How a New Orleans Police Detective Missed a Key Clue in a Controversial Killing
Eric Gay/AP Photo
The New Orleans Police Department's official 12-page report on the death of Danny Brumfield Sr. comes to this conclusion: The 45-year-old grandfather was to blame for his own demise.
Brumfield was among thousands of people gathered near the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center on Sept. 3, 2005. Inexplicably, the report said, he leaped onto the hood of a police car and made a "stabbing motion" through the passenger window while gripping a potentially lethal weapon -- a pair of scissors. Fearing for his life, the officer in the passenger seat fired a single blast from his pistol-grip Mossberg shotgun, a personal weapon, killing Brumfield with a shot through his left shoulder, the report states.
DeCynda Barnes, a veteran New Orleans Police Department homicide detective who investigated the shooting, found that it was "justified" by the threat to the officers.
In the week following Hurricane Katrina, police shot at least 10 people, records show. An examination of the post-Katrina shootings by ProPublica, the Times-Picayune, and PBS "Frontline" found the department conducted cursory investigations of these incidents, relying largely on the statements made by the officers involved, failing to talk to civilian witnesses and neglecting to collect physical evidence.
Two experts in police practices who reviewed the Brumfield case at the request of reporters found much to question, beginning with Barnes' failure to read the autopsy.
"It's a very incomplete investigation," said Barbara Attard, a police practices consultant who spent 25 years reviewing police misconduct allegations for three different California cities. "I've never seen anything like it."
Experts said the NOPD investigation was poor in several other regards. It was drawn largely from statements made by the officer who shot Brumfield, Ronald Mitchell, and his partner, Ray Jones, whose accounts were almost identical. Aside from a brief conversation with Brumfield's sister, who saw him die, investigators didn't take statements from any other civilian witnesses, several of whom later disputed the officers' account.
Police didn't collect the scissors Brumfield purportedly wielded and could not find them when they returned later. Officers took photos of the scene, but lost them, Barnes wrote in her report.
Mitchell told reporters he would discuss the case as long as it was cleared by NOPD commander Bob Young. So did Barnes. But Young said the department could not comment on any post-Katrina shootings because of ongoing federal inquiries in the department's actions after Katrina, and neither officer was given clearance to speak. Jones could not be reached for comment.
Brumfield's relatives sued Mitchell and the NOPD, arguing that Brumfield had been needlessly killed. In 2008 the city settled the lawsuit out of court, agreeing to pay out $400,000, according to the city attorney's office. Because the case didn't go to trial, the flaws in the NOPD probe have never been revealed.
The police story
Mitchell told detectives that he and his partner were rolling along Convention Center Boulevard in the early morning hours of Sept. 3, 2005, when Brumfield "started jogging towards our police vehicle."
"He had his arms out. We noticed something shiny in his hand, his left hand," said Mitchell, who was riding in the passenger seat. "He jumped on the hood ... cracking the windshield."
From there, Brumfield "slid to my side of the vehicle and lunged at me with the shiny object," Mitchell said.
"I feared for my life ... and dis ... discharged my weapon,” the officer said, according to the transcript.
Jones told a similar story. As he was driving, Brumfield "walked in front of our car," made "some type of motion with his hands like for me to stop or somethin' like that," and then "jumped on the vehicle," Jones said during his interview with investigators.
Somewhere in this chaos, "it appeared as if he was reaching into the car, as if he was trying to get to my partner ... with something shiny in his hand." Then the shot went off, Jones said.
Both men said they had stopped the car and checked to see whether Brumfield had survived. He had died almost instantly, the officers told NOPD detectives. Meanwhile, they heard several shots.
Fearing the huge crowd gathered at the Convention Center would attack them in anger over the shooting, the two officers drove away.
The family's version
Brumfield and his wife, Deborah, rode out the storm in their home on Port Street in the Upper 9th Ward, watching the floodwaters rise. When a rescue crew showed up, the couple got separated -- the rescuers were taking only women and children, the ill and elderly.
So on the third day after the hurricane hit, Sept. 1, Danny Brumfield waded through the waters and sought shelter, like countless others, at the Convention Center.
There, he had a spell of good luck, reuniting with a gaggle of family members, including his daughter, sister, niece and five grandchildren. Several of those relatives witnessed his death.
According to the family, the incident occurred Sept. 2 about 9:30 p.m., when Brumfield spotted a police cruiser traveling along Convention Center Boulevard.
The police car didn't stop, according to his niece, Africa Brumfield. Seconds later, another squad car emerged from the dark, and Danny Brumfield sprinted to the street -- waving his arms in an attempt to flag down the officers. His niece thought he was trying to get police to come to the rescue of a woman in the crowd who was shrieking and screaming for help.
The cruiser, she said, rammed into her uncle, stopped and then quickly accelerated into him several more times. Her uncle leaped onto on the hood of the car to avoid being struck again, she said.
"All I could think is, 'This police officer's trying to kill him,'" Africa Brumfield said in an interview.
She said she had given her uncle a pair of scissors earlier that day so he could cut up cardboard boxes for his grandchildren to use as makeshift mattresses. But she insisted that he didn't have the scissors in his hand when the car struck him, and never tried to attack the officers. According to Africa Brumfield, her uncle was shot as he flailed for balance on the hood of the patrol car.
Her mother, Dolores Augustin, echoed her account on key points, though Augustin believed Brumfield was trying to get the police to come to the aid of one of his grandchildren, who was dehydrated.
"When he got up on top of the hood, the car was moving, he was trying to hold on, and then I heard 'boom!'" Augustin recalled in her deposition.
Both women said the officers simply drove off after the shooting. And both women said Brumfield survived for at least a few moments after the gunfire.
"He took a couple breaths, and that was it," Augustin said.
The post-shooting investigation did little to resolve the contradictions between the competing narratives.
Later that night -- just when is in dispute -- a group of police officers went back to the Convention Center to try to figure out what happened. One officer said he took pictures of Brumfield's body with a disposable camera. Another brought Augustin along with Brumfield's daughter, Shantan Brumfield, to Harrah's casino, where the police had set up a central command post. Shantan Brumfield said later that an officer spoke with her but declined to take a statement.
But police did ask Augustin to write down an account of her brother's shooting. It was nine sentences long. Brumfield, she wrote, "ran in front the car and jump on it. Then I heard gunfire and he fell."
But when she was deposed later, Augustin said she was shocked and flustered when she made the statement. In her deposition, she said her brother was trying to get out of the way of the car when it hit him.
Barnes wrote that Augustin's written statement along with the officers' accounts and what she termed "the physical evidence" compelled her to deem the shooting "justified."
But Augustin's statement is "very vague," and lacks independent corroboration, said Attard, the California consultant. Attard said Barnes should have attempted to re-interview Brumfield's family.
As for physical evidence, none was retrieved from the scene. The scissors, which the report stated were found near Brumfield's head, were not picked up.
According to the report, police lost the photographs -- taken with a disposable camera by SWAT team Sgt. Todd Morrell -- which would presumably have shown the proximity of the shears to Brumfield’s body.
Police did confiscate Mitchell's personal shotgun, as well as the shotgun shell.
The lack of physical evidence, notably the scissors, can't be ignored, said Dennis Kenney, a former officer and now professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. "Your immediate reaction is to raise doubt about whether they existed in the first place," he said, although a newspaper photograph of Brumfield's corpse shows a small pair of scissors next to it.
Barnes' report does not include a diagram of the scene and is unclear precisely how the fatal shot was fired. The report says the windshield of the patrol car was cracked but not shattered, suggesting Mitchell pushed the gun through the open passenger side window and pulled the trigger. But where was Brumfield at that moment? Flailing on the hood, face down, as his family says? Standing beside the car lunging at Mitchell with scissors? Somewhere else?
The family's lawyer, Richard L. Root, theorizes Mitchell pushed his shotgun out the window and fired downward into Brumfield's back, an explanation that appears consistent with the autopsy and other accounts.
Attard, who most recently audited internal affairs investigations for the city of San Jose, said Barnes made a key mistake in interviewing Jones and Mitchell months apart -- Mitchell in November and Jones in March. Officers should be simultaneously interviewed by different detectives or back-to-back to prevent them from coordinating their stories, she said.
Barnes appears to have been hampered by post-storm limitations. The initial incident report, by Sgt. Keith Joseph, notes that then-Superintendent Eddie Compass had instructed that only a "short gist" was needed -- not typical NOPD practice after an officer-involved fatal shooting.
"They were under orders not to tie up what limited personnel they had on such investigations," said Eric Hessler, a former NOPD officer and now an attorney representing some of the officers targeted in the federal probes. The lack of initial crime-scene investigation and evidence gathering hobbled the subsequent probes of the police shootings, which began six weeks after the storm, he said.
One shortcoming of Barnes' report that cannot be explained by post-Katrina confusion is her description of Brumfield's injury as a "wound sustained to the left shoulder."
Under questioning by an attorney for the Brumfield family at a November 2007 deposition, Barnes initially insisted Brumfield "was facing" officer Mitchell when the cop fired. The pellets hit Brumfield in the "left shoulder," she continued.
Barnes said she had come to that conclusion "based on the coroner's report and based on the officer's testimony," the detective explained. A few minutes later, though, Barnes changed her mind, saying she was mistaken and had never seen the autopsy documents.
"Were you aware that autopsies are done when bodies are brought to the coroner?" asked Root, the Brumfield family attorney.
"Yes," replied Barnes.
"And at any point, did you try to obtain the autopsy?" Root asked.
"No," said Barnes.
Barnes explained that detectives do not review autopsies for their reports on police shootings because they were used only in court proceedings. For her report, Barnes said, she looked at the death certificate and the "day record," the coroner's initial note on the time and cause of death. In the death certificate, the cause of death is listed as a "shotgun wound to the left shoulder," according to her police report.
Experts said detectives should always study the full autopsy.
"It's incredibly shoddy police work," said Kenney, the New York professor. "At a minimum, you read the autopsy and talk to the pathologist."
Reading the autopsy also allows investigators to check the facts of the injury against the officer's statement.
"If the person was shot in the back, there's an automatic presumption that it's an unjustified shooting," said Samuel Walker, professor emeritus with the University of Nebraska's criminal justice department. "Upon further investigation, you might find circumstances that explain that -- that's the point of interviewing witnesses."