The New Orleans Police Department on Wednesday released a 10-minute, edited compilation of body camera footage from the Wednesday, June 3, confrontation between officers and protesters on the approach to the Crescent City Connection. The department has faced criticism — from activists, healthcare professionals and members of the City Council — for its use of force, including tear gas and projectiles, against what was largely a peaceful protest.
The first half of the video includes several clips of what led up to the initial round, or “volley,” of tear gas by police. There were three total rounds used that night. Most protesters exited the bridge after the first. The second half shows a smaller group remaining there, including some who threw tear gas canisters back at police officers and one using a police shield to try to continue to push across. NOPD Superintendent Shaun Ferguson said the department lost two riot shields, two batons and “a host of other equipment that was taken from our officers” that night.
There is little new in the video about what led to the first deployment. Previous videos released over the past few days showed a group of protesters pushing against a police line, and some breaking through, before officers began tossing gas canisters.
That first use of tear gas caused a brief panic, and a near-stampede, as hundreds of people fled.
Ferguson acknowledged that the vast majority of the marchers were peaceful.
Asked in a press conference, following the presentation of the video to reporters, if he could comment on whether officers considered the risks of such a panic — given the size of the crowd and the potential for people trampling each other or even falling off the expressway, which is high above the street — Ferguson said he believed the march itself was a danger.
“I think the danger started when crowds entered a major thoroughfare,” he said. He added that he supported people exercising their constitutional right to protest.
But, he said, large numbers of cars travel at high speeds on the bridge approach, creating a danger for people on foot.
In fact, after initially being blocked from entering an on-ramp, a line of cars could be seen making its way onto the expressway as protesters were running away from the gas. However, by then, high-speed travel was all but impossible as the expressway had been blocked for some time by protesters and police.
Negotiations and scuffling leading up to tear gas deployment
Ferguson repeatedly emphasized that the police and protesters in the front were in negotiations for nearly 30 minutes before a small group pushed through the first line of a barricade — made up of police clad in riot gear — and officers began tossing gas canisters toward the crowd.
The half-hour of negotiations between police and protesters included allowing one woman, who police identified as a leader of the march, to use a police microphone to address the crowd, warning them that police would push back if the group attempted to make their way onto the main span of the bridge. (She was mostly inaudible, even to people pressed up against the police front line.)
“I’m not going to let you go into it without knowing,” the woman said. “They’re ready to beat us. They’re ready to shoot us.”
Shortly after that, the video — from the perspective of an officer in the second barricade line, about 25 feet behind the front line — appears to show a group attempting to push through the front line. One man on the right side makes it through and throws his hands in the air, continuing to walk forward. Shortly after that, a larger group breaks through the center of the police line, most holding their hands in the air as well.
“Many of them threw their hands up and began the, ‘hands up, don’t shoot’ chant. But many continued to push forward using their bodies,” said Sgt. David Barnes, part of the force investigation team. The number of protesters who pushed against the officers is still under investigation, police said.
A scuffle then ensues as protesters approach the second line of officers — including the one whose body camera footage was shown — and little is visible for several seconds.
Then two protesters are visible, one appearing to push against the officer’s shield. Barnes said the officer was pinned against a police car at that point. The other protester then looks back, saying, “We’re blocked in.”
The officer begins coughing, indicating that tear gas has been deployed.
“Both our officers and the protesters were affected by the gas,” Barnes said.
That is followed by several briefer clips from other body cameras, showing protesters and police right before tear gas is used, including one that, according to Barnes, shows a protester grabbing an officer’s shield.
‘A select group’
The rest of the video shows what happened after that first round of gas was deployed.
“The majority of peaceful protesters marched off the bridge,” Barnes said. “There was a select group of protesters who were essentially bent on being violent and crossing the bridge.”
It includes clips of a group of protesters who remained on the expressway after the first use of gas. The video shows several instances of people throwing gas canisters off the bridge or back at police. After one canister is thrown back, a police officer is shown climbing on top of a car and using a launcher to fire projectiles at the crowd.
Police initially denied firing projectiles until The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate released a video showing small objects whizzing through the air.
But this week, Ferguson acknowledged that officers fired rubber “stinger rounds” and gas-filled “sponge rounds” at the crowd. He said only tear gas was authorized, and he was not made aware of the use of the projectiles until this weekend, several days after the incident.
During Wednesday’s press conference, Ferguson said he could not comment on the justification for the use of force against the protesters.
“I can’t give you that because that is still under investigation,” he said. “What I can give you is tear gas, as well as the rubber balls, is a tool that is used to disperse crowds. The why, the where, what were they thinking? That is part of our investigation.”