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“A Culture Where Avoidable Force Becomes Inevitable”: Justice Department; Cleveland Police Use ‘Unnecessary’ Force

Cleveland police have routinely engaged in “unreasonable and unnecessary” force, including a half-hour police chase involving 100 officers that left two unarmed African-Americans dead when police mistook the car backfiring for gunshots and shot each of them more than 20 times, a Justice Department investigation revealed Thursday.

The probe, part of an ongoing series of “pattern or practice” investigations into the nation’s police departments, also found that Cleveland police often needlessly shot residents, struck them with head blows and subjected them to Taser weapons and chemical spray.

Taken together, the incidents in Ohio’s second-largest city, the Justice Department concluded, have led to a situation where “avoidable force becomes inevitable.”

Attorney General Eric Holder, in announcing the Cleveland findings a day after he opened a separate investigation into the chokehold death of an unarmed black man in New York, recommitted his office to the Obama administration’s Building Community Trust initiative.

The effort is designed to “foster strong, collaborative relationships between local police and communities they protect and serve,” the attorney general said.

In Cleveland, Holder said, the issues of police and community relationships are “complex and the problems longstanding.” But, he said, “we have seen in city after city where we have engaged that meaningful change is possible.”

Faced with the federal probe’s findings, Cleveland police and city officials have signed a statement of principles committing them to mending police-community relations. Holder said the plan will lead to a consent decree that would be “court-enforceable,” with an independent monitor to oversee improvements and ensure that reforms are made.

Similar agreements have been reached after Justice Department investigations into police departments in other communities in states including California, Arizona, New Mexico and Louisiana.

The Cleveland probe was opened after a local newspaper, the Plain Dealer, revealed in May 2011 that six officers accused of brutality had used force on 29 suspects during a two-year period.


By: Richard A. Serrano, The Los Angeles Times; The National Memo, December 4, 2014

December 5, 2014 Posted by | African Americans, Cleveland OH, Police Officers | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“No Voice Of Reason”: ‘I Can’t Breathe!’ ‘I Can’t Breathe!’ A Moral Indictment Of Cop Culture

The grand jury has spoken, but that does not change what Eric Garner cried out in the cellphone video taken as police pinned him to a Staten Island sidewalk.

“I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” Garner said again and again that August day.

And even though the grand jury has now chosen not to bring criminal charges in Garner’s death, the video footage that follows those cries constitutes a moral indictment not so much of what the police did but of what the police did not do.

“At that point, forget the cop side,” a longtime veteran police officer not party to the incident says of the moment Garner cries out. “The human side comes in.”

Yet the cops do not seem even to hear Garner.

“I don’t see anyone in that video saying, ‘Look, we got to ease up,’” says the veteran officer. “Where’s the human side of you in that you’ve got a guy saying, ‘I can’t breathe?’”

The veteran officer goes on, “Somebody needs to say, ‘Stop it!’ That’s what’s missing here was a voice of reason. The only voice we’re hearing is of Eric Garner.”

The veteran officer believes Garner might have survived had anybody heeded his pleas.

“He could have had a chance,” says the officer, who is black. “But you got to believe he’s a human being first. A human being saying, ‘I can’t breathe.’”

What may have saved Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo from indictment is that a close examination of the video shows he had had released his chokehold on Garner just before the 43-year-old father of six began crying out that he could not breathe. Pantaleo by then was shifting around to press the prone man’s head into the pavement.

None of the cops in the video are beating Garner. And in two hours of questioning by the grand jurors on Nov. 22, Pantaleo apparently convinced them that he had not intended to injure Garner, only to place him under arrest. Pantaleo was held blameless even though the medical examiner had ruled the death a homicide resulting from “compression of the neck [chokehold], compression of chest, and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.”

But the absence of criminal charges does not make the indifference to Garner’s distress any more forgivable. There were still those cries, cries that rose again Wednesday afternoon from the same grimy patch of pavement where Garner died, voiced by two dozen members of the community who stood shocked and angered by the news that no cop would be charged.

“I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!”

They added a chant that rose in Ferguson, where another grand jury had declined to indict Police Officer Darren Wilson in the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

“Hands up! Don’t shoot!”

A 25-year-old man named Alexander Cooper strode up the sidewalk holding his 3-year-old daughter, Alexis, by the hand. He told her what he also would have said had they been walking in Ferguson, no matter what the differences between the two cases.

“I just told her that a black man was killed and there were no charges,” he said.

He added, “As I father, I want to live and watch my children grow.”

Cooper spoke of how pained he was that Garner will never get that chance with his own kids. Little Alexis pulled on his hand.

“I have my daddy right here!” she announced.

Cooper had little Alexis pose for a picture on the exact spot there Garner was pinned. Alexis did not know to act differently than she might for any other picture taken of her by her daddy. Her bright little smile in this place of senseless death constituted a challenge to all of us to make the future more in keeping with this sparkle of life at its most pure and innocent.

“I’m going to show it to her in the future,” Cooper said of the picture. “I’m going to show her she was here.”

We can only hope that she will marvel at how much the city and country have changed.

Earlier in the day, before the decision became known, Jonathan Mejia and Natassia McClean had come up to this spot pushing a stroller that bore an even younger challenge of the future, their 6-month-old son, Jerimiah. Mejia looked at a rain-sodden sign reading “BIG ERIC R.I.P.” and flowers left after Garner’s death that had wilted during the four long months of the grand jury’s investigation.

“I knew somebody else killed by the police,” 21-year-old Mejia said.

The couple had recently moved to Staten Island from the Bronx, where Mejia had been buddies with 18-year-old Ramarley Graham. Police had burst into Graham’s home in 2012 after seeing him in the street adjusting something in his waistband that might have been a gun. He was in the bathroom, perhaps trying to flush some pot down the toilet, when a cop burst in.

The cop shot and killed Graham, later saying the teen had reached for his waistband. No gun was found, and in this instance the cop was indicted. A judge then tossed the indictment out, saying the prosecutor had made an error in presenting the evidence. A second grand jury declined to indict the cop.

Mejia now stood where Garner died and spoke Graham’s name aloud.

“That was my friend,” he said.

This second tragedy reconfirmed in Mejia’s mind what the earlier killing had led him to conclude about the police and people of color.

“They don’t look at us like regular human beings,” he said.

The baby was dozing as Mejia and McClean pushed him on down the street, the parents not seeming to take any great comfort in the police having transformed New York into the safest big city in America in recent years.

In truth, the police routinely place themselves in great danger while continuing to bring crime in New York to record lows. And many of them live by words that Pantaleo at least professed in a statement released Wednesday through the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association.

“I became a police officer to help people and to protect those who can’t protect themselves,” Pantaleo said.

He went on to say, “It is never my intention to harm anyone and I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner. My family and I include him and his family in our prayers and I hope that they will accept my personal condolences for their loss.”

Nice sentiments from a guy who seemed deaf to Garner’s pleas that he was unable to breathe.

“The time for remorse was when my husband was yelling to breathe!” Garner’s widow, Esaw Garner, told a press conference Wednesday.

Pantaleo comes from Eltingville, the overwhelmingly white section of Staten Island that was home to Police Officer Justin Volpe, who is presently in prison for sodomizing Abner Louima with a wooden stick in a stationhouse bathroom. Eltingville is not known for being progressive on matters of race, but Volpe’s family is said not to have been racist, and he had a black fiancée. Pantaleo is also not necessarily a manifest racist.

“I think it’s just cop culture,” a longtime Eltingville resident said Wednesday.

That unfairly characterizes the many decent cops, but there is indeed one element of cop culture that tends to dehumanize or at least objectify suspected lawbreakers of whatever race. The instant you are deemed a candidate for arrest, you become not so much a person as a “perp.”

“You’re dehumanizing the person,” the veteran black police officer says.

In the view of some cops, perps merit little concern or sympathy. This is particularly true when such cops are focused on effecting an arrest. The result can be the indifference that appears so chilling in the Garner video.

“You’re not even hearing [the perp] at this point; you’re dealing with this non-human,” the veteran police officer says.

The veteran officer notes that even in the most extreme mixed martial arts bouts, a fighter can “tap out,” signaling he has had enough.

“Eric Garner didn’t have a chance to tap out,” the veteran officer says.

The whole incident becomes all the more shocking when you consider that Garner was being arrested for selling “loosies,” individual and usually untaxed cigarettes. The police had arrested him repeatedly in the spring and into the summer in response to orders originally with Chief of Department Phil Banks, third in command of the NYPD. Banks’s office had reportedly been receiving complaints from local storeowners about people selling loosies in the street. One caller had mentioned “a man named Eric.”

“They feel like they’re driven to produce, and producing means arrests,” the veteran officer says of fellow cops in such instances.

For reasons entirely unrelated to Garner’s death, Banks retired in October. He happens to be black, and his departure was seen as a blow to the NYPD’s efforts to establish better relations with communities of color.

With the grand jury’s failure to indict Garner and the recent accidental shooting of an unarmed young man by a jittery rookie cop in a darkened housing protect stairwell in Brooklyn, those relations have become decidedly tense, despite the city’s proudly progressive new mayor, Bill de Blasio.

Garner’s family and their supporters are hoping the U.S. Justice Department will indict Pantaleo on civil-rights charges, as it did Police Officer Francis Livotti, who employed a chokehold on 29-year-old Anthony Baez some 20 years ago in the Bronx, with fatal results. The Livotti case led to the NYPD’s prohibition against the use of chokeholds, which it defines as bringing pressure to bear on the airways.

On Wednesday evening, some residents of Staten Island boarded the ferry to join protesters who were gathering in Times Square, not far from Rockefeller Center, where the big event of the night was scheduled to be the annual Christmas tree lighting.

As a precaution against a possible disturbance, the ferry was escorted by a police boat, its blue lights flashing. The boat was named in memory of Det. Dillon Stewart, a black police officer who was shot to death in the line of duty in Brooklyn in 2005, leaving two young daughters. The whole city mourned Stewart’s loss and honored him as a hero in the ongoing effort to make New York safe.

There was no trouble on the ferry as it reached Manhattan and a few of the passengers boarded the subway to the protest uptown. The cry that rose up into the night signaled a moral indictment no matter what the grand jury had said.

“I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!”


By: Michael Daly, The Daily Beast, December 3, 2014

December 5, 2014 Posted by | Black Men, Criminal Justice System, Police Officers | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“A Tragic And Unacceptable Pattern”: What America’s Police Departments Don’t Want You To Know

Michael Brown’s death was part of a tragic and unacceptable pattern: Police officers in the United States shoot and kill civilians in shockingly high numbers. How many killings are there each year? No one can say for sure, because police departments don’t want us to know.

According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, in 2013 there were 461 “justifiable homicides” by police — defined as “the killing of a felon by a law enforcement officer in the line of duty.” In all but three of these reported killings, officers used firearms.

The true number of fatal police shootings is surely much higher, however, because many law enforcement agencies do not report to the FBI database. Attempts by journalists to compile more complete data by collating local news reports have resulted in estimates as high as 1,000 police killings a year. There is no way to know how many victims, like Brown, were unarmed.

By contrast, there were no fatal police shootings in Great Britain last year. Not one. In Germany, there have been eight police killings over the past two years. In Canada — a country with its own frontier ethos and no great aversion to firearms — police shootings average about a dozen a year.

Liberals and conservatives alike should be outraged at the frequency with which police in this country use deadly force. There is no greater power that we entrust to the state than the license to take life. To put it mildly, misuse of this power is at odds with any notion of limited government.

I realize that the great majority of police officers never fire their weapons in the line of duty. Most cops perform capably and honorably in a stressful, dangerous job; 27 were killed in 2013, according to the FBI. Easy availability of guns means that U.S. police officers — unlike their counterparts in Britain, Japan or other countries where there is appropriate gun control — must keep in mind the possibility that almost any suspect might be packing heat.

But any way you look at it, something is wrong. Perhaps the training given officers is inadequate. Perhaps the procedures they follow are wrong. Perhaps an “us vs. them” mentality estranges some police departments from the communities they are sworn to protect.

Whatever the reason, it is hard to escape the conclusion that police in this country are much too quick to shoot. We’ve seen the heartbreaking results most recently in the fatal shooting of 28-year-old Akai Gurley, an unarmed man who was suspected of no crime, in the stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project, and the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was waving a toy gun around a park in Cleveland.

Which brings me to the issue of race. USA Today analyzed the FBI’s “justifiable homicide” statistics over several years and found that, of roughly 400 reported police killings annually, an average of 96 involved a white police officer killing a black person.

Two years ago, D. Brian Burghart, the editor and publisher of the Reno (Nev.) News & Review, launched, an ambitious attempt to compile a comprehensive crowd-sourced database of fatal police shootings. Reports of the October 2012 killing of a naked, unarmed college student by University of South Alabama police made Burghart wonder how many such shootings there were; the fact that no one knew the answer made him determined to find it.

Burghart recently summed up what he has learned so far: “You know who dies in the most population-dense areas? Black men,” he wrote on Gawker. “You know who dies in the least population-dense areas? Mentally ill men. It’s not to say there aren’t dangerous and desperate criminals killed across the line. But African-Americans and the mentally ill people make up a huge percentage of people killed by police.”

Burghart and others who have attempted to count and analyze police shootings shouldn’t have to do the FBI’s job. All law enforcement agencies should be required to report all uses of deadly force to the bureau, using a standardized format that allows comparisons and analysis. Police departments that have nothing to hide should be eager to cooperate.

The Obama administration has been laudably aggressive in pressing cities with egregiously high rates of police shootings, such as Albuquerque, to reform. But no one can really get a handle on the problem until we know its true scope.

The Michael Brown case presents issues that go beyond race. An unarmed teenager was shot to death. Whatever his color, that’s just not right.


By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, December 1, 2014

December 4, 2014 Posted by | Ferguson Missouri, Justifiable Homicide, Police Officers | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Ideology Of Policing”: After Ferguson, Can We Change How American Police React To Potential Threats?

The story of Michael Brown and Ferguson, Mo., is not over, even if the city is calmer today than it was just after the decision not to try officer Darren Wilson was announced. As we look for lessons about race, power and justice, we also have to ask some fundamental questions about the ideology of policing in the United States.

One of the defenses people have offered of Wilson’s decision-making on that day is that if a police officer fears for his safety, he is allowed to use deadly force. And that is indeed a standard, in one form or another, used by police departments around the country. But that standard is near the heart of the problem that Brown’s death has highlighted.

American police kill many, many more citizens than officers in similar countries around the world. The number of people killed by police in many countries in a year is in the single digits. For instance, in Britain (where most officers don’t even carry guns), police fatally shot zero people in 2013 and one person in 2012. Germany has one-quarter the population of the United States, and police there killed only six people in all of 2011. Although official figures put the number killed by American police each year around 400, the true number may be closer to 1,000.

The most common explanation is that since we have so many guns in America, police are under greater threat than other police. Which is true, but American police also kill unarmed people all the time — people who have a knife or a stick, or who are just acting erratically. There are mentally disturbed people in other countries, too, so why is it that police in Germany or France or Britain or Japan manage to deal with these threats without killing the suspect?

This is where we get to the particular American police ideology, which says that any threat to an officer’s safety, even an unlikely one, can and often should be met with deadly force. We see it again and again: Someone is brandishing a knife; the cops arrive; he takes a step toward them, and they fire. Since Brown’s death, at least 14 teenagers have been shot and killed by police; the weapons they were wielding included knives, cars and a power drill, all of which can be obtained by European citizens, at least as far as I know.

If you’ve read parts of Wilson’s account of his confrontation with Brown, you know that the justification so commonly made in cases like this — I was afraid for my safety, and therefore I killed him — is the basis of his defense. You don’t have to be convinced that Wilson should be tried for murder to find his version of events absurd at every level, starting with the assertion that he politely inquired if Brown and his friend might consider walking on the sidewalk, only to be met with a stream of invective and an unprovoked assault from this “demon” with superhuman strength.

Maybe that really is what happened. But it seems much more likely that, as the account of Brown’s friend goes, Wilson began the encounter by shouting at them to “Get the [expletive] on the sidewalk” — in other words, seeking to establish his authority and dominance. This, too is part of police ideology: that one way to keep safe is to make clear to those you interact with that you are the one in control and that they should fear you.

Two months ago I interviewed an expert in police training procedures around the world, and she pointed out that in many other countries, particularly in Europe, future police officers go through much more extensive training than American police do, a large part of which is learning how to calm down agitated people and defuse potentially dangerous situations. American cops, she said, average only 15 weeks of training before getting their badges. Even after they’re on the job, they continue to be inculcated with the idea that in a situation with a potentially dangerous individual, they need to be ready to kill to protect themselves.

Much of the focus of discussions about Ferguson has been, quite properly, on race. And race matters to this question as well; we know that cops are more likely to see black people as potential dangers to their safety. But the question is whether, even beyond the differences in how different groups are treated, we can change the way so many American police approach confrontations, both actual and potential.

Of course, this is easy for me to say. Nobody’s going to wave a knife at me while I sit in front of my computer every day. Being a cop is hard and dangerous work, particularly in places where crime is common. Most officers are never going to fire their guns in the line of duty. Even in Ferguson itself, there are officers trying to approach people as people and not as potential threats. But the fact that police all over the world manage to do the same job while killing barely anyone, while American cops kill hundreds of people every year, means that something is wrong with American policing.


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect; The Plum Line, The Washington Post, November 28, 2014

December 1, 2014 Posted by | Ferguson Missouri, Gun Violence, Police Officers | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“A Badge Does Not Confer Credibility”: Bias Can Strain An Already Difficult Standard In Prosecuting Police

Average people find it difficult to place themselves in the shoes of police officers who live everyday knowing their next call could be their last. So when faced with a shooting by a police officer in questionable circumstances, they give deference to the officer’s decisions.

Jurors usually find that such officers reasonably believed the slain person posed a threat of serious bodily harm or death, justifying deadly force under legal standards.

Prosecutors are keenly aware of this tendency and know they will have difficulty prosecuting such cases. It would be hard, however, to create an alternative legal standard that could better ensure both an officer’s right to safety and the individual’s right to be free from excessive force.

Many minority citizens fear that jurors’ racial biases expand the notion of when it is reasonable for an officer to use deadly force. Indeed, one of the first questions many commentators asked when the decision was announced in the Michael Brown shooting was whether the grand jurors who declined to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who shot him to death, were split along racial lines.

Perceptions of racial bias undermine the legitimacy of the criminal justice system, splitting citizens along racial lines when a white police officer kills an unarmed racial minority.

While we cannot eliminate the possibility for bias in prosecutions, we can make the process more transparent. Local prosecutors should not be faced with the choice of bringing charges against members of the police departments they rely on every day. These cases should automatically be referred to the state attorney general’s office or a special prosecutor who does not have the same perceived conflict of interest.

Jurors should be given clear instructions that an officer’s testimony carries the same weight as that of any other witness and that a badge does not confer credibility.

Criminal prosecutions, however, are not the most effective way to address systemic problems in a department because they focus solely on the actions of an individual officer and not on the organizational culture that likely shaped that conduct. To force broader changes in police practices, advocates should focus on institutional factors that encourage police misconduct, such as the failure to identify, supervise and discipline officers who are prone to misconduct.


By: Kami Chavis Simmons, Former Federal Prosecutor, Professor and Director of the Criminal Justice Program at Wake Forest University School of Law; Room for Debate, The New York Times, November 25, 2014

November 30, 2014 Posted by | Criminal Justice System, Grand Juries, Police Officers | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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