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New Orleans Could Set Rules For Police Use Of Tear Gas

Tear gas deployed by New Orleans Police Department officers floats into a crowd of protesters on the Crescent City Connection in New Orleans. June 3, 2020.
Travis Lux
Tear gas deployed by New Orleans Police Department officers floats into a crowd of protesters on the Crescent City Connection in New Orleans. June 3, 2020.

The City of New Orleans could soon create rules intended to limit the use of tear gas “and other chemical compounds” by law enforcement officers within the city limits.

The New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) currently has no policy regarding the use of tear gas and other chemical agents, but NOPD Superintendent Shaun Ferguson said Thursday that the department is in the final stages of creating one.

Members of the City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee voted Thursday to send the proposed ordinance to the full council for consideration.

The ordinance, sponsored by councilmembers Jason Williams and Jay Banks, would prohibit the NOPD “or any other law enforcement officer” operating within city limits from using chemical agents on citizens for any reason “except in circumstances where its use is reasonably necessary to prevent crimes of violence against persons, loss of life or serious bodily injury.”

The council plans to tighten the language of the ordinance with an amendment at the next full council meeting, and add a requirement that law enforcement officers provide audible warnings to people nearby before tear gas is deployed.

“The purpose in this is clear,” Councilman Banks said during the virtual meeting, “that a chemical weapon that is outlawed in war should not be allowed on the streets of this city, unless it is in the absolute direst emergency."

The intention is to prevent police from using tear gas to disperse crowds of protesting citizens, as they did on June 3 when protesters attempted to march across the Crescent City Connection after several consecutive days of local protests in reaction to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

That night, New Orleans police officers, including SWAT teams, rushed ahead of the peaceful protesters and assembled a blockade at the top of the bridge to prevent them from reaching the other side of the Mississippi River.

After a lengthy standoff and failed negotiations, some protesters attempted to keep walking through the police line and officers deployed several canisters of tear gas and shot rounds of rubber balls at protesters. That created a brief stampede in which hundreds of protesters, many of whom were unaware of the altercation unfolding at the front of the group, quickly fled from the scene and back down the bridge.

NOPD came under fire for its response, which some viewed as dangerous and unnecessarily heavy-handed.

On June 11, the New Orleans City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee called an emergency meeting to question NOPD Superintendent Shaun Ferguson about his department’s use of tear gas to disperse protesters the previous week. Ferguson told councilmembers at that meeting that NOPD does not have a written policy for whether or when police can deploy tear gas.

The next scheduled meeting of the full council is Sept. 17.

As Coastal Reporter, Travis Lux covers flood protection, coastal restoration, infrastructure, the energy and seafood industries, and the environment. In this role he's reported on everything from pipeline protests in the Atchafalaya swamp, to how shrimpers cope with low prices. He had a big hand in producing the series, New Orleans: Ready Or Not?, which examined how prepared New Orleans is for a future with more extreme weather. In 2017, Travis co-produced two episodes of TriPod: New Orleans at 300 examining New Orleans' historic efforts at flood protection. One episode, NOLA vs Nature: The Other Biggest Flood in New Orleans History, was recognized with awards from the Public Radio News Directors and the New Orleans Press Club. His stories often find a wider audience on national programs, too, like NPR's Morning Edition, WBUR's Here and Now, and WHYY's The Pulse.

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