Jonathan Hart

Black Mans Death While in Police Custody Ruled a Homicide

The death of 22-year-old Keeven Robinson following an encounter with police was initially linked to his asthma and poor air quality. But following a preliminary autopsy, his cause of death has been ruled a homicide.

The coroner told a news conference that the results found “significant traumatic injuries to the neck, the soft tissue of the neck” and determined the cause of death was most likely “compressional asphyxia.”

Robinson’s medical history included asthma, and there was an air quality alert in New Orleans, La., and the surrounding areas on the day of his death. The incident took place in Jefferson Parish, a suburb of New Orleans.

Robinson was the subject of a narcotics investigation, believed to be carrying heroin. He crashed into several police cars and the chase ended in Robinson fleeing on foot. Four unidentified narcotics officers engaged in a struggle with Robinson. Jefferson Parish Sheriff Joseph Lopinto said that during the encounter, Robinson stopped breathing. The officers did not realize until Robinson was already handcuffed, though. They attempted CPR and brought Robinson to the hospital, and he was later pronounced dead.

It remains unclear how long officers waited to administer CPR. There were no body cameras, a topic the department has “been discussing for years,” Lopinto noted. However, even if the department had body cameras, the officers involved in Robinson’s death may not have been wearing them because they were undercover. (In this case, they were undercover as in wearing plainclothes but still had their badges, not working undercover on a specific case.)

A handgun was found in Robinson’s car, but he was unarmed at the time of his death.

Jefferson Parish, La., is 53 percent white and 27 percent Black. Demographics of the police department are unavailable. The officers’ names have not been publicized but Lopinto stated that they are all white.

He would not confirm or deny whether the officers used a chokehold but said, “They’re not forbidden from doing that, but they’re not trained to do that on a normal basis.”

He said that the officers definitely used force but the question remains whether the force was excessive.

It was at least excessive enough to stop Robinson from breathing.

The coroner, Dr. Gerry Cvitanovich, noted that the autopsy conducted over the weekend was preliminary and that more tests will be performed. Meanwhile, an investigation has been launched and will include the Louisiana State Police and the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office. The FBI’s Civil Rights Task Force will also be involved.

The officers involved have been placed on desk duty.

Gaylor Spiller, president of the NAACP’s Jefferson Parish chapter, said she has faith in Lopinto to conduct an appropriate investigation.

However, she said, “We do recognize and we realize that a lot of our young Black African American males and females are dying by the hands of some bad police officers, which makes it look bad on all police officers.”

Lopinto just took the post as sheriff in March. But the narcotics department of the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office has been under scrutiny over complaints of excessive force. Ryan Jackson was shot by JPSO officers last year and was hospitalized for a month, a week of which he spent in a coma. He filed a lawsuit against the department recently.

While Spiller, NAACP president, praised Lopinto, she also believes the officers should have had body cameras.

“You wear a badge, you say you’re law enforcement, you should wear a camera,” she told the New Orleans Advocate. “Find a way to put it on there.”

“We [the NAACP] strongly believe the cameras would be a good thing to have,” she added, since “some [officers] they go way overboard.”

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