The Beating of Robert Davis
It is a warm October night on Bourbon Street in 2005. The street, full to the brim with bars, is not as rowdy as usual—Katrina had just ravished the city. Mounted officers roam the streets as well as officers on foot. It is a quiet Sunday night.
A handsome older gentleman enters a hotel elevator, pushes the button to go down, and steps out into the and the warm night air. He is Robert Davis, a retired school teacher, and owner of several houses in the flooded district of New Orleans. The buildings are now in disrepair and he, in turn, is in despair. He walks the street in search of cigarettes. He needs a smoke badly. Since he had quit drinking 25 years ago, his vice turned from alcohol to tobacco.
As he strolls the street, his trepidation of the citywide curfew leads him to approach a mounted police officer to check on the curfew hour. Little does he know that he is about to become an international symbol of the brutal practices of the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD).
The next day Robert Davis is the face of NOPD violent tactics. His battered mug shot is depicted on major TV networks, national newspapers, and online journals. It is the face of a once handsome 64 year old black man who survived a vicious beating at the hands of the cops: one eye ghastly swollen, cheek cut and puffy, and a tragic, confused look in the opened eye like a pathetic animal.
The mug shot isn’t the only thing that is disseminated. A graphic video of the incident is played on endless loop on CNN and other stations. It is of Davis punched repeatedly in the head by two police officers and shoved to the ground forcefully, with other officials joining in.
Suddenly the target of the police riot changes when they go after the film crew taping the beating. A police officer yelling profanities chases after the producer and the cameraman and slams Associated Press News Producer Rich Mathews against a car.
Meanwhile, Davis is arrested for public intoxication, resisting arrest, battery on a police officer, and police intimidation. He is treated at an emergency room with facial fractures, including a broken nose and another broken face bone, and received several stitches.
Why and how did all of this happen? What caused such an escalation in police violence?
According to Robert Davis, he simply asked the mounted officer about the curfew time. During the exchange, Officer Robert Evangelist, interrupted the conversation. Davis asked that Evangelist not “interfere” in the discussion, a phrase that clearly upset the officer. When Davis attempted to cross the street, he heard Evangelist say, “ I will kick your ass.” The officer ran up and started punching him. Another nearby office, Lance Shilling, soon joined in.
Two other men jumped in as the cops tried to subdue the helpless Davis. The four men forced him to the ground while kneeing him in the stomach. The two new participants turned out to be FBI agents passing by the scene. Davis was arrested on a charge of public intoxication — ironic because he claims to be a recovering alcoholic with 25 years of sobriety.
Officer Robert Evangelist told a different story of the encounter. He entirely disputed using excessive force and claimed that Davis had called him a swearword initially. He said that he ignored the insult but thought Davis was intoxicated because he had “bumped into” the back of the mounted police horse.
Upon seeing this, Evangelist then put his hands on Davis to help him out of the street and onto the sidewalk so they could talk. He claims that Davis refused to be patted down, and pushed away from the wall he was facing. At that point, Evangelist and Lance Shilling attempted to handcuff Davis but he resisted arrest. Evangelist admits to striking Davis twice on the right elbow with an expandable baton, and when on the ground, striking him in the right shoulder and kicking him. All of the actions were taken to handcuff Davis, he says.
Several eyewitness accounts tend to corroborate the testimony of Robert Davis and contradict the statements of police. Michael Monaghan, of Florida, said he and a friend were walking down Bourbon Street when they came upon officers beating a man. He described Davis as “knocked to the ground” with multiple officers trying to get a hold of his legs and arms. He said one of the law enforcement officers kicked Davis in the back of the head. Debby Cylne, of Vancouver, British Columbia, who was in town working with nonprofit organizations. That night, she saw Davis up against the wall being beaten by several uniformed officers. She claims to have yelled at them to stop but was ignored.
When shown the graphic footage t the time, Police superintendent Warren Riley said, “The actions that were observed on this video are certainly unacceptable by this department.” New Orlean Mayor Ray Nagin, himself African American, agreed saying, “ I don’t know what the gentleman did, but whatever he did, he didn’t deserve what I saw on tape.”
Meanwhile, CBS news correspondent Byron Pitts reported that it is a violation of the New Orleans Police Department’s policy to strike a suspect in the head. Film evidence showed Davis being hit in the head at least four times.
Despite the evidence contradicting police accounts, the NOPD claimed that the officers “were justified in their actions and they were using the amount of force necessary to overcome the situation.”
Post Hurriance Katrina Stress Syndrome
The New Orleans Police Department operated under an extraordinary degree of stress in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina. This circumstance may help to explain some of the cause of undue police violence. It seemed to play a role in the incident where a copy went after the Associated Press cameramen for filming the beating of Robert Davis. incident. Footage captured Officer Stuart Smith shoving producer Rich Mathews backwards over a car and screaming, “I’ve been here for six weeks trying to keep….alive…Go Home!”
During the Katrina crisis, police officers sleep in their cars and work 24-hour shifts. Most experienced the lose of homes and scattered families. An estimated 12 officers were suspected of looting or condoning looting at a Wal-Mart. Others were investigated for stealing cars from a dealership in the chaos. And nearly 250 officers on the 1,450 member force are under investigation for leaving their posts during the storm. At least two commit suicide.
Nonetheless, the NOPD had a well-known reputation for brutal practices before the hurricane, including The American Civil Liberties Union investigations of at least 10 brutality complaints.
“There’s a credibility issue that is manifesting itself in New Orleans,” said Rafael Goyeneche of the Metropolitan Crime Commission of Greater New Orleans, a police watchdog group. “Part of that is the disconnect the public feels with the police department. The reputation of corruption lingers and the new problems compound it.”
Justice for Robert Davis?
Subsequent investigation into the attack on Robert Davis brought some resolution. The police officers Smith, Schilling, and Evangelist faced various charges of unprofessional conduct by the police department. They were suspended without pay and Schilling and Evangelist were eventually fired. Smith was suspended for four months.
The officers also faced various charges in New Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. Officer Evangelist was acquitted of charges; Officer Shilling committed suicide in an unrelated incident before going to trial. The District Court threw out the charges against Officer Smith on procedural grounds.
Meanwhile, Davis filed a civil suit against the City of New Orleans and the two FBI agents in U.S. District Court. The Court dismissed the case against FBI agents Stephen Noh and Trent Miley on procedural grounds.
, but the case was dismissed by U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman due to a statue of limitations. He waited too long to add them as defendants in his civil suit against the city of New Orleans. In August 2009, the city of New Orleans reached a settlement with Davis.
The financial terms of the settlement were not disclosed but his lawyer said that Davis was “pleased with the outcome of the case.” Nonetheless, the mental and emotional damage of the beating still linger.
In a larger context, the story of Robert Davis helped to cast a spotlight on the behavior of an out of control police department. As a result, the New Orleans Police Department had no choice but to take steps to restore public confidence in the department. The efforts to restore public trust and confidence continue to this day.
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Mugshot of Robert Davis. AP Photo/HO New Orleans Police.
Photo of Robert Davis with hat and glasses. Alex Brandon/ AP photo
Stills from the footage of the beatings. Evans, Mel. “New Orleans Taped Beating.” AP photo. Oct 8, 2005
Photo of Police with Riot gear. Creative Commons /Ammar Adb Rabbo. 2010.