New Orleans superintendent of police defends use of tear gas use against protesters
The New Orleans police chief on Thursday steadfastly defended his department’s use of tear gas against protesters who he said tried to forcefully cross a police line last week.
Under sharp questioning from New Orleans City Council members, Superintendent Shaun Ferguson said 100 to 200 protesters tried to force their way through a roadblock on the Crescent City Connection bridge.
“This did not become contentious or violent until they tried to break that front line,” Ferguson said during an online meeting of a council committee that was held as about 300 people gathered outside New Orleans City Hall to protest police abuses.
“We’re here because NOPD needs to be demilitarized but also defunded,” said Sade Dumas, executive director of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition. “The funds we use to pay for our citizens to be overpoliced and overjailed in the Orleans Parish Prison, we actually need to shift those funds to community programs. We need to shift those funds to affordable housing, to early childhood education, to things that actually contribute to public safety.”
Protests sparked by the police custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis were held throughout last week in New Orleans and were largely peaceful. The issue of police abuses has long resounded in New Orleans. The deaths of unarmed civilians at the hands of police after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 led to federal investigations and court-ordered reforms.
At Thursday’s online meeting, council members pushed back against Ferguson’s insistence that tear gas was appropriately used.
“What was the danger in allowing them to continue?” asked council member Kristin Gisleson Palmer, suggesting that New Orleans police could have escorted demonstrators over the bridge and back.
Ferguson replied that cars travel at high speeds at the bridge’s approach and protesters should not have been there. And he said police had heard chatter that demonstrators might cross the bridge and continue into neighboring Jefferson Parish. He said it would be inappropriate for New Orleans police to escort an estimated 1,000 protesters, some of whose intentions were unknown, into another law enforcement agency’s jurisdiction.
Ferguson did not defend the firing of rubber balls at demonstrators. He said an investigation continues into why the projectiles were fired, who ordered their use and why he was initially told they had not been used.
He refused to commit to banning the use of tear gas under similar situations, despite member Jason Williams’ concerns that it would be harmful to nonviolent demonstrators and could result in coughing and wheezing that would spread the coronavirus if anyone involved was infected.
Ferguson did make some concessions, saying police policies and procedures are being reviewed and that he was open to suggestions for improvement. He also acknowledged that police may not have effectively communicated warnings to protesters beyond the front line of the crowd. “If we did not give warnings, that is something we need to do better,” he said.
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