Coroner’s homicide ruling in black man’s death spotlights a sheriff’s resistance to body cameras

Nobody has any way to verify who did what when to Keeven Robinson in the backyard where he was killed.

CREDIT: Getty Images/ Richard Theis / EyeEm
CREDIT: Getty Images/ Richard Theis / EyeEm

Police killed a 22-year-old black man who’d fled after officers in plain clothes and unmarked cars raced up on him in a gas station parking lot last week, a Louisiana coroner announced Monday.

Bruising on Keeven Robinson’s neck suggests someone compressed his neck prior to his death of asphyxiation, prompting Jefferson Parish coroner Gerry Cvitanovich to rule the death a homicide. The initial coroner’s finding does not force legal action, but Jefferson Parish Sheriff Joseph Lopinto said he had moved four detectives to desk duty and had each man formally Mirandized and interviewed with Louisiana State Police representatives present.

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More than a hundred people joined Robinson’s family in a march through the streets near where he was killed after the coroner’s initial findings were released. Lopinto told NOLA.com he thought Robinson’s history of asthma probably caused his death, but also acknowledged his officers had used force on the man while pledging a thorough investigation of whether their actions were reasonable.

Video from a security camera at the gas station where Robinson had been parked captures the moment when officers initiated the confrontation. The officers zip up almost simultaneously, suggesting they were employing a tactic known elsewhere as a “jumpout,” where cops hope that surprise and speed will help them subdue someone they want to talk to.

An unmarked sedan blocks Robinson’s rear, but a second pulls alongside him instead of blocking his natural escape route. Robinson’s dark sedan almost immediately pulls off, and all three vehicles quickly leave the security camera’s frame, pursued by a red pickup truck that was not part of the initial scramble.

Precisely what happened after that is anyone’s guess. Within a few minutes, though, Robinson was dead in handcuffs in a backyard of a house up the street.

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There is no police video of the foot chase. The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office has opted not to seek body-worn cameras for its deputies even as other departments find the devices useful in calming public outcry after shootings and violent arrests. Lopinto’s predecessor Newell Normand said the cameras encourage “Monday-morning quarterbacking” of law enforcement decisions, in a 2015 interview explaining why he had not and would not support adding the equipment.

Even if Lopinto had moved to reverse Normand, who retired last year to take a gig hosting a local talk radio show, there probably wouldn’t be video to clarify how exactly Robinson got dead. The officers were working plainclothes that day. The sudden, tire-squealing approach of non-uniformed men with guns can be hard to distinguish from a robbery or carjacking attempting, and numerous high-profile incidents involving plainclothes cops suggest that people respond differently than officers are trained to expect when the cops who approach them aren’t in uniform.

What feels to the officers in sneakers and polos like a normal police action seems to the civilian like an ambush by strangers, making it more likely they’ll flee or act to defend themselves than they might when surrounded by easily identified police. “Because you’re not wearing a uniform, if you roll up on a couple of guys, they might think they’re getting robbed, they might start shooting right away,” retired New York Police Department Sergeant Joe Giacalone told The Intercept recently.

This kind of adrenalizing unannounced roll-up tactic – known for decades in major city policing as a “jump-out” – is the bread and butter of plainclothes narcotics work. Born in the depths of the War on Drugs, the tactic has proved stubbornly persistent even as official policies on plainclothes work change in cities like Washington, D.C.

Plainclothes work is deeply laced into police tradition, both as a status marker between officers with different types of responsibilities and as an essential tool for surveillance. Start tinkering with plainclothes work, and you’re likely to be seen as attacking the soul of policing tradition. The former Police Commissioner in Baltimore decided to end plainclothes work entirely as a way of ending jump-outs for good, only to get fired in short order as patience for his hardline reform agenda ran short.

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The most scandalous incidents implicating plainclothes tactics have occurred in major coastal cities like New York, Baltimore, Washington, and Los Angeles. But the jump-out boys are by no means limited to big-city policework, or to the densely populated tracts between the Mississippi River and Lake Ponchartrain where the Jefferson Parish deputies tried to ambush Robinson.

A Mississippi sheriff’s department was accused last year of enforcing segregation through racially motivated checkpoints and aggressive jump-out raids. Plainclothes cops jumping out of an unmarked car in Columbus, Ohio, in 2016 made a threatening remark and then shot Henry “Bub” Green dead as he walked toward his house with a friend. Milwaukee police’s use of the tactic has drawn controversy in both fatal encounters and non-fatal ones.