JPSO settles two use-of-force cases, including one that led to autistic teen’s death

Jefferson Parish is forking over an unknown — but likely significant — amount of cash after the sheriff’s office settled two high-profile lawsuits this fall that involved deputies using force against teenagers.

In September, the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office settled with the family of Eric Parsa, a 16-year-old boy with severe autism who died nearly four years ago after deputies pinned him to the pavement and then sat on his back for more than 9 minutes. At $1.25 million — a cost that will be shared by the shopping center where the boy died — the settlement is one of the largest in the department’s history.

Following the Parsa settlement, JPSO also settled with the family of Tre’mall McGee for an undisclosed amount of money. Deputies shot McGee, then 14, in the shoulder while he was facedown on the ground, about two months after Parsa’s death. The sheriff’s office was accused of concealing its role in the shooting from both the public and McGee’s mother for months. McGee’s wound was not life-threatening.

McGee’s attorney, Ron Haley, said neither he nor McGee’s mother Tiffany could discuss terms of the settlement.

In addition to a financial payout, the Parsa settlement requires that an outside expert develop a program to train JPSO deputies on how to deal with people with autism. Parsa’s parents, Donna Lou and Daren Parsa, told Verite News they hope it will prevent other families from enduring the same pain they have suffered.

“When I saw Eric’s dead body in the emergency room, I broke out into tears saying, ‘Sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry,’” said Daren Parsa, who told a nearby business manager to call the police on that afternoon in January 2020 when his son began suffering a disability-related “meltdown” in a Metairie parking lot. “And I’m still sorry. I wish I’d known that when you say, ‘Yes,’ to law enforcement being involved, there’s a risk of mortality.”

The sheriff’s office did not respond to requests for comment, but in a recent interview withWWL-TV, Sheriff Joe Lopinto said his deputies didn’t do anything wrong in the Parsa case and were not deserving of discipline. He has previously denied any wrongdoing in the McGee case as well.

“This is not a scenario where any of our deputies are trying to hurt a kid, trying to use force or even justified using deadly force,” he told WWL-TV. “They’re encountering a situation that happens…and in the course, a death occurs.”

Lopinto’s refusal to accept responsibility indicates a disregard for the law, said attorney William Most, who represents the parents of Parsa. “The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office has clearly existed without meaningful accountability for some time,” he said.

The two recent settlements have led the ACLU of Louisiana to renew its calls for federal prosecutors to investigate the sheriff’s office and put the agency under a consent decree. Relying on lawsuits filed by the victims of police brutality is not enough to force JPSO to reform its practices and stop violating the civil rights of people with disabilities and Black and Hispanic residents, said Nora Ahmed, legal director of the ACLU of Louisiana.

“It cannot be the case that people continue to be killed, maimed and violated, and the only recourse that they have is yet another lawsuit that will be fought to the bones, and, if they’re lucky, settled,” Ahmed said.

A representative with the FBI’s New Orleans office said the agency could not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation. A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana declined to comment, citing U.S. Department of Justice policy.

The sheriff’s office was recently the subject of a yearlong investigation by ProPublica and WWNO/WRKF, which found that JPSO rarely sustains complaints against its deputies. Over a three-year period, from 2017 to mid-2020, the JPSO sustained only one misconduct complaint against a deputy, according to the investigation by WWNO and ProPublica. During that same time, the New Orleans Police Department sustained 247.

In a Sept. 2021 incident, Deputy Julio Alvarado was caught on video grabbing a Black woman, Shantel Arnold, by the hair and repeatedly slamming her head onto the pavement. The sheriff’s office determined that the deputy’s actions were “both reasonable and acceptable” and accused Arnold, who has filed a civil rights lawsuit against the sheriff’s office that is currently pending, of “looking for a paycheck.”

Alvarado has been named in at least 10 federal civil rights lawsuits, all involving allegations of excessive force.

More recently, Verite News found that the sheriff’s office has been unlawfully destroying its deputies’ disciplinary records for at least a decade, according to records provided by state officials responsible for overseeing the retention of records by state, parish and local agencies. Most raised the issue as part of Parsa’s case.

Most also accused the sheriff’s office of using search warrants without probable cause to dig into Parsa’s school and medical records in the hopes of finding something to justify their use of deadly force, according to The Lens. Warrants are only to be sought after and issued when there is probable cause for a crime, he said.

‘Like such a nightmare’

Parsa died in Jan. 2020 in the parking lot of the Westgate Shopping Center in Metairie. Surveillance footage shows the boy repeatedly slapping his own head, then slapping and wrestling his father for several minutes before law enforcement was called.

A nearby business manager contacted JPSO Deputy Chad Pitfield, who was working a security detail for the shopping center, and informed him that a child with special needs was having a violent episode. In total, at least six deputies arrived in four patrol cars and two unmarked vehicles. They handcuffed and shackled the teen as three deputies took turns sitting on his back, with one putting him in a chokehold. After about 10 minutes, deputies noticed Parsa had gone “limp” and urinated, according to the lawsuit.

The coroner ruled the teen’s death an accident as a result of excited delirium, with “prone positioning” as a contributing factor.

The only word Parsa uttered during the deadly ordeal was “firetruck,” after hearing sirens in the distance. It was a game he often played while driving with his parents, his mother Lou said, trying to guess whether a nearby siren was coming from a police car, ambulance, or firetruck.

Parsa began to exhibit signs of autism at the age of two, becoming more and more nonverbal as he grew older, said his parents, who are both trained psychiatrists. “If you asked, ‘How was school today?’ He would respond, ‘School today,’” his dad said. “That question didn’t make sense to him.”

The inability of those with autism to effectively communicate their feelings can often cause them to express themselves and their frustrations through more negative behaviors, such as aggression and self-injuring, Lou said. This can lead to deadly results when they encounter police officers who haven’t been trained on how to appropriately handle people with developmental disabilities. Up to half of all people killed during encounters with police are disabled, according to a 2016 study by the Ruderman Family Foundation, a Boston-based philanthropic organization.

“They’re not trying to be malicious. They’re really asking for help,” Lou said. “They’re in distress and they don’t know how to express it because they don’t have the words. It’s like a baby will cry or toddlers will sometimes bite or hit because they don’t know how to express things verbally.”

The sheriff’s office stated in court documents that the show of force that day was necessary to deal with a violent and out-of-control teenager, but Daren Parsa said no one was in danger. His son would often have meltdowns when he felt overwhelmed, but they would fade minutes later if he was given space to calm down. Lou said she tried to explain to the officers that one of her son’s triggers was being surrounded by a lot of unfamiliar people.

“They said, ‘Let us do our job.’ And we all know the outcome of that,” Lou said, “It just doesn’t make sense. We assumed they were trained, that they knew what to do.”

“What’s heartbreaking is that he was calming down,” Daren Parsa said, “and we almost got him inside of the car, and then they showed up.”

This year will mark the fourth Christmas that Eric Parsa’s parents have spent without their son. Instead of watching him open presents, they have placed a small tree at the foot of his burial site decorated with charms representing his most cherished items — playing cards, puzzle pieces, basketballs and bubblegum.

“Eric was everything to us. He was our only child. He gave us purpose,” Daren Parsa said. “And we struggle every day, just trying to go on without him, and having these memories … and thinking, ‘Goddammit, he’s dead.’ It just seems so unbelievable and like such a nightmare. And it still does, close to four years later. It’s just hard to accept.”