In a ‘Hedged Bet,’ Chicago Officer Faces 16 More Charges

Former Chicago Officer Jason Van Dyke, already charged with murder, has been indicted on 16 counts of aggravated battery in the controversial 2014 shooting death of Laquan McDonald. A law professor says prosecutors may be concerned that murder will be difficult to prove.

Prosecutors have tacked on 16 new counts to the first-degree murder charges against Chicago Police officer Jason Van Dyke in the shooting of Laquan McDonald, reports the Sun-Times. A new grand jury indictment adds 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm, apparently one for each shot Van Dyke fired at McDonald, special prosecutor Joseph McMahon said during a hearing Thursday. The new indictment still includes the six counts of first-degree murder and one count of official misconduct that were charged in November 2015, when the case was being handled by former State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez.

Northwestern University Law School professor Jeffrey Urdangen said the additional charges suggest prosecutors wanted to “hedge their bets” on a case that may be difficult to prove. “These are charges that are going to be easier to prove,” he said. Van Dyke, 38, is accused of shooting the 17-year-old McDonald 16 times in October 2014. But he wasn’t charged until a year later, after a shocking video of the incident, filmed by a dashboard-mounted camera, was released, prompting protests across the country.



“Shots Fired” Called “Autopsy of a Town Like Ferguson”

A racial role reversal is featured in Fox’ ten-part primetime drama “Shots Fired,” based in the Charlotte area.

In the first 20 seconds of the new 10-part limited primetime drama “Shots Fired” on Fox, during a routine traffic stop in a black neighborhood near Charlotte, a police officer suddenly shouts “I SAID, GET OUT OF THE CAR!” then squeezes off four semi-automatic rounds. The driver falls onto the pavement, dead. “Shots Fired” centers around Ashe Akino (Sanaa Lathan), an investigator for the Department of Justice, and Preston Terry  (Stephan James), her federal prosecutor boss/partner, who start out seeking to uncover the truth about the first killing and then stumble upon a second: a case of an African-American boy killed under mysterious circumstances, perhaps also at the hands of law enforcement, the Charlotte Observer reports.

Tristan Mack Wilds, the actor who portrays the police officer, is black, while the young man his character kills in the opening scene is white. “It’s very easy for people to watch the news and see a piece about a shooting, and if you don’t identify with who’s onscreen, you turn it off,” Gina Prince-Blythewood, a creator of the series, said of the racial role reversal. “So we felt the best way to address this issue for us was to get people who don’t normally go through this issue to understand … to give them a way in and a way to understand.” Prince-Blythewood said in shaping the series, she and her husgband Reggie Rock Blythewood thought of it as “an autopsy of a town like Ferguson.”


911 Call Taker Suspended Eight Days in Tamir Rice Case

Operator failed to tell officer who shot Rice, 12, to death, that he probably was a juvenile and that his gun was “probably fake.” Attorney for Rice’s mother called “pathetic” the penalty for “gross negligence.”

Cleveland officials handed down an eight-day suspension for a 911 call taker who didn’t relay that Tamir Rice was “probably a juvenile” and that the airsoft pellet gun he had was “probably fake,” reports Constance Hollinger faced up to 10 days without pay. Hollinger initially denied accusations that she did anything wrong, but Police Chief Calvin Williams found that she violated protocol during the call. Hollinger took the initial 911 call from a man near a recreation center. She never relayed the information to dispatcher Beth Mandl, who told the responding officers information that led them to believe a man was pointing a real gun. Mandl later resigned.

That omission was cited by former Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty as a crucial mistake that directly affected how officers Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garnback responded to the November 2014 call. Loehmann shot and killed Rice, 12, less than two seconds after they arrived. McGinty said the shooting might have been avoided if the information was properly relayed to the officers. Rice’s mother, Samaria Rice, called the suspension “unacceptable.” Her attorney, Subodh Chandra, said, “Eight days for gross negligence resulting in the death of a 12-year-old boy. How pathetic is that?”


Does Surveillance Video Shed New Light on Michael Brown?

A new documentary contends that Michael Brown didn’t rob a convenience store in Ferguson, Mo., before he was fatally shot in 2014. The store’s attorney disputes that narrative.

Citing surveillance footage, a documentary that debuted Saturday at a popular film festival in Austin, Tx., contends that Michael Brown didn’t rob a Ferguson convenience store moments before he was fatally shot by police in 2014, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. It asserts that Brown’s altercation with the shop was part of a misunderstanding tied to a possible drug transaction he earlier had with store employees. The new surveillance video in the film “Stranger Fruit” suggests Brown first showed up at Ferguson Market and Liquor about 1 a.m., many hours before he and police faced off.

Filmmaker Jason Pollock argues that Brown first exchanged a small amount of marijuana with store clerks for two boxes of cigarillos in his early morning visit that day. Before leaving the store, Brown gave the cigarillos back to the store clerks who put them behind the counter, according to the clip. The documentary asserts that Brown left the merchandise at the store to retrieve at a later point. After Brown was shot by then- Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson later that day, police released video of Brown strong arming his way out of the same store with cigarillos. “Mike did not rob the store,” says the film narrator. Jay Kanzler, an attorney for the convenience store and its employees, told the New York Times that his clients dispute the film’s version of events. “There was no transaction,” Kanzler said. “There was no understanding. No agreement. Those folks didn’t sell him cigarillos for pot.”


Kentucky Forms Special Unit to Investigate Police Shootings

The six-officer Critical Incident Response Team will automatically investigate when a state trooper shoots somebody and will be available to other police agencies. State Police Commissioner Rick Sanders said the unit isn’t tasked with determining whether a shooting was justifiable. “Our objective is just to gather the facts,” he said.

The Kentucky State Police agency has formed a special unit to investigate shootings of civilians by state troopers as well as by police officers for other departments in the state, reports the Louisville Courier-Journal. The Critical Incident Response Team – made up of three lieutenants, two sergeants and a detective – will automatically investigate when a state trooper shoots somebody. It doesn’t have the legal authority to force other law enforcement agencies to cede control of their own investigations but will intercede if asked. The team, stationed in Frankfort, has investigated five cases this year.

State Police Commissioner Rick Sanders emphasized that the unit isn’t tasked with determining whether a shooting was justifiable. Commonwealth’s attorneys decide if a case goes to a grand jury. “Our objective is just to gather the facts,” he said. State officials said the team’s focus is on conducting quality, transparent investigations into police shooting cases, which in recent years have attracted significant public scrutiny, sparked debates about the use of force by police and amplified calls for independent investigations.


‘Suicide by Cop’: The Questions That Don’t Get Asked

When a mentally ill individual dies in a police shooting, commentators focus on the officer who pulled the trigger. It also makes sense to ask why no one detected the individual’s problems in the first place.

Photo by Alachua County visa Flkickr

Photo by Alachua County via Flickr

According to the police shootings database compiled by The Washington Post, 25 percent of the individuals fatally shot by law enforcement officers in 2016 were mentally ill.

Similarly, the Boston Globe’s extensive “Spotlight” special report into the mental health care system in Massachusetts found that nearly half of the people shot by police in the last 11 years suffered from mental illness.

In a narrative that has become all-too-familiar, many of these deaths were “suicide by cop” events.

Society seems to expect law enforcement to control every situation that arises. So it’s only natural that issues of police performance, technique and training become the primary focus of criticism and commentary following each tragic death of a mentally ill individual.

Recognizing this, law enforcement has worked to  find some solutions.

For instance, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) has prepared a comprehensive guide to best practices for dealing with the mentally ill.  Among other steps, the IACP advocates the development of specialized “crisis intervention” teams to respond to these highly pressurized calls for service.

Just last  month, a broad alliance of law enforcement groups, including the IACP and the National Association of Police Organizations, collaborated on a set of improved general  “de-escalation” techniques and training models  that can be particularly helpful when an officer confronts a person in an acute state of mental distress.

While these efforts are constructive, the narrow emphasis on law enforcement’s interactions with the mentally ill distorts  the reality that the police are a part of a much larger system.  As a result, the officers involved in these tragic encounters often unfairly monopolize public scrutiny.

Much attention is paid to what law enforcement did, but little or none to the many things that are well beyond law enforcement influence.

More holistic inquiries would likely produce a better understanding of the causes and effects of these deadly incidents.  Such assessments could provide a more  accurate sense of accountability than current public discourse.

They would reveal what those who have studied the mental health system already know:  This isn’t simply an issue of  protecting mentally ill protagonists from trigger-happy cops.

The root causes of every fatal shooting can’t really be explained by identifying some “human error” on the part of a cop who used the wrong de-escalation technique.  De-escalation techniques are important, but they aren’t magical.

Jim Palmer

Jim Palmer

Like the nurse who administers a fatal overdose of medication to a patient, or the air traffic controller who provides an incorrect instruction to a pilot, the front-line officer accused of a fatal “human error” has often, as patient safety expert Dr. Lucien Leape puts it, “been set up to fail.”

The challenge here is not only protecting the mentally ill; it is providing for the safety (or, if you prefer “wellness”) for radiating circles of vulnerable individuals, families and communities.

One circle comprises the officers themselves.  About 90 percent of the people shot by police in the Boston Globe study were armed.  Besides, as David Klingle and others have pointed out, cops who are forced to shoot and kill often suffer deep trauma themselves.

The core question that we should be asking after a fatal confrontation is “How did these two people find themselves in this situation in the first place?” It’s an approach that has worked well in some other high-risk fields, and it would lend itself to assessments of tragic law enforcement encounters.

In aviation and medicine, for example, tragedies are seen as “organizational accidents”—complicated events in which many small mistakes (none of them sufficient to cause the disaster independently) have combined with each other and with latent system weaknesses before the horrific outcomes occurred.

This perspective is based upon the reality that finding one mistake by one “bad apple” usually does little very to provide for systemic improvements.

When it comes to accountability for a bad outcome, an organizational appraisal of this kind reveals that responsibility is often  shared by many: usually by those who  may have made a mistake, or  by those who knew about a shortcoming elsewhere in the system, or by those who failed to anticipate the mistake of another.

Such a broad perspective can provide a level of accountability that is not only more comprehensive, but forward-looking as well.

Hospitals mobilize this principle by conducting “Sentinel Event” reviews that aim to identify the multiple slips, missed opportunities and absent capabilities that combined to cause a bad outcome, and which could combine again to set another front-line actor up to fail.

In fact, if a “suicide-by-cop” occurred within 24 hours of a patient’s release from a hospital, the national accrediting body for hospitals, the Joint Commission, requires the facility to conduct such a sentinel event analysis.

The National Institute of Justice has been leading an exploration of the potential for mobilizing a regular practice of sentinel event reviews in criminal justice aimed at a non-blaming effort to more fully understand the cascading causes of errors and near misses.

The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing picked up this theme,  and recommended that sentinel event reviews be implemented after critical policing incidents.

Perhaps the most significant benefit to applying a broader lens to fatal police shootings is that it would make clear what should be obvious but is usually ignored. When it comes to the safe handling of acutely mentally ill citizens, the hospitals, the general health care structures, and the cop in the dark hallway who had to pull the trigger are all part of the same system.

Since many of the dead are court-involved, sentinel event reviews of fatalities and near-fatalities involving the mentally ill would ask an  array of players from within the legal  system to develop an account of their actions and insights.

James Doyle

James Doyle

The prosecutors who brought charges instead of seeking commitment, for example, could consider what in their environment made that seem like the best choice.  The defender who delivered the catastrophic bad news and who probably had more private time with the victim than any other practitioner, might weigh how better to detect suicidal ideation and what to do when it is identified.

(Ethical requirements for confidentiality of client communications can make this a difficult problem.)

Corrections staff and medical providers could ask whether continuity in treatment or medication was provided before their detainee was released, or why it wasn’t.

This kind of “root cause analysis” was applied in a recent NIJ-funded study by the Vera Institute, and its utility in a broader review of mental health fatalities would likely be significant.

Most importantly, a sentinel event review process could incorporate all of the criminal justice actors who, although they did their best with the facts and tools available to them at the time, could come together and explore whether certain changes are needed to avoid participating in the same kind of negative outcome in the future.

Another important advantage of this approach is that it can be focused  locally. That ensures  the process is informed by an intimate knowledge of local considerations and constraints, and eliminates practitioners’  reasonable concerns that some group of pundits from outside a given community will render a  judgment without knowing  the particular environment in which they operate.

Not every town can fund a Crisis Intervention capability; de-escalation techniques don’t answer every situation.

In fact, no lock-step national mandate of tactics and techniques can provide safety in every situation and jurisdiction.

This is a system problem, not a police problem.

It is not realistic to suggest that any single change by one actor can prevent a negative outcome while we continue to sidestep  the fact that there is a larger system of actors, all of whom may have contributed to the outcome, but who also deserve the right and ability to collaborate in systemic corrections.

On a national scale, we have neglected to do this. As a consequence, we are failing to focus on safety in the criminal justice system.

Making the sentinel event approach part of our efforts to strengthen police accountability—in particular integrating it into an analysis of system-wide safety weaknesses— can make a difference the next time a  a terrified patrol officer with a Taser and a gun confronts a  psychotic with a sword.

Until now, we have been looking at such confrontations—and their often tragic consequences—with blinders.  That’s a disservice to the officers who  police our communities and to the public, which  reasonably expects the systems established for public safety to  learn from mistakes.

Jim Palmer is the executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, which represents nearly 10,000 members from almost 300 agencies. James Doyle is a Boston defense lawyer and author, and a  frequent contributor to The Crime Report. They welcome readers’  comments.















‘’Implicit Bias’ Influences Cops Involved in Deadly Force Incidents: Study

A study of the 990 incidents in 2015 in which deadly force was used by police and resulted in death has found that African Americans were more than twice as likely to have been unarmed during the encounter.

A study of the 990 incidents in 2015 in which deadly force was used by police and resulted in death has found that African Americans were more than twice as likely to have been unarmed during the encounter.

The authors of the study, published in the most recent volume of the American Society of Criminology’s Criminology & Public Policy journal, concluded that “implicit bias” was a critical factor leading to a police officer’s failure to judge whether such encounters represented a serious threat.

“Our analysis provides insight as to whether the implicit bias effect manifests itself in the real world where officer safety is an immediate concern,” claimed the study, co-authored by Justin Nix, Bradley A. Campbell and Edward H. Byers of the University of Louisville; and Geoffrey P. Alpert of the University of South Carolina and Griffith University.

 “Although we could not determine whether officers were quicker or more likely to fire their weapon at minority suspects, we argue that if minorities were more likely to have not been attacking the police/other civilians, or more likely to have been unarmed, this would indicate the police exhibit implicit bias by falsely perceiving minorities to be a greater threat to their safety.”

The study is one of the first to take advantage of the national database of fatal police shootings compiled by journalists at the Washington Post. Like a similar database created by the Guardian newspaper, it represented the first effort to document the police use of deadly force on a national level.

The authors note that police use of force remains rare—and that fatalities resulting from it are even rarer.  But they argue that their findings underline the need for “police departments (to)  use training programs and community activities to minimize implicit bias among their officers.” And they call on the federal government to accelerate efforts towards creating a comprehensive national database on such incidents.

The full report is available free until early March at this site.






Prosecutors Seek Better Ways of Handling Police-Force Cases

District attorneys can face criticism for not holding police accountable. Eight states have changed their laws on investigations of police. Prosecutions of officers rise but remain rare.

Prosecutors are looking for new ways to handle police use-of-force cases, the Wall Street Journal reports. Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby is pushing for state legislation to give police powers to her investigators. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón is creating a unit to lead police-shooting investigations, instead of having police take the lead. Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams is sending send staff attorneys to any police shooting. The moves come after a string of failed prosecutions in cases involving fatal police shootings of black men, and controversial decisions not to prosecute in Charlotte, Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere.

District attorneys can face criticism for not holding police accountable. Prosecutors say they must assess each case on its merits and consider how a jury—often sympathetic to police—would decide. “We’ve let a lot of this debate fall on the back of police and on the back of communities who have been upset, and we have not stepped up and taken our proper role,” said prosecutor Jean Peters Baker in Kansas City. “We’ve lost public trust because people couldn’t see what we did or why.” Since 2014, eight states have made changes to the process of investigating officer-involved deaths or alleged police abuse, says the National Conference of State Legislatures. Connecticut has a state agency investigate use-of-force cases, while Illinois, Utah, and Wisconsin require the use of outside investigators. Since 2015, 31 officers involved in fatal on-duty shootings have been charged with murder or manslaughter, compared with 48 the prior decade, said Philip Stinson of Bowling Green State University. The vast majority of the roughly 1,000 fatal shootings by police each year don’t result in prosecution.



Turmoil Over Shootings by Police Lingered in 2016

Protests over killings by police officers continued in 2016 after a year of demonstrations nationwide that followed the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Americans’ respect for police jumped in a Gallup survey after officers were killed in Dallas and Baton Rouge.

Tensions between police and minority communities that flared two years ago in Ferguson, Mo., after the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown, didn’t ease in 2016, the Wall Street Journal reports. In a two-week span in July, protests erupted across the U.S. over the police killings of black men in Minnesota and Louisiana, five police officers were gunned down by a sniper in Dallas, and three officers were killed in Baton Rouge. Since then, officers have been targeted in other killings, and protests persist over officer-involved shootings. Last year’s unrest evoked tumultuous times in the 1960s and 1970s, but with a key difference: Protests are targeted primarily at police themselves, said Charles Ramsey, a former police chief who was co-chair of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

“I have seen years, especially in the early ’70s, when we had more officers” shot, killed and injured, Ramsey said. “What I haven’t seen is the kind of reaction the public has whenever there is an officer-involved shooting whether it is justified or not.” Police shootings of black men continued to drive a wedge between police and the communities they serve, said Samuel Sinyangwe of Campaign Zero, which is focused on ending police violence. He said cities and states have begun making changes to improve policing. Amid the turmoil Americans’ respect for police jumped to its highest levels since 1967. A Gallup poll in October found 76 percent of Americans said they have “a great deal” of respect for police in their area, up 12 percentage points from 2015, an increase that experts attributed in part to high-profile attacks on police. Views of police split along racial lines. The Pew Research Center said nearly 80 percent of black Americans viewed police killings of blacks a sign of a broader problem, compared with 54 percent of whites.


Fatal Shootings by Police Down Slightly in 2016

The Washington Post finds that the total dropped from 991 last year to 957 as of Dec. 29. Black males were three times as likely to die as whites, based on their share of the national population. More fatal shootings in 2016 were captured on video.

The number of fatal shootings by police officers in 2016 remained virtually unchanged from 2015,  when nearly 1,000 people were killed by police, the Washington Post reports. Through Thursday, law enforcement officers fatally shot 957 people in 2016 — close to three each day — down slightly from 2015 when 991 people were shot to death by officers, according to an ongoing project by the Post. The newspaper for two years in a row documented more than twice the number of fatal shootings recorded by the FBI annually on average. As in 2015, a disproportionate number of those killed this year were black, and about a quarter involved someone who had a mental illness. In a notable shift from 2015, more of the fatal shootings this year were captured on video.

Many agencies have equipped officers with body-worn cameras, but experts an impact on fatal shootings may take years. “Making these kinds of changes is very difficult on such a widespread scale,” said Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum. He added, “We’re still on the front-end of the training that we’re pushing out. It may be at least six months to a year until we start to really see those numbers come down.” White males continued to be those most often killed by police, accounting for 46 percent of this year’s deaths. When adjusted by population, black males were three times as likely to die as their white counterparts. The percentage of fatal shootings of unarmed people declined in 2016, from 9 percent in 2015 to 5 percent. The consistency from 2015 to 2016 is telling, experts said. “It shows that one year wasn’t an anomaly,” said criminologist Geoff Alpert of the the University of South Carolina. “It’s a very robust number that is something we can trust in the future and a good measure to see when things do change.”