KRISTEN CLARK ON JEFF SESSIONS’ POLICE REFORM PLANS; DISCUSSES SUSAN RICE’S PUSH BACK ON
TRUMP ADMINISTRATION SECURITY ACCUSATIONS
Many people viewed 2015 as a year of reckoning for police, with continued scrutiny of the use of deadly force spurring momentum for reform. In reality, however, the road to accountability remains a long one.
That point is clearly reflected in the number of police officers who were convicted on murder or manslaughter charges last year for fatally shooting a civilian in the line of duty.
In 2015, that number was zero.
And that’s not unusual. No officers were convicted on such charges in 2014 either.
In fact, since 2005, there have only been 13 officers convicted of murder or manslaughter in fatal on-duty shootings, according to data provided to The Huffington Post by Philip Stinson, an associate professor of criminology at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University. Stinson’s data doesn’t include cases in which civilians died in police custody or were killed by other means, or those in which officers only faced lesser charges.
One of the last successful convictions came in 2013, when Culpeper Town, Virginia, police officer Daniel Harmon-Wright was sentenced to three years in jail for voluntary manslaughter charges in the slaying of Patricia Cook, an unarmed 54-year-old, a year earlier.
On Feb. 9, 2012, Harmon-Wright responded to a suspicious vehicle call and found Cook parked in a local Catholic school parking lot. In court, Harmon-Wright said when he asked Cook for her driver’s license, she rolled up her window, trapping his arm, before beginning to drive away. Harmon-Wright responded by unloading seven rounds into Cook, with fatal shots hitting her in the back and head. But a jury didn’t find the officer’s testimony credible, returning a guilty verdict on three charges in the shooting death. After serving out his sentence, Harmon-Wright was released in 2015.
Some officers in these cases have served out yearslong sentences for their crimes. Others were in and out of jail in months. Some even became police officers again. But only a tiny portion of cops who kill while on duty ever face charges for their actions, much less actual punishment.
The inability to convict police on murder or manslaughter charges for fatal on-duty shootings contrasts with a recent increase in prosecution, Stinson said. In 2015, 18 officers faced such charges, a significant increase from an average of around five officers each year over the preceding decade. Many of these cases involved incidents from previous years and have yet to go to trial, but if history is any indicator, it seems unlikely that many of the officers will be convicted.
The tiny number of convictions in fatal police shootings looks even smaller when you consider just how many cases the criminal justice system considers each year. Although there are no reliable government statistics on civilians killed by police, data compiled independently last year by outlets like The Guardian and The Washington Post, or civilian tracker Mapping Police Violence, have led to estimates of roughly 1,000 deadly shootings each year.
Of that total, prosecutors and grand juries around the nation each year have determined that around five of these cases involve misconduct worthy of manslaughter or murder charges. And in the end, the criminal justice system typically concludes that only around one shooting each year is consistent with manslaughter or murder.
This means the overwhelming majority of police shooting cases are ultimately determined to be justified homicides, in which deadly force was used lawfully, often in what police say was an effort to protect an officer’s safety or to prevent harm to the public.
One reason for the lack of prosecution and subsequent conviction begins with the Supreme Court’s legal standard for use of lethal force. According to Graham v. Connor, the landmark 1989 case that established the standard, each “use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” The ruling specifically cautions against judging police too harshly for split-second decisions made in “tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving” situations. All of this gives officers plenty of leeway to explain why their actions were legal.
The trajectory of police shooting cases has long been determined by police departments themselves, which, until recently, were largely able to control the narrative of events that led to a killing. And when cases have gone to trial, judges and juries have exhibited a tendency to side with the police. All of these factors make it exceedingly difficult to convict an officer, in the rare instances in which they face charges at all.
“Only about 20 percent of the officers arrested are ever convicted of murder or manslaughter,” Stinson explained. “Juries and judges seem reluctant to second-guess the split-second life or death decisions of police officers in violent street encounters in the course of their job … and will give the benefit of every doubt to an officer on trial in these cases. That is not so for other types of crimes by police officers, but it certainly is the case in these shooting cases.”
Stinson said that while there is a recent surge in officers charged for murder or manslaughter, it’s too early to tell if the upswing is the beginning of a trend. But he believes newer technology like cell phone video and police body cameras have produced a “tipping point,” leading the public to take a more critical view of the police’s version of events.
While Stinson said he thinks many police shootings are justified, he predicts that we’ll continue to see more officers charged with murder or manslaughter in the coming years. But barring considerable reform of a law and justice system that gives police wide latitude to inflict lethal force upon the public, this may not correspond to a similar rise in convictions.
By Julia Craven & Ryan J. Reilly -Huff Post Black Voices
WASHINGTON — A year after demonstrations in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson launched the Black Lives Matter movement, some of the most prominent voices in the campaign to reform policing in the United States introduced a detailed list of specific proposals that they want to bring about “a world where the police don’t kill people.”
The comprehensive set of policy demands on the federal and state level introduced by Black Lives Matter activists on Friday, named Campaign Zero, comes after months of discussions with protesters from across the country and was informed by the recommendations of President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. One of the members of Campaign Zero’s planning team, Brittany Packnett, was actually a member of the presidential task force as well as Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon’s (D) Ferguson Commission.
Many of Campaign Zero’s proposals — including body cameras, better training, and community oversight — enjoy broad support from the American public at large and many law enforcement leaders. Just this week, in fact, a top policing organization issued a study suggesting that the way police officers use force needs to “change dramatically,” and that many controversial police shootings — even if legally justified — could have been avoided.
“Folks are almost not even able to imagine an America where people are not being killed by police,” Samuel Sinyangwe, one of the members of the team that put together the proposal, told The Huffington Post. “That is the norm in many other developed countries. It’s about challenging that notion and really showing that through policy change we can get very close, if not achieve, that goal.”
“At this point, there’s widespread acknowledgement that policing needs fundamental changes,” DeRay Mckesson, who has become one of the most prominent members of the Black Lives Matter movement, said in an interview. “There’s an understanding that we need to expand the way we think about safety in communities.”
The policy platform aims to reform existing structural issues with policing and put in place new systems that will end police violence against black Americans. The campaign, informed by data on the causes and impact of police violence, draws on years of research from other organizations, including the Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice.
The platform also demands that all officers be equipped with body cameras; for hog-ties, nickel-rides and chokeholds to be felony offenses; for officers to undergo consistent racial bias training; police demilitarization and the establishment of a permanent special prosecutor at the federal level who will independently investigate all cases of a police killing or seriously injuring a civilian.
“In this moment, everything is on the table, right? There are no more sacred institutions,” Mckesson said. “What we know to be true is that there are structures and systems that were intentionally put in place that were harming people, and the protest community is willing to question all of them.”
The project has been in the works for months, he added, and organizers focused on talking “about complex things simply.”
Campaign Zero is also calling for laws preventing police departments from imposing minimum quotas for tickets and arrests, for recruiting and retaining more officers of color and the decriminalization of marijuana and drinking alcohol in public, according to The Guardian.
The campaign’s website has a list of some of the top presidential candidates on the Republican and Democratic sides and their policy positions in relation to Campaign Zero’s proposals. Candidates were listed on the main page of the website mostly based on how they were polling, Sinyangwe said, but Rand Paul was added because he is one of the few candidates who has made criminal justice reform a key part of his agenda.
“With regard to Republicans, I’m not surprised but it is sad,” said Sinyangwe. “When I think about police violence, I think that is a conservative issue — an agent of the government… basically taking people’s lives, intervening in the most extreme way possible. But that’s not how they see it.”
The platform’s unveiling comes after several high-profile disruptions of presidential campaign events by Black Lives Matter activists.
Last month, Black Lives Matter activists interrupted the Netroots Nation convention, the largest annual meeting of progressives in the U.S. They demanded that Democratic candidates acknowledge that “the most important and urgent issue of our day is structural violence and systemic racism that is oppressing and killing black women, men and children,” Tia Oso, the woman who took the stage during the protest, wrote for Mic.
A simple interruption of a progressive town hall meeting was powerful enough to make systemic racism a conversation on the campaign trail. But talking isn’t enough. Activists want to hear concrete solutions to problems created by systemic racism before endorsing any of the candidates.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is running for the Democratic nomination, has introduced a policy platform targeting structural anti-black racism. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) has rolled out a framework for criminal justice reform, although it’s less explicit in its discussion of racism than Sanders’ platform. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, however, has not yet produced a comprehensive agenda focusing on police violence or mass incarceration — issues that disproportionately affect black Americans — even though she is currently the most popular candidate among black voters, with a favorability rate of 68 percent.
Clinton’s policy director and others campaign staffers recently spoke with Campaign Zero planning team members Mckesson and Packnett about police reform, criminal justice and other issues of importance to the black community.
“The campaign is interested in connecting with a broad range of people in the movement,” Mckesson said. “As campaigns develop their policy platforms, it’s important that many people have opportunities to influence the process — that this is not politics as usual.”
“They made a commitment to reaching out, and I’m hopeful that as many people as possible can be heard and take an active role in shaping potential policies,” he went on. “This is an opportunity to redefine how presidential campaigns engage with black communities and prioritize black life.”
“We see situations where officers will reach out to young people and work with them. They’ll go into the classrooms with them. And so we’re hoping that these examples can be models for other police departments. But we’re also hoping that community leaders can work with police departments to build these connections so that we can all tell our children how to respect authority, but not to be afraid of police.”
By Nick Wing -Huff Post Black Voices
Two comprehensive reports published since Saturday provide new information about police killings in the United States, filling a void left by the lack of a national standard for reporting the use of deadly force.
The Washington Post on Saturday published an analysis of 2015 fatal police shootings through May 29, citing “interviews, police reports, local news accounts and other sources.” The Post’s data included basic information about victims’ race, age and gender, as well as whether the person was armed or had other circumstances that led to being shot by police.
The Guardian on Monday published the results of its investigation into all 2015 police killings through the end of May. The project, called The Counted, included deaths in which police officers killed citizens by means other than gunshots, including Taser stun guns and vehicle crashes. The news organization also counted deaths of people following altercations in custody. That would include Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore in April. The Guardian sourced its data to public records, local news reports and original reporting.
The two reports contain minor statistical discrepancies, but provide a much-needed factual basis for the debate over police use of deadly force, misconduct, transparency and reform.
The use of lethal force by law enforcement rose to the national discourse following the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August. Many people pointed out that it was nearly impossible to gauge the size and scope of the issue because there is no national mechanism to keep track of police killings. Federal statistics intended to monitor police killings only include “justifiable homicides.” And that number, incomplete as it may be, relies on the uniform crime reporting program of data that police departments voluntarily provide to the FBI.
Independent groups have mounted efforts to record a more complete picture of police killings, and it appears that both news organization reports have built upon these attempts.
Through June 1, there have been 5,099 gun deaths in the U.S., according to up-to-date numbers maintained by the Gun Violence Archive. Based on the 385 figure, that means that American police are responsible for about 1 in every 13 gun deaths in the country, or 8 percent. The Gun Violence Archive numbers include suicide as well as homicide, so the police-involved share of gun homicides would be even larger.
This article has been updated with additional data from the Post regarding the rates at which different races were shot and killed by police.