The sheriff of Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish answers only to voters. In this conservative suburb, that translates to nearly unchecked power.
The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office in Louisiana may have violated the civil rights of a 16-year-old autistic boy when deputies pinned him to the pavement, handcuffed and shackled, as officers sat on his back for more than nine minutes, according to a “statement of interest” filed this month by the Department of Justice as part of a civil rights lawsuit against JPSO.
The teen, Eric Parsa, died on the scene in January 2020. The sheriff’s office has also recently faced a number of other lawsuits alleging wrongful death, excessive force and racial discrimination by deputies. The sheriff’s office was the subject of a yearlong investigation by ProPublica and WRKF and WWNO starting in 2021, which disclosed evidence of racial discrimination and violence by deputies; after the first story ran, the American Civil Liberties Union called on federal prosecutors to investigate the department.
Regarding the DOJ filing, the sheriff’s office maintains that its deputies did not discriminate against Parsa based on his disability — and thus did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act — because Parsa posed a threat to himself, the public and law enforcement officers.
But the DOJ said that evidence submitted in the case appears to show that Parsa posed no danger, and that deputies were aware of the teenager’s disability and did nothing to modify their procedures or actions to ensure his safety, as required by law.
“A reasonable jury could thus find that Defendants discriminated against E.P. based on disability,” DOJ attorneys said in their May 12 statement about the Parsa case, noting the only word Parsa uttered throughout the deadly ordeal was “firetruck.”
The coroner ruled the teen’s death an accident as a result of “excited delirium,” a controversial diagnosis that is listed as a cause of death for a number of people who died in police custody. The coroner also cited “prone positioning” as a contributing factor. But Parsa’s family disputes the finding that his death was accidental, saying it should be classified as a homicide. In January 2021, they sued Sheriff Joe Lopinto and seven deputies, claiming the sheriff’s office violated Parsa’s constitutional and civil rights, as well as his rights under the ADA.
The Justice Department files statements of interest in civil lawsuits to “explain to the court the interests of the United States in litigation between private parties,” according to a 2017 article in the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. Since January 2020, the DOJ has filed at least 18 other statements of interest in disability rights cases. In this case, the department’s interest is its responsibility to enforce Title II of the ADA, which prohibits law enforcement agencies from denying individuals with disabilities the “opportunity to participate in or benefit from their services.”
The department’s May 12 statement followed a motion from the sheriff’s office for federal Judge Wendy Vitter to issue a partial summary judgment, which would toss out the ADA claims without taking them to trial. The motion is pending.
On Jan. 19, 2020, Parsa’s parents took him to play laser tag at the Westgate Shopping Center in Metairie. As they were leaving, he experienced a disability-related meltdown, according to the family’s lawsuit. Surveillance footage shows the boy repeatedly slapping his own head in the parking lot, then slapping and wrestling his father for several minutes.
A nearby business manager contacted JPSO Deputy Chad Pitfield and informed him that a child with special needs was having a violent episode, Pitfield testified in a September 2022 deposition. When Pitfield arrived in his patrol car with the lights flashing, Parsa became even more agitated. He once again began slapping his own head, then slapped Pitfield, who took him to the ground, the video shows.
At least six more deputies arrived in four patrol cars and two unmarked vehicles. They handcuffed and shackled the teen as three deputies took turns sitting on his back, with one putting him in a chokehold. About 10 minutes later, deputies noticed Parsa had gone “limp” and had urinated, according to the lawsuit. His mother screamed that they were choking him. Only then did they roll him into a “recovery position,” as filings describe it. But it was too late. He died on the scene.
Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act requires law enforcement agencies make “reasonable modifications” to their policies, practices and procedures to ensure that people with disabilities are not discriminated against or denied services.
In Parsa’s case, the DOJ said deputies could have dispatched crisis intervention officers, used de-escalation strategies, or given the teenager time and space to calm down as he didn’t pose a significant safety threat. Instead of sitting on him as he lay facedown on the pavement, deputies could have rolled Parsa onto his side, stood him up or sat him in a vehicle.
The sheriff’s office maintained in court documents that such policy modifications are only required once two factors are in place: the scene is secured and there is no longer a threat to public safety or life. JPSO maintains that neither condition had been met in Parsa’s case, and therefore the deputies’ actions did not violate the ADA.
“The video speaks for itself and clearly shows that the scene was never secure prior to E.P.’s demise,” the sheriff’s office’s attorneys wrote in a May 1 motion for partial summary judgment, referring to surveillance footage taken from the scene.
The video shows that at about 1:29 p.m, Pitfield pinned Parsa to the ground by sitting on his back. From that point forward, Parsa did not move from that spot. At one point, he was surrounded by seven deputies and seven JPSO vehicles. An ambulance arrived at 1:39 p.m. and a few minutes later paramedics took Parsa’s lifeless body away on a stretcher.
In reviewing the video, the DOJ reached different conclusions from those put forward by the sheriff’s office.
“Critically, nothing … suggests that E.P. had a weapon, that officers ever reasonably suspected he had a weapon, or that there was a threat to human life,” the DOJ said in its statement. “The record contains no evidence that any bystanders were at risk.”
There is evidence, however, that deputies “could have provided any number of reasonable accommodations once the scene was secure, and thereby afforded the child a safe and effective law enforcement response,” DOJ attorneys concluded.
Statements provided by deputies who were present — and who acknowledged that they knew or assumed Parsa was autistic or had special needs — also seem to contradict the sheriff’s statement that the scene was not secure. They said that while he was on the ground, he was “calm” or “under control” and was not resisting.
“Everything was fine,” two deputies said.