On Tuesday morning, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand gave a press conference that was supposed to be about last Thursday afternoon’s killing of former NFL player Joe McKnight after a reported road-rage incident, and the subsequent arrest of Ronald Gasser on manslaughter charges Monday night.
But things quickly veered off course when Normand opened his address to the media with a lengthy, profanity-filled, condemnation of anyone who questioned his department’s initial decision to release Gasser from custody last Friday, despite the fact that Gasser had already admitted to shooting and killing McKnight.
Normand was particularly incensed that people were saying the decision was racially motivated due to the fact that Gasser is white and McKnight is black.
“This isn’t about race,” he insisted, adding that he was sure of this because his investigation hadn’t turned up any evidence that racial slurs were used during the altercation.
He emphasized that everything his department had done was “normal” procedure. But really, it’s hard to describe any of the actions Normand and his department have taken in the past few days as “normal.”
First, the press conference itself was nothing short of bizarre. Normand began by urging all those concerned about McKnight’s murder to simply “relax,” and “be calm,” before pounding the lectern and wishing shame on those who protested or questioned the department’s decision making. Then, he read aloud several uncensored social media comments directed towards him and other elected officials calling them “faggot,” “Uncle Tom,” “coon,” or worse. (Yes, he used the n-word.) Over 20 minutes into the press conference, he still hadn’t taken any questions or addressed any specifics about the circumstances of the shooting or Gasser’s arrest.
When he finally did discuss details of the crime — only after a reporter asked — Normand described the incident as a case of “two people engaged in bad behavior.” In the narrative he presented, both men were driving erratically when McKnight cut off Gasser on a bridge and Gasser began chasing McKnight down. The chase went on for a while, before they were stopped at a stoplight. At that point, the two continued exchanging words, before McKnight got out of his car, walked over to the driver’s side of Gasser’s car, and was shot three times.
“Let us not try to make this out to be something that it is not,” said Normand, presumably trying to head off allegations of racism. “What we had were two adult males engaged in unacceptable behavior.”
A reporter later asked Normand whether he could sympathize with African Americans who were scared about being murdered in cold blood in broad daylight like McKnight was, and frustrated by the lack of justice often doled out in such cases.
“Do you understand where that fear comes from?” the reporter asked.
Normand answered by citing black-on-black murder statistics. “Your fear, what you’re trying to articulate right now, is misdirected,” he said. (“But what about black-on-black crime?” is a common refrain from people who deny the existence of institutional racism, particularly in discussions over police brutality.)
He railed against the country’s heated “rhetoric,” and also criticized those who made up their minds about the case before the police finished their investigation. adding that one of the first witnesses quoted by the media mentioned that Gasser had invoked the name of Donald Trump during the course of the murder. (There is no evidence at all that happened, and said witness changed her story multiple times according to Normand.)
“Justice has no time period. It is not a sprint, it is a marathon.”
“Some people wanted that story to be true,” he said.
He boasted about the 160 interviews the department had conducted since Thursday, and stressed the importance of patience. He said that the investigation had to be thorough because of Louisiana’s broad “Stand Your Ground” law, which he said creates an “obligation” for the police to “get it right.” (He neglected to mention a recent study which found that “Stand Your Ground” laws were racist.)
“Justice has no time period. It is not a sprint, it is a marathon,” he said. “These investigations are marathons.”
But it’s important to note that Jefferson Parish does not always rely on such careful deliberation when deciding who to arrest. The sheriff’s office has been repeatedly accused of wrongful arrests during Normand’s tenure, mainly by black residents of the mostly white parish.
In one incident that went viral in 2014, a white deputy forced his way into 26-year-old Donrell Breaux’s house, handcuffed and arrested him after Breaux said he didn’t have his ID on him, and walked inside his home. Throughout the video, Breaux stayed compliant and repeatedly told the officer he was scared and didn’t know why he was being arrested.
“I’m asking you nicely, sir, why are you doing this?” Breaux asked as the officer handcuffed him on his couch. “Please don’t shoot me, sir!”
Breaux was arrested for “battery of a police officer, resisting arrest with violence, and disturbing the peace by using offensive, derisive or annoying words” and held in jail until he posted a bond of $6,250.
Jefferson Parish deputies also patrol the public schools, which had a higher arrest rate than any other school district in Louisiana as recently as 2015. A 15-year-old black student was arrested and locked up in juvenile detention for six days because he threw Skittles, prompting a complaint from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). SPLC found that 80 percent of school arrests and law enforcement referrals were for black students, usually for minor school code violations. In another case highlighted by the SPLC, sheriff’s deputies were called in to arrest an autistic ten-year-old girl who was running around the classroom and trying to climb out the window. Officers dragged her back into the classroom by her ankles, handcuffed her, and pushed her face-down into the ground with a knee in her back.
So, despite Normand’s insistence, it’s safe to say that the handling of this case wasn’t “normal.”
Towards the end of the press conference, the sheriff was asked why he decided to read aloud the racial and homophobic slurs.
“I hope it helps everyone realize how crazy we’re getting,” he said.