State Senator J.P. Morrell is not letting this go – nor should he.
A month ago, a video was released showing the detention of two young black males, Sidney Newman, 17, and Ferdinand Hunt, 18, by eight plainclothes state troopers. The video, taken on February 10, 2013 just after a parade, shows the two teens leaning against a wall in the 700 block of Conti Street. Suddenly they are surrounded by State Troopers.
One of the youths took a few steps away and was jumped, grabbed by his shirt and flung around to the ground. The other is pushed up against a wall. It was a very fast and violent confrontation between the teens and the troopers.
As this is happening, a white male approaches on the sidewalk. When he is close, one of the troopers stepped forward and started pointing for him to detour. A second later, with very little time for the man to react, the trooper shoves the man with both hands, pushing him out into the street.
Not long after, a female NOPD officer arrives on the scene and identified herself as Hunt’s mother. The troopers then released both of the teenagers to her custody.
Let’s just see all the things wrong with what the State Troopers did here:
1. No cause to approach the teenagers to begin with. State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson has promised a “transparent” investigation of the incident, but to my knowledge, the State Police have never actually told us why these teens were approached by nine plainclothes troopers to begin with. In order to detain them (and they sure as heck did that) the troopers would at least have needed a reasonable, particularized suspicion that they were committing a crime. Now, I’m not saying that this standard was not met, but we haven’t heard anything to suggest that it was. One would think that if the troopers were on solid ground here, Edmonson would be preaching about it from the rooftops. Moreover, this is information that should be in the police report, a report that should already be public. In the conspicuous absence of this information, I assume this was illegal detention.
2. Resorted to physical force immediately. The video shows the troopers approaching the teens and then trying to grab them without missing a step. Now, if I were rapidly approached by a group of burly men in casual street clothes, I might be inclined to step away myself regardless of how they identify themselves. While at least one of the teenagers did appear to start moving away, he was given virtually no time to react. The way this operation was executed seemed to make violence a foregone conclusion, and unless these teens were known to be dangerous or were otherwise suspected of a serious offense, the tactics used were excessive.
3. Attacking bystanders. Many people think that the teenagers were detained simply because they were young black males, which may or may not be the case. However, at least one of the troopers showed a capacity to be violent with white bystanders as well. He attempted to direct an approaching bystander to avoid the scene, and then when he took a couple of steps further, he pushed him into the street. Again, the bystander was given very little warning by the trooper, who was in plainclothes. The trooper could have just physically blocked the man, but instead chose to shove him, risking serious injury to a mere bystander.
4. Giving “professional courtesy.” The teenagers were released because one of their parents was NOPD. This means one of two things: 1) the troopers didn’t really have any evidence on the teens and just jumped them for no good reason, then were caught with their pants down when one of the kids turned out to have an NOPD officer for a mother; or, 2) the troopers did have evidence that the teens were guilty of some (probably minor) offense, but let them go as a favor to a fellow officer. I tend to think the first scenario is the correct one, but either way the troopers were acting illegally. In the first scenario the arrest was bogus but it was that “you can beat the rap, not the ride” kind of harassment, while in the second scenario is was institutional corruption. I’m not sure which would be worse.
So where does this matter stand now? The State Police are promising to release the results of an investigation in 60 days, but have declined to suspend any of the officers pending the results or even relegate them to desk duty. The NOPD has reviewed the tape and found no misconduct ( a real shocker there, I know).
Essentially, at this stage nobody honestly believes that the authorities are taking this matter seriously. This is why J.P. Morrell isn’t letting this go.
This past Tuesday, Senator Morrell held a special meeting of the Senate Judiciary B Committee to investigate the incident and the response of the State Police, followed by a Town Hall meeting. He has also announced that he plans to address the issue when the legislature convenes in April.
According to Morrell, incidents like these make it difficult to repair the relationship between black youths and the police. Indeed, last year this problem was highlighted when the City Council voted to extend the juvenile curfew in the French Quarter to 8 p.m. at all times. Critics called it an obvious salvo at black youths, while proponents lauded it as commonsense legislation.
The Quarter curfew law would appear to be the most likely reason that the two teenagers were approached, even though they were not actually violating it (both teens were over 16). According to the first article on the incident published by Fox 8 News, “[w]hile on patrol, State Police say they noticed two individuals who appeared to be juveniles and decided to ID them.” I guess this means they suspected that the teens were curfew violators, but it hardly explains the massive operation.
You see, a curfew violation is small potatoes. Although police can detain a juvenile on a curfew violation, they are expressly authorized to just tell the kid he’s out after curfew and to go home. Even if they arrest the juvenile, they can only take them to a shelter facility for their own protection. This is not a law that was designed to authorize eight plainclothes troopers to rush towards anybody that looks like they might be under 16 and tackle them if they understandably start to back away.
At most, a suspected curfew violation warrants having a single officer, preferably in uniform, to approach calmly and determine the suspect’s age and whether they are under supervision (in this case, one of the teen’s mothers was actually nearby). Having eight troopers swoop in aggressively is massively disproportionate, particularly where, as here, the troopers had not even ascertained their ages and frankly appeared to be spoiling for a fight. Heck, they even assaulted a random guy on the sidewalk for good measure.
In fact, the whole operation appears to have been a “hard takedown” scenario. In 2006 at virtually the same location, just in front of a bar at 725 Conti Street, a group of plainclothes NOPD officers tackled and pummeled a suspected pickpocket or marijuana smoker (it wasn’t very clear either way). Two police were fired in that incident, which was also caught on video. In seems all too often that the only time citizens see any relief in these cases in when somebody is filming.
The bottom line here is that we were lucky there was a camera here, but even when the misconduct is readily apparent, you can’t count on police departments not to sweep this kind of thing under the rug. That’s why I’m glad Senator Morrell is seeing this through.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.