Her Saturday night hadn't started out this way. A few hours earlier, McRoyal had tucked in her 9-year-old son Deven, and then all had been peaceful and quiet inside her apartment at Sixth and Dryades Streets. The other two residents of her apartment -- 18-year-old brother Tiref and 15-year-old nephew Andrew -- were sticking close to home, hanging with their friends on the block. Once the 11 p.m. youth curfew hit, Andrew would come bounding up the front steps into the apartment. But, for the time being, McRoyal had some time to herself.
Thirty-one-year-old Stacey McRoyal and her household of young men live in an apartment that's been in the family for quite a while. Tiref's and Stacey's mom rented it until she passed away after a struggle with breast cancer. It was then, four years ago, that Stacey became Tiref's guardian and inherited the responsibility for the apartment, its residents, and its bills. Andrew is a newer resident -- he stays part of the time with Stacey and part of the time with another McRoyal sister ever since his father, the oldest McRoyal brother, was incarcerated a few years ago on a crack cocaine conviction.
On the night she was to appear in NOPD Police Report C-54439-01, McRoyal was looking forward to a relaxing Saturday night in front of the television. The next day, Sunday, was a day off. Five days a week, McRoyal leaves the house at 4:30 a.m. to take the Louisiana Avenue bus to her job as a teacher's aide for mentally retarded and handicapped kids and then comes home.
But tomorrow there would be no bus ride, no early rising. So McRoyal headed to her bedroom, flopped down on top of the covers and turned on the TV. Her 1-year-old pit bull Debo -- "white with black spots, like a cow," she says -- laid on the bed near her feet.
McRoyal was more tired than she'd realized. Before she'd even gotten a chance to take her shoes off, she had fallen fast asleep.
The local news at 10 had just begun flashing across the screen of her unwatched television when NOPD Task Force Unit no. 688 took a left turn onto Dryades Street, one block away from McRoyal's apartment.
At 10:01 p.m., on March 31st, a fully marked NOPD squad car braked at the stop sign at the corner of Seventh and Dryades and headed east toward Sixth Street. NOPD Task Force officers Scott Rodrigue and Trevor Reeves were doing what the police report calls "proactive patrol." Basically, they were scoping out drug dealing and any other illicit activity.
This area has, for the past several years, been known by cops and residents alike for its narcotics activity. So the sight of two guys standing in the shadows of McRoyal's brick fourplex made the officers take notice. They would later identify one of the men as Alton Joseph. "As the officers observed both subjects standing near the building," reads the police report, "they observed Joseph produce what appeared to be U.S. currency (in bill form) from his right, front, pants pocket with his right hand and place it in the unknown subject's right hand. The unknown subject then placed the currency in his right, front, pants pocket and dropped a small, unknown, object into Joseph's right hand."
The police narrative reports what followed: the unknown man looked up, presumably saw the unmistakable silhouette of an NOPD squad car and "appeared startled," then said something to Joseph, who "also appeared startled." The alleged salesman then took off running around the corner and disappeared.
So the NOPD car made the corner behind their remaining suspect, Alton Joseph, who hugged the building as he walked past the first of four doors. The car kept apace with Joseph and Officer Rodrigue instructed Joseph to halt and walk toward the police car.
Instead, Joseph took off running, grabbed the door to Stacey McRoyal's apartment, found it unlocked, and ran inside. The officers leapt from the car and headed inside her apartment and up the stairwell.
The NOPD got both their man and the evidence they had suspected -- a makeshift crack pipe and "a clear plastic bag containing off-white rock-like objects." The police report, near the bottom of page 5, wraps up the chase: "Officer Rodrigue advised Joseph of his Miranda rights and placed him under arrest for violation of possession of crack cocaine and possession of drug paraphernalia."
The next sentence introduces Stacey McRoyal, screaming at the top of her steps.
Stacey McRoyal shakes her head and says that she knows that this wouldn't have happened at all if the door had been locked. She says that she nagged Tiref and Andrew "a million times" about locking the door when they left the yard.
It's a Thursday, a day off, and McRoyal is spending the afternoon in the launderette tackling two king-size Hefty bags stuffed with dirty clothes. A month has passed since the drug bust in her apartment. Yet her doorjamb is still in splinters. Her neighbors across the street tell her that the cops kicked in the door; the police report says that it was unlocked. She shrugs and says that the policemen told her they'd struggled with Alton Joseph by the doorway, so maybe that's how it got broken.
Either way, she just doesn't have any extra cash to do it herself and thinks that there is a fairly simple solution: "They should just fix my door."
The city gets few cases like this, fewer than one a year, says Bob Martin, Risk Manager for the City of New Orleans, which operates within the City Attorney's office. He explains that police have taken immediate action in similar incidents: "Depending on the circumstances, they put a temporary door up there and refer the person to my office to file a claim."
Martin takes down McRoyal's address so that he can send her a claim packet in the mail. The dog, he says, should be listed along with the door jamb as part of McRoyal's claim. He describes what happens once he receives a completed form: "The claim adjuster contacts the police department and investigates the happening. The standard way we do things, if the police in the course and scope of their duties kick someone's door in, whether or not they find drugs or anything else inside, the city wouldn't take responsibility." He does not mean to imply, Martin clarifies, that New Orleans is trying to dodge its responsibilities: "No matter what some citizens think, the city always tries to be fair."
McRoyal hadn't heard anything from the police officers about a claim form. Nor did anyone offer to repair her door on the night
of the incident.
McRoyal talks while she goes over to the dryer and takes out her first load; she deftly snaps and folds a fitted sheet, the first of a big stack. She first knew that something was amiss, she says, because Debo ran out of her bed.
"I was sleeping hard but that woke me up. I'd never heard him bark like that before. Then I heard these voices yelling, 'Come here. Come here,' but I thought it was outside. I got up and was going down the hallway when I heard a gunshot, so I ran back to my room."
When there were no more gunshots, McRoyal re-emerged from her room and tiptoed up to the front of her apartment.
In a way, she says, she does understand. "Debo is a pit bull and the policeman didn't know my dog," she says. The policemen told her, she says, that Officer Rodrigue had pursued a suspect into her apartment and wound up shooting Debo because the dog had charged him at full speed.
Narcotics officers have special reason to be wary of pit bulls. The dogs have even been treated as a weapon of sorts in some criminal cases. Animal trainers contend that the breed can be friendly and gentle, even with children, if they are raised properly. Yet some dogs are raised specifically to fight, and their gripping bite can tear tendons, break bones, and even kill.
Interestingly enough, says McRoyal, the officer who killed her dog had intimate knowledge of pit bulls: "He apologized many many times but he said that he knew what pit bulls were capable of because he had two of his own." Yet, she counters, Debo was only 60 pounds, a puppy. And, she adds, he was strictly an inside-the-house dog, "not muscular because he didn't really run, more lazy than anything."
William Buckman argues that a nonviolent drug purchase doesn't warrant gunfire. Buckman is a criminal-defense attorney who most recently has been in the national news because he pioneered the use of racial profiling as a defense in search-and-seizure cases in New Jersey. In addition to his concern about the gunfire, he questions whether officers across a dark street at 10 p.m. could have seen specifics such as "U.S. currency in bill form." How many times, he asks, do police pursue a suspect like this and come up empty-handed?
NOPD Lt. Marlin DeFillo says that they do not have data on the number of drug-possession arrests that result from suspects who are pursued, stopped or frisked for that purpose.
Buckman agrees to concede his point for the sake of the argument: "Let's say the officers did see what they said they did. They went too far when they used deadly force."
It's a given, he acknowledges, that police on the job have to make split-second decisions, especially when going into an unknown building after an unknown suspect. But since the police report describes Alton Joseph backing up against the wall of the stairway landing, staring nervously at what turned out to be the growling dog, it does seem that the officers had some time to react. Could Mace have been used in place of gunfire? Especially since, emphasizes Buckman, there were people sleeping in nearby bedrooms?
The police report says that there was one additional person who usually laid his head in one of McRoyal's bedrooms. That person, they say, was Alton Joseph, the very suspect they were pursuing.
McRoyal wheels a metal basket over to the big side-load washer and pulls out a bunch of jeans, shorts, and T-shirts of all sizes. She explains that Alton Joseph did not, by any stretch of the imagination, live in her apartment. But, she says, it wasn't a coincidence that the suspect ran into her apartment.
Back on March 31st, after she had talked with officers about her dead dog, McRoyal asked them the name of the guy who'd run into her house. They brought her outside and there, in back of a squad car, was Alton Joseph -- her uncle.
On the one hand, McRoyal was furious. "Earlier, I had said [to the police], 'Why didn't you shoot the man instead of shooting my dog?' God forgive me for saying it, but I was so upset. And here he was, my uncle."
The police report says that Alton Joseph lived in the apartment and that McRoyal confirmed that to them. McRoyal adamantly denies saying any such thing -- she says that they would hear that her uncle came into her part of town to buy drugs but that she had no idea where he was staying.
Several months back, McRoyal had been in touch with her uncle. He'd gone through treatment and had been clean. Once he backslid and started smoking again, she says, she told him in no uncertain terms that he was to keep his business far away from her and her family: "He knows no one in my house does drugs. At one point when he was on the streets, he asked to live with us. I told him no because I do not want him smoking that stuff around my kids."
She has had moments of feeling sorry for him, she confesses. "I used to fix him a sandwich or give him a cold drink if he came around, but he's not going to get a glass of water from me now," she says coldly. But she softens up as she recalls a time when she was young and he was actually quite wealthy. He had done well for himself and had had a big house, but he lost it all because of his crack habit, she says.
But, she emphasizes, her uncle's addiction should not reflect badly on her. After all, if you judge things that way, she says, half the people in New Orleans would have a black mark by their name. "In parts of this city, there's one [crack addict] in every family, maybe two. But that doesn't mean I'm a part of what's outside. I don't make myself a part of that."
Joseph is currently being held at Orleans Parish Prison, which does not allow press to interview people under their custody.
The family at Sixth and Dryades were brought into the drug bust because the officers were in the midst of what's called "hot pursuit," says NOPD spokesperson Sgt. Pat Peyton. "Hot pursuit" allows police to enter a building without a warrant if they are chasing a suspect who may, for example, destroy evidence, grab a weapon, or harm others.
McRoyal appreciates that the officers were trying to protect them. "It could have been someone who would have harmed us, held us hostage," she says. But she adds that she was puzzled when the officers told her nephew, who came from down the block, that he couldn't enter the house because it was a crime scene. "My nephew is 15 and it was a few minutes before curfew time, so he couldn't stay out there." And the crime scene, as far as she was concerned, was confined to the front stairwell. So she says, "I told them he should be able to come in the back door." But she says the officers asked whether she and her family had any place to stay the night since the entire apartment was now officially a crime scene.
"I told them we would stay out of the front and use the back door so they could do what they needed to do. But I think that they wanted to come in and search around. I told them we were staying -- we didn't do anything wrong, and we shouldn't have to leave."
There is no mention of any such request in the police report. And such a request is improper, in Buckman's opinion. He explains that the concept of hot pursuit only lasts until the capture is made. Once the suspect is apprehended, police are required to follow the usual warrant processes to do anything further.
McRoyal stops in her front yard with her bags of clean laundry. She says that, while she doesn't think that police were completely honest about the incident in her apartment, she does applaud their efforts to curtail the blatant dealing on her block. "I do appreciate the fact that the police are trying to stop the drug dealers. I leave this house at 4:30 every morning and there are so many drug addicts out here asking me for dollars."
She just wants to get past all of it, she says, sighing. The city of New Orleans doesn't have to worry about her causing trouble or going to court. But things like this can just wear a person down.
"I do miss my dog," she admits, balancing her laundry bags on her knee while she twists the same doorknob that Alton Joseph turned weeks earlier. And, she says, pointing to the door jamb, "I wish they'd fix my door. If they could just fix my door."