Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Lethal Acts of Force in 2014 - 4. What Is a Lethal Act of Force?

I use the term “lethal act of force” in this analysis to mean any intentional act of force on the part of a law enforcement officer who is doing his or her duty, with that force resulting in the death of someone else. It’s slightly different than an act of deadly force, which is generally only applicable to gunshots which may or may not actually kill the person the police officer is aiming at. 

Specifically, for an incident to be counted in my analysis, it had to pass a few tests.

1.      The incident must be a homicide (or at least possibly a homicide)

Even if the decedent shot herself in the head simultaneous to being shot by police, it does not count unless the fatal bullet was fired by police.

Some deaths by tasers and other deaths after police engaged in a physical struggle with police were ruled inconclusive by the coroner or medical examiner, as they happened at the same time as medical problems caused by drug overdose. These incidents are still included.

2.      The homicide could be accidental as long as the officer meant to discharge the weapon that killed the decedent.

There were eight incidents where the bullet fired struck a bystander. One was Bryce Dion, audio technician for the show COPS, who was killed by friendly fire in an Omaha Wendy’s.[1]  Another was Rafael Laureano, a body builder from Brooklyn who was trying to save his girlfriend from being stabbed by her ex-boyfriend and who wound up being killed by a stray bullet from the New York Police Department.[2] 

There are other incidents where police shot and killed someone who they thought was someone else.  Frank Mendoza of Pico Rivera was running towards his doorway trying to get away from an armed felon who had invaded his house when Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies mistook Mendoza for the significantly younger felon and shot him. (They also shot the felon, Cedric Ramirez, but only after backing off and engaging in an 8-hour standoff).[3]  Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies were also responsible for shooting John Winkler, who was attempting to flee from a man with a knife when deputies encountered him close on the heels of a third individual, also fleeing the man with the knife. The deputies thought Winkler was the stabber, chasing the third individual in order to stab him some more.[4]

All of these incidents count in my analysis.  The police officer meant to discharge a bullet in order to effect an arrest. In the mistaken identity cases, the police officer even meant to strike the person they were shooting at.

An incident that does not count by this definition: Akai Gurley in Brooklyn. Officer Peter Liang just happened to have his gun out with his finger on the trigger for no particular reason while patrolling the stairwell of the Louis Pink Houses in Brooklyn, and the gun went off because he’s unsafe and possibly criminally negligent (Liang was indicted by a grand jury for second-degree manslaughter).[5]  Three other accidental gun discharge deaths that occurred in 2014 do not count, though Gurley’s death was the only one that occurred while the officer was on duty.

3.      The incident cannot occur in prison

The citizen must be outside the walls of prison. Prison homicides conducted by officers or guards are every bit as tragic as arrest-related deaths caused by lethal acts of force.  But I feel that prison-related homicides should be outside the scope of this analysis because I wanted to deal with civilians and not the already-incarcerated.

This does not preclude the inclusion of those who have recently escaped from custody, or those who have become unruly in a courtroom setting or other public place.

4.      Car accidents do not count

Even if they are later ruled a homicide, I think that incidents where a police officer kills a person in an automobile accident should not be included as a lethal act of force for the same reason that accidental gun discharges shouldn’t be included.

There were a couple of incidents, Delbert Rodriguez in Miami[6] and Paul Burkons of Los Angeles[7], where the police officers were en route to a call about the person they eventually struck with their police cruiser and killed. I still do not include these because they are accidental uses of force.

Scott Trimble in Iowa lost his life when the car he was driving ran over a spike strip and slid into the path of an 18-wheeler.[8] Timothy Rundquist in Minnesota also hit spike strips, but he died when he steered his car into a parked police car.[9] Though the thing that killed Trimble and Rundquist was placed by police, I still didn’t count these incidents.

5.      The incident must be caused by a police officer acting in an officer-like fashion

Incidents caused by off-duty officers count only if

  1. The officer is acting like a police officer, OR
  2. The officer is acting in self-defense from an assailant whom the officer doesn’t know

Longstanding rivalries like 86-year old Joe Huff of Chicago being killed by his neighbor, Officer Courtney Hill[10], Juan May being killed by an Arlington, Texas, police officer he had just fought with on a party bus[11], or the tale of the two Santa Fe County sheriff’s deputies who got into a bar brawl and one of them, Jeremy Martin, ended up dead[12] – these should not and do not count.

In other words: The officer should not be committing a crime.

But off-duty officers who didn’t place themselves in jeopardy, like when an off-duty Cook County Sheriff’s sergeant shot and killed Deonta Mackey when Mackey and his friends attempted to rob him at a gas station,[13] or when an off-duty FBI agent shot and killed Jason Moore when Moore crashed his ex-wife’s high school reunion and shot her and her boyfriend, killing them both[14] – these incidents should and do count.

6.      The act of force had to happen in 2014

I include Ned Womack of Georgia who died in 2015 because he was shot by Deputy Ryne Kirkland on Christmas Eve, 2014 and died in the hospital two weeks later.[15] There weren’t any examples I found of an officer’s use of force occurring in 2013 with the decedent dying in 2014, but I would not have counted it if one did happen.

7.      The incident had to take place in the fifty states or the District of Columbia

There were two people in the KBP data for 2014 who were shot and killed by the Virgin Islands Police Department (O’Benson Antoine and Clyde Norford). I did not count these as I can’t be sure that any event from any overseas territory would be captured by, and also demographic comparison for such events would be tricky.

What happens after the police kill someone?

I looked at so many media reports while completing this analysis that I feel I can outline the typical process by which information is delivered to the public.   

Step 1: The first media report of someone dying at the hands of police is filed.

A journalist is probably listening in on police radio communications and hears about “shots fired”. A journalist will be dispatched to the scene and will encounter a lot of police cars and very little information.  The piece that results from this information will typically go something like this: “A thing happened. Keep checking back for updates.”

Step 2: An official statement is made about the incident.

This statement will be made by someone in a police officer’s uniform, surrounded by reporters with microphones, cameras and lights. This person will either be a professional spokesman for police, if this is in a big city, or this person will be a police chief, assistant chief, or the county sheriff, if this is in a suburb or small town. 

This report usually won’t name either the decedent or the law enforcement officer involved, but it will usually answer broad questions about the incident, like whether or not the decedent was armed.

The law enforcement agency will put out an official statement in writing at roughly the same time that the spokesman is speaking, covering all the same information.  For almost all southern California lethal acts of force, the statement will go something like “the suspect approached the officer, and then an officer involved shooting occurred.”  No other locality rigorously adheres to such passive language in their official statements as do law enforcement agencies in the Los Angeles region.

Step 3: An official follow-up statement that reveals the decedent’s name is delivered to the media after a day or two. 

This report will also include more details about the incident, and have a narrative that is fuller in context and will provide the official nexus for why the officer shot in the first place.

Some localities, like Houston and Detroit, rarely get to this stage.

Step 4: Occasionally another follow-up is released to the media that reveals the officers’ names.

This happens after the officers give their statements to the investigators. The officers are often not compelled to give a statement immediately following the shooting, as they become defendants in criminal proceedings afforded the same rights as civilians.

Step 5: Around the same time, if they’re doing their job, the local media will have interviewed all the family members, friends and co-workers that they can find.

The family will have questions about the incident. They will say that no one from the police department has talked to them. They will ask why their family member couldn’t have just been shot in the leg or something.

This report will end with a statement that says the incident is still under investigation. This piece serves to provide a ray of hope for those who feel an injustice has just been perpetrated in the community.

Of course, regarding most incidents, there are no further statements about the incident. Did the investigation conclude? Did the officer get in trouble? Who knows?

Step 6: Infrequently, after a few months, the district attorney will announce that the investigation has concluded and that the officers have been exonerated.

This only happened in 28% of the incidents from 2014 as far as I could tell.  In the majority of lethal acts of force, there was no Google-able announcement of a district attorney’s decision, and I suspect that the district attorneys did not make public announcements of findings in most of the 71% of incidents I couldn’t find an ultimate disposition on. 

In some jurisdictions, the investigation process just takes an extremely long time, longer than a year.  Chicago is the most notable example of this. The Independent Police Review Authority is tasked with reviewing all complaints of officer force on the Chicago PD, but their investigations are notorious for taking a very long time to conclude.  The delays have been called “puzzling”, “ridiculous”, “maddening”, and “an embarrassment”, and that was just by attorneys representing the police officers.[16]

But where a final ruling on the investigation is released, there will be a letter written to the chief of police from the district attorney that informs him or her that the officer has been cleared of charges. There will usually be a lengthy narrative of the incident that goes with the findings. The district attorney will give his or her condolences to the family of the decedent, as well as to the officer or officers involved who had to go through this legal process. 

Around this same time, the internally conducted investigation will wrap up, and it too will reveal that the officer committed no violations of police policy.

Step 7: Shortly after, if there were details anyone had been skeptical of, dashcam videos or lapel camera videos will be released to the public.

Sometimes the law enforcement agencies give them to the media upon request, and sometimes they have to be FOIA’ed.  The video will show the incident happening at a very rapid speed, and it will seem jarring.  Judgment calls will come into question. Sure, that guy wasn’t showing his hands, but what made the officer believe he was reaching for his waistband? That kind of stuff. The skeptical public will continue to not be consoled.

 Step 8: The grieving family of the deceased will announce that they have filed / are about to file a civil lawsuit against the police department

The announcement will be conducted by the family’s attorney, who usually will be John Burris.  Okay, I guess there are a few others.  The lawsuit may drag on for years, and the family of the deceased may or may not win a settlement with the city. 

[1] Cush, Andy. “Cops Audio Technician Killed By Police Gunfire During Shootout”. Gawker, August 27, 2014.

[2] Parascandola, Rocco. “Man Who Tried Saving His Girlfriend From Knife-Wielding Ex-Boyfriend Was Killed By Police Gunshot”. New York Daily News, October 1, 2014.

[3] Molina, Sandra. “Sheriff Confirms Pico Rivera Resident Shot in Head By Deputy”. Whittier Daily News, August 7, 2014.

[4] Gierach, Ryan. “Winkler’s Shooters At Work While Investigation Continues”. WeHo News, April 24, 2014.

[5] Schram, Jamie, Josh Saul and Kevin Sheehan. “NYPD Cop Indicted in Stairway Killing of Akai Gurley”. New York Post, February 10, 2015.

[6] Rabin, Charles. “Graffiti ‘Tagger’ Dies After Being Hit by Miami Police Car”. Miami Herald, December 5, 2014.

[7] Soley-Cerro, Ashley, and Jennifer Gould. “Police Vehicle Hits, Kills Naked Man Lying on South L.A. Street”. KTLA, July 28, 2014.

[8] Cullen, Jack. “Davenport Man Flees From Police, Dies in Head-on Collision on I-80”. Quad City Times, September 28, 2014.

[9] Tellers, Jacob. “Report: Fergus Falls Councilman’s Death After Police Chase Was Suicide”. Grand Forks Herald, February 17, 2015.

[10] Sobol, Rosemary Regina, Lolly Bowean, and Carlos Sadovi. “Neighborhood Dispute Involving Off-Duty Cop Turns Deadly”. Chicago Tribune, April 25, 2014.

[11] Mitchell, Mitch. “Off-Duty Arlington Officer Claims Self-Defense in Fatal Shooting”. Fort Worth Star-Telegram, June 30, 2014.

[12] Llorca, Juan Carlos. “Jeremy Martin, Santa Fe Deputy, Killed After Argument With Other Cop”. Associated Press, October 28, 2014.

[13] Demarest, Erica. “Mom of Teen Killed While Robbing Sergeant: ‘Peer Pressure Is Winning’”. DNAinfo|Chicago, February 12, 2014.

[14] Luciano, Phil. “Luciano: Friends Describe Horror of East Peoria Reunion Shootings”. Peoria Journal Star, June 17, 2014.

[15] Pool, Dan. “Deputy Returns Fire, Injures Man, at Domestic Call”. Pickens County (Georgia) Progress, December 25, 2014.

[16] Sweeney, Annie, and Jeremy Gorner. “Police Misconduct Cases Drag On For Years”. Chicago Tribune, June 17, 2012.

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