After video of Pellerin’s death is released, calls for greater transparency renew

Attorney Ron Haley, center, and Trayford Pellerin's family address reporters shortly after the district attorney's announcement of no indictment in Pellerin's death. Photo by Travis Gauthier

Why we wrote this story. Accountability, oversight and transparency were major themes we heard among the 400 responses we received on our Community Agenda 2020: Policing in Lafayette survey. Communities everywhere face a watershed reckoning on policing and social justice. Examining our neighbors’ responses can help us create or evaluate our own. Our Solution Hub stories put solutions in the spotlight.

Almost nine months after Trayford Pellerin’s death, Lafayette watched grainy footage of him lingering in a convenience store.

A video edit prepared and released by District Attorney Don Landry Tuesday documented what happened from there: two dozen customers cycling into the store, 911 calls, Pellerin spiking a cup of water on the ground, gripping a knife in the middle of the Evangeline Thruway, backing away unaffected by a taser, dodging a police SUV, approaching the glass door of another convenience store and, finally, collapsing in a short burst of gunfire.

While the haunting details may settle some facts colored in by public rumor for months, the delayed release — put forward by Landry after a grand jury declined indictments in the case — remains a matter of contention. Pellerin’s family and activists who have rallied around his cause view the delayed release as a breach of trust, not the resolution the district attorney’s presentation packaged it to be. They still want change going forward. And a start would be a commitment to releasing police video quickly in the future.

“From the family’s standpoint, they’re just disappointed in the lack of transparency,” says attorney Ron Haley, who represents the Pellerin family.

Having previously seen only one officer’s body cam footage in a private viewing, Pellerin’s mother told reporters the montage of body cams, store surveillance and 911 audio dug up evidence they had not yet seen. Haley suggests the newer footage presents a clearer picture than what they had been shown in October.

The emerging details don’t change the Pellerins’ perspective of what happened or of the Lafayette Police Department's culpability in Trayford’s death, whatever added clarity they provide. Haley still argues the video evidence does not prove Pellerin posed a threat to officers. Indeed, he points to the very first responding officer, who confronted Trayford with a taser drawn in the middle of the Evangeline Thruway while cars veered around the standoff onto the shoulder.

“If Trayford was a threat to his life, he would have pulled his gun out and shot him. But in that moment, seeing him, he did not believe deadly force was necessary,” Haley says, pushing back on the district attorney’s commendation of the responding officers’ discipline. Landry claimed officers could have justifiably shot Pellerin seven times, according to use of force guidelines. “It’s not that he used restraint,” Haley says, “He did what he was supposed to do.”

Debating those events and their significance requires the evidence itself. And the view that the public should get the chance to make those evaluations sooner after use of force incidents is growing nationally, not just among those grieving in Lafayette.

District Attorney Don Landry produced a video that edited together body-worn camera footage, 911 audio and surveillance footage documenting the events of Aug. 21, 2020. Photo by Travis Gauthier

Local activists say they want videos released in 72 hours. Some cities and police departments have developed proactive release policies that mandate days or months. Maryland and Illinois will soon mandate such policies statewide. New Orleans in most cases releases video of critical incidents to families within 48 hours and the public shortly thereafter. Several other big agencies have followed suit with varying timelines. Houston adopted a 30-day policy. Others have set 60. Louisville, which like Lafayette defers shooting investigations to state police, set a 24-hour policy. More and more, police policy experts now view proactive release policies as a no-brainer if law enforcement wants to win over public trust.

“What is at stake here are all the reasons agencies implemented body-worn cameras in the first place — to increase transparency and build legitimacy and trust with the community,” Chuck Wexler, executive director of Police Executive Research Forum, wrote in an essay published this month. “Every day an agency holds on to a controversial video while rumors swirl in the community, these objectives are being tested — and public confidence in the police is being undermined.”

PERF developed some of the earliest guidelines on body-worn camera programs in 2014, recommending “broad public disclosure” but allowing for the complications of videos that become evidence in criminal investigations. Wexler’s comments reflect an evolution of that thought process for his organization and others like it. Agencies are generally finding some payoff in improved public trust.

NOPD began actively releasing critical incident videos in 2016 as part of ongoing transparency and accountability reforms. Total complaints filed against the NOPD, including those initiated by the public and police, declined 22% between 2013 and 2018, according to data published by NOPD’s Public Integrity Bureau, the department’s internal affairs desk.

Transparency has been confounded by the prospect of civil liability. Since the grand jury’s announcement, Lafayette officials have not publicly addressed whether changes are necessary in police procedure or training as a result of the Pellerin case, citing pending litigation. Chief Thomas Glover Sr. declined requests for comment on matters directly or indirectly related to the Pellerin case. LCG Communications Director Jamie Angelle cited exemptions in the state’s public records law and pending litigation (neither of which prohibits the release of the information) in requests for comment about changes in training and tactics arising from the episode.

And many officers and police departments, of course, object to aggressive release policies, fearing the nuances could be overlooked by citizens unfamiliar with how police operate and prejudice public opinion against them. When Mayor-President Josh Guillory volunteered to show video of the incident to Pellerin’s family, he was sued by attorneys representing the officers involved, who argued the administration was violating due process laid out by Louisiana’s police officers bill of rights.

So far, Lafayette has not made steps toward adopting a release policy. In the months of protest that unfolded, authorities deferred to each other on the question of video release. Before Guillory’s meeting with the Pellerins, the party line was deference to state police investigators. (Trust in the Louisiana State Police is itself a critical issue.) And that more or less remains the administration’s view.

“Mayor-President Guillory believes in full transparency. The only exception would be in cases where releasing information would be detrimental to or interfere with an investigation or if it would cause harm to any parties involved,” LCG’s Angelle said in response to a request for comment.

Preserving the integrity of an investigation is an explanation losing buy-in among some experts, as evidenced by the agencies elsewhere adopting proactive release policies. And there is generally a sea change underway in what disclosures police believe they owe the public in use-of-force cases.

“Generally speaking, my view is that video footage never gets better with time. It doesn’t get less problematic. It doesn’t get less troubling. Departments should try to release their critical incident footage as soon as possible. There should have to be a compelling reason not to release,” Jonathan Aronie, an attorney and the lead monitor in charge of the federal consent decree that’s compelled and governed reform of NOPD for roughly a decade, told Straight News Online last year.

Advocates of proactive release nevertheless recognize such policies won’t alone mend broken trust. There is a growing appetite for police accountability — police reform bills are moving through the Legislature with some bi-partisan support — and greater transparency is a piece of that movement. PERF’s Wexler noted in his essay some high-profile cases where public videos did not quell protests or root out false narratives. Managing expectations is standard in evaluating police reform.

The alternative, however, is to leave the facts unclear and rumors to spiral, culminating in disbelief when the videos are finally available, proponents of proactive release argue. Indeed that is what happened in Lafayette, as viral social media posts questioned whether Pellerin was armed, and many in the city would not accept at face value the official version of events. Even now, skepticism endures about what the DA’s produced video shows.

That mistrust, attorney Haley argues, was seeded and cultivated by the decision to keep the video evidence under wraps. He concedes that early release may not have altered the last nine months’ course of history, but it would have at least grounded the ensuing public debate.

“At least the community wouldn’t say there was a coverup,” Haley says. “Releasing the video early is not about having the majority on the side of law enforcement or on the side of an alleged victim. It’s about there being a critical incident that the public needs to know what happened and create their own opinions about.”