Excessive force complaints and police reform

By John Groseclose

LaPolice reform and oversight neededst week the Houston Chronicle reported the arrest of a therapist last March for resisting arrest. When she was pulled over for allegedly crossing a double white line, the young woman dialed 911 asking for another officer because she was afraid of the patrol officer who had threatened to taze her.

Was there provocation? Did the Officer use excessive force?

Ms. White’s attorney released the surveillance video video from the area dubbed with the official recording of the 911 call. For several minutes we see the officer standing by, shouting at times, while she calmly talks with the dispatcher. Then, when the dispatcher connects her with the officer’s department, he suddenly grabs his handcuffs and then grabs her. There appeared to be no provocation other than her statement to his supervisor that the officer was harassing her. She yells that he is trying to break her arm and we see parts of the struggle that ensues. The dispatch tape indicates that she rapidly goes from calm to incoherent as he manhandles her.

Conflicting Expectations

Ms. White screams, “Please get your hands off of me. What is wrong with you? … Why are you doing this?…I am a woman.” It was obvious that she expected to be treated with respect.

The officer was cleared by the department. They said that he was trained to be wary and he acted properly.  From their standpoint, she should have gotten back in the car. Her failure to do that, justifies the manhandling and charges.

If she is convicted, the newspaper reports that she could lose her livelihood.

De-escalation and solutions

This video is less violent, when compared to much more egregious examples of police action since cell phone video began wide use. Ms. White wasn’t killed or badly hurt. It seems that changes in policing systems and police actions are needed. Police are called on to deal with people on their worst days. We call the police when our neighbor flips out or when we can’t deal with one of our relatives in the midst of a mental crisis. Officers receive very little, if any training, in de-escalation.

Several recent federal reports indicate the problem is not so much bad officers as a broken system.

In addition to the long list of situations that we ask police officers to handle that they are not trained to do, reports on individual police departments indicate that the system is broken.

This week the Justice Department issued its report on Baltimore PD.  Key findings were that the PD’s system targeted African-Americans and failed to supervise and train officers. It called out “zero tolerance” policing and said it often resulted in violations of the Constitution. Under that program officers reported about 300,000 stop and frisk incidents in a five year period. Yet, an audit showed that in 2014 alone, there were more than 400,000 stops in a city of about 625,000.

Some examples are telling. The report cites one middle aged  black man who was stopped 30 times in four years and never cited for anything. In addition, investigators also found evidence that some department  leaders ordered officers to target black residents.

The attitude of the brass became crystal clear when one of the Justice Department investigators did a ride-along. The supervisor pointed to several black men standing on the sidewalk and told the patrol officer to stop and question them; then disperse them. The officer protested that he didn’t have a reason to do that. His boss’s reply was: Think something up.

Lax oversight, an us vs them mentality

The  Baltimore report echoes findings in cities and towns across the nation. The ideas for police reform are many and varied. A robust complaint system is often cited. Yet, after reviewing a statistically valid sample of about 850 use of force reports, the feds concluded that supervisors approved all but a handful of complaints that they deemed questionable.

When internal oversight fails to curb abuse, individual citizens and groups can take their complaints to our courts. Lawsuits provide outside scrutiny and high profile examples that contribute significantly to creating the impetus for change.

 

Back the Blue Act guts drive for police reform

civil liability limits

photo of 2015 protest of police brutality by Pax Ahimsa Gethen

Back the Blue Act guts incentives to improve policing

In the past two years we’ve seen example after example of excessive force by police officers. Although they too often result in serious injury and death, these assaults rarely result in convictions or even prosecutions for the officers. In some cases, however, victims or families bring successful lawsuits. These serve, as personal injury lawsuits usually do, to bring changes to business as usual. Lawsuits for police abuse and excessive force are an important part of the drive to reform training and policies in police forces.

Tamir Rice murder: No indictment, $6 million settlement

A good example of these system failures is the murder of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, OH, just five days before Thanksgiving. The prosecutor failed to prosecute. Yet, 17 months later the City of Cleveland reached a $6 million settlement with Tamir’s family. It is too early to see what changes might result in policing in Cleveland.

The new U.S. Senate “Back the Blue” Act seeks to remove civil penalties as a tool to reform police departments.

The “Back the Blue Act” has been offered in the Senate in reaction to the recent fatal attacks on police. The Act increases penalties for harming a police officers, no matter how minor.

Robust civil penalties, a tool for change

This blog has made the point often that personal injury lawsuits help improve safety for all of us. Limits on compensation undercuts the ability to hold law enforcement accountable for horrible harm it sometimes inflicts.

Robust civil penalties for police misconduct and excessive force are particularly important. It is much more difficult to prosecute a law enforcement officer for assault or murder than to prosecute a civilian. Separate criminal laws for law enforcement personnel give them wide latitude in the use of deadly force. Although these laws, along with improved training, are currently under review, right now criminal law offers little help to end police attacks. Right now civil lawsuits remain the key tool available.

Back the Blue in its entirety is a gross overreach to address assaults on police officers. Federal law already addresses assaults on law officers. If the law passes, police officers who use excessive force  will continue to escape prison and there will be little access to the courts for victims. The best way to address the recent problems with assaults on police is to quickly move to reform.

John Groseclose, Partner, GSJones Law Group, P.S.