NEW ORLEANS, LA – The New Orleans city attorney’s office this week declined to represent a former NOPD officer in a wrongful-death lawsuit even though the department and the district attorney’s office determined the shooting was justified.
Former officer Jason Giroir, along with the city and police chief, are being sued in U.S. District Court by the family of Justin Sipp, whom Giroir killed after Sipp fired 14 shots at officers, injuring two, during a February 2012 traffic stop, according to police. The city typically is on the hook to represent its employees when they are sued over actions that are within the scope of the employee’s job.
Though the city has declined to comment on why it won’t represent Giroir, he was heavily criticized by city officials after posting comments on WWL-TV’s website last March regarding the death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.
“Act like a Thug Die like one!” Giroir wrote, commenting on the news site and using his Facebook profile, which noted he worked at the NOPD.
After a commenter named Eddie Johnson criticized Giroir’s initial comments as racist, Giroir responded: “Eddie come on down to our town with a “Hoodie” and you can join Martin in HELL and talk about your racist stories!:-P”
At the time, Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas said he was “furious” and suspended Giroir indefinitely without pay. Mayor Mitch Landrieu released a statement saying, “The people of New Orleans and my administration will not tolerate this reckless and offensive behavior.”
Giroir resigned the following day.
“He made those comments, which were certainly regrettable, but he made them the day after he found a bullet lodged in his Taser. The guy (Sipp) shot at him,” Giroir’s attorney, Eric Hessler said.
While it doesn’t happen often, the city can decline to provide lawyers for employees if the city finds itself in a conflict of interest. In declining to comment on the pending litigation, Tyler Gamble, a city spokesman, said in an email that the city attorney’s office has refused to represent city employees “on numerous occasions.”
Even so, Hessler, who also represents the Police Association of New Orleans, sent the city a letter on Wednesday saying he expects the city to reimburse his client for all legal expenses since, at the time of the shooting, Giroir was “on duty, driving a marked NOPD unit, enforcing city and state law and acting in compliance with NOPD policy and procedure.”
“I fail to understand how the city has determined that it has no legal (or moral) responsibility for such representation,” Hessler wrote in the letter addressed to Assistant City Attorney Mary Kaufman.
Kaufman and Hessler are scheduled to meet Monday to discuss the issue.
Raymond Burkart III, an attorney and spokesman for the local Fraternal Order of Police lodge, another police union, said Friday that he sees such cases about once a year. For example, he said, the city chose not to represent former NOPD officer Justin Ferris, who was fired in 2011 for chasing a heroin dealer the wrong way down a one-way street, breaking NOPD’s policies. The chase ended in a crash that killed an 18-year-old woman, whose family sued Ferris, the NOPD and the city.
Burkart said the city is doing the right thing in refusing to defend a client it has already come out against. By dropping Giroir, he said, the city attorney can avoid a conflict of interest with its primary clients, who in this case would be the city and Serpas, as well as any other NOPD defendants.
“You can’t have the attorney talking out of both sides of his mouth in a court of law,” Burkart said. “Neither client is being properly represented if that’s the case.”
In his letter, Hessler asked the city for its legal basis for dropping Giroir and whether the city intended to pay for any settlements or judgments that could result.
“It’s not right to hire people, send them onto the street, have them doing a job where they might get killed, then have them almost get killed and then not only that, but you also have to lose your house,” Hessler said.
Both FOP and PANO say they provide lawyers for their members who are sued if the city declines to represent the officer. But Hessler said he wanted to clarify the issue to make sure officers who aren’t members of either union understand that they could potentially find themselves personally liable for lawsuits arising from their jobs.
In what some legal experts called an unusual move, Giroir in March filed a civil suit against the Sipp family in Orleans Parish Civil District Court, seeking damages for the shooting and its subsequent effects on Giroir.