By Doug Porter
This week local activist groups are throwing their cards on the table, demanding accountability for the actions of those tasked with protecting the public. Recent events, both locally and nationally, have demonstrated the threat of and/or use of force is essentially exempt from meaningful review. The checks and balances supposedly built into the system are failing on a regular basis.
A list naming hundreds of persons killed by various agencies of law enforcement in San Diego going back to 1980 shows just how mundane lethal force has become in the city and county. A press conference by United Against Police Terror staged in front of police headquarters hopes to put a human face on those statistics.
Frustrated by their attempts to work within the system to enhance citizen oversight of the San Diego Police Department, activists with Women Occupy –backed by 19 civic organizations– are submitting a ballot proposal to the city clerk to make the Citizens Review Board on Police Practices (CRB) truly independent and transparent.
Welcome to 2016: Another Person Goes Down
The latest victim following an officer-involved shooting, according to a story in The Advocate, lived with his boyfriend at “Mercy Gardens, a low-income residential facility for people with disabilities in San Diego’s LGBT-heavy Hillcrest neighborhood.”
Shortly after 10:30pm on New Years Day, police responded to a call about a domestic disturbance. The decedent, who’d reportedly held a chef’s knife at his roommate’s throat, fled as police approached. He was spotted a block away by a police helicopter, which warned pursuing officers that he was still carrying the knife.
“The suspect did not comply with the officer’s demands of dropping the knife,” San Diego Police Department Capt. David Nisleit told KSWB. “The officer, fearing for his life, fired one round, striking the suspect.”
While the police were quick to assure the media that the dead man was “was wanted for a parole violation” and had a “violent criminal history,”’ his name wasn’t included in the story, pending notification of next of kin. He was a nameless bad person, got it?
(He was identified in Monday’s UT as Joshua Adam Sisson, age 30, of San Diego)
The SDPD officer who fired the shot was a thirteen-year veteran of the department. His department-issued body-cam was turned on during the fatal encounter. According to previous statements made by police chief Shelley Zimmerman, the public will never see a body-cam video, unless showing it would defuse a potential riot situation.
So there we have it: a dangerous and crazy gay guy wielding a knife was shot and killed by a veteran law enforcement officer who felt threatened. Case closed, or so we’re supposed to think.
Maybe it happened that way. Maybe not. If the facts didn’t happen to match up with what the media reported, we’ll likely never know.
Let me be perfectly clear here–It’s the system more than any individual police officer’s actions that needs to be addressed.
You can’t have the prosecutor, who’s dependent on cooperation from cops to make criminal cases, as the sole entity overseeing what happens during police-civilian encounters.
San Diego’s law enforcement establishment (prosecutors and departments) have fought tooth and nail against attempts at oversight. Having at least the possibility of a empowered citizen review board would change that balance of power.
When Facts Don’t Matter
We do know that when the facts didn’t match the video in the officer-involved shooting death of Fridoon Rawshan Nehad last spring, the officer was allowed to view the private surveillance footage and give an updated statement.
Then, faced with a court order releasing the footage to the public, our District Attorney crafted a narrative justifying her decision not to charge the officer. “Blue lives matter. Others, not so much.” was the message.
From Scott Lewis at Voice of San Diego, writing about the DA’s press conference:
What Dumanis should have said was that we were not going to have a trial in the media of the officer involved in the shooting, Neal Browder. Dumanis was absolutely willing to try in the media the man who was killed.
Methodically, expertly, Dumanis laid out the many things Fridoon Nehad had done to merit his death. She even showed a video of someone else twirling a butterfly knife to help people visualize how menacing Nehad might have looked as he twirled a pen.
Even the prosecutor in Cleveland, who similarly suggested 12-year-old Tamir Rice was at fault for his own death, at least met with Rice’s family, expressed condolences, called it a tragedy and told the public it was a “perfect storm of human error, mistakes and miscommunication.”
Dumanis acknowledged no such regret.
Tamir Rice’s Death Was the Perfect Storm
At the top of last week, a grand jury declined to charge Officer Timothy Loehmann in the November 2014 shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio.
Dozens of activists gathered in City Heights on Sunday night for a vigil for the youth, part of nationwide protests led by a new generation of civil rights groups, including Black Lives Matter.
A New York Times article titled “Cleveland Officer Will Not Face Charges in Tamir Rice Shooting Death” reported:
The case began when a caller to 911 said a male was pointing a gun at people in a Cleveland park. The caller added that the gun was “probably fake,” and that the person waving it was “probably a juvenile.” But those caveats were not relayed to Officer Loehmann or his partner, Frank Garmback, who was driving the patrol car. Officer Loehmann, who is white, opened fire within seconds of arriving at the park. Officer Garmback was also spared any charges.
Tamir Rice’s death was one of several high-profile, fatal incidents involving police and people of color in 2014 and 2015. The 12-year-old’s death stands out as an egregious example of the disconnect between the institutions of law enforcement and the people they are supposed to serve.
The policemen pulled their car right up next to a suspect they had reason to believe was armed. Two seconds passed between their arrival and the fatal shots being fired.
The Cleveland policeman pulling the trigger had been deemed an emotionally unstable recruit and unfit for duty at his previous job in Independence, Ohio. Tamir laid on the ground bleeding to death for four minutes until a FBI agent, in the area investigating a bank robbery, administered first aid.
The Ohio prosecutor handling the case, “used the grand jury as more of a sounding board for an exoneration of the potential defendants, rather than as a review of possible charges against them.”
Counting the Bodies
The Guardian spent 2015 tracking the number of people killed by police officers in the US. Despite all the resources allocated for law enforcement nationally over the past few decades, counting fatalities wasn’t considered a priority.
The Guardian’s final tally was 1,134 fatalities.
Despite making up only 2% of the total US population, African American males between the ages of 15 and 34 comprised more than 15% of all deaths logged this year by an ongoing investigation into the use of deadly force by police. Their rate of police-involved deaths was five times higher than for white men of the same age.
Paired with official government mortality data, this new finding indicates that about one in every 65 deaths of a young African American man in the US is a killing by police.
“This epidemic is disproportionately affecting black people,” said Brittany Packnett, an activist and member of the White House taskforce on policing. “We are wasting so many promising young lives by continuing to allow this to happen.”
Speaking in the same week that a police officer in Cleveland, Ohio, was cleared by a grand jury over the fatal shooting of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African American boy who was carrying a toy gun, Packnett said the criminal justice system was presenting “no deterrent” to the excessive use of deadly force by police. “Tamir didn’t even live to be 15,” she said.
Pray for the Dead
Here in San Diego, activists with United Against Police Terror have released a list of fatalities at the hands of various law enforcement agencies in the county going back to 1984. There are hundreds of names. Each of them had a story connected with their death published in local media.
The question should not be “were these killings justified?” Given what we know now, the question should be “were any of these deaths extra-judicial executions?”
The official answer, in case you haven’t guessed, would be zero. That’s not the way many in the communities where those deaths occur see it.
The standard by which police killings of suspects are judged by authorities is overwhelmingly focused on the immediate circumstances from the officer’s point of view.
From Leon Neyfakh at Slate, discussing the Supreme Court ruling used by prosecutors justifying Tamir Rice’s death:
But there are two possible ways to apply the “reasonableness” standard set forth in Graham to a case like that of Tamir Rice. One looks only at the moment when the officer decided to fire his gun; that’s the view McGinty and the grand jury took in deciding not to indict. The other zooms out and examines the choices that the officers made leading up to that moment.
The first approach, which was advocated by the policing experts that McGinty hired to testify before the Tamir Rice grand jury, says that we shouldn’t “Monday morning quarterback” the tactical decisions of our police officers. The other says we should: As David Rudovsky, a civil rights lawyer in Philadelphia, put it to me recently, “As a matter of police professionalism and as a matter of law, if an officer acts recklessly in creating danger for himself, he shouldn’t be allowed to say ‘I was justified because he was about to hurt me.’ ”
This is sometimes referred to as the “final frame” vs. “phases of the encounter” question. And the Supreme Court is vague about how it should be answered: On the one hand the Graham ruling specified that we should consider “the totality of the circumstances,” but on the other hand, it zeroed in on the “the split-second decision” an officer makes when applying use of force.
So you see, the notion that these deaths were unjustified is always going to be “legally” correct.
The Racial History
The disproportionate number of people of color killed by police evokes deep memories in those communities. Those feelings are stoked by the everyday (and sometimes unintentional) biases evident in the behavior of law enforcement officers.
Here in San Diego, the decision to release promised data from a study of law enforcement practices related to racial profiling was delayed after closed door meetings, supposedly because of a desire for the information to not come out in piecemeal fashion. In local politi-speak, that action means the early results weren’t favorable to the police department.
In the case of Aaron Harvey and Brandon Duncan locally, those biases manifested themselves in criminal charges, stemming from a faulty system of classifying young black men as gang members based on the neighborhood they grew up in. (Really!)
They were charged with conspiracy. Even the prosecution admitted they’d not directly been involved in any crimes. Only public outcry kept these young men out of jail for life. The swat team that raised Harvey’s apartment in Las Vegas came in locked and loaded. One wrong move and he would have been yet another legally correct killing.
And then there are all the videos of seemingly bad police conduct towards (mostly) people of color circulating. How many can you see before realizing that something systemically bad is happening?
Is it any wonder the notion of modern day police shootings as an evolution of lynching is given serious consideration by Black scholars?
The Bottom Line
Here’s the dirty little secret about modern day policing in the United States: most of the time–even when the bad stuff happens– they’re doing exactly what what’s expected on them.
Yes, there are institutional issues of self-preservation and identity (us against them) in effect, but changing the behavior of law enforcement has to start with a mission change.
The police are currently the front-line agency for dealing with too many social problems. Laws get “enforced” as a means of delivering health care, particularly with the mentally ill.
Statistics on mental health in ethnic-minority communities give a clear picture of the systematic inequalities that lead to higher rates of killings by police in communities of color.
The failure of the War on Drugs to do much more than enable a privatized system of incarceration housing a hugely disproportional number of minorities also plays into the misdirected mission of law enforcement.
Meanwhile, San Diego’s political leadership is running back and forth, tamping down any potential incendiary information, and paying untold millions out in lawsuit settlements.
What we get instead of law enforcement strategies that don’t include force as a desirable option are feel-good press conferences and photo opportunities.
The fish, as a management mentor once told me, stinks from the head.
A Message for the Mayor?
VOSD reporter Liam Dillon has penned an article for The Atlantic explaining Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s attempt to convince the GOP that winning elections at the city level is possible if Republican politicians engage populations they’ve traditionally ignored.
It turns out that “engage” means… feel-good press conferences and photo opportunities. The article points out the lack of substantive programs.
The Mayor, according to Dillon, is promising to announce a major jobs initiative at the State of the City Address (Balboa Theater, 6pm, January 14th).
“I can’t tell you what the number is,” Faulconer said, “but it’s going to be off the charts.”
Those jobs won’t mean squat if people can’t get to work thanks to police interventions in their communities.
Maybe it’s time he got reminded of that fact.
On This Day: 1936 – The first pop music chart based on national sales was published by “Billboard” magazine. 1965 – Eight thousand New York City social workers went on strike, demand better conditions for welfare recipients. 1974 – President Nixon refused to hand over tape recordings and documents subpoenaed by the Senate Watergate Committee.
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