enforcement.

But Baldassaro — who was promoted to the highly visible post of 8th District commander late last month — also fell under scrutiny when the video of the brawl circulated on social media and showed him seeming to throw Bruce to the ground two times before officers handcuffed her.

The video also shows Bruce swinging at Baldassaro’s head as officers on horseback circle the chaotic scene.

The Police Department has opened separate internal investigations of whether the level of force used by Baldassaro was justified and whether he should be disciplined.

An attorney representing Bruce, Robert Ferrier, said Wednesday that his client has since followed up by filing a formal complaint with the NOPD accusing Baldassaro of excessive force.

Ferrier described Bruce as a McDonogh 35 High School graduate and a nursing student at Southern University in Baton Rouge who’s close to finishing her degree. He said she has never previously been arrested or even handcuffed.

“Once an investigation is fully conducted by myself and the New Orleans Police Department, it will show that my client was wrongly arrested,” Ferrier, a former NOPD officer, told reporters outside Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. “My client will be completely exonerated of these charges.”

In a separate interview, Hessler conceded the graphic nature of the video clip, which picks up in the middle of the incident and whose viewpoint is blocked at points by the officers on horseback. But he said Baldassaro approached Bruce because she was involved in a fight among at least three people “who did not respond to verbal commands” to stop.

“The next level of reasonable force is to use physical force,” Hessler said, adding that Baldassaro tried simply to pull Bruce away and inadvertently threw her to the ground in the process.

“That was an unintended consequence, but it happened. That should have been the end of it, but she comes back after being ordered to stay on the ground and hits him with a heavy water bottle, a metal water bottle,” said Hessler, sharing Baldassaro’s side of the encounter for the first time.

Bruce also ripped Baldassaro's white uniform shirt and inflicted two “extremely deep scratches” on his left forearm before officers arrested her, the lawyer said.

Hessler said Baldassaro continues to perform his usual duties and that the internal investigations into his actions could take up to four months to complete.

An NOPD spokesman didn’t comment on the case Wednesday other than to say it remains under investigation.

One law enforcement source familiar with the probes said investigators have recovered video footage of the incident from another vantage point that is consistent with Hessler’s statements about what Baldassaro did. The Advocate has not reviewed that footage.

Since signing a federal reform pact in 2013, the NOPD has taught its officers to try to ease tensions without using force whenever possible in confrontations with members of the public.

Follow Ramon Antonio Vargas on Twitter, @RVargasAdvocate.