NEW ORLEANS — Three police officers involved in a videotaped beating in the French Quarter were suspended without pay and charged with battery Monday, while the 64-year-old man who was injured in the incident denied claims that he was drunk at the time and said he did not know why officers struck him.
The videotape, shot by an Associated Press Television News crew Saturday night, shows two white police officers repeatedly punching the man, Robert Davis, a retired elementary school teacher, who is black, as other officers stand by.
Another police officer, also white, grabs a television news producer who holds up credentials and forces him back against a car, prodding him forcefully and warning him profanely to stand back from the scene.
Federal officials announced Monday they had launched a civil-rights investigation into the apparent beating.
Mayor C. Ray Nagin also weighed in, telling reporters after a conference on rebuilding New Orleans that the incident was "awful."
"I don't know what the gentleman did," Nagin said, "but whatever he did, he didn't deserve what I saw on tape."
The city's recently installed police superintendent, Warren Riley, also deplored the conduct caught on tape. "The actions that were observed on this video are certainly unacceptable by this department," he said.
But Riley stopped short of full condemnation of the officers, saying the video depicted only "a portion of that incident."
The tape showed Davis being struck in the head, then kneed down onto the sidewalk with blood streaming down his arm and into the gutter.
The three officers pleaded not guilty at their arraignments Monday. They left in private cars and offered no comment.
But the head of the New Orleans police union, Lt. David Benelli, told local television station WDSU that he had spoken with the officers and that they told him they believed they had acted with appropriate force.
"They feel they were justified in their actions and they were using the amount of force necessary to overcome the situation," Benelli said.
A hearing was set for Jan. 11 for officers Lance Schilling, Robert Evangelist and S.M. Smith, who were released on bond. Schilling and Evangelist were the officers who struck Davis, the police said. Smith is apparently the one who told the AP news producer, Rich Matthews, to stand back.
Their ages were not released, and the city office that contains records of their birth dates and services was closed Monday.
The AP's managing editor, Mike Silverman, described the videotaped incident as "extremely troubling." But he said the organization was "heartened that police officials were taking them seriously and promising a thorough investigation."
Davis told WDSU that he was not drunk and did not put up any resistance when officers approached him.
"I haven't had a drink in 25 years," said Davis, whose lawyer described him as a recovering alcoholic.
Davis told the news service he had gone out to buy cigarettes. He said he had approached a mounted police officer to ask about the city's curfew when another officer barged in.
"This other guy interfered and I said he shouldn't," Davis said. "I started to cross the street and -- bam -- I got it.... All I know is this guy attacked me."
Davis, who in a photograph released by police has stitches just underneath his left eye, was charged with public intoxication, resisting arrest, battery on a police officer and public intimidation.
Jesse Jackson, the civil rights leader and former candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, said the incident appeared to evoke the 1991 videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King by four LAPD officers.
"There's no excuse for it [at] all, and [the officers] should be dealt with immediately," Jackson said through a spokesman. He is due to lead a bus caravan of New Orleans evacuees back into the city today.
On the videotape, Smith, the officer who tells the AP producer to stand back, is not fully audible as he launches into a profanity-laced outburst.
Nevertheless, at one point he is clearly heard to say: "I've been here for six weeks trying to keep alive. Go home!"