newly released NOPD body-camera footage showing two fatal police shootings in 201512
BY MATT SLEDGE| MSLEDGE@THEADVOCATE.COM
Officials on Wednesday released footage from two encounters last year in which New Orleans Police Department officers shot and killed suspects, the first time the department has released such footage from the body-worn cameras officers began wearing in 2014.
The videos depict the fatal shootings of Omarr Jackson, 37, in Central City in January 2015 and Jared Johnson, 22, in New Orleans East in April.
The officers involved in both shootings have been cleared to return to active duty, and the District Attorney’s Office has said it will not pursue charges in either case.
Police Superintendent Michael Harrison acknowledged that officers’ use of force has been an explosive issue throughout the country in recent years. He said the release of the videos was “a very deliberate attempt to be transparent and to be accountable.”
“These videos eliminate ‘he said-she said’ arguments,” Harrison said. “This is cutting-edge policy.”
While the videos represent a pioneering step for a department once mired in controversy over officers’ accounts of the Danziger Bridge and Henry Glover killings shortly after Hurricane Katrina, which were not filmed, the Independent Police Monitor’s Office and a police union official cautioned that no video can tell the full story of a fatal shooting.
Both videos depict rapid, chaotic encounters that happened at night under low lighting.
The fatal encounter with Jackson began about 11 p.m. Jan. 7, 2015, near Josephine and LaSalle streets. The video shows Officers Michael Bencik and Devin Ashmore as they stop a truck driven by Jackson, whom police called a drug dealer known to the officers.
Bencik is seen checking the identification cards of the vehicle’s three occupants. Police said the officers spotted one of the vehicle’s occupants with a needle in his hand and ordered Jackson out of the vehicle.
In the video, officers begin to pat Jackson down, and he bolts from the scene. A single round of gunfire, which police said came from Jackson, is answered by four shots, which police said were fired by Bencik. Jackson was taken to the hospital, where he died.
Asked Wednesday whether the shooting was justified, Harrison said, “You saw it for yourself. Yes.”
In the second incident, police were alerted by a burglar alarm company to an armed robbery in progress at a Dollar General store at 10600 Chef Menteur Highway on April 28.
Police said surveillance video from inside the store, which they released along with the body-worn camera footage, shows Johnson and Halbert Adams, 23, forcing female employees to open a safe just after closing time. Police said in an incident report that a third man, Spencer Banks, was waiting in the parking lot outside to act as a getaway driver.
Officers who believed they were reacting to an active hostage situation surrounded the building. Video from Officer Clifford Thompson’s camera shows him edging around the building’s rear, breathing heavily.
“They may be armed with automatic weapons,” a woman’s voice says over a police radio. Another officer warns that the suspects have just tried to leave through one door.
Suddenly, the video shows a figure exit the rear of the store. Police said a silver glint that appears in a split second of the video shows Johnson turning a gun toward Thompson.
Both Thompson and Officer Joshua Carthon responded with approximately six shots each, according to Sgt. Regina Williams of the NOPD’s Force Investigation Team.
Detective Ashley Boult wrote in an initial report obtained by The Advocate last year that Johnson “fired gunshots” at officers. But on Wednesday, police said they had determined that Johnson never fired his gun, which was found near his body.
Neither officer in the video can be heard ordering Johnson to drop his weapon. However, Public Integrity Bureau Deputy Chief Arlinda Westbrook said she was satisfied that both officers were justified in shooting him.
“You don’t wait to get shot before you shoot. When a subject points a gun toward you, you have the ability to use force,” Westbrook said. “They have a split second to make decisions.”
Westbrook said videos of both shootings were played for family members of the men shot soon after the fatal encounters, and she believes that helped reduce any potential for controversy in the immediate aftermath of the shootings.
In each of the shootings, one of the officers involved — Ashmore in one case, Carthon in the other — failed to activate his body-worn camera. Both officers were disciplined for that oversight, Westbrook said.
The release of the videos was carefully choreographed. As the department played the videos to the media for the first time Wednesday afternoon, members of the Public Integrity Bureau provided a second-by-second commentary on the events transpiring on a conference room screen.
Harrison urged the press to “provide as much context for these videos as possible to avoid sensationalizing the situation. ... This is what we face every day on the streets.”
The New Orleans Advocate filed a public-records request in November for both videos, as well as the still-unreleased full case files about the shootings. The release of the videos was slowed by a federal judge’s mandate to the Police Department to create a uniform policy for the release of such footage.
In February, the department said it had finalized its video release process. Under the new policy, police will first consult with the District Attorney’s Office, the City Attorney’s Office and the NOPD’s Compliance Bureau, the office in charge of ensuring compliance with the federal consent decree governing the department.
Ophelia Cooper, the mother of Omarr Jackson, expressed anger and dismay over the release of the video of the Central City shooting. She said she heard about the planned release on TV Wednesday morning. That prompted her to call Westbrook and voice her displeasure.
“I told her I was upset.” Cooper recounted. “I said, ‘You’re unearthing wounds that we took months to heal. And why so late?’ ”
Cooper said she is still grieving her son’s death and counseling his five children. She said she now must shield the kids, ages 13 to 19, from any fallout from the video’s public release.
Cooper said she believes the release represents an invasion of privacy, and she suggested the Police Department was trying to make itself look good.
Westbrook acknowledged Jackson’s anger and said the officers involved in the shootings also expressed anxieties.
“Everyone has concerns about the release of the videos,” she said. “These are not positive experiences for either side.”
The department’s decision to release the videos was backed up by the Office of the Independent Police Monitor, which was created in the wake of the controversial Hurricane Katrina-era shootings.
“OIPM applauds any steps the administration takes to be more open and transparent with the public it serves,” Deputy Police Monitor Ursula Price said in a statement. “Video evidence is generally, and in both of these cases, very helpful in determining safety, training and accountability issues.”
Price nevertheless said the Monitor’s Office has not been given a final file to review on either shooting and that videos do not necessarily answer questions about tactics, procedure or training.
Police reform advocates aren’t the only ones who say body-worn camera footage sometimes falls short. Capt. Michael Glasser, president of the Police Association of New Orleans, said he worries that in the future the department might be too quick to release videos before all the facts are known.
“The key is to remember always that the video can be misleading, either way,” he said.
Still, Glasser said he had no objection to the disclosure of the videos months after all the officers involved were cleared. “I realize sometimes the officers aren’t exactly thrilled by it, but this is the transparent environment that we work in,” Glasser said.
Mike Perlstein of WWL-TV contributed to this report.