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Another NOPD fatal shooting has community seeking answers

24th February 2014   ·   0 Comments

Officer has long record of excessive force

Family members, friends and neighbors are still trying to figure out what happened after a 31-year-old Black man was gunned by by a New Orleans cop on December 16 in the Hollygrove neighborhood.

Keith Atkinson was shot and killed by a New Orleans policeman on December 16 after someone from a neighborhood store called the cops to report a shoplifting incident after someone stole a case of juice. The shooting incident took place across the street from McKenzie Food Store, 8638 Belfast St.

Atkinson was reportedly shot four times by police, who say a .45 caliber gun was found near the shooting victim’s body.

The store clerk and other witnesses later told police that Atkinson was not the shoplifter. Apparently, both the shoplifter and Atkinson wore a white T-shirt and jeans on the day of the shooting.

“I made a promise to the parents, as I do to the family of the officer involved, that we will investigate this matter thoroughly and completely to get an accurate account of exactly what took place,” NOPD Supt. Ronal Serpas said at a news conference the day of the shooting.

Serpas would not release the officer’s name.

“We know that the officer obviously perceived a threat,” Serpas told reporters.

An officer generally won’t shoot without believing his or her life is in danger, the police chief said.

After the chief’s refusal to release the name of the cop involved in the fatal shooting, it was reported by several local news media outlets that the NOPD officer involved in the incident was Jonathan Hirdes, 30. According to nola.com, Hirdes, who joined the NOPD in March 2004, has been investigated for 21 conduct complaints during his nearly nine years with the department, but has never been disciplined for his alleged use of excessive force.

Nola.com reported that Hirdes has been investigated six times for complaints of “inadequate professionalism, once for insufficient courtesy, and nine times for his decisions to exert force against citizens or suspects.

“None of the force complaints was sustained by NOPD’s internal investigators. In every instance,” nola.com reported. Public Integrity Bureau investigators or other supervisors opted to authorize Hirdes’ use of force, dismiss the complaint, or label the inquiry ‘NFIM’ — No Further Investigation Merited.

“The fact that he was cleared in those events suggests that there was no evidence that he committed the alleged infraction,” Hirdes’ attorney, Eric Hessler, told nola.com. “I would hope that the NOPD or anyone else doesn’t get to the point in this investigation where the facts don’t matter.”

NOPD spokeswoman Remi Braden declined to discuss Hirdes’ service record, citing the ongoing investigation.

“Obviously, any front-line officer assigned to a proactive unit is more likely to get complaints,” Hessler told nola.com. “Especially given the type of person he would often encounter, people trying to perhaps evade arrest or escape. An officer in that position would probably face more complaints than one sitting behind a desk taking reports or an officer collecting evidence from crime scenes.”

Pointing to the superintendent’s initial decision to withhold the name of the officer involved, Ramessu Merriamen Aha, a New Orleans businessman and former congressional candidate, said Thursday, “Why are we protecting cold-blooded killers and cops going around shooting people and violating people’s constitutional rights like it’s the Wild, Wild West?

“When those two young men shot up the Mother’s Day second-line last year, the police chief and D.A. did not hesitate to characterize them as animals and cold-blooded killers,” Aha added. “Even before they were arrested, the D.A. had promised to make sure they spent the rest of their lives behind bars. But for some reason, the police chief and others feel the need to protect and cuddle violent and abusive cops.”

The Rev. Raymond Brown, a community activist and president of National Action Now, agreed. “They need to call a spade a spade,” he told The Louisiana Weekly. “If this cop did the things he’s accused of doing, the public has a right to know. This is a matter of public safety, and, apparently in some cases, life and death.”

“Regardless of whose version of the story you believe, this police chief and mayor do not have the right or the power to withhold the truth from the people of New Orleans like we are children,” the Rev. Brown said.

A friend of the shooting victim’s family who spoke on the condition of anonymity told The Louisiana Weekly that the officer involved in the case had a reputation for being a “bad ass” and sometimes abused his power and authority as a policeman to intimidate and harass residents. “He definitely had a reputation,” she told The Louisiana Weekly. “When people saw him coming, they would go the other way.”

At least one witness said that the shooting victim had an adversarial relationship with Officer Hirdes and that their previous encounter might have played a role in last week’s shooting. “Magic did not deserve this,” the witness said, referring to Atkinson by his nickname.

In a statement dated Sunday, February 16, New Orleans’ Independent Police Monitor Susan Hutson said that both she and the Deputy Police Monitor spent several hours in Hollygrove at the scene of the shooting “monitoring the investigation of an officer-involved homicide” and that the OIPM’s Community Relations Director also spent several hours on Feb. 16 listening to members of the community and the shooting victim’s family.

“Such events are tragic for all involved,” Hutson said. “The OIPM staff hope the assurance that this incident will be fairly and thoroughly investigated will offer everyone some solace. The OIPM remains committed to our mandate to be impartial eyes and ears on this investigation. Many members of the community mentioned that there are videos of the incident and we implore them to come forward and assist in making sure that all questions are answered.

The IPM had access to the scene from the time they arrived and viewed all the evidence available to them. We thank those members of the public who have already offered evidence and we thank the Orleans Police Department and specifically the Public Integrity Bureau’s Force Investigation Team for making sure that we are able to monitor this investigation.”

Some say residents are on edge after the acquittal and release of a number of cops connected to several high-profile NOPD fatal shootings.

“Even in cases where there is a mountain of evidence, cops who kill Black people get little or no time in jail,” the Rev. Raymond Brown told The Louisiana Weekly. “Essentially, the community feels like the cops in the Danziger and Henry Glover cases got away with murder and the Feds helped them to do it. Officer David Warren is a free man. Officer Travis McCabe got his NOPD job back. And on top of that, no one has ever been charged for shooting 14-year-old Marshall Coulter in the head.
“There is neither justice nor peace in this city,” Brown added. “And until there is justice, rolling down like a mighty stream like Dr. King said, there can be no peace.”

Additional reporting by Louisiana Weekly editor Edmund W. Lewis.

This article originally published in the February 24, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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