New Orleans Refuses To Pay Court Costs Of Some Officers Accused In Civil Suits

NEW ORLEANS, LA – Some local attorneys say the city of New Orleans is turning its back on the men and woman who protect and serve.

WDSU Investigates has learned City Hall is refusing to defend some current and former police officers facing what’s being called frivolous civil litigation, meaning many on the force have to foot the legal bills themselves.

It’s a practice the Police Association of New Orleans said sends a bad message, but one the city is defending.

And the examples used by PANO are mounting.

The trouble for New Orleans Police Department Officer Lisa Lewis began in the summer of 2014 on Mimoso Court in Algiers.

Lewis said she conducted a traffic stop on 26-year-old Arturo Bennet and found he had four outstanding warrants for his arrest.

There was a scuffle and a shooting erupted in which Bennet was wounded.

Controversy ensued when it was revealed that Lewis was not wearing her department issued body camera.

Neither Lewis nor the other officers involved in the case faced any criminal charges, and Bennet was arrested.

However more than a year later, Bennet filed a federal civil lawsuit against the NOPD, the superintendent and three officers, including Lewis.

One of the officers named in that filing is Lucretia Gantner. Gantner was not at the scene of the shooting but had a brief encounter with Bennett one day earlier.

Gantner’s lawyer, Eric Hessler, told WDSU Investigates that the city informed the six-year veteran that it will not be defending her in court and that she’s on her own.

Hessler is also the spokesperson for the Police Association of New Orleans. He said the city is “all too often” turning its back on officers.

And the situation doesn’t stand alone.

Hessler shared a letter that the city sent former Officer Jason Giror two years ago.

Giror was one of the officers involved in a shootout with two brothers — Earl and Justin Sipp.

Justin Sipp was killed in that incident. The officers involved were cleared after an investigation showed the Sipps fired on them first.

But a year later, Earl Sipp filed suit against Giror and the city declined to defend him.

“When there is a civil lawsuit filed against a police officer who is acting in the course and scope of his employment, historically the city will represent them and assume the liability,” Hessler said. “Unfortunately, over the last several years we have seen they are not very diligent about doing so and sometimes outright refuse to.”

And it goes all the way to the top.

Even former NOPD Superintendent Warren Riley is on his own.

He’s named in the wrongful death civil suit filed by the family of Henry Glover against the city of New Orleans and NOPD, and like the others, he has to come up with the cash for his own legal defense.

Former Deputy Superintendent Jerry Ursin, now the No. 2 man at the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office and another longtime now-retired officer, Frank Ruiz, are also are named in lawsuits from their days wearing the NOPD badge.

The city isn’t defending them.

“For all indications, it looks like the city is just abandoning police officers. They’re on their own for representation, which is very expensive,” said attorney Pat Fanning. Fanning represents Ruiz.

“Employers have some obligation to provide counsel for employees who are charged with doing something in the course and scope of their duty and get sued for it,” Fanning said.

When asked if the city refuses to represent officers involved in civil matter, former city attorney Sharonda Williams said, “We do it on a case by case basis. There is a policy memo that gives me the discretion if the employee should be represented by the city.”

Williams resigned from the position in Oct. 2015. She spoke with WDSU Investigates before her departure.

WDSU Investigates obtained the policy memorandum from the chief administrator’s office. It was drafted in 1987.

The document lays out guidelines regarding the legal defense of officers.

It reads:

“In civil actions, city employees will be entitled to legal representation in the defense of the allegations.” It goes on to say, “Such defense will be provided at no cost to the city officer or employee. Representation will be generally provided by the city attorney’s office.”

But Williams said they interpret it differently.

“It says that but it also gives me the discretion to make a decision based on the facts of the allegations,” Williams said.

It’s not uncommon for the city attorney’s office to defend workers when civil cases are brought against them.

Recently, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu was held in contempt and faced the possibility of house arrest.

Civil Court Judge Kern Reese held the mayor responsible, when City Hall was unable to pay past and current firefighters tens of millions of dollars they were owed.

Unlike the officers we named in this story, his defense was paid for by taxpayers. It was handled by the city attorney.

“For the mayor to come in and say, ‘I can use the city attorney to defend me, but not people putting their lives on the line,’ is a problem. It really is,” said legal analyst Robert Jenkins.

“We represent police officers in all sorts of lawsuits,” Williams said. “There are some instances where we don’t, I mean, the mayor is represented all the time.”

Hessler said the city’s positions hurts.

“It’s a horrible message to send,” he said. “That’s why it’s not below those ‘we’re hiring’ signs. They don’t want this advertised or known, but rest assured they pick and choose what they will defend regardless of the circumstances.”

The city said it also has the option of asking officers to seek their own representation and to have them seek reimbursement from the city later.

But the NOPD starts officers out at annual salaries of about $40,000. Lawyers said if a case drags on for months or years, legal bills can easily eclipse that number.

WDSU checked with the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, the Gretna Police Department, the Westwego Police Department and the police departments in Mandeville and Covington.

All said that if their officers or deputies are sued in civil courts, the parish or city picks up the legal costs.

In the case of Giror, he was terminated by the department after making an improper and insensitive remark about the Travon Martin case.

The incident in which the city chose not represent him happened prior to his termination.


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