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Lawmakers seek answers in Mardi Gras assault

11th March 2013   ·   0 Comments

By April Siese
Contributing Writer

A public hearing has raised more questions than answers in the case of a Mardi Gras weekend confrontation between two Black teenagers and a group of plain- clothes state troopers and a NOPD officer. Seventeen-year-old Sidney Newman and 18-year-old Ferdinand Hunt say they were waiting for Hunt’s mother, 8th District NOPD Officer Verna Hunt, in the 700 block of Conti Street amid February 10’s Mardi Gras celebrations when they were approached by a group of plain- clothes law enforcement officers who wrestled them to the ground. The incident, caught on video surveillance that was widely circulated, has sparked widespread public outrage.

Tuesday’s hearing at Southern University at New Orleans was called by Louisiana District 3 Senator John-Paul Morrell, who was joined by senators and representatives from across the state, including fellow Senators Daniel Martiny, Norby Chabert, and Eric LaFleur.

Local government, however, was sparsely represented at the meeting. Neither Mayor Mitch Landrieu nor NOPD Chief Ronal Serpas were in attendance. Multiple councilmembers requested the meeting but it was Councilmember James Gray of District E who was the most visible.

Louisiana State Police Superintendent Colonel Mike Edmonson told those in attendance that he began an internal investigation within 24 hours of the incident and expects to have it completed within 60 to 90 days. Due to the ongoing investigation, Edmonson said he was unable to comment on its specifics.

“Unfortunately, none of us here today – you nor I – know exactly what happened. This investigation will find out exactly what happened,” Edmonson said.

Many in attendance said that they believed that the alleged case of police brutality was racially motivated. New Orleans NAACP President Danatus King pointed to an email leaked by the Eighth District instructing officers to harass “any young Black males on stoops in the French Quarter… they have no place being there.” Sen. Morrell cited a similar instance of profiling that occurred last year during the Essence Music Festival.

Executive Director Marjorie Esman of ACLU Louisiana concurred, saying that “there are no words that they [the adolescents] could’ve said that could’ve justified the abuse.” Esman called for the officers involved in the incident to be treated the same way as citizens committing the same actions. “When I first saw that tape, if I hadn’t been told ahead of time that this was State Police officers, it would’ve looked to me like street thugs,” Esman said.

Echoing King’s concerns, WBOK personality Gerod Stevens told attendees that he was in possession of the complete video footage of the incident, which allegedly shows a female officer acting as a spotter and signaling officers to confront the adolescents.

Stevens alleged that this officer is also involved in the recent Beachcorner Bar brawl that occurred between four off-duty RTA employees and a large group of primarily white off-duty police officers.

The name of that female officer is believed to be Officer Jennifer Payne Samuel and the name of the plainclothes NOPD officer involved in the alleged French Quarter assault is believed to be Officer Brett Mathis., Gerod Stevens said Friday morning on WBOK.

Councilmember Susan Guidry seemed to downplay the role of the NOPD in the incident, pointing out that most of the officers involved were state troopers. Community and civil rights leaders have countered that argument by saying that these state troopers were under the jurisdiction of the NOPD over the Mardi Gras weekend and as such acted as an extension of the police department. If the tape shows a female NOPD officer involved as a task-force spotter as Stevens has suggested, that means two NOPD officers were allegedly involved.

In a recent interview with The Louisiana Weekly, Danatus King said that the NOPD has yet to file a report on the incident, suggesting that the embattled police department is incapable of reforming itself as the mayor has argued.

The mayor asked a federal judge last month to vacate the NOPD consent decree, which is designed to implement sweeping reforms, saying that it is “not necessary” since the department has already begun to take steps to implement changes in the way it operates.

Gray was the only councilmember to speak at the hearing, calling for a suspension of the officers involved in the confrontation. As of press time, neither members of the NOPD nor the Louisiana State Police Department have been suspended or moved to desk duties.

“It seems to me that when you have that appears to suggest that your people have appeared to behave improperly; that alone is enough so that they should be suspended pending your investigation,” Gray said.

Another point of contention was the complaint process itself. Col. Edmonson stated that as of the hearing, neither teen’s parents had filed a formal complaint. Neither Morrell nor Edmonson could offer a definitive answer as to whether or not a complaint affidavit required notarization, something that costs money.

Complaint affidavits do require a public notary unless an officer or Department of Public Safety and Corrections employee has been designated as such. That employee would then be the ex-oficio public notary. Ex-oficio is a Latin term that denotes a person who holds a unique position such as notary by virtue of holding another office, according to Idella Wilson of Tulane’s School of Public Law. Though an ex-oficio public notary is free, the person filing the complaint is still responsible for furnishing any additional evidence at their own expense.

Both teens’ families have in fact filed a formal complaint with the FBI in New Orleans last month.

Hazel Newman, the mother of Sidney Newman, also spoke at the hearing. Newman says that the incident has made her son fearful of visiting New Orleans and worries about its psychological impact.

“My son is taught to respect the police, the laws of the land, and all those in authority,” Newman said, “Now, do I continue teaching him this or do I have to remind him that as this incident indicates, he can be brutalized by the police for no reason? What do I say to him? If you respect them, then they will not respect you? What do I do?”

This article originally published in the March 11, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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