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03-22-09, 06:12 PM #1
New Orleans Officer Fired for Not Discharging Gun Fights Back
Patrolling Algiers one August night, New Orleans police officer Stephen Neveaux and his partner hear a series of explosions. He drives toward the noise.
Soon, they see a man standing about 50 feet away in the street, pointing a gun. Pop, pop.
The police car pushes on. The gunman glances at the cops, then turns and fires twice again into darkness.
Neveaux, a 26-year-old officer with less than four years' experience, hesitates. A shooting -- the first he's ever witnessed -- unfolds right in front of him, but in his mind, it all seems surreal.
The moment cut to the essence of being a police officer in a city with about 200 murders and hundreds more shootings every year. A split-second decision can get a cop killed or make him kill; disgrace her or make her a hero; fill him with pride, or doubt and second-guessing.
When Neveaux's moment came that night, he chose to hold his fire and let the car crawl forward. His partner, Officer April Moses, would say later that she tried to step out, but that he ordered her back into the car. He said he thought they needed cover, that they hadn't had time to assess the situation.
Within seconds, the pops stopped. The gunman fled, with Neveaux in pursuit, his partner in the passenger seat.
The gunman dashed into a dark alley, jumped a fence and disappeared into the night. The two novice officers peeled back to the shooting scene in the 5700 block of Tullis Drive and found a man on the ground with a gunshot wound to the leg. They called Emergency Medical Services and assisted the bleeding man, who eventually recovered.
According to the New Orleans Police Department, what Neveaux did was wrong. So wrong, in fact, that internal investigators cited him for cowardice and neglect of duty. High-ranking officials conferred and confirmed. After an administrative hearing, NOPD Superintendent Warren Riley fired Neveaux.
Neveaux's superiors maintain he should have confronted the shooter. He could have fired his weapon, yelled at the suspect, flashed his lights -- or even, as an internal investigator who handled the case argued, thrown a rock at the gunman.
After that night, word spread quickly through the station, among the rank-and-file and the bosses. Neveaux's partner, Moses, distanced herself from him. She was never reprimanded or disciplined, though she was transferred to the pawn shop unit. She still agonizes over the shooting, she has since testified.
She regrets not doing more that night. Though Neveaux was not her superior, she said he stopped her from doing the right thing.
The definition of the right thing depends on whom you ask. Shades of gray don't fit well into the black-and-white rules for police conduct.
Pull the trigger, and face the repercussions: the internal investigation, the cloud of scrutiny, the second-guessing. Don't pull the trigger -- and face similar repercussions.
Stephen Neveaux didn't pull the trigger. He pushed the gas pedal. Was that cowardice or caution?
--- Fighting back ---
In the days after his firing, Neveaux chose to fight for his job, appealing the termination to the city's Civil Service Commission. He hired an attorney, a confident cop-turned-lawyer named Eric Hessler.
What Neveaux did was not cowardice, but clear thinking, Hessler said. Neveaux needed a few seconds to grasp the situation, and he rightly held his fire. In giving aid to the gunshot victim, he fulfilled his duty. The lawyer speaks from experience.
Nine years ago, Hessler faced a similar split-second dilemma and did what Neveaux didn't: He shot.
Hessler, then an NOPD officer, had come upon a shooting in progress.
The man firing his weapon, 23-year-old Steven Hawkins, turned toward him and fired, Hessler said. Hessler reached for his service weapon and fired back, hitting Hawkins once and killing him.
After the smoke cleared, police learned Hawkins, a carjacking victim, had been shooting at his attackers in self-defense.
The police chief at the time called the incident tragic, a "police officer's nightmare."
The NOPD stood by Hessler and deemed the shooting justifiable. A grand jury cleared him of criminal charges.
The family of the deceased man sued in civil court, and a judge ordered the city last year to pay $700,000 to the man's parents.
Hessler eventually left the force, earned a law degree and went on to fight in courtrooms and civil service hearings for aggrieved officers, and for criminals as well.
"It changed my life," Hessler said. "No one wants to be put in that situation. But you are just doing your job.
"This is the dilemma that policemen are put into."
Hessler said he was told he should have taken more time to assess the situation. Yet, the immediate and natural instinct of any officer is to protect yourself, he added, and that's what Neveaux did.
"If you are a good policeman, you try to make good decisions," he said. "You sometimes don't know why you do it, but you've got to stick with it."
Since taking up Neveaux's case, Hessler has begun representing some of the officers in the internal investigation of a more high-profile case: the fatal police shooting of 22-year-old Adolph Grimes III on New Year's Day. The department, so far, has stood behind the officers who shot Grimes, saying he shot at police first.
Typically, citizen complaints against police officers revolve around the action they took: too much force, verbal abuse or attitude. Rare is the case in which an officer failed to act.
The NOPD did not respond to requests for comment on this report.
A man was arrested days after the shooting Neveaux witnessed, but his case was dropped by prosecutors.
The department also did not respond to requests for statistics on the number of terminations and investigations conducted each year by the Public Integrity Bureau.
--- Unexpected consequences ---
The disciplinary letter was dated Sept. 24 and addressed to Officer Neveaux. It's a form letter, save for the spots where decision-makers specify which rules were violated.
The department said Neveaux violated the NOPD's regulation outlined in Rule 4, paragraph 4, regarding neglect of duty. In addition, he violated Rule 7, regarding courage. For that, he received a 10-day suspension. The termination made the suspension moot.
Neveaux did not expect that. He had three-and-a-half years on the job. He patrolled, wrote reports and kept his record clean -- no complaints. Until that day. Tales of police chases, shootings and fisticuffs spread fast in police stations. Within days, the whispers got back to Neveaux. Some colleagues even confronted him.
" 'I would have shot him, I would have killed him,' " Neveaux recalled them saying.
"It's easy for everyone to say what they would have done, what I could have done," Neveaux said.
--- Victim upset ---
On Nov. 20, Neveaux walked into the modest civil service hearing room in City Hall, subdued and dressed sharply.
During the following 80 minutes, an appeal hearing, similar to a criminal case, unfolded. Such proceedings are governed by an examiner, who hears testimony and then makes a recommendation to the civil service board, which eventually renders a judgment.
In that hearing, Neveaux's whole career went under the microscope -- but none of it as intensely as the seconds after he saw the man shooting.
Lesia Mims, the police investigator who handled the case, testified Neveaux did nothing to stop the threat.
"In our line of work . . . we don't have time sometimes to think about self-preservation," she said. "We as police officers should -- we have to -- be brave."
Neveaux sat and stared dead ahead at the wall.
Mims mentioned that the gunshot victim was upset and believed police allowed the gunman to shoot him.
Next, Mims described a witness, a man who said he saw everything. Mims said she had asked the man whether Neveaux and Moses had time to stop the shooting.
The man replied: "I don't think so. It happened so fast. I think (the shooter) may have caught them unaware."
That witness also said he heard Moses say minutes after the incident that she had not intended to exit the car amid gunfire -- contradicting her testimony, in which she put blame for inaction on her partner.
According to Mims, the witness heard Moses say: "I'm not getting out of the car. I saw the guy with the gun right in front of me and everything. The gun's blazing, and I don't know if he was going to shoot me or not."
Hessler paced the room, quickly firing questions meant to pierce the internal investigation.
He asked Mims directly: What should Neveaux have done?
She stated his "primary duty" was to "render aid to the victim."
--- Upholding oath ---
Moses testified that the first gunshot came as a shock.
"And then after that, it just -- pretty much everything seemed like it went in slow motion," she said.
Moses said she should have done more.
"There's a lot of 'ifs,' " she said at the hearing.
Moses did not return phone calls seeking additional comment after the hearing.
Deputy Chief Kirk Bouyelas offered a blunt assessment of Neveaux during the hearing.
"He failed. He totally failed in every single aspect of what his job is," Bouyelas said. "It is our job to put ourselves in harm's way . . . that's what we swear an oath to do."
Eventually, Neveaux had his say.
"I didn't even notice the victim until I got on the other side of the block, after going to apprehend the perpetrator," he said. "It all happened in six seconds . . . I didn't realize the victim was shot."
He spoke softly, with his head hanging low.
"I don't think I did anything wrong that night," he said. If it happened again, he said, he'd do the same thing.
He acknowledged that he froze that night. It was the first time he had ever seen a shooting.
"Do you want your job back?" Hessler asked him. "Do you know it's dangerous?"
Neveaux replied: "I wouldn't be sitting here if I didn't."
Neveaux has been anxious since the hearing
"I'm upset, I'm down," he said. "I'm trying to hold my head high."
He is looking for a job. And he wants it to be in law enforcement.
"I loved my job," he said. "I loved solving crime, catching bad guys, helping people, making my neighborhood better."
He hopes he'll win his appeal and be a cop once again. Some people have stood by him; others haven't. He has a message for those who still question his actions that night.
"You can't say what you would have done. You weren't there."
03-25-09, 11:34 AM #2
"Pull the trigger, and face the repercussions: the internal investigation, the cloud of scrutiny, the second-guessing. Don't pull the trigger -- and face similar repercussions."
That one line says it all. Damned if you do, and damned if you don't.The strongest reason for the people to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against the tyranny of government.
That is why our masters in Washington are so anxious to disarm us. They are not afraid of criminals. They are afraid of a populace which cannot be subdued by tyrants.” – Jeff Cooper'
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