Calvin Cains III may have been alone behind the wheel of the stolen Toyota on June 6, when he was killed by Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office deputies in the parking lot of his mom’s Metairie apartment complex.
The JPSO account describes Cains using his vehicle as a weapon, poised to hit a deputy. His friends and family say that deputies shot him as soon as he entered the car, before he’d started it up or even taken off his backpack.
To dispute the official narrative are two key witnesses.
One was digital: Cains, 18, was on a FaceTime call with one of his best friends, Haley Martin, up until moments before he was shot.
The second witness was in person — his mother.
Mallory Cains was sitting in her car a few hundred feet away, having been stopped by deputies as she drove toward her apartment, where her son had spent the day.
Until now, Mallory Cains, 38, was not one to automatically question law enforcement. She spent 17 years in local sheriffs’ departments, including five years at JPSO. That day, she was coming home from her current job, as a security counselor.
But since her son was killed, she has been searching for answers. Why did JPSO require such a show of force just to pick up her son for a warrant out of New Orleans, related to a weekend shooting? And for three months now, she has been waiting for JPSO to release footage from the two deputies who were reportedly wearing body cameras that day.
JPSO Capt. Jason Rivarde said that the office would not release bodycam footage to the family until a determination had been made about the shooting: whether the lethal use of force was warranted, or not.
“That investigation is still open. It hasn’t been submitted to the DA yet,” he said on September 15th. Even after the internal determination is complete, the bodycam is still off-limits until the second tier of review, in the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s office, where investigators either affirm or disagree with the JPSO determination.
On some occasions, when deputies were more clearly justified in firing their weapons, JPSO has deviated from that protocol, releasing bodycam footage within days.
Yet even without the JPSO footage, the two women can reconstruct much of what happened that afternoon, they say.
Martin, a close high school friend, was talking on FaceTime with Calvin, whom everyone called Trey, as he exited the apartment building and walked toward the car. They were talking while he got into the car and propped up the phone on the car’s dashboard. Then she heard a crash and they got disconnected.
She never heard the ignition. “I would’ve heard the car start. And it never started,” she said.
From where she had been stopped, Cains’ mother saw her son walking out of the door toward his car, holding his phone in front of him as he spoke on FaceTime with Martin.
He had barely climbed into the car when she saw trucks speeding toward him, boxing him in. At the same time, she heard the gunshots. What she did not hear was deputies announcing themselves, in a way that gave her son a chance to surrender himself, she said.
‘All the same instant’
Mallory Cains was not close enough to see that her son had been shot in the chest and the forehead while he sat behind the wheel.
Instead, she saw the scene from her car.
As two unmarked vehicles sped toward her son’s car, blocking him in, she heard the shots. It was all simultaneous, she said. “Boom, the truck hit him. The other truck hit him. And I heard shots. All the same instant.”
His phone call with Martin likely ended at that moment. He dropped the phone and the two disconnected. “He said, ‘There go them people,’” Martin said. “And I just heard something crash into the car. Like the phone went, ‘Boom!’”
After that, Mallory Cains lost her vantage point, because deputies escorted her and her 6-year-old son, Elijah, into a squad car facing in another direction. She asked about the gunshots, but a New Orleans Police Department officer who was on the scene assured her that her son was not shot. She trusted the information because it came from a law-enforcement officer, she said.
She was told to text her son, to tell him to give himself up. She texted frantically but got no response. Two hours later, a detective came and told her that her son “didn’t make it.”
She has learned more about what happened afterward through several videos given to her by her neighbors. “JPSO thought that no one was watching. But the hills have eyes,” she said.
In the videos, undercover detectives carry black ballistic shields in front of them as they approach the Toyota where Cains sat, almost certainly dead. Behind the windshield dotted with bullet holes, deputies break out a back window and sprayed green teargas into the truck, announcing, “Jefferson Parish.” Cains heard that announcement from the car where she and Elijah were sitting with a deputy at the wheel.
Sheriff Joseph Lopinto said in his crime-scene remarks that his deputies weren’t sure that Cains was dead immediately.
In the videos, from nearby windows, neighbors described the scene as deputies crawled into the car and grabbed his backpack, which was still on his back. No one has reported any weapons found on-scene.
Investigators tagged the report with the working signal “justifiable homicide.”
Lopinto described Calvin Cains trying to hit a deputy with the car, a Toyota CH-R, which had been reported stolen out of Orleans Parish.
Cains “put one of our deputies’ lives in danger,” said Lopinto, who, in the wake of the shooting, described it as “proper force.” Crime-scene video shows a cluster of shots through the driver’s side of the windshield.
Mallory Cains questions why deputies didn’t just announce themselves as her son left her apartment building – or ask her for help, since she was sitting right there in her car, watching him walk out of her door.
She runs through the aspects of the scene in her head. Calvin was 110 pounds, so he wouldn’t have appeared menacing. He had a phone in his hand, was focused on that call. He would have been easy to apprehend. “I know if they would’ve announced themselves, if they’d said, ‘Jefferson Parish — put your hands up,’ he would’ve surrendered,” she said.
He had been arrested a few times before – on car, drug and gun charges – and he hadn’t resisted. But none of those charges were death sentences. “I mean, I’m not a self-righteous mind saying, ‘“Oh no, my son was an angel,’ or ‘I know he didn’t do that,’” Cains said. “All I’m saying is if that’s what he did, he should have had his date in court.”
What officers can do, versus what they should do
Questionable “vehicle as weapon” explanations are not new for Jefferson Parish.
In August 1979, an 18-year-old named Cleveland Rogers was shot, though not fatally, after he allegedly struck the arm of a deputy who tried to give him a ticket for reckless driving on Lapalco Boulevard. A witness who saw the unmarked car pull up behind Rogers recalled it differently. “This guy (the deputy) just ran up to the car with his gun drawn,” he told the Times-Picayune. “He just ran up and shot the kid.”
On Nov. 10, 1990, a JPSO reserve deputy killed Greg Hinton, 27, an unarmed man who was struck 11 times. JPSO said that Hinton had tried to run over the part-time deputy.
Again, the Times-Picayune interviewed witnesses who said otherwise. “Two people within 50 feet of the shooting scene … said that they had witnessed the incident and that [the suspect’s] car was not moving when the deputies fired.”
“I didn’t hear them say freeze or nothing, they just opened fire,” one of the witnesses told the newspaper.
This piece cites selected incidents where JPSO used “vehicle as weapon” justifications for officer-involved shootings. But it’s nearly impossible to track how many times deputies used that justification – or even how many times JPSO used lethal force, in comparison to other similar jurisdictions across the country.
With consistent national data about police shootings, it would be much easier to track whether JPSO was an outlier, said Jay Aronson, co-author, with Dr. Roger Mitchell Jr., of the book Death in Custody: How America Ignores the Truth and What We Can Do about It, released a few weeks ago by Johns Hopkins University Press.
“We may see the same things happening over and over and over again,” said Aronson, who is the director of the Center for Human Rights Science at Carnegie Mellon University. “But because we don’t gather data systemically, we can’t see it as a whole,” he said.
As the two wrote in their book, “With all the viral social-media attention and public protest, Americans could be forgiven for thinking they understand the scope of the problem, but they would be wrong. For every name we know, there are many we do not. … The number of people killed by police in twenty-first-century America is a “statistical and public policy mystery.”
There is also very little recourse for anyone who believes a shooting was wrongful. Official accounts are usually upheld in court, because of a concept called “qualified immunity” which U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor described as an “absolute shield” for police officers accused of excessive force.
For example, in 1991, Chris Joseph, 38, and Davari “BeBop” Robertson, two New Orleans residents were fatally shot during a suspected drug arrest outside the IHOP on West Bank Expressway. When the JPSO plainclothes detectives pulled up in unmarked vehicles with guns drawn on the two men, Joseph allegedly put the car into reverse. Deputies shot; their lives were endangered because of the moving car, they said.
The Joseph and Robertson families sued in federal court, claiming the deputies used excessive force. Earlier this year, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision of a lower court, which threw out the suit. “Officers who are endangered by a weaponized vehicle may properly, within the strictures of the Fourth Amendment, use deadly force,” wrote the three-judge panel.
As the Police Executive Research Forum wrote in a long report about use of force by officers, the federal Supreme Court has made clear “what officers can legally do in possible use-of-force situations, but it does not provide specific guidelines on what officers should do.” Guiding officers toward less lethal solutions is up to individual law-enforcement agencies, the report says.
Jefferson Parish is not the only place where “vehicle as a weapon” is used as a pretext for police shootings. But many other departments, including the New Orleans Police Department, have adopted policies and training that teach officers not to place themselves in harm’s way, in front of vehicles. Under these policies, unless someone is, say, waving a gun out the window, a moving vehicle on its own does not require deadly force.
Two decades ago, after the Hinton shooting, then-sheriff Harry Lee said that the department had changed a policy that had been in force from 1983-1987, which prohibited shooting into a moving vehicle. In 1987, the policy was basically changed to an admonishment. “Remember, a weapon should generally not be fired from or at a moving vehicle.”
Rivarde said that he couldn’t provide the current JPSO policy because it was requested for this story, which is centered on an open investigation. He advised The Lens to file a public records request, which is currently pending.
Will bodycam spur change?
Last year, days after JPSO deputies began wearing bodycam, two officers shot and killed Daniel Vallee, 34, who refused to get out of an SUV in the 500 block of Wilson Street. Five days later, the two deputies who shot Vallee were fired and charged with manslaughter. “Their perception was that their life was in danger at that point in time. Unfortunately, the use of deadly force in this situation was not justified,” Lopinto said.
Partly because of that case, Mallory Cains holds out some hope that perhaps someone at JPSO or the DA’s office will review the footage and see fit to bring her son’s killer to justice.
On the day Calvin Cains was killed, Lopinto explained the justification to a group of reporters in the Metairie parking lots. His deputies, he said, had “attempted to block (Cains’) vehicle in, which he attempted to make his escape from, running into the back of the fence, turning the vehicle wheels forward where I had one my deputies approaching him. Our deputy ended up firing shots into the windshield, against the suspect and killed him on scene.”
The narrative from the written report differs slightly from Lopinto’s recounting.
“Cains used the stolen Toyota to ram one police vehicle on scene and oriented his vehicle at another detective, who was on foot, which resulted in one detective firing his issued Glock 45 handgun, four rounds, into the vehicle, striking Cains, who succumbed to his wounds on scene,” it states.
The official account is perplexing to Mallory Cains, who saw her son’s car blocked in at all four sides – by a fence in the back, a parked Mazda 626 on the passenger’s side and two unmarked JPSO trucks – a gray Toyota RAV4 and a white Ford F-150 – on the driver’s side and front, respectively. Footage of the crime scene from the Instagram page NolaStreets_History shows the white Ford truck sitting nose-to-nose with the Toyota that Cains was in.
At Calvin’s funeral in mid-June, everyone seemed to know that image – with the Toyota blocked in, in a way that it could never have been “weaponized.”
“Make it make sense,” said one of his pallbearers, who had known Calvin all of his life. “We lost Trey because a deputy came to the scene feeling trigger-happy.”
Family members, along with his crew of friends, who served as pallbearers, say that they want to see the official narrative reconciled with what Haley Martin and his mother saw. Until then, they plan to continue the fight, which they’ve hashtagged #JusticeforCalvin.
And his mother is positive about what she saw. “The sheriff said that they shot the car because Calvin backed into the fence,” Mallory Cains said. “But Calvin never had the opportunity to move the car.”
This post was changed to correct the name of Jay Aronson’s book.