They were, “you know, three young men, in a nice car, in this neighborhood,” security officer Kevin Wheeler told them later, after he and his colleague Ramon Pierre stopped them, allegedly with their guns drawn. 

The stop came not long after the youths had waved Wheeler down, asking about a runaway brown-and-white spotted chihuahua.

The ACLU of Louisiana filed a civil-rights suit against the security officers, claiming that they’d pulled guns on young Black men at a time when fears of police violence were particularly heightened – it was June 2020, three weeks after a police officer in Minneapolis killed George Floyd.

But on Wednesday, Sept. 6, U.S. District Judge Elden Fallon, of the Eastern District of Louisiana, tossed the case.

Even if the officers did draw their guns, it was “reasonable,” Fallon wrote, as he granted a summary judgment to the officers. To explain his reasoning, he cited the “totality of the circumstances” —  including “the type of previous crime in the area, the late hour, the address of the car’s registered owner, the slow moving car with the windows open, and the driver’s failure to immediately stop the vehicle when Officer Pierre activated his blue light.”

His decision drew fire from ACLU legal director Nora Ahmed. “How are we telling the community to have faith and trust the police when we’re effectively being told that when you go up to them and ask them for help, you are just telling them that you are a suspect?” she said. “And you are effectively now giving them license to pull a gun on you?”

Mark Hanna, a lawyer representing the officers, Hurstville, and the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, which has authority over the Orleans Levee District Police Department, said his clients were “pleased with the outcome” and “believe that the court gave the matter careful consideration.” 

Lona Hankins, the mother of Bilal, said that she found the idea that an officer can pull their weapon out on someone despite having no justifiable suspicion that they had done anything wrong. 

“It’s frightening,” she said. “It is frightening that our young boys have to deal with this.”

Looking for a dog while Black

In the summer of 2020, Wheeler and Pierre were working off-duty paid details in the Hurstville neighborhood “security district,” bounded roughly by Nashville Avenue and Magazine, Liberty and Valmont Streets. At around 11:30 p.m., the young men — ages 12, 18, and 21 — asked Wheeler for help while searching for Duchess, the lost dog.

Duchess suffers from a condition that made her owner worried about the chihuahua being gone all night without her medication, according to the ACLU suit, which brought the suit as part of its Justice Lab initiative, on behalf of one of the young men, Bilal Hankins, who was then 18. On the night of the stop, Hankins was riding in a black BMW driven by his 20-year-old friend. The 12-year-old passenger was a nephew of the chihuahua’s owner, a neighbor. 

Wheeler, an employee of the Orleans Levee District Police Department who was working a detail for Hurstville Security District, suspected that the young men were making up the dog story. Instead of helping them search, he called for backup and ran the plate of the BMW, owned by the driver’s mother.

Pierre, a Housing Authority of New Orleans officer who was also working a Hurstville detail that night, responded.

The two officers followed the youths, who were driving slowly, hanging out the window, whistling and yelling for Duchess. 

When the blue lights came on, the young men didn’t think they were being stopped – because they had just spoken with Wheeler. So they just turned a corner to get out of the way. 

When they stopped, after Wheeler turned on his intercom, Wheeler and Pierre came to the car, guns drawn, they allege. (In an internal affairs  complaint, the 20-year-old driver initially said that both officers drew their weapons, but later told investigators that only Officer Pierre pulled out his gun, while Wheeler kept his hand on his holstered weapon, according to an Orleans Levee District investigative report.) 

The security officers let the young men go after running the driver’s license license and comparing it with the address of the car’s registration. 

Both Wheeler and Pierre deny drawing their weapons. Neither was wearing body-cam.

The officers used “excessive force” when they drew their weapons, during a stop that was “classic racial profiling,” alleged the ACLU. 

Fallon didn’t bite on that argument, instead pointing to “qualified immunity” as he upheld the officers’ actions. “This Court concludes that, in light of the totality of the circumstances, it was reasonable for Defendants to point their guns at the car as they conducted a Terry stop late at night,” Fallon wrote. 

Qualified immunity has become a controversial defense, because it protects law enforcement officers from individual liability unless it can be proven that the official violated constitutional rights that are “clearly established law” at the time. Not long after George Floyd was killed, Colorado became the first state to limit the use of qualified immunity for officers charged at the state level.

The Hankins lawsuit also raises questions about oversight and accountability for officers working for New Orleans “security districts” — private security forces for specific neighborhoods, set up under state law, and funded by community residents. Security district officers are not subject to the federal consent decree that governs the New Orleans Police Department, which is meant to ensure that NOPD officers follow constitutional standards. 

Wheeler had been fired from NOPD in 2012 for lying to investigators about a use-of-force incident. But he continued to patrol areas within NOPD jurisdiction while working for Hurstville. 

As a result, the security districts, located mostly in well-to-do neighborhoods, are free to perpetuate segregationist attitudes unchecked, Ahmed said. “What this case shows is that if you are a black family, or a non-white family that happens to live in these neighborhoods, those security district officers do not believe that they are there to serve you,” Ahmed said, “You continue to be a suspect.

Ahmed said that despite the adverse ruling, Fallon’s analysis affirmed that security district officers were state actors who must be held to constitutional standards.

“There will be no more finger pointing at different entities arguing that ultimately, they fall through some loophole,” Ahmed said.  

But work remains even once the ink has dried on the federal court paperwork, said Bilal Hankins’ mom, Lona Hankins, who believes that something needs to be done to rein in what she called “unregulated” security districts. 

“Despite the judge’s ruling,” she said, “we still have a very fundamental issue here in New Orleans.”.

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...