Why we wrote this story. Accountability, oversight and transparency were major themes we heard among the 400 responses we received on our Community Agenda 2020: Policing in Lafayette. Communities everywhere face a watershed reckoning on policing and social justice. Examining our neighbors’ responses critically can help us create or evaluate our own. Our Solution Hub stories put solutions in the spotlight.
It took 29 days for the family of Trayford Pellerin to see footage of his death. In New Orleans, it likely would have taken less than 48 hours.
Besides the private viewing afforded the Pellerins, Lafayette authorities have been at best selective with video releases, hewing to a party line that the videos aren’t public until investigations are over. Footage of an officer binding a woman in a hogtie took off last week when LCG released it, months after the incident took place and while legal proceedings are ongoing. The officer was suspended for one day for the brutal restraint that violates the Lafayette Police Department’s policies. Mayor-President Josh Guillory is now suing to have the officer fired.
Demanding to see the video is now a clarion call in protests for racial justice. And more and more American police agencies have come to deploy body-worn cameras, backed by millions in federal grants in the first wave of high-profile police shootings earlier in the decade. But very few departments, if any, besides New Orleans, actively release the videos.
Since 2016, the NOPD, at one time among the most brutal and corrupt police forces in the country, has quickly and proactively released camera footage of police shootings and other critical incidents. The logic of the policy is simple: The videos are there for clarity, and transparency is the cornerstone of building community trust.
Such efforts have brought the department a long way, some advocates point out, since the rampant and deadly police brutality in the chaos that followed Hurricane Katrina 15 years ago.
“We still don’t know how many officer-involved shootings happened [then],” civil rights lawyer and police reform advocate Mary Howell says, offering a sobering benchmark.
Information vacuums around policing shootings leave room for competing narratives to set in. The Pellerin case — Trayford Pellerin was shot and killed by Lafayette police in August — puts that problem in stark relief. From the jump, blurry bystander video has been the only documentary evidence for the public to review. Statements from police and Pellerins’ attorneys conflict on even basic facts. Was he tased? Were de-escalation tactics used? Was he armed? After seeing the video in a private viewing, the Pellerins disputed the original police narrative. The public’s right to know has no recourse.
Lafayette does not publicize the policies governing its cameras. In fact, it doesn’t publish much about its policies at all.
Increasingly, criminal justice reform advocates have pushed agencies to adopt proactive release policies, as part of broader gestures to transparency, reasoning there’s really no good reason to keep videos under wraps.
“Generally speaking, my view is that video footage never gets better with time. It doesn’t get less problematic. It doesn’t get less troubling. Departments should try to release their critical incident footage as soon as possible. There should have to be a compelling reason not to release,” says Jonathan Aronie, an attorney and the lead monitor in charge of the federal consent decree that’s compelled and governed reform of NOPD for roughly a decade.
Releasing body cam footage is not actually required by New Orleans’ policy, nor is it part of the $55 million federal consent decree, a sprawling oversight program not without its detractors. Instead, the approach was born of an emerging and still flawed culture of accountability within the agency.
And NOPD has released a lot of videos since then. Willingness to air out the darkest and most violent parts of its business is part of the agency’s effort to build rapport with the community it polices. Total complaints, including those initiated by the public and police, declined 22% between 2013 and 2018, according to data published by NOPD’s Public Integrity Bureau, the department’s internal affairs desk.
The policy itself lays out a simple procedure. Within 48 hours of any critical incident — a shooting or any other use of force — a panel composed of the district attorney, the city attorney, the NOPD bureau responsible for compliance with the federal consent decree and the U.S. attorney’s office reviews the footage to determine whether it should be released. Redactions or blurs are made to protect the identities of victims and confidential sources, and to observe privacy afforded officers in Louisiana’s Police Bill of Rights. (The police bill of rights was a key justification made by officers involved in the Pellerin shooting in seeking to block a viewing of the video offered to the Pellerins by Mayor-President Josh Guillory.)
After conferring, a written recommendation is filed with the NOPD and the city, which makes the final call to release the video. In other words, if the city decides to keep videos out of view against the panel’s recommendation, it has to explain why.
But in most cases, NOPD releases the video, according to Bonycle Sokunbi of the Office of Independent Monitor, a civilian agency set up to oversee the NOPD and review investigations. A former prosecutor, Sokunbi oversees use of force investigations as a deputy monitor and says NOPD didn’t come to embrace the policy readily.
(A request to interview the chief of the NOPD public integrity bureau was not granted.)
The approach was born in the wake of a high-profile case in which a veteran police officer beat a 16-year-old girl and lied about her provoking him. The independent monitor fought to release the video of the incident, while NOPD and the city resisted, according to Chief Independent Monitor Sharon Hutson. The officer was fired, but charges were not filed. The independent monitor openly objected to not bringing charges.
Not long after the case, NOPD adopted the proactive release policy.
“I believe we have to be proactive in how we communicate this evidence to our community, when it’s available,” NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison said at a press conference announcing the policy then. “I want to work quickly to share them with the public, if we know releasing them won’t impact the safety of everyone involved or the outcome of investigations.”
The approach appears to be working, but measuring how well it works is difficult. How body-worn cams are used and how well they work varies from department to department and study to study. More to the point, police reforms most commonly yield qualitative changes. Complaints might go up and still reflect a growing trust in mechanisms of accountability. And the bottom line is sowing trust where decades of brutality have poisoned the ground. Trust is not easy to measure.
A 2019 biennial survey mandated by the consent decree shows marked if gradual improvement in public perception of the NOPD since 2016, when many of the reforms broadly took effect. More than half of those surveyed are Black, meaning the data reflects the attitudes of a disproportionately policed population.
It’s difficult to pin that improvement to any one change. The NOPD now has layers of oversight — the federal and independent monitors, the integrity bureau, internal investigation teams and community input — and has been a pioneer on initiatives like the peer intervention or “active bystander” training recently touted in the Legislature’s police reform task force. (Public initiated complaints declined between 2017 and 2018, while officer-initiated complaints ticked up over the same period, potentially supporting the efficacy of peer intervention.)
Even those impressed by the progress say NOPD has a long way to go. And others argue the changes are largely superficial. In June, police hit George Floyd protestors crammed on the Crescent City Connection bridge with tear gas and pepper bullets. The episode marked a black spot on what had, until then, been a prolonged chain of demonstrations notable for their lack of violence or incident. Activists criticized Police Superintendent Shaun Ferguson’s dissembling about the use of rubber bullets. The body cam footage, released seven days after the shooting, proved rubber bullets were used. Ferguson apologized.
The incident spurred New Orleans council members to push for a ban on the use of tear gas. Ferguson himself got behind the ordinance, which reserved the use of chemical dispersants for only extreme circumstances. It passed. Some cite this incident as evidence that NOPD hasn’t changed, calling Ferguson’s initial statements dishonest. Others, like Sokunbi and her colleagues, say Ferguson’s willingness to admit his fault is emblematic that progress is underway.
People are still shot and rights are still trampled by the NOPD. After denying it for years, NOPD admitted using facial recognition software. And before the Crescent City Connection episode, the agency suffered a major scandal when reporters uncovered rogue task forces operated by the NOPD, making unauthorized stops and conspiring to cover their tracks. The revelations chilled bubbling enthusiasm about the department’s new direction, just as the federal judge overseeing the decree cheered NOPD’s success with hitting benchmarks.
“The need for prompt corrective action by the Superintendent cannot be overstated,” the federal monitors wrote in a special report covering the Task Force audit in 2020. In other cases, police turned off body cam footage or didn’t wear them at all, because force policy didn’t require it, according to an annual report by the independent monitor. (OIM called out that policy, and NOPD changed it.)
Sokunbi agrees the task force scandal is bad, but contrasts it with the “jump out boys” who terrorized New Orleans decades ago.
That violence and corruption are what advocates like civil rights attorney Mary Howell have fought for decades to change. And now they worry whether the progress made under the federal government’s purview will be sustained once the department is out of federal court oversight. She remarks on endeavors to transform the culture within the agency, beginning with its efforts at holding itself accountable, and one that’s taken lots of input from the community, including the families of people abused and killed by NOPD.
“Those families have been part of the change. This change didn’t just come from on high,” Howell says.
Since its adoption in 2016, the proactive release policy has become a matter of course, even if it’s not legally required. The lack of requirement is as much true of any police agency in the state of Louisiana. The Current’s requests for the body cam footage documenting Trayford Pellerin’s shooting have been denied citing an exemption in Louisiana’s public records statute. That’s a standard response for police agencies, who frequently defer shooting investigations to Louisiana State Police, currently mired in its own abuse and transparency scandal. We filed a records request with LSP, too, and got the same response.
But the exemption doesn’t prevent investigators from releasing footage. They most often choose not to, or do so selectively as LCG did with video of the hogtying incident. In that respect, at least, NOPD’s approach — open, systematic — stands apart.
“The fact that we can just say, ‘This is what you do … why wouldn’t you’ — that right there is an example of a huge culture shift,” Sokunbi says.