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City, state officials at odds over Carnival incident

22nd April 2013   ·   0 Comments

While the relationship between the NOPD and the Louisiana State Police has been chummy for as long as anyone can remember, a decision by the mayor and police chief to criticize state troopers’ behavior in a February 10 French Quarter incident involving two Black teenagers may signal a new wrinkle in the two agencies’ working relationship.

The head of the Louisiana State Police said last week that plainclothes officers seen on video roughly handling two Black teenagers during the Mardi Gras weekend acted properly, The Associated Press reported last week.

Video footage collected from one of the city’s crime cameras on Conti Street captured the entire Feb. 10 incident. The video shows nothing to contradict 17-year-old Sidney Newman and 18-year-old Ferdinand Hunt’s claim that they were waiting for Hunt’s mother, 8th District NOPD Officer Verna Hunt, to bring them a meal after a Mardi Gras parade when the encounter took place. During the encounter, the plainclothes state police and a plainclothes NOPD officer are shown surrounding the two Black teenagers before physically confronting them and taking them to the ground. Before the incident went any further, Officer Verna Hunt appears and identifies the teenagers, prompting the plainclothes officers to back off and move away as quickly as they descended on the two teens.

Five days after the incident, the families of Sidney Newman and Ferdinand Hunt filed formal complaints with the Federal Bureau of Investigations Office in New Orleans.

Col. Mike Edmonson said Wednesday that the group — including several troopers and a city police officer — used necessary and proper force on the two.

He said state police had identified themselves as police and approached the two to inquire about their age, to see if they were in violation of the city curfew. They were restrained after trying to flee.

Edmonson said neither of the teens cooperated in the investigations.

Danatus King, president of the New Orleans Branch of the NAACP, told nola.com Wednesday that Officer Verna Hunt may have been coerced into not making a statement about the incident,

“There’s a good portion of the public that has an idea that the mother may have been coerced into not giving a statement,” King said, reminding residents that the State Police’s insisted almost immediately after the incident that the NOPD investigate her actions. She was accused by State Police of interfering with an official investigation and one plainclothes officer reported that she used profanity when she saw the plainclothes officers confronting her son. “That, in and of itself, is intimidating. (Fear) would be a natural reaction.”

When asked about the possibility of Sidney Newman, Ferdinand Hunt and Officer Verna Hunt being intimidated into not cooperating with the State Police investigation Edmonson told nola,con, “My initial response is that’s a sad day. But I know the public — they don’t want to hear that. Because some of them truthfully feel that. I can promise you, if you approach the Louisiana State Police, you will be treated with the utmost respect, the utmost professionalism and you will never be retaliated against from this department.”

“During that time neither of the subjects was struck or kicked, no officers drew or displayed weapons or other control devices, and in our opinion the techniques utilized were proper, reasonable and proportionate to the resistance offered,” Edmonson wrote in a letter to the FBI.. Edmonson said neither of the teens was injured except for a minor scrape on Hunt’s hand.

Edmonson said the Justice Department and the FBI have been given the state police report for further review.

Edmonson told The Associated Press that he will attend a City Council panel meeting on the video Monday and a state legislative hearing Tuesday. He also has asked NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas to review Officer Verna Hunt’s conduct in the Feb. 10 incident.

Attorneys for teenagers Ferdinand Hunt and Sidney Newman — who were old enough to be on the street — quickly disputed the state police findings and said they look forward to a federal investigation.

Attorneys Robert McDuff and Rachel Connor said in a statement that Edmonson “never explains why the one of the officers didn’t simply approach the young men and politely ask their age rather than swarming them in mass, attacking them, whirling Sidney around, throwing him to the sidewalk, and sitting on top of him.”

Mayor Mitch Landrieu issued a brief statement to FOX 8 News after learning of details of the Louisiana State Police report. “Based on what I saw on the video tape, the State Police did not handle that incident in the right way. Based on what I have seen, I believe it was wrong.”

While the NOPD’s Public Integrity Division is still conducting its own probe of the incident, NOPD Supt. Ronal Serpas issued a statement Wednesday in which he defended Officer Hunt. As far as NOPD Officer Verna Hunt is concerned — first and foremost — I saw a mother protecting her child, not a police officer interfering with an investigation,” Serpas said.

Danatus King challenged State Police to release the entire report. “It’s important that all the evidence be released because right now, the conclusion reached by the State Police is inconsistent with the only evidence the public has been made aware of,” he told nola.com.

The incident, which some members of the Black community have described as a classic case of racial profiling in an area of the city that has a long history of being hostile to local Black residents, has sparked repeated calls for the resignation of NOPD Supt. Ronal Serpas, a demand that New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu call for and enforce an end to NOPD racial profiling, a City Hall sit-in, dueling community meetings aimed at resolving the issue and a legislative hearing.

After initially agreeing to meet with a coalition of civil rights leaders and the community, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu opted instead to hold his own meeting on the same date (March 25) at the same time. The mayor’s meeting expanded the agenda beyond racial profiling to include information about NOLA for Life, a campaign aimed at reducing Black–on-Black violence. During a heated meeting last month with NAACP officials and others, the mayor raised the ire of the Black community by telling Black leaders that they should focus their energy and efforts on curbing Black-on-Black violence rather than demand an end to racial profiling.

According to nola.com, Edmonson says he has watched the video many times with his academy trainers and said the state troopers in the Feb. 10 were in complete compliance with Louisiana State Police training academy regulations and procedures.

“I hope that the State Police will use this video in future trainings,” Landrieu is quoted as saying by nola.com, “to teach their troopers what not to do in similar situations.”

In other NOPD-related news, a recent poll conducted by the New Orleans Crime Commission reflected a two percent improvement in the NOPD’s overall public approval rating. The 58 percent approval rating comes eight months after last August’s 56 percent approval rating. The NOPD’s 3rd District had the highest cop approval rating at 74 percent and the lowest public approval rating came from the 8th District. A 70 percent approval rating is the benchmark by which most effective police departments across the U.S. are measured.

The NOPD came under fire recently after WBOK talk-show host Gerod Stephens reported that the owner of a gas station that sits next to the apartment building where missing second-grade teacher Terrilyn Monnette had not been interviewed by New Orleans police more than a month after she was reported missing. The family has asked the FBI to join the search for the missing woman.

*Additional reporting by Louisiana Weekly editor Edmund W. Lewis.

This article originally published in the April 22, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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