This article was co-published with the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
The disciplinary file on the New Orleans Police Department’s Dwayne Scheuermann is inches thick — as thick as any on the police force.
The lieutenant has weathered more than 50 separate complaints, ranging from accusations of brutality, to rape, to improper searches and seizures. But none of the allegations has ever stuck, although two complaints are still pending. Every time, Scheuermann was cleared and sent back onto the streets.
He has also fired his gun in at least 15 different incidents, wounding at least four people. Experts on police practices say the number is unusual — most officers never fire their weapons.
Scheuermann’s history of complaints would seem to make him an obvious candidate for the NOPD’s early-warning system, which aims to highlight and rehabilitate possible problem police officers.
Yet, according to the city attorney’s office, Scheuermann was never “flagged” for entrance into the monitoring program. The NOPD, meanwhile, said all of its early-warning system files were lost in Katrina and that it does not know if Scheuermann was involved in the program.
Amid the complaints, Scheuermann received plenty of commendations. The awards depict Scheuermann as a top cop, a relentless workhorse whose arrest numbers are unparalleled and leader who has patrolled the most dangerous corridors of the city over a 23-year career. He was a hero in the eyes of many of his peers.
In the NOPD yearbook is a photo of a smiling Scheuermann shaking the hand of former President Bill Clinton, who bestowed a national award on him for “outstanding productivity throughout his career.”
Today, Scheuermann, 49, is preparing to stand trial on some of the most disturbing charges ever filed against a New Orleans police officer. Federal prosecutors accuse Scheuermann and a colleague of setting fire to a car containing the body of Henry Glover, who had been shot by a different police officer during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Scheuermann declined to be interviewed for this story because of the pending charges against him.
A review of his file shows a pattern of complaints and red flags that should have jumped out at NOPD officials.
Top-ranking police commanders long knew Scheuermann was a controversial cop. In a letter written in July 2004, Deputy Chief Daniel Lawless expressed concern about how frequently Scheuermann was using his firearm, noting that Scheuermann had fired his gun in three separate incidents over a three-month period.
Lawless didn’t want the lieutenant kicking down any more doors or chasing crime suspets.
“You are not to lead operations,” the deputy chief wrote. Since 2001, Scheuermann has held the rank of lieutenant, making him a sort of mid-level manager.
Scheuermann represents a paradox in modern policing, experts and cops say.
Agencies encourage officers to be “pro-active” and make arrests, viewing big numbers as a sign of productivity. But when an officer who puts up big arrest numbers is accused of cutting corners or violating civil rights, supervisors often brush it off and declare the complaints unsustained, said Anthony Radosti of the watchdog Metropolitan Crime Commission.
“Where there is smoke, there is fire,” Radosti said. “The more productive you are, the less you are scrutinized. Production means arrests, it’s quantity versus quality. These arrest numbers became more important to the command structure in their efforts to regain control of the crime situation.”
Radosti said the NOPD’s breakdown in discipline, which he said dates back a decade, came home to roost in recent years, especially in the wake of Katrina.
From a police perspective, Scheuermann does the jobs others don’t want to do. Capt. Michael Glasser, president of the Police Association of New Orleans, called Scheuermann an industrious officer who works constantly to better the city.
“From time to time, he has ruffled feathers because he puts people in jail,” Glasser said. “He is an aggressive officer who handles a lot of people. You have to keep that in perspective.”
He was always a frontline officer willing to be the first to barge into a home while serving a warrant, Glasser said: “No matter how dirty or unattractive the job is, Dwayne is the first to volunteer.”
Because he is proactive, Scheuermann has significantly more interaction with citizens, so his high number of complaints should be taken in context, Glasser added.
“We put policemen in those positions to do that kind of difficult work,” Glasser said. “In every instance, he has been found not to be at fault. We can’t condemn a man for complaints, especially when we find they don’t have merit. . . To his credit, the complaints have not stopped him from doing his job.”
David Klinger, a former cop who now teaches in St. Louis and is considered an expert on use-of-force issues, reviewed Scheuermann’s files and said it’s “highly unusual” for an officer to be involved in so many shootings.
“The use of deadly force is pretty rare,” said Klinger, author of “Into the Kill Zone: A Cop’s Eye View of Deadly Force.” “Most cops go through their careers and never shoot even a single person.”
However, Klinger also said it was impossible to fully judge Scheuermann’s record without obtaining more information about each shooting.
Sam Walker, professor emeritus in the criminal justice department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and author of numerous books on policing, was one of three researchers to analyze the NOPD’s early-warning system in the late 1990s. A review of Scheuermann’s work history gave him pause.
“I think the real question is with all of these shootings, was there ever any discipline? Not just a reprimand or suspension or something — was any corrective action taken?” Walker said. “I mean this is precisely what an early intervention system would pick up. You’ve got like three [shootings] within one brief period. Something’s going on.”
It’s difficult to know exactly how many accusations have been filed against Scheuermann. At least seven brutality complaints against him were filed with the Office of Municipal Investigation, the city’s own watchdog office that later dissolved. That file, obtained through a public records request, is incomplete. Other case files, for allegations investigated by the NOPD in the 1990s, were damaged or lost in Katrina, according to the city.
by By Brendan McCarthy, The New Orleans Times-Picayune and A.C. Thompson, ProPublica