National Police Misconduct Reporting Project

Jury Awards $3.1 Million in Police Chase that Ended in Fatal Crash

From St.LouisToday.com:

A city jury returned a $3.1 million verdict Thursday against the village of Uplands Park for a police chase that ended in a deadly crash.

About half of the award is to compensate for the death of Lashanna Snipes, 34, who was driving her sister, two children and grandnephew to a relatives’ house to hang Christmas lights on Dec. 3, 2009, when a fleeing suspect struck her car at Goodfellow Boulevard and Martin Luther King Drive.

The rest of the judgment is for injuries others in the car received.

Snipes’ sister, Ayanna Jones, who suffered multiple pelvis fractures, was awarded $670,000. Jones’ grandson, then 5, was awarded $400,000 in damages for a broken thigh bone.

Snipes’ son, who was 7 and suffered a broken collarbone and two broken legs, was awarded $275,000. His sister, then 12, who crawled from the wreckage to watch rescue crews try to free her mother’s lifeless body, received $250,000. She received a concussion in the crash.

Each award came in near or above what the plaintiffs were seeking. But because of a state law that caps what municipalities are liable for, attorneys for Uplands Park are expected to file a motion to reduce the judgment to $378,000 for each claim.

Still, said attorney Aaron Haber, who represented Jones and her grandson: “If nothing else, it sends a message.”

Haber said the case hinged on when and whether the officers called off the pursuit as they claimed.

Volunteer police officer Lamont Aikens and Sgt. Janet Riley began pursuing their 16-year-old suspect, Derion Henderson, when he clocked at 46 mph in a 30 zone in Uplands Park. They acknowledged picking up speed down Goodfellow Boulevard, but told authorities investigating the crash that they ended the pursuit upon crossing St. Louis Avenue, more than a dozen blocks before the crash scene.

But the attorneys for Snipes and her family played dispatch tapes with the sounds of speeding cars and sirens after that. They also played a video deposition of a witness, Ronesha Jones, who said the chase went by her at nearly 80 mph several blocks later. Ronesha Jones, who is not related to the victims, called St. Louis police saying her car was hit by both vehicles.

Aikens and Riley testified this week that they were forced to resume the chase after Henderson hit Ronesha Jones’ car. Todd Muchnick, another attorney for the family, said that claim was only made after the officers learned of Jones as a witness.

And this may have had an impact on the jury.

Aikens, who was driving the police car, was a volunteer without police certification. According to testimony, the department hired him about two months before the chase, knowing he had a history of 18 arrests — including two felonies.

 

Fatal Police Shootings Up 70 Percent in Los Angeles County

From the Associated Press:

The number of suspects killed by police in Los Angeles County has risen nearly 70 percent in 2011 over the previous year.

The Los Angeles Times reports Sunday that 54 people were killed by law enforcement in 2011 countywide. In about two-thirds of the cases, the person was armed with a gun, knife or other weapon. In 12 cases, the person was unarmed.

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck says the majority of shootings are legitimate responses to serious threats. He says police have become more adept at responding quickly to violent situations.

Fatal police shootings this year, however, have fallen back to 2010 levels.

The increase in police killings come at a time when murder rates have fallen to historic lows — 612 homicides were recorded countywide last year.

National Police Misconduct Daily NewsFeed Recap 06-08-12

Here are the 9 reports of police misconduct tracked for Friday, June 8, 2012:

  • A Deerfield, Illinois cop was recently fired and charged with skimming cash from a village commuter lot over several years.  From April 2007 through April 2012, the officer took more than $500 and less than $10,000 http://trib.in/MqXtEU
  • An Indianapolis, Indiana police officer accused of robbing a total of $2,700 from two motorists will go to trial.  The officer faces 10 charges including four felony counts of robbery, five felony counts of official misconduct and one felony count of theft http://indy.st/JRVoS5
  • A Cook County, Illinois police officer was involved with a $20 million tobacco sting.  The two-year operation involved a dozen suspects for reportedly paying a total of more than $20 million to buy 100 million cigarettes without paying state or local taxes http://bit.ly/MRutMM 
  • The city of Spokane, Washington will pay $1.67 million to the family of Otto Zehm, who was beaten to death at the hands of police in 2006 http://bit.ly/Kv3CD2
  • Former Philadelphia, Pennsylvania city cop was sentenced to jail for assaulting a U-Haul manager and lying to make it look like he was the one assaulted.  The ex-cop was sentenced to jail instead of probation because the judge felt he lacked remorse for the serious offenses for which he had been convicted http://bit.ly/KB3ggM
  • A Chesterfield, Virginia sheriff’s deputy has been charged with stealing $300 from an inmate as he was being booked into the Chesterfield County jail.  The seven-year veteran was terminated after the sheriff’s department investigators confronted him and confirmed the theft http://bit.ly/IEokQn
  • Former Hopewell, Virginia police officer was convicted of sexually abusing three women he had been investigating for drunken driving or shoplifting offenses.  The officer used his position and authority as cop to elicit sex, or attempt to elicit sex, from three women in their 20s and 30s http://bit.ly/Ls6dxA
  • Former Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania police chief has been demoted and is being suspended for a domestic dispute in which he faces criminal charges.  Those charges include: simple assault on a police officer; obstructing administration of the law or other governmental function; hindering apprehension or prosecution; and harassment http://bit.ly/LFaQ5C
  • Milwaukee, Wisconsin Police Department arrests detective, terminates 2 officers, and suspends 2 officers.  Chief Flynn said he is confident in the department’s swift action in this situation, along with other recent incidents, should give the public faith in his department  http://bit.ly/KOwyrI

Lawsuit Says Architect Beaten, Pepper Sprayed, Tasered

From the Jonathan Turley blog:

A disturbing lawsuit has been filed against the Baltimore County Police Department by Linda Johnson over the death of her husband, Architect Carl D. Johnson on May 27, 2010. Johnson was pepper sprayed, tasered, and beaten before his death on the way home from Bible study class.

Linda Johnson is suing the Maryland State Police, Baltimore County Police, individual commanders and six officers. Her lawsuit claims that her husband suffered a diabetic attack after calling a friend and crashing on I-795. First to the scene was State Trooper Davon Parker who pepper sprayed Johnson after he lowered his window of his car, which had crashed into the median. When Johnson got out of the car, Parker clubbed him on the knee and then allegedly another officer (Loss) clubbed him. When Baltimore County Police Officer Nicholas Wolferman arrived, he also allegedly beat Johnson. Three more officers arrived and one, Baltimore County Officer Andrew O’Neill tasered Johnson twice. Officer Loss then allegedly punched him in the face. Eight more officers then arrived — leaving one wondering if there were any officers left at headquarters. The complaint states that “there were approximately 52 individuals that responded to the scene.”

We have been following cases involving the use of tasers and excessive force by police. However, Baltimore has been cited as a standout jurisdiction in the use of tasers — leading to calls for investigation.

Johnson was only 48 and leaves behind his wife of 27 years. Their son, Darren Johnson, predeceased his parents and Linda has now lost her husband.

New Fire Science Evidence Overturns Murder Conviction

From Frontline:

Almost three decades ago, David Lee Gavitt was convicted of starting the fire that killed his wife and two children. He was sentenced to life in prison.

This week, Gavitt, now 54, was set free based on new scientific evidence proving that the fire was accidental.

Gavitt’s is the most recent case that highlights a shift in thinking about what causes a fire and how what once seemed like telltale signs of arson can actually be the opposite. Last week, a Chicago-area man was released after prosecutors dismissed arson-murder charges against him stemming from a 1984 fire. And Ernest Ray Willis of Texas was exonerated in 2004 after spending almost 20 years on death row, based in part on evidence presented by renown fire scientist Gerald Hurst.

Gavitt’s case involves both a crucial error in forensic science and the debunking of myths that have been part of arson investigation for decades: A lab erroneously concluded that a carpet sample contained evidence of gasoline, and investigators assumed that a fire that burned quickly as the one in the Gavitt household must have been intentionally set. We now know that because of a scientific phenomena called “flashover,” a fire can burn hot and fast without being set on purpose and can leave patterns on a surface that can be mistaken as pour patterns.

   “In light of modern fire science, there is simply not one shred of credible evidence that the fire at the Gavitt residence was intentionally set,” wrote John Lentini, an expert in fire science, in an affidavit presented to a judge last fall by the Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School, who worked extensively on Gavitt’s case.

Lentini and Hearst are two of the key scientists who helped change the long-held assumptions about how fires burn by starting and studying their own. “The fire investigation community largely consists of people who are firemen. They’re not scientists. They don’t have any formal scientific training,” Lentini told FRONTLINE.  “Extinguishing a fire and investigating a fire involve two different skill sets and two different mindsets.”

Both men have voiced their expert opinions on questionable arson cases in the past, most notably that of Cameron Todd Willingham. Featured in our 2010 film Death By Fire, Willingham’s story strangely echoeos Gavitt’s case: He says he woke up to his house on fire and was able to escape but unable to save his family inside. (Witnesses to the Willingham fire claim they never saw him try and go back into the house; however, neighbors had to restrain Gavitt from doing so).

But the two men’s stories have one important divergence: Willingham was executed in 2004, despite a last-minute appeal by his lawyer that included analysis from Hurst that found no evidence of arson. Investigations into whether Texas executed an innocent man have stalled, though last month a judge involved in one of the terminated inquiries announced that he would have posthumously exonerated Willingham.

Gavitt, meanwhile, spent his first day of freedom visiting the grave of his wife and two daughters. According to the Innocence Clinic’s Dave Moran, more than a dozen of Gavitt’s family members met him there to welcome him back.

 

Because Everything Else in the IL Budget is Absolutely Vital

From Frontline:

In a scandal that’s unraveled over decades, a longtime Chicago police commander and some of his subordinates allegedly tortured more than 100 people, all of them black and some of them teenagers into confessing to murders and other crimes in the 1970s and 1980s.

Now, after pursuing only a fraction of the cases, the commission set up to investigate the abuse victims’ complaints is set to close later this month due to budget cuts.

The Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission was established in 2009 after reports emerged that Jon Burge, a Chicago police commander, and some of his subordinates had beaten, suffocated and in a few cases, submitted suspects to electrical shocks to force confessions.

David Thomas, the inquiry’s executive director, said Wednesday that he’d been given 48 hours notice of the loss of funding. The budget for the first year was $150,000, but it was set to rise to $235,000 this year. “I’ve heard it was a question of priorities and allocation of money,” he said.

The budget for the state will be about $24 billion next year.

When Red Flags Are Ignored

From the Washington Post:

A former Culpeper, Va., police officer charged with killing a Sunday school teacher was hired despite the objections of superiors who said his excessive drinking and attitude made him a poor choice, prosecution filings show. …

Harmon-Wright, a five-year veteran of the force, was hired in 2006. During a background check, Harmon-Wright told police officials that he had been disciplined for excessive drinking in the Marine Crops and had driven under the influence of alcohol three months before his interview, according to prosecution filings. It’s not clear why Harmon-Wright was hired despite the objections of two police officials.

Bethany Sullivan, Harmon-Wright’s mother and an administrative assistant to the former Culpeper police chief, has been charged with forging Harmon-Wright’s entrance exam for the Town of Culpeper and one of his annual reviews.

Harmon-Wright was disciplined in connection with a 2011 incident in which he chased a 15-year-old boy after a suspicious-person report, prosecution filings show. The officer started banging on the door of a home after receiving a tip that the boy lived there.

When a woman answered, Harmon-Wright demanded that she leave, prosecutors said in the filing. Harmon-Wright entered the house and brandished his gun in the face of the woman’s 18-year-old son, according to the filing.

It turned out that the boy he was chasing was not in the home and had not committed a crime, but was on his way to school, according to the filings.

Previous coverage here.

Police Union Used Felons to Gather Signatures in Ballot Drive

From the Washington Examiner:

Montgomery County’s police union used felons, including a fugitive and a man convicted of forgery, to collect signatures for a ballot measure that would kill legislation reducing police collective bargaining rights, court documents show.

The county cites the Fraternal Order of Police’s use of felons among reasons why at least 6,700 of the 34,828 signatures validated by the County Board of Elections are insufficient to put the measure, protecting police officers’ ability to negotiate any management decision, on the November ballot.

The felons were responsible for collecting signatures and certifying they were gathered legally.

“The notion that a felon who under Maryland law would be prohibited from voting in an election, and who at any time was at the risk of arrest by the very individuals on whose behalf he was circulating the petition, would be responsible for preventing fraud flies in the face of common sense and is truly laughable,” attorneys for the county wrote in documents filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court.

One felon, Keith Gregory Moore, of Grand Rapids, Mich., was convicted of forgery, fraud, aggravated assault and home invasion, the court filing shows. 

Another petition circulator, Jessie James Rowe, of Kalamazoo, Mich., was a fugitive felon at the time he was gathering signatures — and still is — the document says.

National Police Misconduct Daily NewsFeed Recap 06-07-12

Here are the 8 reports of police misconduct tracked for Thursday, June 7, 2012:

  • An Edmonds, Washington police officer was arrested on allegations of sexual misconduct involving a woman he detained after she jaywalked  http://bit.ly/LoQAJ3
  • Chicago, Illinois police officers are being accused of excessive force after using a stun gun on a pregnant woman.  Police arrested the woman and her boyfriend after an argument over a parking ticket.  http://bit.ly/L3ogt2  
  • A Melbourne, Florida police officer has been suspended without pay pending an ongoing criminal investigation.  The officer has been off the job since May 26 and already turned in his badge, weapon, and patrol car http://bit.ly/KirmIv
  • Old Forge, Pennsylvania Police Chief Larry Semenza is being investigated by the FBI.  The probe was sparked after an alleged victim reported a sexual relationship with Chief Semenza from 2004-2007 http://bit.ly/LhkA4J
  • Fullerton, California cop charged with the Kelly Thomas murder has been accused in another case of assault.  A disabled man claims he was thrown to the ground and stomped during his arrest last year by the officer http://bit.ly/KNt4UF
  • New York Supreme Court judge claims he was struck by a police officer during a chaotic scene in Queens.  The judge said the officer rushed forward and delivered a sharp blow to the his throat, which sent him reeling back and doubled over in pain http://nyti.ms/LpasWJ
  • Former Ocala, Florida police officer was sentenced to more than six years in federal prison and ordered to pay more than $874,000 in restitution for helping conspirators in a tax fraud scheme http://bit.ly/KPqjma
  • A Hingham, Massachusetts officer was arrested for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend.  The officer has been put on paid leave after he was arrested on four counts of domestic assault and battery http://bit.ly/NhYV1N

Creative Commons License
This work by Cato Institute is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.