Scoot: Questions about the 8th District commander who pushed a fest-goer to the ground

April 17, 2019 - 12:02 pm

French Quarter Fest 2019 attracted large crowds on a weekend with nearly perfect weather. With a minimal number of incidents, it is fair to say that this year’s French Quarter Fest was a huge success for both the city and those in attendance.  If you were there for one or all of the days of the fest, I’m sure you share many of the lasting visuals that define French Quarter Fest this year.

The performers, the people, the food and weather gave us all a collective sense of a fun festival.  But there is one remaining visual that taints the positive image of this year’s festival, and that is the video of an NOPD officer physically throwing a young woman to the ground.  That video is repeatedly being shown on the news in association with the story that NOPD is officially investigating the incident to determine if the police officer acted appropriately.

What adds to the disturbing nature of the incident is that the NOPD officer, who throws a young woman to the ground, not once, but twice, is the fact that he is the new commander of the 8th District, which includes the French Quarter and the Central Business District.  Officer Octavio Baldassaro was appointed to be the new commander of the 8th District a few weeks ago.

Cell phone video of the incident where Officer Baldassaro physically threw a woman to the ground twice may not have shown the entire incident.  We don’t know if the woman struck the officer before he threw her to the ground, and that could be a factor in determining if Officer Baldasaro acted in accordance with NOPD policy.  Several investigations are currently underway while Officer Baldassaro remains in his position as commander of the 8th District.

NOPD Chief Shaun Ferguson tried to assure the community by saying, “I want our community to know we are taking this incident very seriously and you can be confident the NOPD is committed to conducting a fair and impartial investigation.”

I am proud to live in the 8th District; and while final judgment cannot yet be rendered, the visual of the new commander throwing a woman to the ground, particularly a second time, is disturbing.  This leads me to being very curious about the decision to replace the previous commander of the 8th District with Baldassaro.

The French Quarter always has the brightest spotlight shining on it.  When any crime is committed, it becomes the focus of intense scrutiny of the city and the nation; but crime stats reveal a decrease in many areas of criminal activity.  It appeared the 8th District was heading in the right direction.  That’s why the sudden change in leadership in the district should raise curiosity.

As a native of New Orleans, I admit I have become overly sensitive to the game of politics in this city and how the game is played.  I have learned that shortly before the sudden change in command leadership at the 8th District, Orleans Judge Harry Cantrell raised the bonds for two men arrested for the sex trafficking of a 16-year-old girl. 

Judge Cantrell originally set low bonds for the two men, who were also charged with illegal possession of a firearm and cocaine with intent to distribute.  Upset with the lower bonds set for these two men believed to be dangerous, a suggestion from the 8th District that led to a public outcry and essentially a demand that Judge Cantrell raise the bonds.  New Orleans City Council members joined the harsh criticism of the lower bonds.

The bond for Elbert Riascos was originally set at $90,000 but was increased to $900,000 after the public outcry.  And for Jovan Martin, the originally low bond of $20,000 was raised to $350,000 by Judge Cantrell.

Judge Harry Cantrell is the father-in-law of Mayor LaToya Cantrell.  Since past precedents have been well established in how the game of politics can be played in New Orleans, it is only fitting that the sudden switch in leadership at the 8th District reaches a level of curiosity.

The story about the public pressure to raise the bonds of the two sex trafficking suspects was covered by, but what should be added to the discussion is the timing of the pressure to increase the bonds by Judge Cantrell that originated with the 8th District and Officer Octavia Baldassaro being appointed to be the new commander of the district.  Was political retaliation a motivating factor in the change of leadership?  Up to this point, Mayor Cantrell has remained silent.

There may have been a personal conflict or other minor disagreements that led to the change in leadership in the 8th District, but the timing of the Mayor’s decision to change leadership relative to the pressure put on Judge Cantrell to raise bonds on two suspects certainly begs the question to be asked.

Politics should be business - not personal.  With the 8th District presumably under good leadership, it’s fair to wonder if the decision to appoint NOPD Officer Octavia Baldassaro commander of the 8th District motivated by what is best for the community - or family loyalty?

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