Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The bar fight and the blurry blue line

Cliff wrote last week that the the NOPD has an image problem, linking to a few of the latest embarrassments.

I'd argue that the NOPD has a reality problem.

One example Cliff discussed was the fight at the Beach Corner bar.

Now, stories like this could trigger a few uncomfortable discussions about race and the police department. It could cause an officer or two to get fired or indicted. If everything in these stories is true then I think that's a good thing. At the least all of the officers involved in that bar fight should be terminated. If they can get away with lying and planting guns on innocent people then I don’t have any confidence in their capabilities to catch the guilty. If you want to eliminate the race card and conspiracy theories out of local government then you have to correct the things that make it so believable.

Cliff touches on it but let's really flesh out what's gone on here.


1. In February, 2008, there was a fight at the Beach Corner Lounge. Lamont Williams of the RTA was arrested on weapons charges. Opposing accounts of the evening emerged a few weeks later after Williams and his coworkers retained the services of an attorney and filed a complaint.

The initial police report, compiled by the responding officers, describes the incident in detail -- and includes two starkly conflicting versions.

In one version -- told by [Hans] Ganthier, [Jason] Samuel and a 29-year-old Kenner resident -- the men disarmed Williams, taking a gun from him.

Both Ganthier and Samuel said a gun had been taken from Williams. The Kenner resident, Donald McMyne, agreed. McMyne could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

According to the report, the three men gave the following account:

McMyne said he was sitting at the bar and heard there was a disturbance in the men's restroom. As Lamont Williams left the restroom and walked toward the front door, McMyne was sitting on a barstool and said he told Williams to "just relax and calm down." While walking toward the front door, Williams "lifted the front of his shirt exposing a dark-colored handgun," McMyne told police.

Williams left the lounge and McMyne followed him out. Next, McMyne said, he tackled Williams from behind, and they struggled. The two off-duty officers joined in and assisted in removing the handgun from Williams, McMyne said.

Williams and his RTA coworkers told a different story.

Hagan, who is black, said he left three co-workers to use the restroom. While waiting in line, a white man walked in and skipped the line. Hagan told the line-skipper that he was next in line, and the man responded: "Oh, you getting (expletive) cocky with me?"

Hagan advised the man to "just go ahead" and left the restroom and told his co-workers they should leave. While walking out, Hagan said someone whistled and "a large group of unknown white males" approached him and his co-workers. The co-workers split up.

The men followed Hagan, Damon Tobias, 27, Williams and Kisa Holmes, 31, outside the bar and on Canal Street. After getting into his car, Hagan said, he told the group of men following him, and a woman who had joined them, that he had a gun and "if I have to use it to defend myself I will."

At that point, the unidentified woman swore at him, reached into the glove compartment of his truck and removed the handgun. Hagan said the woman then put him into "some type of arm hold" and detained him. The woman eventually released him and he went to the aid of his colleague who was being attacked.

Tobias told police he was attacked by a group of men who followed him from the lounge. A third colleague, Holmes, corroborated her colleagues' version and said she saw the group attack them from afar. She had fled from the scene. The group said they believed their alleged attackers were off-duty officers, the report said.

The NOPD opened an investigation upon the citizen complaint. Warren Riley told WWLTV there would be accountability.

"There will be no cover-up. There will be hiding no information. If these officers were wrong, they will suffer the consequences of their actions."

Three officers were reassigned from the special operations unit pending the outcome of the investigation including Sergeant Hans Ganthier, and Officers Jason Samuel and Joey* Lapene.

*For some reason earlier media accounts refer to "Joey" Lapene whereas later ones refer to him as "David" Lapene. He's just one person. I will call him David.

2. In February of 2009, Mr. Lamont sues the NOPD, the city, and the three officers.

The lawsuit alleges that several off-duty police officers used excessive force and falsely arrested Lamont Williams, 36, in an apparent dispute between Regional Transit Authority employees and off-duty police officers last year.

A criminal inquiry was opened, but a spokeswoman for District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said Friday that the district attorney believes the incident is a civil matter. She declined to comment further.

The NOPD recently finished its own administrative investigation and is holding disciplinary hearings for the officers, NOPD spokesman Bob Young said. Once those hearings are completed, the police superintendent will have the final say on whether penalties will be handed down to the officers.

3. In late April of 2009, Officer David Lapene is fired from the NOPD for his role in the fight.

Officer David Lapene was dismissed after a hearing and a "thorough review of the evidence," according to a department news release. He was found to have broken four regulations of the department.

Lapene violated regulations governing moral conduct, adherence to the law, truthfulness and professional conduct, the NOPD news release said.

Another officer, Jennifer Payne, was suspended without pay for 80 days as a result of the same investigation, NOPD spokesman Bob Young said Thursday night.

Payne was the woman accused of seizing Mr. Hagan's handgun in the initial report.

*Note: Jennifer Payne is sometimes referred to as Jennifer Samuel. She is married to officer Jason Samuel, who was also investigated as part of the bar incident.

4. Between May and June of 2009, David Lapene is hired by DA Leon Cannizzaro before subsequently resigning.

Cannizzaro has defended Lapene's hiring to WDSU. He said Lapene's case was reviewed by the two previous interim district attorneys, and both times there were no charges filed. After looking at the file, Cannizzaro said agrees with that decision.

Prior to Lapene's resignation, it was reported that the District Attorney's daughter, Laura Cannizzaro was present at the bar during the incident in 2008.

5. In July, 2009 the investigation by Public Integrity Bureau into the incident at the Beach Corner leaks to the public.

An internal report from the New Orleans Police Department Thursday night suggested that several officers lied about what happened at the Beach Corner Bar and Grill in February 2008.


Another part of the internal report states that a civilian man named Donald McMyne was also part of the investigation. He told investigators that he never saw the fight, but later an officer told him what happened. McMyne stated that that officer asked him to lie.

Also, Officer Jennifer Samuel changed her story several times, according to the report. The report states that Samuel removed Kennis Hagan's personal gun from his parked car, and the remaining officers conspired to falsely arrest Williams for possession of Hagan's firearm. They then convinced the civilian to participate in the conspiracy. The civilian has since admitted to the conspiracy, which was documented in an official NOPD arrest report.Investigators also noted that Officer David Lapene admitted that he exited the bar right behind Damon Tobias. He admitted to walking behind Tobias when he claimed an unknown person swung over his shoulder and punched Tobias in the face. He repeatedly denied punching Tobias, even though Kisa Holmes identified him at the scene as the person who punched Tobias.

6. Just last week, PANO sued the Public Integrity Bureau and the Officer who filed the investigation for how the case was handled - though it's not clear to me on what grounds other than... well, revenge.

The attorney for the accused officers said the police department's investigation is flawed and that Sgt. Darryl Watson, who conducted the investigation, may have broken the law.

"He filed a false police report," the attorney said. "They have been disseminating it. There have been repercussions to police officers because of it and now it's time for him to eat his words and we are going to feed it to him."


The PID report is available at NOLA.com.

I downloaded and read the report.

The details are quite striking, particularly when the civilian witness, Donald McMyne, admits he was coached by officers to fabricate his entire story about recognizing the alleged bathroom dispute, seeing a gun on Mr Lamont, and tackling him from behind. Apparently none of that actually happened.


There are so many burning questions here...

For the NOPD, remember Riley's words:

"There will be no cover-up. There will be hiding no information. If these officers were wrong, they will suffer the consequences of their actions."

1. Since it is clear that this incident involved several officers from the Special Operations Division and a transparent attempt to cover up what actually transpired, why has only one officer, David Lapene, been fired?

2. Did the firing of Lapene and suspension of Samuels represent attempts to find fall guys for an incident that fingers Riley's elite unit? Is there a pattern of special treatment for SWAT and Special Ops units emerging?

3. Given how shockingly casual these elite NOPD officers were about planting evidence, coaching false witnesses, and providing false accounts to their own investigators, what is to prevent the public from simply assuming that this stuff occurs rather regularly?


For the DA, refer to the statement from Mr. Cannizzaro's office:

A criminal inquiry was opened, but a spokeswoman for District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said Friday that the district attorney believes the incident is a civil matter. She declined to comment further.

4. Was Mr. Cannizzaro aware of the PID report when he hired Mr. Lapene?

5. If not, is the DA reconsidering the prospect of criminal prosecution?

6. Did you discuss the incident at the bar with your daughter and aspirant assistant DA, Laura Cannizzaro?

7. Why did Ms. Cannizzaro refuse to answer questions when she was approached by Public Integrity Division investigators the night of the incident?

8. What was her role in the hiring of Lapene?


More later.


Anonymous said...

good research E.

The police force changed after Katrina--we recruited a lot more white "cowboy" cops who came to the city to beat up on black folks. They don't even have to live here anymore, and it shows. We have regressed backwards 20 years to when the white cops in district C refused to ride with black cops. After Danzinger they all knew they could get away with murder, and they do. The recent fawning article on the "death squad" called the "felony squad" is a sign of how the local media could care less about police violence.

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