Last June, Kevin Wheeler, a police officer who had been fired by the New Orleans Police Department in 2012 and subsequently hired by the Orleans Levee District Police Department, was working a paid off-duty detail for the Hurstville Security District in Uptown New Orleans when he was approached by three young Black men — ages 12, 18, and 21 —  who told him they were searching for a lost dog. 

But Wheeler didn’t believe them. He thought that the way they were leaning out of the car window when they approached him was suspicious. (He later told investigators that “certain people” would lean out of cars when driving around committing car burglaries.) He ran the license plate, and noticed the car was registered to a New Orleans East address. That was also suspicious, he thought. 

“I wouldn’t understand why someone from New Orleans East would be uptown looking for a dog,” he told investigators later. He said that the dog story “seemed like a ruse to disguise that these kids may have been up to no good” and that they had “just tried to, you know, smooth me over and blow me away so they could continue doing whatever they wanted to do.” 

Wheeler, who is white, called another officer, Ramon Pierre, who works for the Housing Authority of New Orleans Police Department and was also working a paid detail for Hurstville that evening. Wheeler told Pierre, who was in an unmarked truck and not in uniform, to be on the lookout for the boys, and eventually Pierre picked them up and began following them. Wheeler soon joined him, and they pulled the boys over. 

The officers ordered the driver out of the car, and he complied. But what happened next is disputed. All three of the boys involved have claimed that both officers drew their guns and pointed them at his head. Then, they proceeded to point their weapons at the boys still in the car as well. (One of the boys later told investigators that only Pierre drew his weapon, and that Wheeler had his hand on his holstered gun.)

The officers have denied that they pulled guns. They said that they ordered the driver to get out of the car and show them their hands, but left their weapons holstered. Internal investigations by both the Levee Board Police Department and the HANO Police Department cleared the officers of wrongdoing. 

After the officers were able to determine that the car belonged to the mother of the driver, who lives in New Orleans East, they let the boys go. 

But the incident is now the subject of a federal civil rights lawsuit filed last week by the ACLU of Louisiana on behalf of one of the young men, Bilal Hankins — who was 18 at the time. The suit claims that the officers involved violated his civil rights by conducting an illegal traffic stop, used excessive force when they drew their weapons, and lied in their reports to cover-up wrongdoing.

It alleges that Wheeler’s decision to follow the boys and pull them over — which took place weeks after the murder of George Floyd, who was Black, by white Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin — was “classic racial profiling.”

The suit also raises questions about oversight, accountability, and hiring practices for officers working for security districts — which are private security forces for specific neighborhoods that are set up by state-law and local elections, funded by resident fees, and overseen by appointed boards. 

It was filed as part of the ACLU of Louisiana’s Justice Lab initiative, which is aiming to bring over 1,000 lawsuits to combat racist policing across the state.

“Mr. Hankins, as he earnestly sought out the assistance of police, was quickly reminded that Black youth are far more likely than their white peers to be perceived and treated as a threat by law enforcement,” said Alanah Odoms, executive director  of the ACLU of Louisiana, in a statement. “The ACLU of Louisiana forcefully maintains that racial profiling and disparate racial treatment is patently illegal, violative of the Fourteenth Amendment’s promise of equal protection before the law, and violative of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures.”

Suit raises questions about city’s security districts

Over a dozen security districts similar to Hurstville exist throughout the city. Some officers — if they are commissioned by official law enforcement agencies — operate with full authority of police in New Orleans Police Department jurisdictions. However, the officers are not subject to NOPD policies, or oversight from federal consent decree monitors. 

“Hurstville in particular hires only commissioned law enforcement officers so that the officers can wield public policing powers—such as making stops like the unreasonable one to which Bilal Hankins was subjected,” the lawsuit reads. “However, the Hurstville officers do not serve the public at large. They serve the more affluent residents of the neighborhood that hired them. Even more dangerous is that they operate with scant policy or accountability, often loosely answering only to the neighborhood board.”

In an email, a representative from the Hurstville Security District said that “the board has not had time to digest the lawsuit but will consult with counsel.”

“Hurstville engages, as independent contractors, officers who are hired, employed and trained by other law enforcement agencies,” the statement said. “Officer Wheeler is employed by the Orleans Levee District Police (‘OLDP’) and Officer Pierre is employed by the Housing Authority of New Orleans (‘HANO’).  Each of OLDP and HANO investigated the alleged incident and cleared its respective officer of wrongdoing.”

HANO did not respond to a request for comment, and OLDP declined to comment citing the active litigation.

The Levee Board’s internal investigation into the incident determined that Officer Wheeler had reasonable suspicion of a crime to make the stop and followed proper traffic stop procedures. It also said that the account of a witness who lived on the block where the stop took place and observed a portion of the scene from inside his house. 

The witness said that from his vantage point, the stop seemed relatively routine, and he did not observe the officers pull out their guns —  though he noted that his “vision was limited.”  (The wife of the witness told investigators during the phone call that “it was just — seemed like — I don’t know, some spoiled kids.”) 

“This eyewitness exonerates our officer’s actions,” the investigation from the Levee Board states. 

HANO’s investigation also relied on the same eyewitness account — along with conflicting statements during the investigation from the boys regarding whether both or only one officer drew their weapons — to determine that the allegations against Pierre were “non-sustained.”

In the lawsuit, lawyers with the ACLU called the HANO and Levee Board investigations “perfunctory.”  The Hurstville Security District did not conduct any independent investigation into the incident.

‘Five pounds of pressure away from a shooting’

During a meeting of the New Orleans City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee meeting last July, Bilal Hankins, along with his parents and uncle, detailed both the encounter and the difficulties they had in obtaining information about the officers following the incident.

“A week after this incident occurred, the gentleman at the neighborhood association said he had no record of the incident,” Hankins mother, Lona Edwards-Hankins, said.  “It’s almost like we can just pull guns out on children and no one has to report it.”

In response to questions from The Lens late last year regarding the incident, Shelley Landrieu, executive director of the Hurstville Security District, declined to provide any written policies for the district regarding officer conduct or reporting requirements, explaining that “each officer is expected to follow the policies, procedures and training of the agency at which he or she is primarily employed while on duty for the District.” 

Kevin Wheeler was fired from the New Orleans Police Department after an internal investigation found that he had lied about the circumstances surrounding a 2011 incident in which he and another officer tased a man who they said was wielding a machete. Body camera footage later showed that the man had been disarmed by another officer prior to being tased. 

The firing was upheld by the state’s Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal. The ACLU suit notes that the facts in the case were “concerningly similar” to the one brought against Wheeler and Pierre last week.

At the Criminal Justice Committee meeting last year, several council members expressed concern that an officer who was fired by NOPD could nonetheless be patrolling New Orleans streets.

“The fact that someone can be terminated for doing less than professional police work, and then go right around the corner and go put on another badge with some other entity, carry a gun just as deadly, and can have the same negative impact on this whole community — I think it’s a big problem,” said Councilman Jay Banks at the meeting.  

Jason Williams, who was City Council president at the time and has since been elected District Attorney, warned that the incident could have easily turned deadly. 

“This incident was five pounds of pressure away from a shooting,” Williams said. “People love to talk about if a person was charged with an armed robbery — but no one was killed — law enforcement loves to say, ‘It could easily have been a shooting.’ Well, any time you pull a gun, it could very easily have been a shooting.” 

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...