Dashboard camera captures slapping
A former New Orleans police officer, caught on video slapping a handcuffed suspect a half-dozen times as he lay face-down on the street, was acquitted on a charge of malfeasance in office Friday by a New Orleans judge.
The not-guilty verdict marks the latest in a long line of defeats for top officials of a troubled Police Department, trying to clean house and restore the public’s trust.
Officer Jamal Kendrick opted to be tried by a judge alone, rather than face a jury, and Criminal District Court Judge Ben Willard found him not guilty after a three-hour trial that centered on a video from the camera mounted on the dashboard of Kendrick’s police cruiser.
On Oct. 13, 2012, Kendrick, an officer for three years, responded to a report of an armed robbery at a pool hall in New Orleans East. When a car with two men in it ran a stop sign nearby, Kendrick and his partner suspected they might be the robbers and tried to stop the car.
But the driver sped away and for eight minutes, Kendrick and his partner followed in a high-speed pursuit, blowing through stop signs with squealing tires, before the car eventually pulled over.
Kendrick and several other officers who arrived at the scene cursed and shouted at the men to get out of the car with their hands up. They had their weapons drawn.
Kendrick ordered the passenger to the ground.
In the lower left corner of the video, the officer can be seen kneeling on his back. He handcuffs the man’s hands behind his back. Then Kendrick raises his right arm and backhands the man on the side twice.
“Not in my (expletive) district,” he repeats.
The officer then straddles him, leans forward over his body and smacks him another four times with his left hand until another officer intervenes.
“That’s enough, that’s enough, that’s enough,” officer Jerome Shannon says on the video.
Assistant District Attorney Christopher Bowman said Kendrick’s words to the man indicated his true motive for the smacks.
“This wasn’t about safety that night. It was about displaying power — who was strong, who was weak, who’s in charge,” Bowman told the judge.
But Kendrick’s attorney, Townsend Myers, said that a lot cannot be seen in the video. The man’s hands are blocked from view, and Myers grilled witnesses about whether he could have been reaching to his waistband for a weapon or otherwise threatening the officer.
The NOPD brass, who fired Kendrick after the incident, rejected the defense’s claims.
“Striking people in the head is not a way to get compliance,” Deputy Superintendent Kirk Bouyelas said from the witness stand.
Sgt. Kevin Stamps, with the department’s Public Integrity Bureau, responded similarly, saying that Kendrick cannot be heard giving the man beneath him any commands or instructions and that the man shows no signs of struggle or resistance, merely lying motionless on the ground.
Kendrick’s sergeant learned of the incident and alerted the Public Integrity Bureau. Stamps investigated the incident, decided a crime probably had been committed and forwarded his findings to the district attorney.
Meanwhile, the two men stopped that night turned out not to have been the armed robbers. The driver was booked with reckless driving, and the passenger, Kendrick’s alleged victim, was soon let go without being arrested.
But Myers said his client was acting that night under the assumption that the men were, indeed, armed robbers.
He described the ensuing investigation as “Monday morning quarterbacking” while police office must make life-or-death decisions in real time, in the heat of the moment.
Kendrick did not testify on his own behalf. But neither did his alleged victim, who never filed a complaint with the Police Department and refused to come to court. The judge went so far as to sign a material witness bond for his arrest, which meant he could be arrested and kept in jail to assure his appearance in court. But he didn’t show up Friday, and prosecutors mounted their case without his testimony.
Bowman told the judge that the victim of the officer’s malfeasance was not one person, but the entire community.
Both sides argued, too, over which verdict would make the city safer.
Myers contended that cops afraid of felony charges would become timid, play it safe and leave the public vulnerable, but prosecutors said nothing puts the public more at risk than brutal cops who bend the rules and alienate the community.
Kendrick had been charged with both simple battery, a misdemeanor, and malfeasance, a felony. Prosecutors dropped the battery charge and tried him on the malfeasance alone.
Malfeasance is defined in Louisiana law as performing a public employee’s duty “in an unlawful manner.” To prove it, then, prosecutors also had to prove that Kendrick had implicitly committed the crime of battery.
Willard cited two reasons for finding him not guilty: First, he said he was troubled that Kendrick was the only officer in the video charged with a crime. Other officers also yanked the men out of the car and cursed at them, yet Kendrick was the only one arrested, Willard said.
He was also troubled that the victim of the battery didn’t show up. “There was no evidence of a simple battery,” he said. “I am obligated to say not guilty.”
Kendrick declined to comment on his exoneration, but Myers said his client is also appealing his termination from the department.
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro was incensed by the verdict. He marched to the courthouse steps to blast the judge’s decision as “ludicrous” and “a backwards way of thinking.”
“What we are trying to establish, what we have been working very hard to accomplish, is confidence from our community in the criminal justice system,” he said. “To me, this is a giant step back; that’s the way I look at it.”
The Police Department has suffered a number of setbacks in its attempts to clean up its image and clear its ranks of brutal or dishonest cops.
Fired officers are often reinstated on technicalities or because of mishandled investigations.
The landmark conviction of five officers who gunned down unarmed civilians on the Danziger Bridge was recently overturned.
Willard, who acquitted Kendrick, also acquitted another officer on the same charge earlier this year. He found then that Officer Randy Lewis had not committed malfeasance in office when his K-9 dog, Phantom, fell to its death into an elevator shaft while the two worked an unapproved private detail.
Cannizzaro said Friday that Willard’s decision does not bode well for future prosecutions of police officers.
“I’m not sure what more we have to do to prove a case of malfeasance. Malfeasance is when an officer doesn’t do what he is supposed to do as a police officer. A police officer is not supposed to pull a citizen out of a car, handcuff him, throw him on the ground and slap him six times. It’s on video,” Cannizzaro said. “Now I just have to throw my hands up in the air.”