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Worst of the Month — December

For December we’ve selected two former police officers from East Point, Georgia, who were found guilty of criminal charges last month in relation to the killing of Gregory Towns.

Here’s the background: Two police officers, Marcus Eberhart and Howard Weems, were responding to a domestic disturbance call.  When they arrived on the scene, Gregory Towns tried to flee on foot.  The police caught him and placed him in handcuffs.  When the officers ordered Towns to stand up and walk to the police car, he said he was exhausted and too tired to walk.  Frustrated, the police responded by tasing Towns so that he would comply with their commands.  Towns was tased several times and he died.

At their criminal trial, the officers told the jury, via their legal counsel, that Towns died from an illness unrelated to the tasing, but if they did not believe that, the jury should understand that the tasing was the only way to get Towns to the police car.

Worst of the Month — November

So for November, we’ve selected the Albuquerque Police Department, (APD) which is now under investigation, again, for misconduct.

Here’s the background.  After numerous complaints from community leaders, the Department of Justice (DOJ) launched an investigation of the APD.  In April 2014, the DOJ announced its finding that there was indeed a pattern of excessive force by the APD.  Police officials promised to change and improve.

Shortly thereafter, an APD officer shot and killed 19 yr old Mary Hawkes.  It looks like Hawkes stole a car and the police were trying to catch her.  The police said she was a threat and so deadly force was necessary.  Hawkes’ family sued the city for excessive force.  Prior to trial, lawyers asked to see any police body camera footage from the incident.

Now we come to the latest news reports of APD misconduct.  Reynaldo Chavez was an employee of the City of Albuquerque and his job was handling records requests.  Chavez says he was aware that the police department had a peculiar policy regarding police body camera footage.  When the footage helped the police, it was released to the public.  When the footage hurt the police, such as showing excessive force, the footage was altered or destroyed.  In other words, the APD tampered with evidence, which is a crime.

Chavez reportedly turned over incriminating body camera footage to the lawyers representing the Hawkes family.  Chavez then lost his job and he is now fighting to get his job back because he says he was punished for doing what he was legally supposed to do.

The APD has denied any wrongdoing, but the state attorney general has seen enough to launch another investigation into APD practices.

Worst of the Month — October

For October, we’ve selected the City of Minneapolis for its handling of an excessive force complaint against Officer Blayne Lehner.

Here’s the background: Lehner and his partner respond to domestic disturbance call at an apartment building where they find two women arguing with one another.   According to the news reports, the encounter was captured on video.  The owner of the apartment building was so disturbed by what he saw–Lehner pushing one of the women without cause–that he filed a complaint with the department.

Later, Police Chief Janee Harteau agrees that Lehner’s conduct was unacceptable.  The Chief terminates Lehner’s employment with the police department.

Only now a labor arbitrator has overturned that employment decision and has ordered the city to reinstate Lehner along with compensation for the time he has been off the force.

News reports also show that Lehner has been the subject of previous complaints and lawsuits:

City records show that since 2000, more than 30 complaint investigations have been opened against Lehner. The vast majority of investigations were closed with no discipline. One case from 2014 with the Office of Police Conduct Review is still open. Records show Lehner was suspended twice in 2013. However, the reasons for the discipline were not listed. Lehner was also issued two letters of reprimand in 2012.

In 2015, Lehner was sued by a man who claimed the officer kicked him in the face, breaking a few of his teeth and causing him to briefly lose consciousness. In a rare move, the city decided not to defend Lehner. However, the city later settled the case for $360,000.

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.

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.

Worst of the Month — April

James King was minding his own business when he was confronted by two menacing men.   King didn’t know these men and he wanted to get away from them, but they chased him and beat him up.

Turns out the men were police officers working on a fugitive task force.  They thought King was one of their fugitives, but they were mistaken about that.  They were out of uniform when they confronted King and, according to King’s lawsuit, they did not identify themselves as police officers.  Worried about his own safety, King ran away from them.

One of the officers put King in a chokehold till he lost consciousness.  When King came to, he again feared for his own safety and bit the arm of one of the officers in a gambit to get away from them.  The bite infuriated the officer, who then unleashed a torrent of punches on King’s face and head.

Bystanders were alarmed by what they were witnessing and they called 911.  The responding officer, for his part, told the witnesses to delete the cell phone videos of the incident.  He was worried about the safety of the officers, who had undercover jobs.  They shouldn’t be recorded.

When things settled down, and the police realized their mistake, they decided to arrest King anyway.  He fought back during his arrest–that’s a crime.

Prosecutors evidently agreed that King needed to be punished–so they charged him with three felonies.

King declined to plea bargain and insisted on a jury trial.  The jury acquitted him of all charges.

A civil lawsuit is now pending.   There’s no indication of any discipline for the officers involved.  They’re apparently still out there policing.

Chicago’s Police Accountability Task Force

Last December Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel formed a task force to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the Chicago Police Department.  That move followed calls for Emanuel’s resignation in the wake of the video release of the Laquan McDonald shooting.

The Task Force released its report yesterday.  Here is an excerpt:

The public has lost faith in the oversight system. Every stage of investigations and discipline is plagued by serious structural and procedural flaws that make real accountability nearly impossible. The collective bargaining agreements provide an unfair advantage to officers, and the investigating agencies—IPRA and CPD’s Bureau of Internal Affairs—are under-resourced, lack true independence and are not heldaccountable for their work. Even where misconduct is found to have occurred, officers are frequently able to avoid meaningful consequences due to an opaque, drawn out and unscrutinized disciplinary process… Any one of these metrics in isolation is troubling, but taken together, the only conclusion that can be reached is that there is no serious embrace by CPD leadership of the need to make accountability a core value. These statistics give real credibility to the widespread perception that there is a deeply entrenched code of silence supported not just by individual officers, but by the very institution itself….Simply put, there is no ownership of the issue within CPD leadership or elsewhere, and thus there have been no substantive efforts to address these problems which continue to cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars each year.

The full report is close to 200 pages and we have not yet studied the whole thing.  Most of the criticism is directed at the police department itself–and it is damning.  The executive summary says little about Mayor Emanuel or his culpability.  Hmm.

Washington Post Tallies Fatal Shootings Where Officers Are Not Identified

From the Washington Post:

Nationwide, 210 people were fatally shot last year by police officers who have not been publicly identified by their departments.

In 2015, police in the United States shot and killed 990 people, according to a Washington Post database of fatal police shootings. The vast majority of those killed by police were armed with guns or had attacked or threatened officers or civilians. The Post is continuing to track fatal shootings in 2016, recording more than 250 through March. The Post is also filing open-records requests seeking additional information about each shooting, including information about the officers involved, data that is not tracked by any federal agency.

For 2015, reporters obtained the names of officers responsible for 780 of the 990 shootings. In about 600 shootings, officers’ names were disclosed by police departments in news reports. In a handful of cases, names came to light through lawsuits or leaks to the news media. Where the names remained unknown, The Post contacted the departments and requested the officers’ identities.

In 145 fatal shootings, the departments declined to release the names to The Post, citing pending investigations, state or federal records laws, agreements with police unions or department policies. In another 65 fatal shootings, the departments did not respond to multiple requests for information.

Former Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Ramsey is interviewed and he notes that a double standard is often employed.  When the shooting death is deemed heroic, the officer is identified.  When the shooting is questionable, the officer is not identified.  Read the whole thing.

For additional background on transparency and policing, go here.

Police Code of Silence

From ABC News:

For more than a year after an officer shot and killed a black teen named Laquan McDonald, the Chicago Police Department had video footage that raised serious doubts about whether other officers at the scene tried in their reports to cover up what prosecutors now contend was murder.

Not until 15 months later was one of those officers and a detective who concluded the shooting was justified put on desk duty. At least eight other officers failed to recount the same scene that unfolded on the video. All of them remain on the street, according to the department.

The lack of swift action illustrates the difficulty of confronting the “code of silence” that has long been associated with police in Chicago and elsewhere. The obstacles include disciplinary practices that prevent the police chief himself from firing problem officers and a labor contract that prevents officers from being held accountable if a video surfaces that contradicts their testimony.

“If they are not going to analyze officers’ reports and compare them to objective evidence like the video, why would the officers ever stop lying?” asked Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor.

 

Worst of the Month — January 2016

So for January, it was the case from Suffolk County, New York, involving now former police officer, Scott Greene.  He was convicted of repeated instances of theft.

According to the evidence introduced at his criminal trial, Greene would target Hispanic drivers, pull them over, order them to surrender their wallets, or invent a reason to search their vehicles and then steal cash located inside.  By stealing from persons he thought were illegal immigrants, Greene thought his victims would not come forward to file any complaint.  And he would enrich himself by using his police powers.  Prosecutor Tom Spota called Greene a “thief with a badge” and says he will be seeking the maximum possible prison sentence–about four years.

Alas, there are problems in the Suffolk department even beyond Greene.  The recently departed chief, James Burke, has been indicted for abusing a suspect and then coercing his subordinate officers to cover up his crime.  Local community activists say the department is so corrupt that they want a federal takeover.  Stay tuned about that.