Justices Asked to Shield CA Officer from Lawsuit

A California sheriff’s deputy killed a 13-year-old by he thought was carrying an AK-47. Law enforcement groups are asking the Supreme Court to say that the officer didn’t use excessive force.

In 2013, Andy Lopez, 13, walked in Santa Rosa, Ca., loosely carrying at his side a plastic pellet gun that resembled an assault rifle. Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy Erick Gelhaus, an Iraq war veteran, thought the boy might be carrying an AK-47. Gelhaus jumped out of a patrol car and shouted “Drop the gun!” As Lopez turned toward him, Gelhaus fired eight shots, killing the boy. The U.S. Supreme Court is being asked to shield the deputy from being sued by the parents of the boy on the grounds that no law “squarely governs” the situation and defines the shooting as “excessive force,”the Los Angeles Times reports.

Joined by California law enforcement groups, Sonoma County’s lawyers are urging the justices to “support the common sense proposition that officers need not wait for a gun to actually be leveled or pointed at them before responding with deadly force to protect themselves and the public.” They stand a good chance of prevailing, even though the high court grants only about one percent of appeal petitions. The justices have regularly intervened in police shooting cases to overturn rulings that cleared the way for a jury to decide whether an officer used excessive force. In April, the court, by a 7-2 vote, tossed out a lawsuit against a Tucson police officer who shot a woman four times as she stood in her front yard holding a large kitchen knife. The officer decided she was threatening another woman who stood six feet away. The other woman later said they were housemates and she did not feel threatened.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Civil Rights Groups Blast IN Panel for Clearing Cops

Two police officers were cleared by a merit board of charges stemming from the fatal shooting of Aaron Bailey, an unarmed black man. African-American groups said the board had failed, deepening the divide between police and citizens who don’t trust them.

Nearly a year has passed since two Indianapolis police officers fatally shot 45-year-old Aaron Bailey, an unarmed black man. His death summoned old wounds and renewed battle lines that have hardened over the years, the Indianapolis Star reports. There have been rallies and community meetings calling for justice. Promises of change from those in charge. Pledges from the police chief for transparency — and a commitment to a fair process. Although a prosecutor cleared officers Carlton Howard and Michal Dinnsen of criminal charges, a Civilian Police Merit Board administrative hearing would serve as a final battleground: Chief Bryan Roach vs. the two officers, who were backed by the police officers union.

Would the merit board fire the officers? Last week, after a three-day hearing, the answer landed with a resounding no. Howard and Dinnsen had not violated department policy or training on the morning of June 29, the board ruled 5-2. A frustrated police union is questioning whether the chief and command staff have their officers’ backs. Exasperated community advocates are wondering whether criminal justice reform is even possible. Family members of Bailey are wearing the deepest scars of all — the loss of a father and brother punctuated by the cold reality of the merit board’s ruling. Response from African-American groups across the city was swift and nearly unanimous: The merit board failed, deepening years-long divides between police officers and an increasingly distrustful portion of the city.


from https://thecrimereport.org

Fatal Police Shootings of Unarmed People Declining

Criminologists tell the Washington Post that the downturn in the number of cases indicate that evidence of racial bias by police who shoot and kill unarmed blacks has also declined but not disappeared.

The number of deadly police shootings of unarmed people has generally declined since 2015 even as the tally of fatal shootings by law enforcement is on pace to hit nearly 1,000 for the fourth year in a row, reports the Washington Post. Fatal shootings of unarmed black men — such as the high-profile case in March of Stephon Clark in Sacramento — are among the kinds of killings that have fallen. Criminologists said the downturn in the number of cases indicate that evidence of racial bias by police who shoot and kill unarmed blacks has also declined but not disappeared. “These trends mark significant changes,” said criminologist Geoff Alpert of the University of South Carolina. “What we don’t understand yet is what’s causing these numbers to move downward.”

In 2015, police shot and killed 94 unarmed individuals, a number that fell to 51 in 2016 before rising to 68 in 2017. This year, police have shot and killed 18, eight fewer than at the same time last year. Academics warn against over-interpreting the data relating to a decline of evidence of bias. The numbers are so small, they said, that even a few cases recorded in error could produce a different result. Washington Post researchers began tracking deadly police shootings in 2015 after the fatal shooting by police of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Information about shootings is gleaned from news reports and other public sources and compiled in a publicly available database. The Post project has found that police have shot and killed 3,309 people since 2015. Of those killed, 231, or 7 percent, were not armed with guns, knives or other objects that could be used as weapons at the time of the shootings. A review of the shootings of unarmed people shows that officers were reported to be under physical attack in about 40 percent of the cases. The remaining 60 percent involved a wide range of circumstances, including individuals’ making provocative movements or verbal threats (31 percent) or fleeing, or being shot unintentionally.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Officers Allowed to Fire at Moving Cars to Stop Terror

In the last two decades, most major police departments barred officers from firing at moving cars. Now, police in Washington, D.C., New York City, Chicago and Las Vegas allow such shooting to stop terrorist attacks. Police critics call the policy changes a shift backward.

Two decades ago, amid controversy over police shootings in Washington, D.C., officers were largely barred from firing at moving cars. The rules didn’t apply if someone in the car was firing at police, but officials concluded that in most cases, the practice was dangerous and ineffective. Bystanders could be hit, and shooting at a car usually didn’t stop it. Other departments nationwide adopted similar policies. Now, several major cities are loosening those rules to deal with a new threat: terrorists in trucks mowing down and killing pedestrians. Police in Washington, New York City, Chicago and Las Vegas have begun allowing officers to fire at moving vehicles to stop such ramming attacks, the Washington Post reports. While concern about the tactic remains, authorities say that trying to shoot the driver might be the only way to save lives.

“We have to balance the threat to the community with the idea we don’t want to use fatal force unless we absolutely have to,” said D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham. “It’s really important to make sure officers completely understand this is a special circumstance, a last resort, but one that may be necessary.” The move to broaden the circumstances under which officers are authorized to use deadly force comes as police nationwide have been under scrutiny for the shootings of unarmed people, many of them black men. Sam Sinyangwe of Campaign Zero, which calls for an end to police violence, said the group is concerned that any loosening of restrictions could embolden officers to pull their guns unnecessarily. “What we’ve seen is a shift backward on this issue,” he said, adding that the new policies could cover incidents “that are not terrorist situations.” Between January 2015 and May 2017, the Post found that police across the U.S. fatally shot at least 193 people inside vehicles.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Border Agents Have Killed 97 People in U.S.

Border agents manning land crossings and a checkpoint have used deadly force, as have agents conducting roving patrols – up to 160 miles inland from the border, The Guardian reports. Pedestrians were run over by agents. Car chases culminated in crashes. Some have drowned, others died after they were pepper-sprayed, stunned with tasers or beaten.

Encounters with the Customs and Border Protection agency (CBP) inside the U.S. Encounters have proven deadly for at least 97 people – citizens and non-citizens – since 2003, a count drawn from settlement payment data, court records, use of force logs, incident reports and news articles, The Guardian reports. From Maine to Washington state and California to Florida, the deaths stem from all manner of CBP activity. Border agents manning land crossings and a checkpoint have used deadly force, as have agents conducting roving patrols – up to 160 miles inland from the border.

Pedestrians were run over by agents. Car chases culminated in crashes. Some have drowned, others died after they were pepper-sprayed, stunned with tasers or beaten. The majority of victims died from bullet wounds, including shots in the back. The bullets were fired not only by agents conducting border enforcement operations, but also those acting in a local law enforcement capacity and by agents off-duty, who’ve shot burglary suspects, intimate partners and friends. The picture compiled from official documents and news reports is incomplete, but indicates that at least 28 people who died were U.S. citizens. Six children, between the ages of 12 and 16, were among the victims whose ages were disclosed. The federal government has paid more than $9 million to settle a fraction of the incidents thus far. Here, the Guardian looked at eight fatal encounters with CBP agents that happened inside the United States and the larger patterns of incidents to which they relate.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Official Stephon Clark Shooting Autopsy Differs from Private Version

The coroner’s autopsy report on the Sacramento police shooting of Stephon Clark says he was shot three times in the back–not six times as the family’s private autopsy findings claimed. A toxicology report also found traces of cocaine, cannabis and codeine in Clark’s system. 

Six weeks after Sacramento police shot unarmed Stephon Clark to death in a dark  backyard, police released the county coroner’s autopsy report that differs sharply from the family’s private autopsy findings that said he was shot six times in the back, reports the Sacramento Bee. Coroner Kimberly Gin said that she brought five pathologists into the matter “in light of the erroneous information that was released from the private autopsy.” Among the new findings: Clark was shot seven times – not eight – and three of the shots – not six – were fired into his back. The findings are starkly different from those presented March 30 by Dr. Bennet Omalu, a noted pathologist hired by the Clark family legal team.

A toxicology report also released by police found traces of cocaine, cannabis and codeine in Clark’s system. Dr. Gregory Reiber, a pathologist who reviewed the county’s autopsy report at Gin’s request, differed from Omalu about where the first shot hit Clark, as well as the direction Clark was facing in relation to the officers. Sacramento police said the shooting “is still being actively investigated by our department and the state of California Department of Justice.” Clark was shot March 18 after running from police and ending up in his grandmother’s backyard. Officers responded to the scene after a neighbor reported a man breaking car windows. Police say the officers believed he had a gun and opened fire. Police subsequently said there was no gun, that Clark was an unarmed 22-year-old black man carrying only a cellphone.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Sacramento Videos Raise More Questions About Clark Case

Sacramento police released 52 videos and one audio file of the Stephon Clark shooting, showing several instances of officers muting their body-worn microphones and raising questions about the length of time it took law enforcement to render medical aid.

Sacramento police released 52 videos and one audio file of the Stephon Clark shooting, showing several instances of officers muting their body-worn microphones and raising questions about the length of time it took law enforcement to render medical aid, the Sacramento Bee reports. Clark, 22, was shot by two Sacramento police officers on March 18 in the backyard of his grandparents’ house. He was unarmed and holding a cellphone, which officers apparently mistook for a gun. The shooting set off weeks of protests and calls for police reforms in Sacramento to address what many see as bias in the policing of African-American and ethnic communities.

Video released Monday confirms officers waited about five minutes from the time Clark was shot before they approached his body. They then spent about one minute handcuffing and searching him before beginning to administer CPR. By the time fire department rescue workers were cleared by police to enter the scene, it appears that Clark already was dead. A fire department medic can be heard in another video of the same time frame saying, “We’re fixed and dilated here,” an apparent reference to Clark being nonresponsive. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist hired by the family to do an independent autopsy, estimated Clark likely survived between three and 10 minutes after being shot eight times by officers in the neck, torso and leg. “The five minutes’ lapse in time, I’m not sure if it would have saved the life of Stephon Clark, but it would have increased the chances,” said Rashid Sidqe, a police reform activist. “We are looking for a response from the chief whether or not (officers) followed proper protocol, and if they did, how can we make the necessary changes so this doesn’t happen to another member of our community.”

from https://thecrimereport.org

Increase in Police Shootings Linked to High Gun Ownership

Officers “need to be conscious of the fact that literally every single person they come in contact with may be carrying a concealed firearm,” says John Jay College criminologist David Kennedy. According to Vox.com and University of Chicago criminologist John Roman, the stronger the gun control laws, the fewer police killings.

When Sacramento police officers confronted Stephon Clark in his grandmother’s backyard, they believed he was holding a gun; it actually was a cellphone. Officers have shot people after mistaking wrenches and badges for guns. Cops have shot people thinking that they’re reaching for a firearm when they’re pulling up loose-fitting shorts and that a toy gun was a real firearm. Behind these incidents lies what seems to be a constant fear that a gun may be present.

Officers “need to be conscious of and are trained to be conscious of the fact that literally every single person they come in contact with may be carrying a concealed firearm,” says criminologist David Kennedy of John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “That’s true for a 911 call. It’s true for a barking dog call. It’s true for a domestic violence incident. It’s true for a traffic stop. It’s true for everything.”

This is one potential reason that the U.S. has far more police shootings than other developed nations. Vox.com and John Roman of NORC at the University of Chicago, studied the data and found that weaker gun laws and higher rates of gun ownership correlate with more killings by police officers. That suggests that it may be prudent to start thinking of police killings as inherently linked to the nation’s gun prevalence.

Vox and Roman used the Washington Post database of police killings to compare incident rates for each state with the state’s population, a composite score for state’s gun control laws (based on a National Rifle Association database), and gun ownership rates (based on a 2013 national survey). There is a correlation between killings by police officers and states’ gun control laws and gun ownership rates. The stronger the gun control laws, the fewer police killings. The higher the gun ownership rates, the more police killings.

According to the Post’s data base, as of April 5, 294 people have been shot and killed so far in 2018, as of April 5.

from https://thecrimereport.org

NYC Police Shooting Puts Focus on Local Officer Plan

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio touts a neighborhood policing program where officers get to know local residents. They aren’t the same officers who may get involved in shooting neighborhood figures they do not know.

The fatal police shooting of a mentally ill Brooklyn man raises questions about New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s neighborhood policing program, reports the New York Times. Saheed Vassell was known as an idiosyncratic local figure. Plainclothes anti-crime officers who answered a smartphone alert for someone waving a silver gun on Wednesday didn’t know him at all. Police officials argued it hardly mattered which officers answered the call or what training they had. Any officers facing what appeared to be a gun aimed at them (it actually was a pipe) would have little choice but to fire,  officials said. Security camera videos showed Vassell, 34, startling people on the street and jabbing the pipe into one man’s chest.

The killing may reveal the shortcomings of a local policing program that de Blasio has pitched as a cure for excessive police force, but which may play no role in the hurried encounters that determine whether someone lives or dies. Community policing officers focus on meeting residents and getting to know their concerns. They are often not the ones rushing to reports of armed people or stickups in progress. The officers who answer those fast-moving calls — many of them part of specialty units, like the anti-crime officers who responded Wednesday — have little more to go on than a dispatcher’s relay of a 911 call and what they see in front of them. Protesters marched on Thursday in response to Vassell’s killing. They said officers acted too quickly in dealing with a man whose mental illness was well known. Too often, skeptics of the mayor’s plan say, that means someone who looks dangerous but actually needs help is met with an onrush of officers who know nothing about him.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Why the Prosecutor’s Role in Officer-Involved Deaths Has Become Critical

When police kill unarmed civilians, the path towards accountability begins with prosecutors. Elected to serve their communities as the chief law enforcement official, they have the means and mandate to confront the injustices that arise from systemic racism, writes the director of John Jay’s Institute for Innovation in Prosecution.

As California Attorney General Xavier Becerra begins overseeing the investigation of the killing of Stephon Clark, the 22-year-old African-American father of two shot by police in his grandmother’s backyard in Sacramento, Ca., nearly two weeks ago, an important question should be on the minds of every American.

If the investigation finds evidence of misconduct, how likely is there to be a charge, let alone a conviction?

The track record of officer-involved fatalities in the United States suggests the answer: Not likely.

Approximately 1,000 lives are lost at the hands of U.S. law enforcement every year, a number that has remained remarkably consistent. Every week, there are new reports of officer-involved fatalities from across the country. Earlier this week, the New York Police Department shot and killed a man in Brooklyn.

And still, over the course of a decade, from 2005 to 2015, only 54 officers nationwide were criminally charged, with nearly half of these cases resulting in acquittals or dismissals.

How can that be when, in most of these cases, there is ample evidence—hard data, and even live video—of the extent of force used?

This paradox was addressed recently by 35 experts participating in the launch of a new working group on officer-involved fatalities at the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution (IIP) at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Comprised of prosecutors, directly impacted individuals, police, academics, and activists from around the nation, the group was formed to address the prosecutor’s role in dealing with these incidents—and in particular to devise and implement mechanisms of accountability.

Such an effort couldn’t be more crucial.

Prosecutors wield significant power in the criminal justice system. They have discretion over charging, pre-trial recommendations and plea conditions, and their decisions affect a case at nearly every stage of the criminal justice process. Yet, as the figures cited above demonstrate, even with this significant power, prosecutors have found it challenging to charge and convict police officers for excessive use of force.

The working group identified various obstacles to accountability. For example, most state statutes require a “standard of reasonableness” when evaluating the use of force by law enforcement. Another example: the public, the media and, often, jury pools are inclined to offer the benefit of the doubt to law enforcement while criminalizing those killed. Moreover, the process is stymied by systemically racist policies and practices, and a culture that impedes transparency.

The working group—including the prosecutors and police who participated—took these challenges as opportunities for reform, rather than as excuses.

There was widespread consensus that, as communities demand justice for the victims and families of police violence, prosecutors—as democratically elected officials directly accountable to the communities they serve—have the opportunity and the mandate to use their platform to demand accountability, both within the legal system and beyond it.

To do this, prosecutors must partner with those whose deep awareness of the absence of accountability can show the path forward. In other words, those who have lost loved ones to police violence.

As one directly impacted family member said during the working group discussions, “We become the experts unwillingly …We study this because we can’t sleep at night.”

That tragic “expertise” has motivated the victims of police violence to address the systemic inequities of the criminal justice system. We should join them.

Communities, particularly communities of color, that are disproportionately affected by excessive police use-of-force tend also to be those bearing the brunt of policies and practices that contribute to mass incarceration. The over-criminalization of communities of color cannot be separated from the disproportionately high rate of force that these communities experience at the hands of law enforcement.

Philando Castile was stopped in his car nearly 50 times before July 6, 2016. Eric Garner was reported to have been selling individual cigarettes when the police were called on July 17, 2014, though the cigarettes were never found.

According to Baltimore Police Department (BPD) data from January 2010 to May 2015 that the U.S. Department of Justice examined, BPD officers stopped 410 pedestrians at least 10 times. Some 95 percent of these pedestrians were black, although just 60 percent of the city’s population is black.

If officers did not routinely stop—and if prosecutors did not routinely charge—people of color for crimes that arguably pose no significant risk to public safety, perhaps we could expect fewer fateful encounters.

And if law enforcement did not routinely stop and prosecute people of color, perhaps they would stop feeding the myth of the “inherent danger” that people of color pose to public safety.

The belief in this inherent danger is tied to an implicit bias that is manifested in a variety of ways.

“Black male, maybe 20,” is how the Cleveland officer referred to Tamir Rice after he arrived at the playground and shot the 12-year-old within seconds of seeing him brandish what later proved to be a toy gun.

Stephon Clark

Stephon Clark/Facebook Photo via Wikipedia

The two Sacramento officers who shot Stephon Clark explained afterwards that they “fear[ed] for their safety.” Responding to reports of someone breaking into parked cars with a toolbar, they described Clark as advancing towards them with an “object” in his hand. The officers fired ten rounds each at him. The object was a cell phone.

The racial stereotyping that leads police to automatically assume the worst when they are involved in a tense confrontation with individuals of color surprised none of the members of the working group.

As a directly impacted family member observed during the working group discussion, “We have to say Black Lives Matter today because of this country’s history … The legacy of the Three-Fifths rule is [evident] in how we are [criminalized, and how no one is held accountable] when our lives are taken.”

One conclusion seems inescapable: The path towards accountability for officer-involved fatalities and excessive police use of force must move beyond body cameras and de-escalation training to confront the injustices that arise from systematic racism, both past and present.

As the chief local law enforcement and democratically elected official, a prosecutor has both the means and the mandate to do just that.

There already are instructive examples around the nation:

  • In Washington State and California, prosecutors are using their platforms to support calls for reform of the “standard of reasonableness” statutes.
  • Campaign Zero, whose website describes it as a “research collaborative collecting comprehensive data on police killings nationwide to quantify the impact of police violence in communities,” harnesses the power of data science to develop new policies and practices in partnership with police departments.
  • Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, in Baltimore, offers useful suggestions for exploring alternative paths to accountability by using independent community-centered tools.

And lessons are being learned even in those cases where justice has yet to be found.

John Choi

John Choi

The jury in the Philando Castile case did not convict the officer who was charged with killing him. But the investigation and prosecution, led by County Attorney John Choi of Minnesota’s Ramsey County, provided vital lessons for the field.

Choi, who participated in the working group discussion, was asked by the mother of a victim of police violence about his continuing relationship with Castile’s family. He responded with an anecdote.

After the trial, Castile’s mother presented Choi with her son’s “Certificate of Class Completion” for a driving-diversion program established to help those whose licenses had been suspended due to unpaid fines and fees drive legally again. The program was launched when Choi had been Saint Paul’s City Attorney.

Meg Reiss

Meg Reiss

Showing the group a picture of the driving certificate, Choi said he lamented the fact that, while he had been able to help Castile in one aspect of the justice system, he was ultimately unable to achieve justice for him, his family, and his community in his death.

It’s the kind of humility and compassion that can help prosecutors build–and fight for–means of accountability that recognize the humanity and dignity of victims, families, and communities directly affected by police violence.

Prosecutors have the platform. And they are starting to use it.

Meg Reiss is executive director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She welcomes comments from readers.

from https://thecrimereport.org