Friday, June 23, 2017
A Tale of Too Many Cities
My guest columnist, Emily Patricia Graham, is a Clearwater - based attorney (practicing in Louisiana and California as well). Past Chair of the Florida Bar’s Entertainment, Arts, & Sports Law Section, an LL.M. in Real Property Development Law, and well published, Emily’s work with the Greater Miami Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida as a past board member and member of its Police Practices Committee moved her to write on this topic.
On Friday, June 16th the Minnesota officer who shot Philando Castile (right above) dead at a traffic stop was acquitted of all criminal charges. Officer Jeronimo Yanez (left above) had pulled over Castile last year for a “broken tail light.” A disturbing and continuing “blue on black” pattern? Unique circumstances with an exculpatory explanation? Or both? Do most Americans even care?
What Mr. Castile and his two passengers, his girlfriend and her young daughter, didn’t know at the time is that the officer had mistaken Mr. Castile for an escaped robbery suspect. The “broken tail light” that was casually mentioned to Mr. Castile and the helpful tone of the officer’s voice belied the heightened suspicion that Mr. Castile unknowingly faced.
Mr. Castile, assuaged by the gentle tone of the officer and possibly more relaxed by marijuana in his car, mentioned to the officer that he had a gun. The officer told Mr. Castile to not reach for the gun and claimed, at trial, that he saw Mr. Castile reach to hold something in his pants that appeared bigger than a wallet. Without missing a beat, the officer fired seven shots at Mr. Castile. The police dash cam and audio recorder captured the dialogue but not the visual details inside the car. Mr. Castile’s girlfriend said he wasn’t reaching for “it” and livestreamed video aftermath of her boyfriend dying from inside the car. If Castile had been white?
“The acquittal was the latest example of charges against an officer, but not a conviction. In recent years, officers in Cleveland, Pennsylvania and Tulsa, Okla., have been found not guilty of manslaughter. Elsewhere, including Cincinnati [twice within seven months, first in 2016, The New York Times on November 12, 2016 and another this June, NY Times, June 23, 2017] and South Carolina, jurors have deadlocked on charges after a fatal shooting and failed to deliver any verdict at all.” NY Times, June 21st.
“‘My son loved this city, and this city killed my son,’ Mr. Castile’s mother, Valerie, said as she stood on a corner outside the courthouse afterward. “And a murderer gets away. Are you kidding me right now?’” NY Times. But that wasn’t the only such case within only a week.
The very next week, on June 21st, a Milwaukee jury acquitted a different police officer of all charges in another fatal shooting. The NY Times on June 21st explains that Officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown chased Sylville K. Smith and shot him as he tossed a gun over a fence. As Mr. Smith lay on the ground with a bullet wound to an arm, the officer shot him again, this time straight through the heart. The officer claimed that Mr. Smith had reached for something by his waist. Fearing that was another gun, the officer fired the fatal shot. Both the officer and the victim were black men in their 20s.
Prosecutors said that the officer ‘bragged about being able to do whatever’ he wanted ‘without repercussions,” in a bar the night after the shooting. NY Times.
The victim’s stepsister expressed to the NY Times, “I feel like no matter what it is, these police officers all over the world, they can just literally murder you…I feel he blatantly shot Sylville. I feel it was intentional.”
On October 10, Officer Jonathan Aledda will stand trial for killing behavioral therapist Charles Kinsey (black) while he lay on the ground with his hands straight up in the air. The Miami Herald, May 12, 2017. This is the first time a police officer will stand trial in Florida for an on-duty shooting since Officer William Lozano faced a Miami criminal jury in 1989, whose conviction was overturned on appeal before an acquittal on retrial. The Herald.
Also on June 21st, the family of Fritz Severe (another unarmed black victim) filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Miami and Officer Antonio Torres, after the 2015 shooting that left the unarmed homeless man dead in a public park, right in front of more than 50 children. Officer Torres was not charged with any crimes and still patrols Miami. Miami New Times, June 21, 2017.
"They train you in the police academy to deal with mental health, with people on drugs," Richard Diaz, the Severe family’s attorney and a former cop himself, explains. "They train you how to talk to them and talk them down. The use of force is a last resort, but it does not appear here that all the prior opportunities to diffuse the situation were utilized." Diaz questioned if Severe would have been shot were he white. Miami New Times.
The day before the Fritz Severe case was filed in Miami, a settlement in the much-publicized August 2014 killing of unarmed, young, and black Michael Brown was approved, in Ferguson, Missouri. TheMiami Herald, June 20, 2015. The killing of Mr. Brown by the white police officer set off riots in Ferguson, and a year of unrest, chronicled in this timeline from the Herald on August 8, 2015. Unrest still boils up about this, even as recent as this March, upon release of new surveillance video of the shooting. ABC News on March 13, 2017. Marches to commemorate Michael Brown’s death and other victims of police shootings happened nationwide and in London, England. Independent on November 26, 2014. Marches still happen annually. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 6, 2016.
“Their lawsuit also described the police culture in Ferguson as hostile to black residents, and said Officer Wilson used excessive and unreasonable force in fatally shooting Brown.” The Herald.
The officer was neither indicted in St. Louis, nor charged after a U.S. Department of Justice investigation. “But the investigation led to a Justice Department lawsuit over racially biased police and court practices. A settlement calls for significant changes in operations, including sensitivity training for officers, adoption of community policing techniques, court reforms and other measures.” The Herald.
The problem extends from coast to coast, north to south. According to the ACLU of Southern California, out of more than 2,000 police shootings, 1 officer has been prosecuted. Back on the East Coast, in Miami-Dade County the ACLU of Florida and other civil rights organizations joined together to form the Miami-Dade County Independent Review Panel Working Group. The goal is to provide recommendations and oversight into police practices and civil rights, as well as to foster dialogue with the local community.
Nationwide, the dialogue is open. The Daily Show’s host, who is black, “ used the recent as an opportunity to open up about his own experiences with police officers in the U.S.” Variety, June 21, 2017. “The comedian, who was born in South Africa, revealed that in the six years he has lived in the U.S., the police have stopped him ‘8 to 10 times.’” Variety. He continues that this is, “’ just part of a black person’s life in America,” adding, “It’s the truth. I’ve been stopped a s— ton of times.’” Variety. “He summed up his feelings with a South African phrase he said translates to being fed up with what’s happening but not letting it break or define him as a person.” Variety.
These are “talk” and “dialogue,” conversations that would never have happened without pictures and videos, a recent feature of contemporary America. If you are black, you get used to it. Body cams, smart phones and ubiquitous CCV security cameras only show what has been reality for a very, very long time. We see the problem, but it is clearly no longer a priority for many… and has been officially deprioritized by the Department of Justice. NBC News, February 28, 2017.
That doesn’t mean the issue is going away or that people have stopped caring. The Tampa Bay Times on April 5, 2017 published an extensive investigative report on “Why Cops Shoot”, including a case-by-case look at Florida’s 827 police shootings and statistics on how much more likely blacks are to get shot by police than whites. Raising awareness and police-community working relationships begin at the local level with every one of us.
I’m Emily Graham, and just as the police shouldn’t be expected to take unreasonable risks with their lives, the public shouldn’t be expected to face unreasonable use of force or implicit bias; the question is how to achieve all this.