NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - Four officers have been fired and two others suspended in connection with a police chase that sparked a crash and massive fire that killed two suspects and an innocent woman at a Broadmoor beauty salon in March, NOPD Chief Shaun Ferguson announced Wednesday afternoon (July 17).
The move came almost four months after the department’s Public Integrity Bureau opened an investigation into a possible violation of NOPD’s chase protocol leading up to the March 20 crash.
According to police officials, it all started when officers attempted stop a stolen car, but the teenage driver and his passenger fled. The officers initially said they did not chase the car, which quickly lost control and crashed into the Unity-1 Salon on Washington Avenue, sending the building into flames and killing the two teen boys.
One was 14 years old and the other was 16.
A woman was also killed in the blaze, 54-year-old Schwann Herbert, who was getting her hair done inside the salon at the time of the crash.
But, Ferguson said Wednesday their investigation revealed a different story and showed the six officers involved did, in fact, violate protocol.
According to Ferguson, the officers did chase the car and turned their body cameras off before initiating the chase, which violated protocol. What’s more, over the course of the investigation, Ferguson said they learned the officers had been involved in three other unauthorized chases leading up to the crash at Unity. All three chases happened within a three week period leading up to this incident, Ferguson said.
The chief said a disciplinary hearing Tuesday resulted in the recommendation that officers Alex Mikkelson, Jonathan Broom, Jeffrey Harrington and Alex Florian be terminated and that officers William Hery and Colby Stewart be suspended.
Ferguson said a department-wide email was sent out reminding officers of the policy and why it’s in place. He added the only time officers are allowed to chase suspects are for violent, felony crimes and only with the approval of a supervisor -- an approval these officers did not have.
An attorney for the Police Association of New Orleans, Eric Hessler, is representing one of the two officers suspended. He said they were in a third car that arrived on scene after the chase had ended. But, Hessler contends what happened on March 20 doesn’t even constitute a pursuit.
“I was a police officer for 17 years. That, in my mind, is not a pursuit. That’s an attempt to stop a vehicle that fled and they terminated their pursuit,” Hessler said.
To Hessler, these officers were taking a proactive approach and were unfortunately caught up in a tragic accident.
“I don’t believe it occurred due to any fault of the officers,” Hessler said.
But, Ferguson said it wasn’t just the Unity-1 incident that led to the termination and suspension of these officers and that their history with initiating unauthorized pursuits also contributed to their decision.
“This is just an unfortunate incident all the way around. Three lives were lost. Three lives were lost as a result of a violation of policy, poor decision that was made and not just that poor decision that was made that night. But through further investigation, poor decisions that have been made prior to that night," Ferguson said.
Mayor Latoya Cantrell issued the following statement after the announcement:
"What happened on March 20 was a tragedy, and — as we have now confirmed through the investigation of our Public Integrity Bureau — an avoidable one. All actions have consequences. The individuals responsible are being held accountable, and I am confident that Superintendent Ferguson has responded appropriately and with the level of seriousness required.
"Four of our NOPD officers are being terminated, and two more are being disciplined. These individuals violated NOPD policy and procedures, which are in place to prevent these kinds of occurrences. I applaud Chief Ferguson and his leadership team for addressing the matter with transparency, urgency and care. And I thank the hard-working men and women of the NOPD, who are out there every day working to make our City safe.
"Lives were lost in this tragedy, and we cannot lose sight of how our residents were impacted. A son lost his mother. Young children lost a teacher whom they loved, and we have to be there for them. There were parents who had to bury their children, and they need our support.
“We will hold people accountable, and send the message that these actions will not be tolerated. We are committed to taking care of our community through transparency and accountability.”
Unity-1 was destroyed in the fire and community members have since been working to reopen the salon.