“Just two weeks ago I was reading reports, and an officer by the name of Wheeler in the Sixth District was riding around in his car, paying very close attention, hears the description of a vehicle wanted for armed robbery and within seconds catches four people who had just committed an armed robbery at Louisiana and Magazine,” Serpas said.
Fourteen days later, the department issued a news release stating that the same officer Wheeler was being dismissed from duty for deploying his Taser on an unarmed subject and for allegedly being untruthful about his report on the incident afterward.
That swing — from being hailed before the entire city as a singular example of good police work to being terminated two weeks later — is somewhat representative of Wheeler’s dramatic career as an officer. In five years, Wheeler’s career has been more eventful than many veterans of the force: he has shown an uncanny ability to be present soon enough after robberies take place to make numerous on-the-spot arrests such as Serpas mentioned, and his efforts have garnered him countless awards for his policing.
Wheeler is also known for a compassionate side, finding and rescuing small children wandering the city’s streets, and once buying a basketball for a child who had his stolen. Wheeler’s proactive nature has its own consequences, however: his pursuit of fleeing suspects has led to his shooting at suspects in at least five different cases, wounding one man and killing another.
Both Wheeler and his partner in the Second District, Officer Juan Vera, were dismissed Wednesday on charges of violating the NOPD truthfulness and moral conduct policies relating to an incident on Oct. 18, 2011. Responding to a call of a man armed with a machete, Wheeler and Vera ended up deploying their Tasers to incapacitate the man, Wheeler twice and Vera once, the NOPD release stated.
The Taser video later showed the man was unarmed and “posed no serious threat of bodily harm to either officer at the time,” the release stated. Because Wheeler and Vera told their supervisor afterward that the man was armed, they were both found to be untruthful, which requires termination, the release states. A third officer on scene, Larry King, was suspended for failing to report Wheeler and Vera.
Serpas issued the following statement with the release:
Ever since I first came back to this department as Chief, I’ve made it clear that- under no circumstances will we tolerate untruthfulness, and that anyone who is found to have been untruthful, will be terminated. Policing is one of the noblest of professions, and honesty on the job is a mandatory element.
Anyone who earns the privilege of wearing a law enforcement uniform immediately takes on the responsibility of keeping order in society. If officers are not honest and transparent about their actions, they don’t deserve the respect and cooperation of the people they serve.
In the Wheeler and Vera case, I am very satisfied that our internal control systems determined that the information provided in the police report did not match evidence available. I applaud their integrity, and am confident in their abilities as leaders; however, what is disappointing is that on-scene supervision failed and we have initiated an investigation into potential serious violations by field supervisors.
Independent Police Monitor Susan Hutson attended the hearings about Wheeler, and said that Deputy Chief Darryl Albert — Wheeler’s former commander in the Second District — did an “incredible job” in weighing the evidence and coming to the correct conclusions.
“This case was handled very well,” Hutson said.
Wheeler’s attorney, Raymond Burkhart, said in an interview Friday that Wheeler and Vera will be appealing, because the untruthfulness policy requires an intent to deceive, and that the officers did not know the suspect had been disarmed when they deployed their Tasers. The man, a mental patient, was in a dark room in a house with children, and while Wheeler and Vera pointed their Tasers at him, another officer had quietly taken his machete away without their knowledge, Burkhart said. When the man continued not to obey them to get on the ground, they fired their Tasers, Burkhart said — and then when they realized that he was off his medication, took him for mental-health treatment instead of to jail.
Wheeler and Vera still believed that the man had been holding the machete when they used their Tasers when they filed their report, Burkhart said, and it wasn’t until the review of the Taser video, which is equipped with night vision, that they realized his machete had been taken from him.
“That man saved lives. All of them did, and this is their payment,” Burkhart said, noting that Wheeler had no reason to lie about a videotaped incident. “This guy’s been investigated for more shootings than 15 cops with 30-year careers. He’s had to give statements in each of those. What’s his motivation today?”
Always out front
Burkhart’s characterization of Wheeler’s record may be an exaggeration, but not by much. Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s law department refused a public-records request in June to inspect his personnel file (citing concerns for Wheeler’s privacy based on a 2007 case that actually ordered a police department to turn over investigative files with witness information redacted), but a lengthy description of his career was written by the department earlier this year when he was recognized as the Second District’s October 2011 officer of the month.
The five-page summary of his career states that Wheeler began with the NOPD in December of 2007 after transferring from a department in the St. Louis area. The first incident it recounts is a theft investigation from the following summer in which a 10-year-old had his basketball stolen from him by two teens, and when Wheeler couldn’t find the thieves, he went and bought a basketball for victim and took it to him the next day.
The second incident recounted, from the fall of 2008, begins with Wheeler pursuing a stolen vehicle believed to have been used in a drive-by shooting. The driver crashed, and Wheeler chased him on foot into an abandoned public-housing complex, where the suspect pulled a gun, the report states, and Wheeler fired on him but missed. Afterward, Wheeler was able to identify the man, leading to his arrest, and his previous arrest history also included shooting at an officer and an attempted-murder charge.
Other shootings listed in the narrative include:
- In July 2009, Wheeler and another officer were patrolling an area that had seen a rise in auto thefts when they tried to stop a man who ran off, clutching his waistband. Wheeler chased after him, and the suspect turned to raise a rifle, the report states, but Wheeler fired at him and killed him. “It was later learned the deceased subject was a person of interest in a homicide in which shots were fired into a crowd attending a graduation party,” the report states.
- In the spring of 2010, Wheeler and another officer spotted a vehicle that had just been taken in an armed robbery, and pursued it until the occupants bailed out. The two officers then chased the men on foot, but one turned and raised a gun, so Wheeler fired at him, the report states, but missed and the men escaped.
- In the summer of 2011, Wheeler was checking on a vehicle illegally parked in a handicapped spot when the passenger got out with a gun and ran, the narrative states. Wheeler chased him, and when the man turned around and pointed the gun at Wheeler, Wheeler fired, but missed. The suspect threw down his gun and escaped, but other officers caught him nearby.
- Finally, Wheeler was involved in another shooting incident in early June 2012, after the report was compiled. After three armed, masked men tied up the employees of a carwash on South Claiborne and robbed the establishment, Wheeler arrived on scene just as the gunmen were leaving, and followed one to South Rendon Street. The suspect got out and ran; Wheeler followed, and the suspect then “turned towards the officer in a suspicious manner” in a dark alley, NOPD officials said at the time, so Wheeler fired his gun, hitting the man in the pelvis.
The narrative goes on to list a number of other robberies and carjackings — usually Uptown — in which Wheeler spotted the suspect’s vehicles, pursued them and arrested them without incident. He and Vera were also adept at finding assault rifles and other weapons and taking them off the streets. In October 2010, he used his Taser to subdue and capture a murder suspect who crashed his vehicle into a house. During Mardi Gras 2011, Wheeler saw a murder suspect ditch a gun into a parked car, but when Wheeler realized a child was inside the vehicle, stayed there for the child’s safety and directed other officers to arrest the suspect.
Wheeler was also injured in the June 2012 shooting incident on South Rendon Street, but after returning to work he was given an officer-of-the-month award for his work solving the case. Such awards must line Wheeler’s walls — the NOPD narrative and Uptown Messenger archives show that he was also officer of the month in March, April and October 2010, and in December 2011; officer of the quarter in twice in 2010 and at least twice in 2011, and officer of the year for the Second District in 2011, awarded shortly after the Taser incident that last week led to his dismissal.
“These officers play a key role in reducing crime in our district,” Second District Commander Paul Noel said of Wheeler and Vera in March of this year at a community meeting that included presentation of some of those awards.
Because of pending appeal for his dismissal, Wheeler deferred questions about his career to his attorney. Since the termination was announced last week, Burkhart said Wheeler has received numerous calls from victims of crimes Wheeler solved who were expressing support for him.
“He does exactly what he’s supposed to do with his job,” Burkhart said. “He does it without fear of risk to life or limb.”
Hutson said that the Independent Police Monitor said her office is still reviewing the individual cases in Wheeler’s record.
“It’s very rare for an officer to have more than one,” Hutson said of Wheeler’s history of weapon discharges.
On one hand, Hutson said, it is plausible that an officer could have acted appropriately in each of five shooting cases he was involved in. Further, such a history isn’t necessarily in conflict with his many awards, she said: Wheeler’s pattern of being proactive in responding to violent-crime calls is likely exactly what police commanders are looking for in officers.
But Hutson said her office’s review of his cases will examine whether Wheeler’s stops were lawful, and if there are any patterns to the cases he involved himself in. They’ll also look into his tactics in handling cases, and whether he is conducting his investigations in ways that could endanger others.
“Any officer with that kind of use-of-force record is somebody we know about,” Hutson said.
While the shooting reviews remain under investigation, Hutson reiterated that she supports the decision for dismissal reached in the Taser case. Burkhart, Wheeler’s attorney, disagreed: Where Wheeler was once assigned to coach rookie officers, his dismissal sends a dangerous message.
“They’re setting up officers to not use force,” Burkhart said. “What will happen is that innocent people will get hurt, because officers are hesitating.”