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Tulsa Officer Charged with Manslaughter for Killing Terence Crutcher

Late Thursday afternoon, the Tulsa County, Oklahoma district attorney announced that he filed a charge of first-degree manslaughter against Officer Betty Shelby for fatally shooting Terence Crutcher.

The shooting has garnered national attention as it was captured on both dashcam and police helicopter film. Despite the video evidence, the case is hardly open-and-shut win for the prosecution here. The law is generally on the side of the police officers, as I explained earlier this week at Timeline:

Despite repeated public outcry in highly publicized cases like this one, data shows that police officers are in fact very rarely charged or successfully prosecuted for on-duty shootings or other uses of force. According to aWashington Post investigation, between 2005 and 2015, just 54 officers were prosecuted for shootings. Assuming that the almost 1,000 police shooting deaths recorded in 2015 wasn’t a statistical outlier, that’s 54 cases out of nearly 10,000 fatal shootings.

[…]

Put simply, a fearful police officer is a very dangerous one. If he can articulate a plausible narrative that he believed he or his life was in danger — often involving the suspect making a “sudden” or “furtive movement,” or “reaching for his waistband” as if for a gun — any lack of actual danger or dangerous weapon is not relevant to the officer’s legal culpability.

The prosecutor apparently feels confident that he can win or, perhaps, that the political consequences of a tried and failed prosecution outweigh not bringing charges at all. As the nation saw in the trials of the officers who killed Freddie Gray in Baltimore, simply bringing charges is no guarantee of a conviction.

We’ll keep an eye on this case, as well as the developing stories in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina.

You can read the whole Timeline piece here.

 

Worst of the Month — August

So for August we have selected the Baltimore Police Department (BPD).  Although the misconduct has been festering for many years, our selection is based upon the investigative findings of the Department of Justice, which were published in a report last month.

Here are a few of those findings:

  • The BPD engages in a pattern or practice of making unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests;
  • The BPD engages in a pattern or practice of using excessive force;
  • The BPD engages in a pattern or practice of retaliating against people engaging in constitutionally-protected speech;
  • The BPD has allowed violations of policy to go unaddressed even when they are widespread or involve serious misconduct;
  • The BPD has failed to take action against offenders known to engage in repeated misconduct.

Because the problems run deep, it would be a mistake to focus all of our attention on the police department itself.  The political establishment of Baltimore knew there were problems, but failed to address them.  It remains to be seen whether the reform rhetoric we have been hearing will be followed by real action.

Investigatory Stops and the Baltimore Police Department

Today, the U.S. Department of Justice released its report on the Baltimore Police Department. As expected, they found “patterns and practices” that lead to unconstitutional policing in the City and that these adversely and disproportionately affect black Baltimoreans.

The report describes a litany of offenses and violations of basic decency perpetrated by the Baltimore Police. Each of those stories is important, but for now, I want to focus on the primary source of the violations described: unconstitutional and other investigatory stops.

The DOJ found that between January 2010 and May 2015, the Baltimore Police made at least 300,000 pedestrian stops—a number the DOJ says is almost certainly too low because of police underreporting. Forty-four percent of these stops were made in two majority black districts of Baltimore that comprise only 11 percent of the City’s population. They found hundreds of people who were stopped more than ten times during that period, 95 percent of whom were black.

One man in his 50s was stopped over 30 times in four years and was never ticketed or arrested. That probably shouldn’t be surprising, as less than four percent of these stops ended in citations or arrest. And, recalling the recent dissents in the Supreme Court decision in Utah v. Strieff, it’s likely that many of those arrests were for outstanding warrants for unpaid parking tickets and other minor violations that had no connection to a potentially illegal activity that allegedly justified the stops in the first place.

Moreover, the DOJ found at least 11,000 arrests by BPD were not prosecuted for lack of probable cause or other merit. Thousands more were detained for investigations and searches that went nowhere, with many people publicly strip-searched. One, even, was strip searched after being stopped for a broken taillight. Such unjustifiable actions serve no purpose other than public humiliation.

Black Baltimoreans were more likely to be charged with the most discretionary offenses—“failure to obey,” “trespassing,” “disorderly conduct,” and “loitering,”—and often without required notice that they were in violation of the law. Indeed, the DOJ wrote that “[r]acially disparate impact is present at every stage of BPD’s enforcement actions[.]” This is something black Baltimoreans know and rightfully resent. As I’ve written before, this denial of basic rights makes Baltimoreans less secure and less safe:

If civil rights protections are widely denied, particularly to one group of people, because they are routinely ignored and capriciously violated by police officers, those rights lose all tangible meaning to that population. Mistreatment by authorities—whether official policies like Stop and Frisk, or tolerance of police brutality, corruption, or homicide—corrodes the integrity of a community. The government loses credibility by effectively nullifying its own authority by arbitrary enforcement of laws (government powers) and the protections for citizens (civil rights).

Cooperation with law enforcement must suffer as the trust required between a police department and its citizens is eroded by the rightly perceived unbalanced enforcement. Criminals become emboldened through weakened law enforcement capabilities, and the citizens become less safe. The community divests itself from the relationship with the police and societal norms become threatened.

Aggressive and unconstitutional policing is a threat to community safety. The policies that support and encourage these practices are counterproductive to public safety and actually make policing harder. They ensnare far more innocent people than guilty ones and make police-community cooperation all but impossible. Police departments should discontinue these practices on their own, for their own interest, and not wait for the DOJ to tell them what is patently obvious to the people suffering under the policies in their communities.

For a longer explanation of pretextual stops and police legitimacy, you can read my article in the in the Case Western Reserve Law Review here. A shorter piece on the importance of individual rights and policing is here.  The full DOJ report on Baltimore can be found here.

 

This was cross-posted from Cato@Liberty

Worst of the Month — July

So for July we’ve chosen the case from Berrien County, Tennessee where the former sheriff pled guilty to beating up prisoners in-custody.  These prisoners were in handcuffs and were not resisting or threatening anyone.  Here’s an excerpt from the local news:

According to Heath’s guilty plea, on Jan. 12, 2012, Heath and deputies from the Berrien County Sheriff’s Office were engaged in a foot chase of an individual identified only as M.V., who had been banned from traveling through the county. During the chase, Heath saw M.V. and called out to him, “You better not run or I will beat your a**,” or words to that effect, according to the justice department. M.V. reportedly responded by running into a nearby wooded area.

Heath and deputies followed M.V. into the woods, where a deputy eventually saw M.V. and arrested him without incident. When a deputy reported that M.V. was in custody, Heath reportedly ordered deputies to wait and hold M.V. in the woods. When Heath arrived, M.V. was lying face down on the ground, with his hands handcuffed behind his back and was not resisting arrest, according to the press release.

Heath kicked M.V. in the ribs, punched him in the head with a closed fist multiple times and forcefully kneed him in the ribs multiple times, causing M.V. to experience pain and have difficulty breathing, according to the justice department.

Read the whole thing.  The former sheriff, Anthony Heath, is facing two counts of violating civil rights under the color of law.  Each count carries a maximum sentence of ten years, but the actual sentence is expected to be far less.

We are of course aware of several officer-involved shootings last month that received national and international attention.  Alton Sterling was killed in Baton Rouge; Philando Castile was killed in Minnesota;  Paul O’Neal was killed in Chicago; and Charles Kinsey was shot and wounded in North Miami.  The investigations into these incidents are underway and we will, as usual, be posting updates.

Is There a War on Police?

Heather MacDonald, who is based at the Manhattan Institute, has a new book out titled, The War on Cops.  Is there a war?  John Stossel notes that the “war on cops” narrative is overblown: “‘War’ means killing.  The attack on officers in Dallas was despicable, but, even including those five deaths, it is still safer to be a cop today than in years past.  According to FBI records, 2015 was one of the safest years ever recorded.”

MacDonald seems to recognize that.  Her primary aim is to push back against the critics of the criminal justice system.  She says we need more proactive policing and stricter incarceration practices to protect our cities from what she calls “mass destruction.”  I have a review of the book over at Reason and outline several problems with MacDonald’s thesis.

Here’s an excerpt:

In 2013, a federal district court ruled that the NYPD’s [stop & frisk] tactics were unconstitutional. The court noted that cops were evaluated by their “productivity”—that is, finding contraband and making arrests. Officers were not disciplined for stops that turned up nothing, and innocent persons had no practical legal recourse for brief detentions and patdowns of their clothing. Thus, the police had job pressures to stop a lot of people, suspicious or not, to see what might turn up. That helps to explain why, of the 4.4 million police stops between January 2004 and June 2012, there was no further action taken, such as an arrest or summons, in a whopping 88 percent. Mac Donald does not address these points.

That 88 percent might actually be an underestimate, because the police do not necessarily file the proper paperwork where a questionable stop turns up nothing. Recall that when NYPD officers roughed up former tennis pro James Blake last year in a case of mistaken identity, they did not report the encounter. As far as police records showed, it never happened. Fortuitously, the incident was captured by a hotel security camera and Blake’s wife urged him not to drop the matter, arguing that it would highlight a type of abuse that black men had been complaining about.

Read the whole thing.  Related items here, here, and here.

Worst of the Month — May 2016

So for May we have selected the case of Shane Mauger.  Over a period of about 10 years, this former police officer told lies to obtain search warrants, falsified official police reports, and stole cash and property for his own personal use.

Now, because of his corruption, officials cannot tell how many of his previous cases were based on valid police work and how many were based upon dishonest work.  Many cases are being reviewed and thrown out.

In a Turnaround, Chicago Releases Videos, Audio Recordings, and Internal Reports

From the Chicago Tribune:

The Emanuel administration posted evidence online Friday morning from nearly 90 pending investigations of police shootings and other incidents, marking a watershed moment for a city that fought for decades to keep videos in excessive force cases hidden from the public….

As many as half of the cases still under investigation by the city’s police oversight agency include dashcam videos, surveillance footage and audio, including a handful deemed “sensitive” because they depict citizens being beaten or shot, city officials said.

The move marks the official rollout of a new policy to release video of shootings by police within 60 days of most incidents — an unprecedented shift toward transparency that even longtime critics of the secrecy of the Police Department have praised as an important step.

Beating Caught on Tape

Several police officers from different departments are now under investigation after a news helicopter filmed them beating a man after a high speed chase that started in Massachusetts and ended in Nashua, New Hampshire.  The video appears to show the driver following police commands to get down on the pavement so he can be handcuffed and taken into custody, but then the beating begins.  More here.

More Police Transparency, Not Less

Yesterday, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a piece I wrote about pending legislation in Pennsylvania to anonymize officers under investigation for use of force. The proposed legislation is supposed to increase officer safety. A snippet:

Of course, officer safety is important. But there is scant evidence that specific police officers or their families – in Pennsylvania or elsewhere – have been targeted and harmed by criminals because they were named in use-of-force incidents. (While police officers have been the tragic victims of ambushes, including in Philadelphia, the indications are that officers are, as New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton said in 2014, “targeted for their uniform,” not their actions.)

At best, these bills provide a remedy for something that has not been proven to be a problem. At worst, they protect officers with documented histories of violence and, ironically, give the majority of officers a bad rap.

Internal and criminal investigations are by their nature kept from the public eye, and for good reason. But the community should know if its public servants are under investigation for inappropriate violence and who they are. If one officer out of a thousand does something bad, but no one can say who he is, all officers fall under suspicion because the so-called bad apple is indistinguishable from everyone else.

As we saw in the John Geer shooting in Virginia, when police withhold information from the public about inappropriate uses of force, silence can seem like a cover-up. States and police agencies should look for ways to increase transparency after questionable uses of force, not put up new barriers to information.

Read the whole thing here.

Guilty Plea in John Geer Case

Jury selection was scheduled to start today in the trial of former Fairfax County, Virginia officer Adam Torres for the 2013 shooting death of John Geer. Torres instead pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter.

As regular readers of policemisconduct.net may recall, Geer was killed while standing inside the front door of his home with his hands up. The Fairfax County police had been called to the home because of a domestic disturbance.

The Washington Post’s  Tom Jackman has been diligently covering this case since the shooting. Fairfax authorities were reluctant to release the name or status of Torres, waiting over a year to do so and eventually fire and charge him in the case. The delays and secrecy surrounding the incident led to a Post editorial headline that declared the case “looks unmistakably like a police coverup.”

Today’s plea agreement included a recommended sentence of 12 months—Torres is currently held in jail without bond—but Judge Robert J. Smith rejected that sentence and ordered a sentencing recommendation memo and a hearing for June 24.

We will continue to follow this case as it moves to the sentencing stage.

Read Jackman’s full write-up of today’s plea and the case history here.