Louisiana Sheriff’s Department Settles Two Use-of-Force Cases, Including One in Which an Autistic Teen Died

Infrogmation of New Orleans
, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This story was originally published on Propublica.org.
by Richard A. Webster, Verite News

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Series: Unwatched:A Louisiana Law Department That Polices Itself

The sheriff of Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish answers only to voters. In this conservative suburb, that translates to nearly unchecked power.

Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, has agreed to pay settlements to two families who accused its sheriff’s deputies of using excessive force against teenagers.

The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office agreed to contribute to a $1.25 million settlement with the family of Eric Parsa, a 16-year-old boy with severe autism who died nearly four years ago after deputies pinned him to the pavement and then sat on his back for more than nine minutes. The September settlement, the cost of which will be shared by the shopping center where the boy died, is one of the largest in the department’s history.

The Parsa settlement also requires that an outside expert develop a program to train JPSO deputies on how to deal with people with autism. Parsa’s parents, Donna Lou and Daren Parsa, told Verite News they hope it will prevent other families from enduring the same pain they have suffered.

JPSO also will pay an undisclosed sum to the family of Tre’mall McGee, who was shot in the shoulder by a deputy while he was facedown on the ground, about two months after Parsa’s death. The sheriff’s office was accused of concealing its role in the shooting of the 14-year-old from both the public and McGee’s mother for months. McGee’s attorney, Ron Haley, said neither he nor McGee’s mother, Tiffany, could discuss terms.

Both Parsa’s death and McGee’s shooting were covered as part of a yearlong investigation by ProPublica and WWNO/WRKF, which found that JPSO rarely upholds complaints against its deputies. Over a three-year period, from 2017 to mid-2020, JPSO’s internal affairs division upheld only one misconduct complaint against a deputy, according to the investigation by the news organizations. During that same time, the New Orleans Police Department upheld 247.

The sheriff’s office did not respond to requests for comment, but in a recent interview with WWL-TV, Sheriff Joe Lopinto said his deputies didn’t do anything wrong in the Parsa case and were not deserving of discipline. He has previously denied any wrongdoing in the McGee case as well.

“This is not a scenario where any of our deputies are trying to hurt a kid, trying to use force or even justified using deadly force,” he told WWL-TV about the Parsa case. “They’re encountering a situation that happens … and in the course, a death occurs.”

The two recent settlements have led the ACLU of Louisiana to renew its calls for federal prosecutors to investigate the sheriff’s office and put the agency under a consent decree. Relying on lawsuits filed by the victims of police brutality is not enough to force JPSO to reform its practices and stop violating the civil rights of people with disabilities and Black and Hispanic residents, said Nora Ahmed, legal director of the ACLU of Louisiana.

“It cannot be the case that people continue to be killed, maimed and violated, and the only recourse that they have is yet another lawsuit that will be fought to the bones, and, if they’re lucky, settled,” Ahmed said.

Handcuffed and Shackled

Parsa died in January 2020 in the parking lot of the Westgate Shopping Center in Metairie. Surveillance footage shows the boy repeatedly slapping his own head, then slapping and wrestling with his father for several minutes before law enforcement was called.

A nearby business manager contacted a JPSO deputy who was working a security detail for the shopping center and informed him that a child with special needs was having a violent episode. In total, at least six deputies arrived in four patrol cars and two unmarked vehicles. They handcuffed and shackled the teen as deputies took turns sitting on his back, with one putting him in a chokehold. After nearly 10 minutes, deputies noticed Parsa had gone “limp” and urinated, according to the lawsuit.

“When I saw Eric’s dead body in the emergency room, I broke out into tears saying: ‘Sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry,’” said Daren Parsa, who told the business manager to call the police when his son began suffering a disability-related “meltdown.” “And I’m still sorry. I wish I’d known that when you say ‘yes to law enforcement being involved, there’s a risk of mortality.”

The coroner ruled the teen’s death an accident as a result of excited delirium, with “prone positioning” as a contributing factor.

Up to half of all people killed during encounters with police are disabled, according to a 2016 study by the Ruderman Family Foundation, a Boston-based philanthropic organization.

The inability of those with autism to effectively communicate their feelings can often cause them to express themselves and their frustrations through more negative behaviors, such as aggression and self-injuring, Lou, Parsa’s mother, said. This can lead to deadly results when they encounter police officers who haven’t been trained on how to appropriately handle people with developmental disabilities. “They’re not trying to be malicious. They’re really asking for help,” Lou said. “They’re in distress, and they don’t know how to express it.”

The sheriff’s office stated in court documents that the show of force that day was necessary to deal with a violent and out-of-control teenager, but Daren Parsa said there was minimal risk of danger. His son would often have meltdowns when he felt overwhelmed, but they would fade if he was given space to calm down. Lou said she tried to explain to the officers that one of her son’s triggers while he was in an excited state was being crowded by a lot of unfamiliar people.

“They said, ‘Let us do our job.’ And we all know the outcome of that,” Lou said, “It just doesn’t make sense. We assumed they were trained, that they knew what to do.”

“What’s heartbreaking is that he was calming down,” Daren Parsa said, “and we almost got him inside of the car, and then they showed up.”


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