Category Archives: Police

The Police Have Been Spying on Black Reporters and Activists for Years. I Know Because I’m One of Them.

Wendi C. Thomas is a black journalist who has covered police in Memphis. She learned during a police surveillance trial that the Memphis Police Department spied on her and three other journalists. One officer admitted to spying on her. She’s on a long list of prominent black journalists and activists who have been subjected to police surveillance over decades.

by Wendi C. Thomas, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — On Aug. 20, 2018, the first day of a federal police surveillance trial, I discovered that the Memphis Police Department was spying on me.

The ACLU of Tennessee had sued the MPD, alleging that the department was in violation of a 1978 consent decree barring surveillance of residents for political purposes.

I’m pretty sure I wore my pink gingham jacket — it’s my summer go-to when I want to look professional. I know I sat on the right side of the courtroom, not far from a former colleague at the city’s daily newspaper. I’d long suspected that I was on law enforcement’s radar, simply because my work tends to center on the most marginalized communities, not institutions with the most power.

One of the first witnesses called to the stand: Sgt. Timothy Reynolds, who is white. To get intel on activists and organizers, including those in the Black Lives Matter movement, he’d posed on Facebook as a “man of color,” befriending people and trying to infiltrate closed circles.

Projected onto a giant screen in the courtroom was a screenshot of people Reynolds followed on Facebook.

My head was bent as I wrote in my reporter’s notebook. “What does this entry indicate?” ACLU attorney Amanda Strickland Floyd asked.

“I was following Wendi Thomas,” Reynolds replied. “Wendi C. Thomas.”

I sat up.

“And who is Wendi Thomas?” Floyd asked.

She, he replied, used to write for The Commercial Appeal. In 2014, I left the paper after being a columnist for 11 years.

It’s been more than a year since a judge ruled against the city, and I’ve never gotten a clear answer on why the MPD was monitoring me. Law enforcement also was keeping tabs on three other journalists whose names came out during the trial. Reynolds testified he used the fake account to monitor protest activity and follow current events connected to Black Lives Matter.

My sin, as best I can figure, was having good sources who were local organizers and activists, including some of the original plaintiffs in the ACLU’s lawsuit against the city.

In the days since cellphone video captured white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin squeezing the life out of George Floyd, a black man, residents in dozens of cities across the country have exercised their First Amendment rights to protest police brutality.

Here in Memphis, where two-thirds of the population is black and 1 in 4 lives below the poverty line, demonstrators have chanted, “No justice, no peace, no racist police!”

The most recent protests were sparked by the killings of Floyd and of Breonna Taylor, a black woman gunned down in her home by Louisville, Kentucky, police in March. But in Memphis, like elsewhere, the seeds of distrust between activists and police were planted decades ago. And law enforcement has nurtured these seeds ever since.

A Long History of Spying

In the mid-1960s, the MPD launched a domestic intelligence unit to spy not just on activists, but also on teachers’ meetings, a college black student union and labor organizers. That included Martin Luther King Jr., who came to Memphis in the spring of 1968 to stand in solidarity with underpaid and mistreated black city sanitation workers.

The police surveillance wasn’t conducted just with wiretaps and long lenses, but with snitches planted within local organizations, including spies planted by then-Mayor Henry Loeb, an anti-union segregationist, among sanitation workers who wanted to join a union.

In the iconic photo taken just moments after a gunman shot King on the Lorraine Motel balcony, several people are seen pointing in the direction from which the bullet came. Crouched over King’s body is a man holding a towel to the gaping wound on King’s face. The man, rarely identified in photos, is Marrell “Mac” McCollough, a Memphis cop who was assigned to infiltrate a militant activist group hated by Memphis police. There’s no evidence he was involved with King’s assassination.

Some, including members of King’s family, have long speculated that the assassination was not the work of a lone gunman but orchestrated by federal law enforcement agencies (the FBI famously monitored and harassed King). Both a U.S. House committee independent review in 1979 and a Department of Justice review in 2000 found no basis for this. Still, in 2002, the National Civil Rights Museum, which sits where the motel was, added to its permanent exhibits “Lingering Questions,” which contains hundreds of pieces of evidence, including the bullet plucked from King’s body. One of the questions (that the exhibit does not definitively answer): “Was the Memphis Police Department part of the conspiracy?”

In 1976, the ACLU of Tennessee sued the city, alleging it had violated residents’ First Amendment rights by maintaining records that “contained unverified information and gossip which related exclusively to the exercise of lawful and peaceful activities,” and, according to the complaint, “served no lawful or valid law enforcement purpose.”

A judge agreed and in 1978 signed the Kendrick consent decree, the first such decree in the country, which barred law enforcement from surveilling protesters for political purposes.

Many of today’s protesters know about that ruling, because in 2017 the ACLU of Tennessee sued the city, alleging that police were violating the consent decree by again illegally spying on residents who were exercising their First Amendment rights.

In 2016, protesters had a series of high-profile demonstrations including a May protest at the Memphis Zoo, a spontaneous protest against police brutality in July in which hundreds blocked traffic on the Interstate 40 bridge and a December “die-in” in the mayor’s front yard. After those, according to the lawsuit, the city started a blacklist of residents barred from City Hall without an escort.

It contained the names not just of those who had been arrested at demonstrations, but many who had not, including the mother of Darrius Stewart, a black teen police shot and killed in 2015 following a traffic stop, and a white grandmother who’d made it through a security blockade outside Graceland while black protesters were held back.

Reynolds’ sleuthing made up a good part of the joint intelligence briefings, which were shared with law enforcement agencies and some of the city’s largest corporations, such as FedEx and AutoZone, at the businesses’ request. (Facebook told the MPD it violated the social platform’s terms of service by creating fake accounts and impersonating others.)

In court, the city argued that the surveillance — videotaping demonstrations, using social media collators to sweep up posts about police and Black Lives Matters supporters — was necessary to protect public safety.

But while joint intelligence briefings and internal reports were ostensibly to keep track of potential threats, they were littered with unfounded rumors, misidentified photos of activists and surveillance reports of events that posed no clear threat, such as a black food truck festival.

And while it’s true that the pen is mightier than the sword, there’s nothing about me that screams threat, unless critical reporting on public policy and public officials, including Mayor Jim Strickland, counts.

In 2017, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism covered the anniversary of the bridge protest, but when I tried to get an interview with the mayor, I was rebuffed.

“Objectivity dictates if the mayor does one on one interviews,” wrote Ursula Madden, the city’s chief communications officer in an email. “You have demonstrated, particularly on social media, that you are not objective when it comes to Mayor Strickland.”

I replied that I was disappointed and asked her to point me to any errors of fact I’d made in my coverage. She did not respond.

Nagging Suspicions

I’ve worked as a journalist in Memphis for the last 17 years. I’ve never been a victim of police brutality, but few of my interactions with police have inspired confidence.

In 2014, while I was at The Commercial Appeal, a reader threatened by email to rape me after a column I wrote about Confederate Gen. Nathan B. Forrest. I reluctantly reported the threat to police, but the investigation felt lackluster and no suspect was ever identified.

It nagged at me, and years later, when I tried to learn more about what steps the detective assigned to my case had taken, department officials refused to share any information, even the details of their interview with me.

In July 2015, I covered the demonstrations that followed Stewart’s death by police. I interviewed the teen’s father and posted the video on Instagram.

A few days later, a cousin I hadn’t seen in years stopped by. He wanted to take a quick tour through downtown Memphis. It was dark and rainy. He’s black with long locks and a beard.

I wanted to be a good host, but before I left the house, I tweeted my hesitation: “My cousin is in town for work, leaving tomorrow. He wants to see Downtown. My 1st thought: Do I want to risk an encounter w/ police?”

My fear was not without cause: Less than two weeks earlier, Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman, had been forced out of her car by an aggressive Texas cop who’d stopped her for failing to signal while changing lanes. A dashboard camera video caught her arrest and three days later, she was found dead in a jail cell. Authorities said she died by suicide.

I was thinking about what happened to Bland and what had happened to Stewart, who had been shot to death by police following a traffic stop the same month.

Just a few miles from home, flashing lights filled my rearview mirror. I pulled over, heart pounding.

I hit record on my cellphone and placed it on the dashboard. You can’t see the officer’s face in the video, which I still have, but you can hear our voices over the windshield wipers. The officer, who was black, asked for my license. I handed it to him and asked why I’d been stopped.

He said my driver’s side headlight was out, but when he leaned over to tap it, he said it was back on.

“I’m not trying to be Sandra Bland tonight,” I told the officer.

The Memphis officer said he was trying to be a nice guy. “You think I want to stand out here in the rain?” he can be heard saying on video.

“Ms. Thomas,” he said, reading my license. “Ms. Wendi Thomas.” I wondered if he recognized my byline. I offered to show him what I had just tweeted but he declined. “Your headlights are working now,” he said. “You be safe, OK?”

“Yeah, but what happens when somebody else pulls me over?” I asked.

“I don’t know what somebody else is gonna do,” he said, “but I know that if you do the right things, if you’re doing the right things, then nothing else can happen but good.”

I now wonder if the police had been following me. The police department did not answer questions for this story.

But at the time, I was paralyzed by fear and wanted to avoid being pulled over again.

I took side streets home.

Why Were You Following Me?

After Reynolds left the stand after naming me as someone he had followed, the judge took a short recess. I headed outside the courtroom and saw Reynolds headed to the elevator.

I followed him. When the doors closed, I stuck out my hand and introduced myself. I asked: Why were you following me on social media?

Although it was chilly in the courtroom, Reynolds was sweating. He said he couldn’t talk about it.

Two days after Reynolds’ testimony, I filed a public records request with the city of Memphis, asking for all joint intelligence briefings, emails or other documents that referenced me or any of the three other journalists that the MPD was following on social media.

Four hundred and thirty three days later, the city produced the records — and I still don’t understand what would make police see me as a threat worthy of surveillance in the name of public safety.

Contained in the documents: A screenshot of a Facebook post that I made on Jan. 28, 2016, while I was on a fellowship at Harvard University. I’d shared a notice about a grassroots coalition meeting to be held that day.

In a joint intelligence briefing was a screenshot of a tweet I’d been tagged in. The original tweet, which at the time police captured it had 11 likes and one retweet, was itself a screenshot of an offensive image a Memphis police officer had allegedly posted on Snapchat.

In another police email was a February 2017 tweet I sent about an upcoming protest, which had been announced on Facebook. It got two likes.

The city of Memphis is pushing back against the judge’s ruling. Its lawyers have asked the court to modify the consent decree, contending that the city can’t participate in a Trump administration public safety partnership if it isn’t allowed to share intelligence with federal agencies.

My battles with the city of Memphis didn’t end with the lawsuit, unfortunately.

In 2018, I was trying to figure out which corporations had answered the mayor’s call to financially subsidize police operations by funneling $6.1 million to the city through a secretive nonprofit, the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission.

Strickland wouldn’t divulge the companies’ identities, but he realized that public records I’d requested would. So the mayor’s staff, in conjunction with the Crime Commission and another secretive nonprofit, came up with a plan to release the companies’ names to local journalists before releasing the records to me, I learned through emails released in conjunction with a 2018 public records lawsuit against the Crime Commission.

And this year, I was forced to sue the city after it refused to include me on its media email advisory list despite repeated requests.

The city of Memphis did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

My experiences have shaped the way my newsroom has covered more recent protests, including those in Memphis since Floyd’s death.

A guide on covering protests from the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy notes, “Understand how police use news coverage to surveil black communities. Don’t allow police to use you, or your coverage, to do their jobs.”

We applied these principles to our recent coverage of a civil disobedience training that drew more than 350 people. While we know the names of the people we talked to, if participants weren’t comfortable using their whole name or showing their entire face, we protected their identity.

After all, I know how it feels to know that the police are watching you.


Republished with permission under license from ProPublica.

Police officers accused of brutal violence often have a history of complaints by citizens

Jill McCorkel, Villanova University

As protests against police violence and racism continue in cities throughout the U.S., the public is learning that several of the officers involved in the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville share a history of complaints by citizens of brutality or misconduct.

Decades of research on police shootings and brutality reveal that officers with a history of shooting civilians, for example, are much more likely to do so in the future compared to other officers.

Police work to keep demonstrators back during a protest in Lafayette Square Park on May 30, 2020 in Washington, D.C. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

 

A similar pattern holds for misconduct complaints. Officers who are the subject of previous civilian complaints – regardless of whether those complaints are for excessive force, verbal abuse or unlawful searches – pose a higher risk of engaging in serious misconduct in the future.

A study published in the American Economic Journal reviewed 50,000 allegations of officer misconduct in Chicago and found that officers with extensive complaint histories were disproportionately more likely to be named subjects in civil rights lawsuits with extensive claims and large settlement payouts.

In spite of this research, many law enforcement agencies not only fail to adequately investigate misconduct allegations, they rarely sustain citizen complaints. Disciplinary sanctions are few and reserved for the most egregious cases.

Protesters went to the home of the Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, who is now charged with George Floyd’s death.

Complaints, lawsuits – but few consequences

Derek Chauvin, the ex-officer who has been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter for killing Floyd, is no stranger to situations in which deadly force has been deployed.

During a 2006 roadside stop, Chauvin was among six officers who, in just four seconds, fired 43 rounds into a truck driven by a man wanted for questioning in a domestic assault. The man, Wayne Reyes, who police said aimed a sawed-off shotgun at them, died at the scene. The police department never acknowledged which officers had fired their guns and a grand jury convened by prosecutors did not indict any of the officers.

Chauvin is also the subject of at least 18 separate misconduct complaints and was involved in two additional shooting incidents. According to The Associated Press, 16 of the complaints were “closed with no discipline” and two letters of reprimand were issued for Chauvin related to the other cases.

Tou Thao, one of three Minneapolis officers at the scene as Floyd pleaded for his life, is named in a 2017 civil rights lawsuit against the department. Lamar Ferguson, the plaintiff, said he was walking home with his pregnant girlfriend when Thao and another officer stopped him without cause, handcuffed him and proceeded to kick, punch and knee him with such force that his teeth shattered.

The case was settled by the city for US$25,000, with the officers and the city declaring no liability, but it is not known if Thao was disciplined by the department.

In Louisville, Kentucky, at least three of the officers involved in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor while serving a no-knock warrant at her home – allowing them to use a battering ram to open her door – had previously been sanctioned for violating department policies.

One of the officers, Brett Hankison, is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit alleging, according to news reports, harassing suspects and planting drugs on them. He has denied the charges in a response to the lawsuit.

Another officer in the Taylor case, Myles Cosgrove, was sued for excessive force in 2006 by a man whom he shot seven times in the course of a routine traffic stop. The judge dismissed the case. Cosgrove had been put on paid administrative leave as his role in the shooting was investigated by his department, and returned to the department after the investigation closed.

Protesters took to the street the day after a grand jury declined to indict Cleveland Police Officer Timothy Loehmann for the fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in November 2014. Angelo Merendino/Getty Images

Patterns of misconduct and abuse

I am a scholar of law and the criminal justice system. In my work on wrongful conviction cases in Philadelphia, I regularly encounter patterns of police misconduct including witness intimidation, evidence tampering and coercion. It is often the same officers engaging in the same kinds of misconduct and abuse across multiple cases.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that across the nation fewer than one in 12 complaints of police misconduct result in any kind of disciplinary action.

And then there is the problem of “gypsy cops” – a derogatory ethnic slur used in law enforcement circles to refer to officers who are fired for serious misconduct from one department only to be rehired by another one.

Timothy Loehmann, the Cleveland officer who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, resigned before he was fired from his previous department after they deemed him unfit to serve. A grand jury did not indict Loehmann for the killing, but he was fired by the Cleveland Division of Police after they found he had not disclosed the reason for leaving his previous job.

In the largest study of police hiring, researchers concluded that rehired officers, who make up roughly 3% of the police force, present a serious threat to communities because of their propensity to re-offend, if they had engaged in misconduct before.

These officers, wrote the study’s authors, “are more likely … to be fired from their next job or to receive a complaint for a ‘moral character violation.’”

The Newark model

The Obama administration’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommended the creation of a national database to identify officers whose law enforcement licenses were revoked due to misconduct. The database that currently exists, the National Decertification Index, is limited, given state level variation in reporting requirements and decertification processes.

Analysts agree that this is a useful step, but it does not address underlying organizational and institutional sources of violence, discrimination and misconduct.

For example, in the aftermath of the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the Department of Justice found that the department had a lengthy history of excessive force, unconstitutional stop and searches, racial discrimination and racial bias.

The report noted that the use of force was often punitive and retaliatory and that “the overwhelming majority of force – almost 90% – is used against African Americans.”

One promising solution might be the creation of independent civilian review boards that are able to conduct their own investigations and impose disciplinary measures.

In Newark, New Jersey, the board can issue subpoenas, hold hearings and investigate misconduct.

Research at the national level suggests that jurisdictions with citizen review boards uphold more excessive force complaints than jurisdictions that rely on internal mechanisms.

But historically, the work of civilian review boards has been undercut by limitations on resources and authority. Promising models, including the one in Newark, are frequently the target of lawsuits and harassment by police unions, who say that such boards undermine the police department’s internal disciplinary procedures.

In the case of civilian review board in the Newark, the board largely prevailed in the aftermath of the police union lawsuit. The court ruling restored the board’s ability to investigate police misconduct – but it made the board’s disciplinary recommendations nonbinding.


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

Violent response to George Floyd’s Murder Justified?

Earlier today I had a conversation with one of my closest friends about looting and fires that took place in Minneapolis. It's easy to talk about peaceful responses to violence that's not happening to you. If George Floyd was your son, father, brother, or husband, how peaceful would you feel? 

Tamika Mallory delivers a powerful message about violence prior to former NBA player Steven Jackson speaking about his friend George Floyd being murdered by police. 

Individuals have a right to resist and rebel against a tyrannical government and political injustices. Isn't that the example set by our nation's founding fathers? Thomas Paine wrote in his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense when struggling to defend rights against tyranny, “it is the violence which is done and threatened to our persons … which conscientiously qualifies the use of arms”. Protesters in Minneapolis have been mostly peaceful, but some have decided, "Give me liberty, or give me death!" Instead of destroying tea, they destroyed buildings including a police station.

“Negroes
Sweet and docile,
Meek, humble, and kind:
Beware the day
They change their minds!"
–Warning! from Langston Hughes

On May 19th, in response to excessive force used by Des Peres, MO police against a black grandmother and her son who were falsely accused of stealing at Sam's Club on Hanley Road, I wrote the following response on Facebook.

"Until we do more than just protest, this will never end! Police and even random strangers feel comfortable violating our rights because they don't fear any consequences. As a collective group, we better figure out a way to make them fear us. It's just a matter of time before the next victim is you, your family member, or your friend, but unless there's a video you have almost zero chance at justice."

Less than a week later, the world witnessed the video of a random white woman, Amy Cooper, using her whiteness as an instrument of terror in New York's Central Park and a black man, George Floyd, tortured and murdered in Minneapolis by police. 

Floyd is the latest high profile unarmed black lynching victim. Nearly five years ago, the police killing of Jamar Clark in Minneapolis sparked weeks of protests. Now here we go again. I cried as I watched yet another lynching of an unarmed helpless black man. The cop knew he was being recorded, but seemed to have the attitude that as a policeman, no matter what he does, on or off-camera, his badge would protect him.

It's a clear case of murder for anyone that watches the video of Floyd's death. There's no justification! As one of the hero bystanders who tried to save Floyd stated, Chauvin seemed to enjoy it. At what point do we stop peacefully letting them kill us!

Mike Freeman, county attorney for Hennepin County, condemned the actions of white cop Derek Chauvin as "horrific and terrible", but he added there was "other evidence that does not support a criminal charge". When a black Minneapolis cop, Mohamed Noor, killed a white woman in a split-second decision, he was arrested, found guilty, and sentenced to 12.5 years. Noor became the first Minneapolis policeman to be convicted of an on-duty killing. There was no video or talk about "other evidence".

There have been so many high profile killings of unarmed black people that go unpunished, it's difficult to keep track of them all, below is a partial list that includes four from St. Louis:

Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sean Bell, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Eric Harris, Sam Dubose, Alton Sterling, Laquan McDonald, Akai Gurley, Walter Scott, Jordan Edwards, Mike Brown, Mansur Ball-Bey, Terry Tillman, Anthony Lamar Smith.

Chauvin was finally arrested and charged with murder, but not before a police station and more than fifty other buildings were burned. However, most police killings aren't recorded and don't become high profile. When cops lie and no video evidence exists, the cops are believed. It's always amazed me how many black men like Terry Tillman, supposedly point a gun at a cop and get killed before even getting off a shot.

King aptly stated that "riots are the language of the unheard"! King could utter the same words below today and they would be just as meaningful. 

“But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.” – Dr. MLK Jr.

The Minneapolis police department has a long history of racism. The violence in Minneapolis is a symptom of racism. Until the disease racism is eradicated from police forces, these destructive reactions will become more common.

The current black police chief, Medaria Arradondo, filed a discrimination suit against the department earlier in his career. Only a tiny fraction of police brutality is captured on video, but that may soon change, as self-driving vehicles, delivery drones, and other technologies all equipped with multiple cameras, become more common, more incidences with be captured on camera.    

Hopefully, cities all across American will learn a lesson from Minneapolis. Gone are the days when protest about brutality remains completely peaceful. Modern protesters include revolutionaries within the ranks, some with nothing to lose and no fear. The best protection against violent reactions is no unnecessary violence! 

Cities with more black residents rely more on traffic tickets and fines for revenue

By Akheil Singla, Arizona State University 

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the last time I got a speeding ticket. It was nearly a decade ago and it’s a pretty unremarkable story: I was on my way back to Columbus, Ohio, from a friend’s wedding and was going something like 15 mph over the speed limit. An officer pulled me over, asked me if I knew why he did, walked back to his squad car and returned with a ticket for US$90.

At the time, I didn’t think much about it. I was 22, I was speeding, and that is what happened when you got caught. I didn’t consider the motives of the officer, his law enforcement agency or the financial status of the city he worked for. And I definitely didn’t consider the fact that I was a brown man driving through rural Ohio.

But now that I’m a scholar of public finance, it’s all I can think about. My recent research – and that of others – shows that communities with more residents of color are more likely to rely on revenue coming from traffic tickets and other minor fines.

Fines as revenue

Local governments on average don’t rely all that much on revenue from things like traffic citations, termed fines and forfeitures.

According to data from the Census of Governments, the average city generated about $21 per person from fines in 2012, the last year for which there is national data. For reference, the average city generated about $150 per person from sales taxes at the time.

But there is a lot of variation: Some cities get more than 10% or 20% of their revenue from fines.

Why might some communities rely on fines way more than others do? One reason could be higher incidences of crime. Another might be that certain governments make a strategic choice to target passersby via speed traps. It could be a response to budgetary shortfalls or fiscal stress. And still another might be the race of the population or law enforcement agency.

If it’s not clear how or why this could involve race, you should take a look at the Department of Justice report on in Ferguson, Missouri. After Michael Brown, a black man living in a majority-black community, was shot and killed by a white police officer serving in a majority-white police force, the department investigated.

It found that officers in Ferguson were focused on revenue generation, a practice known as “policing for profit.” Police aggressively fined residents, primarily black residents, without much consideration of whether doing so enhanced public trust or safety.

According to the report, “The harms of Ferguson’s police and court practices are borne disproportionately by African Americans, and there is evidence that this is due in part to intentional discrimination on the basis of race.”

But was Ferguson an isolated case? And, more generally, what explains the variation in city use of fines? My colleagues – Charlotte Kirschner and Samuel B. Stone, also scholars of public finance – and I set out to find out.

Who relies on fines

In our study, we looked at a representative sample of 93 California cities from 2009 to 2014 to determine what affects how much cities fine residents and rely on fines for revenue.

We examined how fines were affected by levels of crime and public safety, city financial health and budgetary stress, and the racial composition of both the population and the law enforcement agency serving it.

We found no relationship between crime or budgetary stress and fines. However, we did find that cities with larger black populations fine residents more on a per capita basis and are more reliant on fines.

All else equal, our results showed that a 1% increase in black population is associated with a 5% increase in per capita revenue from fines and a 1% increase in share of total revenue from fines.

Furthermore, the cities seemingly most reliant on fines are the ones with the highest percentages of black residents being served by law enforcement that is whiter than its community.

Take Inglewood: In 2010, it was 43% black and 23% white, but its law enforcement agency was flipped, at nearly 40% white and 16% black. The city generated nearly 5% of its revenues from fines, more than double the average city in California.

Despite the similarities to Ferguson, it is really important for me to emphasize that our research isn’t accusing anyone of being racist or intentionally discriminating against minorities – though, to be fair, our results don’t preclude this explanation either. Rather, I’m just highlighting that even seemingly colorblind policies, like a $90 traffic citation for speeding, can have outcomes that are very much not colorblind.

Fixing the problem

Unfortunately, I wasn’t very surprised by our results. Even setting aside the Ferguson case, there’s a lot of research that points in this direction.

First, policing for profit via civil asset forfeiture and traffic tickets is, unfortunately, a documented phenomenon that alters police behavior.

Second, studies persistently find that minority residents and communities of color are more common recipients of law enforcement action and punishment.

And third, government agencies that are more representative of their communities along gender and racial dimensions have been demonstrated to reduce unfavorable outcomes for minority groups across many studies. The only thing we did was show that these things are all connected.

So, how can Americans solve this issue? I think we should start by eliminating the incentives governments might have to fine for revenue generation. Do this by pooling money from fines at the state level and redistributing it evenly instead of letting local governments make their own decisions.

Then, elect more ethnic and racial minorities to be mayors or serve on city councils and proactively focus on ensuring meaningful representation in the unelected bureaucracy. Our research demonstrates these changes should alter the distribution of fines, but making them so would probably have other beneficial effects for underserved communities as well.

If nothing else, the next time you get pulled over for speeding – especially if it’s for doing 55 in a 54 – you should ask yourself why it’s happening. It might be a lot less about how fast you were going than you’d think.


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

Arrests of 6-year-olds shows the perils of putting police in primary schools

By F. Chris Curran, University of Florida

When states like Florida pass laws to put more police officers in schools, the idea is to keep kids safe.

But as the arrest of two six-year-olds in a Florida school in October has shown, sometimes one threat to the students is the officers themselves.

The portion of primary schools that have police officers on site has risen dramatically in recent years.

Instead of being protected, these very young students were placed in handcuffs and arrested. Each one faced misdemeanor battery charges as a result of behavioral outbursts at school, including one instance in which one of the children kicked a school staffer.

While the arrests of the two elementary students in Orlando are not everyday occurrences, they do reflect a body of research that suggests cops in schools – they are formally known as school resource officers, or SROs – can take what would otherwise be a routine school disciplinary situation and escalate it to a whole different level.

I base that assertion on my work as a researcher who has studied school discipline, school safety and the role of school resource officers in elementary schools.

My work sheds light on the potential unintended consequences of school resource officers – as well as ways that school leaders can prevent situations like the arrests that unfolded in Orlando.

A growing presence

School resource officers, who are sworn officers with full arrest powers, are increasingly common in primary schools. Between 2005 and 2015, the percentage of primary schools with school resource officers increased 64%. Now, nearly one in three elementary schools has one of these officers at least part-time.

This trend is set to continue as states like Florida and Maryland passed legislation in 2018 to increase the presence of police to all schools.

Response to student behavior

Certainly, elementary schools must occasionally deal with violent behavior. In fact, my colleagues and I have found that as many as 12% of teachers experience threats of or actual physical attacks from students each year. Indeed, in the case in Orlando, one of the six-year-olds was arrested in part for kicking a staff member during an outburst.

In 2012, kindergartner Salecia Johnson, then 6, was handcuffed by police after she threw a tantrum at her school. A police report stated the girl knocked over a shelf that injured the principal. 

What’s increasingly changing, however, is how schools respond to these violent incidents. The presence of police in schools has been shown to increase the likelihood that students are arrested for school misconduct. For example, prior research has found that police agencies that get funding for school police increase arrests of youth under age 15 by as much as 21%. This may be because the presence of police can shift the mindset of schools to one that is more about punishment than it is about teaching students why their behavior is wrong and what they can do to make amends.

In our work, we have found that even when school district policy specifies that school resource officers should not be involved in discipline, many of the officers interpret this policy differently. For example, school resource officers may use their proximity to deter misbehavior, may pull misbehaving students aside to talk or may be present while school personnel interrogate or search students.

School officials have a lower standard to justify a search than law enforcement. Similarly, school officials can interrogate students without providing a Miranda warning – the legally required notice of the right to remain silent or have legal counsel that police must give when they have someone in custody. So, if officers are present during interrogations or searches in schools, it could enable them to bypass legal protections that exist outside of schools.

A school police officer stands watch as students eat lunch at a school in Ohio. 

School resource officers are trained primarily as law enforcement agents. It should, therefore, be little surprise that they sometimes default to responses like arrest.

Keeping school police in check

Florida State Attorney Aramis Ayala declined to prosecute the students arrested in Orlando. She said she refuses to “knowingly play any role in the school-to-prison pipeline.”

Florida State Attorney Aramis Ayala speaks at a news conference Monday, Sept. 23, 2019, in Orlando, Florida. She confirmed that her office would not prosecute two 6-year-old students that were arrested by an Orlando police officer. 

The local police agency has fired the officer involved, citing violation of their policy requiring supervisor approval of arrests of children below 12 years of age.

While these actions demonstrate a commitment by state and local leaders to avoid repeats of this incident, there are other ways that schools can prevent student misconduct from ever reaching the point of an arrest.

Our work suggests that schools and law enforcement agencies should have clear, mutually agreed upon guidelines for when school resource officers become involved in student misbehavior.

In interviews with school resource officers, we find that many are responsive to district policy that prohibits involvement in discipline. Yet, nationally, around half of schools with school resource officers do not include language around school discipline or arrests in formal agreements with law enforcement. Based on our research, we conclude that school resource officers should only get involved in cases of very serious legal violations such as a weapon or acts or threats of violence and should take into consideration the age of students involved and circumstances of the situation.

Educators need training

We have found that many times, a school resource officer’s involvement in student discipline comes as a result of pressure from teachers and administrators to be involved. For example, in our ongoing interviews with school resource officers and school personnel, we encounter a number of principals and teachers who specifically ask the school resource officer to lecture students on misconduct, be present for disciplinary hearings, and, in some cases, go to a classroom to handle a defiant student instead of leaving that work to the principal.

Instead of asking school resource officers to help out with matters of discipline, in my view, teachers and school administrators should be given training and resources that equip them to respond to student misconduct without relying on school police. In a recent national report, almost 50% of teachers reported having to put up with misbehavior due to a lack of administrative support. Only 6% of teachers thought schools should hire additional police to help with student behavior. Instead, they preferred that resources be put to additional mental health professionals, teaching assistants and social workers.

Similarly, school resource officers should be given training that emphasizes the developmental stages of students and how to respond to student misconduct. As others have noted, training for school resource officers is often limited and varies in length and quality across districts. Nationally, 93% of school resource officers report training for active shooters. However, only about one third report training in child trauma or the teenage brain.

It is critical to keep students safe in school. That said, districts should carefully consider whether police should be in schools and, if present, what role they should play in student misconduct.


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

Body camera footage suggests police treat black drivers with less respect

By Denise-Marie Ordway

A larger percentage of black drivers than white drivers are stopped by police, according to a 2013 report from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. A higher percentage of black drivers are searched. And black drivers are much less likely than white drivers to believe police had a legitimate reason for pulling them over.

Researchers have studied interactions between police and motorists to try to understand such disparities as well as the reasons black people are far less confident in local police than white people are. Meanwhile, the nation continues to grapple with the high-profile deaths of several black drivers shot by police in recent years. In September 2016, a black driver was fatally shot in Tulsa, Oklahoma after an officer found his vehicle parked in a street. The officer was prosecuted, and a jury acquitted her in May 2017. Also in 2016, a black driver in Minnesota was shot seven times during a traffic stop and his girlfriend broadcast the aftermath on Facebook Live. The officer involved in that shooting has been charged with second-degree manslaughter.

A new study uses body camera footage to examine differences in how police communicate with black and white drivers during traffic stops.

An academic study worth reading: “Language from Police Body Camera Footage Shows Racial Disparities in Officer Respect,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), June 2017.

Study summary: A group of Stanford University researchers sought to determine whether there are differences in the way police officers speak to black people and white people during routine traffic stops. The team, comprised of scholars from the university’s linguistics, psychology and computer science departments, analyzed transcripts from 183 hours of body camera footage taken by police officers in Oakland, California in April 2014. (Oakland is a racially diverse city, where about 40 percent of residents are white and more than 30 percent are black.) The authors examined the language and phrases used by officers during 981 traffic stops, 682 of which involved black drivers and 299 of which involved white drivers.

Key findings:

  • Police officers spoke less respectfully to black people than to white people during traffic stops. Officers were more likely to use informal titles with black drivers and formal titles with white drivers.
  • White drivers were 57 percent more likely to hear a police officer use phrases that were considered the most respectful — apologies, for example, and expressions of gratitude such as “thank you.”
  • Black drivers were 61 percent more likely to hear officers use language considered to be the least respectful, including commands for drivers to keep their hands on their steering wheels.
  • Disparities remained even after the researchers controlled for the race of the police officer, the severity of the offense for which a driver was stopped and the location of the traffic stop.
  • Officers tended to use more formal language when interacting with older drivers and women.
  • Officers tended to use less respectful language with all drivers while performing searches.

Other resources:

  • The National Conference of State Legislatures tracks legislation on body cameras and provides a searchable database of state laws on body cameras. As of April 2017, five states — California, Florida, South Carolina, Nevada and Connecticut — require at least some law enforcement officers to wear body cameras.
  • The vast majority of law enforcement agencies in the United States plan to use body cameras or are already experimenting with them, according to a 2015 joint report from the Major County Sheriffs of America, the Major Cities Chiefs Association and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
  • The American Civil Liberties Union has spoken out against proposals to limit the public’s access to officers’ body camera footage.
  • The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of civil and human rights organizations, created a scorecard to evaluate the body camera policies in place at 50 major police departments nationwide.
  • The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics gathers data on traffic stops and surveys U.S. residents every several years about their experiences with police.

Related research:


Republished with permission under license from Journalist's Resources.

Black men 2.5 times more likely than white men to be killed by police

A black man in the U.S. has an estimated 1 in 1,000 chance of being killed by police during his lifetime, according to a paper out today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That’s 2.5 times the odds for a non-Hispanic white man, the authors find.

Black women are 1.4 times more likely than white women to be killed by police. Men overall are 20 times more likely than women to be killed by police, according to the paper.

Young adults are generally more likely than older people to be killed violently – something called the age-victimization curve – and that holds true when it comes to police use of deadly force. Across race and gender, very few people over age 60 are killed by police, the paper finds. The odds for everyone spike from age 20 to 35. For black people, the odds stay higher longer.

“40-year-old black men are at about the same risk as 25-year-old white men,” says Frank Edwards, an assistant professor at Rutgers University’s School of Criminal Justice and one of the paper’s authors. “So the risk for African Americans is following a really different pattern. The risk that black men and women face persist, and they’re comparable to the highest rates of risk for white people at a younger age.”

The sixth-leading cause of death for young men

American Indian men are also more likely than white, non-Hispanic men to be killed by police, at a rate 1.2 to 1.7 times greater, while the rate for Latino men is 1.3 to 1.4 times greater than the rate for white men, according to the paper. Asian and Pacific Islander men are half as likely as white men to be killed by police.

For all racial and ethnic groups, police use of force is the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S. for men age 25 to 29, Edwards says. Accidental fatalities, suicide, other types of homicide, heart disease and cancer rank higher.

“There’s research that estimates the years of life lost from police and it’s something like 50,000 years of life lost annually,” Edwards says.

That figure is calculated from the estimated number of years a person would have lived if he or she had not died prematurely. A 30-year-old man who had a life expectancy of 80 years before he was killed by police has 50 years of life lost. Nationwide, the total years of life lost from encounters with law enforcement was 57,375 in 2015 and 54,754 in 2016, according to a 2018 paper in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

By contrast, meningitis is associated with about 50,000 years of life lost each year, maternal deaths with about 57,000 and unintentional firearm injuries about 41,000, according to the 2018 paper.

Journalists produce good data on people killed by police – the U.S. government doesn’t (yet)

Research has thrown doubt on the reliability of federal data on deaths caused by police. The National Vital Statistics System (NVSS) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is one large federal database that counts people killed by police. But research published in recent years found the NVSS has undercounted these numbers by more than half. The FBI keeps tabs on what it calls justifiable homicide – “the killing of a felon by a peace officer in the line of duty” – but academic analyses also have found the FBI’s numbers to be off by about half.

Edwards, along with co-authors Hedwig Lee and Michael Esposito, used data covering 2013 to 2018 from Fatal Encounters to calculate their estimates. Fatal Encounters is a data project run by journalist D. Brian Burghart. Researchers for Fatal Encounters track incidents in which police used deadly force and verify facts through news media reports and public records requestsThe Washington Post also maintains a database of people who have been shot and killed by police, and the Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom has in the past tracked police use of deadly force in America. Neither were used in the paper out today.

In 2017, the FBI tallied 429 justifiable homicides nationwide. For the same year, the NVSS counted 589 deaths from “legal intervention” – its term for deaths caused by police. Fatal Encounters put the total number of people killed during interactions with law enforcement at 1,750 in 2017.

“On the one hand, it’s wonderful that we have people taking it upon themselves to do this in a way that’s been fact checked and reliable and is something we can use to produce epidemiological research,” Edwards says. “On the other hand, it’s a travesty that it’s come to that, and it’s also tragic that this is happening in an era when local news is being gutted.”

Offenders intentionally killed 46 law enforcement officers in 2017, according to FBI data.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics kept data on arrest-related deaths from 2003 to 2012 under its Mortality in Correctional Institutions (MCI) program. The federal agency stopped collecting data on arrest-related deaths in 2014, “due to concerns over the program’s coverage and reliability,” according to BJS criminologists.

The MCI program operates under the authority of the Death in Custody Reporting Act, last authorized in 2014, which requires that state and federal law enforcement agencies report to the U.S. Attorney General deaths that happen during interactions with or while in custody of police. But quarterly reporting won’t begin until 2020, according to a Federal Register notice from the Department of Justice.

Just last week, BJS released a technical report on a pilot study of its redesigned survey methodology for counting arrest-related deaths, which includes reviewing media reports of people killed by police.

“The hybrid approach to identifying arrest-related deaths, which combined information from media reviews and agency surveys, resulted in improvements in data completeness and quality,” the report concludes.

Spillover effects from police-related deaths

Spillover effects broadly refer to seemingly unrelated consequences that follow an action or event. There is at least one comprehensive, recent piece of academic research on the spillover effects that can happen when people are killed by police.

A 2018 study in The Lancet used more than 100,000 records from the CDC’s nationally representative Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey to explore whether incidents where people are killed by police are associated with mental stress.

The authors found that police killings of unarmed black Americans could contribute to almost two additional days of poor mental health per person among black American adults. That’s a total of 55 million extra poor mental health days each year. For comparison, the authors estimate that diabetes could be responsible for 75 million poor mental health days for black Americans. They didn’t observe mental health impacts after police killed unarmed white Americans or armed black Americans.

Even when law enforcement officers use non-deadly tactics, there can be spillover effects in the communities they serve. Research has associated stop-and-frisk policing with poor mental health and increased risk of diabetes and obesity.

“Know the magnitude of the problem”

Dozens of cases of police killing black men have received national media attention. Some cases can take years to adjudicate. Last week, a judge recommended that Daniel Pantaleo, the New York Police Department officer who choked Eric Garner to death on a Staten Island sidewalk five years ago, should be fired.

The research out today provides contextual data that can gird future stories about incidents in which people are killed by police.

“You need good numbers to know the magnitude of the problem,” says Edwards. “We think we’ve illustrated it should be taken seriously as a cause of early death, particularly among young people — to the extent that federal, state and local governments are interested in reducing deaths among young people.”


Republished with permission under license from Journalist's Resource.

Killed while Black at the St. Louis Galleria – Gun Law Analysis

By Randall Hill

Terry Tillman, a 23-year-old black man, who was shopping at the Galleria Mall was killed by a Richmond Heights Police after receiving a call about a man carrying a concealed firearm.

I have two sons who are 20 and 26 years old. Mr. Tillman could just as easily be one of my sons if they decide to exercise their constitutional right to carry a concealed weapon. I want my sons to have the ability to exercise their rights without the fear of being executed. They are both law-abiding citizens who shouldn't be considered criminals because they happen to be black. A gun provides some protection against violent criminals, but when black people encounter criminal, fearful or racist police officers there is little to no defense. 

White men aren't targeted with suspicion when they exercise their gun rights even though mass shooters who target random victims are more likely to white men. 

Legal behavior

The Galleria Mall has signs posted restricting guns, however, as we mention on our "Gun Law in Missouri" page, carrying a gun inside the Galleria was not illegal. A person who carries a concealed weapon onto restricted property and refuses to leave when asked may be removed from the premises by law enforcement officers and fined, as provided in Section 571.107 RSMo, but not charged with a crime unless an additional illegal act is committed on the private property.

Reports say that Mr. Tillman ran when asked about the gun, but running is not a crime. On June 5, 2019, a Federal Appeals Court ruled police who got a tip that a black man was carrying a gun had no authority to chase him down when he fled, and then to search him — at least in a state where carrying firearms is legal, US v. Brown, 925 F. 3d 1150 – Ct of Appeals, 9th Circuit 2019. The court in its opinion quoted Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens who said in a 2000 case: 

“Among some citizens, particularly minorities and those residing in high-crime areas, there is … the possibility that the fleeing person is entirely innocent, but, with or without justification, believes that contact with the police can itself be dangerous.”

It is not illegal to run from a cop who has not detained you or has not issued an order to you. "If you can walk away, you can run away. It shouldn't matter the speed at which you move away." – Ezekiel Edwards, ACLU. However, running may provide reasonable suspicion depending on the circumstances. It IS illegal to run from a cop who has detained you or issued a lawful order. The order "STOP" is a lawful order, and from that point on, you are committing a crime if you do not stop.

The U.S. Supreme Court held in Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985) that, under the Fourth Amendment, when a law enforcement officer is pursuing a fleeing suspect, the officer may not use deadly force to prevent escape unless "the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others."

St. Louis County Police Sgt. Ben Granda provides limited information about the killing of Terry Tillman. The officer approached Mr. Tillman and allegedly advised him of the Galleria’s Zero Tolerance Policy on guns. The officer claims that as he was speaking with Tillman, he suddenly ran away. Sgt. Granda does not indicate that Mr. Tillman did anything illegal. 

Felon in Possession and Warrant

I did not know Terry Tillman, so I am not personally familiar with his background or criminal history. I did visit his Facebook page, which includes some questionable post, but I attribute that to inexperience and youth; his page also indicated he was involved in music like my youngest son. Tillman was a rapper and probably felt the need to carry a gun for his own protection. 

Tupac talked about gun possession and violence in a 1994 BET interview where he explained why so many young people carried guns.

A cursory check of Missouri Casenet indicates that Mr. Tillman had an active pending criminal case for felony theft, but had not yet been convicted. According to the docket entries, Mr. Tillman failed to appear in court and a bench warrant was issued.

Casenet also indicated other criminal charges and convictions, therefore, if those docket entries were correct, Mr. Tillman was a felon in possession of a firearm. However, the police officer would have had no prior knowledge of those facts and therefore his actions may not have been justified. Because of abuses within the criminal justice system, criminal histories may not tell the full story, consider the lesson from "When They See Us". Many people accept plea bargains and confess to crimes not because they are guilty but from fear of long prison sentences in an unfair criminal court system or to simply to be released from jail because they could not afford bail.

What if

What if Mr. Tillman did not have a prior felony conviction, but was still facing felony charges? Since he had not yet been convicted, he would not have been a felon and his gun rights should not have been restricted. Until the police know otherwise, that's the assumption Mr. Tillman should have been given, especially in light of the recent  US v. Brown decision. 

Does a bench warrant make you a fugitive from justice and thereby ineligible per RSMo 571.070? A Missouri Court of Appeals decision, Missouri vs. Chase, 490 SW 3d 771 (2016) indicates it does not. The court determined the phrase "fugitive from justice" was not defined and was ambiguous. Therefore, even a person with an active bench warrant with no prior felony convictions based on that court opinion retains the right to conceal carry.

Identification

It's unclear whether any Galleria Official or store employee requested that Mr. Tillman leave the premises. It's also unclear if there was a duty to make such a request before calling the police. The answers to those question might determine if Mr. Tillman would have even been required to identify himself to police. 

The Richmond Heights Police had no way of knowing about a bench warrant or even who Mr. Tillman was. They can't assume just because he was black and had a gun in a permitless carry state that he was suspicious. 

If there is no reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed, is being committed, or is about to be committed, an individual is not required to provide identification, even in "Stop and ID" states. Kansas City is the only place in Missouri with a "Stop and identify" statute, RSMo 84.710(2). "Stop and identify" statutes authorize police to legally demand the identity of someone whom they reasonably suspect of having committed a crime.

If the police could not legally force Terry Tillman to identify himself, they couldn't have known he had an active warrant and would not have had grounds to arrest him.

Conclusion

The gun-rights of black people are under attack. Because of the no gun policy and signage, the police were within their rights to approach Mr. Tillman and inform him of the Gallerias no tolerance policy regarding weapons. When Mr. Tillman ran, he removed himself from the premises which complied with the newly provided information.

No one knows why Terry Tillman ran. Did he feel threatened or in danger? Did he fear arrest? But we do know that Mr. Tillman cannot explain his actions because he was killed. Running may not have been his best option, but people don't always behave rationally when they are in fear. The only person who can explain their actions is the officers that shot and killed Terry Tillman.

Was it reasonable for the police to be suspicious because Mr. Tillman ran? Probably, but an explanation about why deadly force was used should have been provided within minutes or hours at the utmost.  It's been three days since Mr. Tillman was killed and we still don't know why deadly force was used.

Without reasonable suspicion that a crime is being committed, a black person who conceals carry should simply be viewed as exercising their constitutional rights, to behave otherwise is a constitutional violation. It's very possible that Mr. Tillman's Missouri and Federal constitutional rights were violated. Unless police reasonably feared for their safety or the safety of others, deadly force should not have been used.

Family and friends of Mr. Tillman participated in a peaceful protest at the Galleria which resulted in arrests being made. Reportedly the family doesn't know where or how many times Terry Tillman was shot.

It should not be necessary to protest simply to get answers about why your child was killed. It's unreasonable that a family should be expected to accept the death of their loved one without a reasonable explanation. Transparency is required and expected and when not provide suspicion arises. 

Certainly, there are plenty of cameras in and around the Galleria, the bank where the killing took place, and surrounding businesses. The public has a right to know whether body camera, dashcam, or other videos exist.

Based on past history, I expect the police to implement their no snitch policy (blue wall of silence) and to use the facts that Mr. Tillman had prior convictions, a pending felony charge, a bench warrant, a gun in his possession and that he ran as justification for their actions. The police had no prior notice about Mr. Tillman's convictions, charges or warrant, so those aren't valid reasons to chase and then shoot him. Since they have remained silent, I can only conclude the most obvious reason, "black man with a gun".

My heart goes out to the family and friend of Terry Tillman, I'm so sorry for your loss. As you encounter and hear from ignorant and hate-filled people trying to demoralize your spirits and denigrate the memory and legacy of Terry, remember there are so many others who are praying for you and grieving with you. 

How the government can steal your stuff: 6 questions about civil asset forfeiture answered

by Nora V. Demleitner, Washington and Lee University

Editor's note: Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in Congress and the states are challenging the Trump administration’s embrace of civil asset forfeiture abuse, which strips billions of dollars a year from Americans – who often have not been charged with a crime. Law professor and criminal justice expert Nora V. Demleitner explains how this procedure works and why it irks conservatives and progressives alike.

The authorities don’t need a conviction or even for a suspect to be charged with a crime before seizing a car, cash or even a house.

1. What is civil asset forfeiture?

Civil asset forfeiture laws let authorities, such as federal marshals or local sheriffs, seize property – cash, a house, a car, a cellphone – that they suspect is involved in criminal activity. Seizures run the gamut from 12 cans of peas to multi-million-dollar yachts.

The federal government confiscated assets worth a total of about US$28 billion during the decade ending in 2016, Justice Department data indicate.

In contrast to criminal forfeiture, which requires that the property owner be convicted of a crime beforehand, the civil variety doesn’t require that the suspect be charged with breaking the law.

Three Justice Department agencies – the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) – do most of this confiscating. Most states also permit local prosecutors to take personal property from people who haven’t been charged with a crime. However, some states have begun to limit that practice.

Even when there are restrictions on when and how local and state authorities can seize property, they can circumvent those limits if the federal government “adopts” the impounded assets.

For a federal agency to do so requires the alleged misconduct to violate federal law. Local agencies get up to 80% of the shared proceeds back, with the federal agency keeping the rest. The divvying-up is known officially as “equitable sharing.” Crime victims may also get a cut from the proceeds of civil forfeiture.

John Oliver’s ‘Last Week Tonight’ segment on civil asset forfeiture in 2014 used humor to help viewers understand the practice.

2. Can people get their stuff back?

Technically, the government must demonstrate that the property has something to do with a crime. In reality, property owners in most states must prove that they legally acquired their confiscated belongings to get them returned. This means the burden is on the owners to dispute these seizures in court. Court challenges tend to arise only when something of great value, like a house, is at stake.

Unless an owner challenges a seizure and effectively proves his innocence in court, the agency that took the property is free to keep the proceeds once the assets are liquidated.

Many low-income people don’t use bank accounts or credit cards. They carry cash instead. If they lose their life savings at a traffic stop, they can’t afford to hire a lawyer to dispute the seizure, the Center for American Progress – a liberal think tank – has observed.

And disputing civil forfeitures is hard everywhere. Some states require a cash bond; others add a penalty payment should the owner lose. The process is expensive, time-consuming and lengthy, deterring even innocent owners.

There’s no comprehensive data regarding how many people get their stuff back. But over the 10 years ending in September 2016, about 8% of all property owners who had cash seized from them by the DEA had it returned, according to a report from the Justice Department’s inspector general.

3. Who opposes the practice?

Many conservatives and progressives dislike civil asset forfeiture. Politicians on the left and right have voiced concerns about the incentives this practice gives law enforcement to abuse its authority.

Critics across the political spectrum also question whether different aspects of civil asset forfeiture violate the Fifth Amendment, which says the government can’t deprive anyone of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” or is unconstitutional for other reasons.

Until now, the Supreme Court and lower courts, however, have consistently upheld civil asset forfeitures when ruling on challenges launched under the Fifth Amendment. The same goes for challenges under the Eighth Amendment, which bars “excessive fines” and “cruel and unusual punishments,” and the 14th Amendment, which forbids depriving “any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

In 2019, the Supreme Court unanimously found for the first time that these constitutional protections against excessive fines apply not just to the federal authorities but to the states as well.

Some concerns resonate more strongly for different ideological camps. Conservatives object mostly about how this impounding undermines property rights.

Liberals are outraged that the poor and communities of color tend to be disproportionately targeted, often causing great hardship to people accused of minor wrongdoing.

Another common critique: The practice encourages overpolicing intended to pad police budgets or accommodate tax cuts. Revenue from civil asset forfeitures can amount to a substantial percentage of local police budgets, according to a Drug Policy Alliance study of this practice in California. This kind of policing can undermine police-community relations.

The Justice Department’s guidelines state that forfeitures “punish and deter criminal activity by depriving criminals of property used in or acquired through illegal activities.”

However, the Inspector General’s office noted “without evaluating data more systemically, it is impossible for the Department to determine … whether seizures benefit law enforcement efforts, such as advancing criminal investigations and deterring future criminal activity.”

Critics of civil asset forfeiture argue that it can make policing more about raising revenue than improving public safety.

4. What is the scale of this confiscation?

The federal revenue raised through this practice, which emerged in the 1970s, mushroomed from $94 million in 1986 to a high of $4.5 billion in 2014, according to the Justice Department.

The Justice Department says it returned more than $4 billion in forfeited funds to crime victims between 2000 and 2016, while handing state and local law enforcement entities at least $6 billion through “equitable sharing.”

The scale of seizures on the state and local level is less clear.

5. What happened during the Obama and Trump administrations?

Under the leadership of Attorney General Eric Holder, the Obama-era Justice Department determined that civil asset forfeiture was more about making money than public safety. It then changed the guidelines for asset adoption.

Beginning in 2015, joint state-federal task forces could continue to share forfeiture proceeds but state agencies were no longer permitted to ask the federal government to forfeit property they had taken on their own.

I love that program,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in 2017. “We had so much fun doing that, taking drug dealers’ money and passing it out to people trying to put drug dealers in jail. What’s wrong with that?”

Attorney General William Barr, Sessions’ successor in the Trump administration, has also defended this policy.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has expressed astonishment regarding the unpopularity of civil asset forfeiture.

6. Congress and the states

When Sessions changed the policy, legislative changes seemed possible. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley sent Sessions a memo about how the federal funds obtained from seizures were wasted and misused. In some cases, Grassley wrote, the government provided “misleading details about some of these expenditures.”

The House of Representatives voted in 2017 for an amendment that would restrict civil asset forfeiture adoption.

The House also approved a bipartisan measure restricting civil forfeiture on June 20, 2019. This one goes further though and would substantially curtail the federal government’s powers.

State governments have also tried to discourage this kind of confiscation. New Mexico, Nebraska and North Carolina have banned civil forfeiture. Michigan has made it easier to challenge these seizures. California limited equitable sharing, and other states have increased the burden of proof the government must meet. But in many states, investigative reporting has shown that innocent owners continue to lose their property.

In a Georgia Law Review article, I gave examples of other ways to keep police departments and municipalities funded, such as increasing fines and fees.

Unless the police pursue some alternatives, funding woes will continue to contribute to abusive policing practices that fall most heavily on those who can the least afford them: the poor and communities of color.


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation 

Why the federal government isn’t prosecuting the officer who choked Eric Garner

Editorial note by Randall Hill: 

Systems, including the legal system, are created to protect the wealth, power, and self-interest of those who create them.

White slave owners created our legal and other systems still in use today. Eric Garner, Mike Brown and more were casualties of rigged systems.

Can you name a single system that does not fail black people in general? Education, banking, political, and just about every other system you can think of has extraordinary obstacles or traps targeted against us. We are de facto slaves because of our misguided trust in or lack of understanding about the systems that govern us. 

Unless we are prepared to make monumental sacrifices nothing will change. Tomorrow we will learn about another unarmed black person killed by police, get upset and frustrated, possibly march or protest but nothing will change. We will also hear about another black person being gunned down not by the police but by another black person. The police chief and mayor will talk about plans to reduce crime, community leaders will offer prayers and vigils, "We must stop killed each other" signs may go up, but nothing will change because the systems that caused the problems in the first place will not change. 

When we become successful, our success does not look like white success. For the most part, they own and we go to work for them. Two years ago, one in seven white families were millionaires and according to Credit Suisse, there are over 17 million millionaires in the U.S.

White people, for the most part, don't have entire systems designed to work against them, therefore as a group, they have better access to education, employment, housing, capital, and every other meaningful institution and system. Until we figure out a way to disrupt their systems the status quo will remain. What are you prepared to do? If the answer is nothing, nothing will change.

"Give me liberty or give me death"

Most Americans are familiar with the famous freedom quote articulated so eloquently by Patrick Henry, a man who owned 67 slaves at the time of his death. Many have never heard the full speech, a video reenactment is below.

As a slave owner, Patrick Henry knew he did not want to become a slave himself. He understood probably better than most that freedom isn't given, it must be taken. 


Article by Caren Morrison, Associate Professor of Law, Georgia State University

The Justice Department won’t file federal charges against the New York City police officer who put Eric Garner into the chokehold that led to his death. With the statute of limitations having run out, the case, legally, is closed.

Gwen Carr, Eric Garner’s mother, says the federal government should have filed charges. 

The decision, announced almost exactly five years after Garner was pronounced dead following a confrontation with police officers in Staten Island on July 17, 2014, has sparked renewed objections from his relatives, activists and politicians.

Every officer involved has remained on the force, and no criminal charges have been filed. Daniel Pantaleo, the officer caught on video with his arm around Garner’s neck, was assigned to desk duty, but has stayed on the department’s payroll and even received an increase in his overtime pay.

Garner’s death was brutal, but as a former federal prosecutor and a criminal procedure professor who studies how prosecutors handle police violence cases, the lack of federal charges doesn’t surprise me.

According to criminal justice professor Philip Stinson, local prosecutors are often reluctant to prosecute the officers they work with to investigate cases. Reporting by the Marshall Project suggests they may not want to anger the police unions they often count on for political support. And existing law gives the police the benefit of the doubt in most situations. Based on my research, it seems that this is just how the justice system works.

New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo allegedly used a banned chokehold in the July 2014 death of Eric Garner.

Obstacles to prosecution

The case’s basic details are not contested. Pantaleo, who is white, was among a group of officers who approached Eric Garner, who was black, during a routine arrest for selling untaxed, loose cigarettes.

The encounter, which a bystander shot using his phone and the city’s medical examiner ruled a homicide, soon turned contentious. It culminated with Pantaleo taking Garner down to the pavement with his arm wrapped around his neck. Pantaleo is seen shortly afterward on the video pressing down on Garner’s head as other officers crowded around him.

A few months after Garner’s death, the Staten Island district attorney announced that he had presented the case to the grand jury, but did not obtain an indictment.

A public outcry ensued. Garner’s dying words, “I can’t breathe,” became a rallying cry at #BlackLivesMatter protests.

But the fact is that it is extremely difficult to bring charges against on-duty cops for excessive force.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that in police use-of-force cases, allowance must be made “for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments – in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving – about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.”

Ever since, few juries have found police officers guilty of using excessive force. Since 2005, only 35 officers have been found guilty of charges related to killing civilians.

A sign and plaque near where Eric Garner had a deadly encounter with the police in the Staten Island borough of New York City.

Federal civil rights

Because of the Constitution’s protection against double jeopardy, which prevents anyone from being charged twice for the same crime, people aren’t usually prosecuted more than once for a single incident. But because U.S. law considers the states and the federal government to be legally independent jurisdictions, the Justice Department can indict an officer who has previously been charged under state law, even if he was acquitted.

When excessive force prosecutions against police officers don’t result in a conviction at the state level, the local U.S. attorney’s office may indict the officers for violating a person’s civil rights. This happened most notably in 1991 in the case of Rodney King, the black motorist who was beaten by Los Angeles police officers, and recently after the South Carolina mistrial of police officer Michael Slager, for shooting Walter Scott, another unarmed black man, in the back.

But the type of proof needed to bring a federal civil rights case is much more demanding than for a state criminal case. While there are numerous state charges that might be brought against an officer who causes the death of a civilian, from murder to manslaughter to reckless endangerment to assault, there is only one route for a civil rights case.

In those cases, prosecutors must prove that officers used excessive force against a person, generally defined as force that was clearly unreasonable in the circumstances. In addition, they have to prove that the officer’s actions were “willful.”

And willfulness is “the highest standard of intent imposed by law,” as the U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn, Richard P. Donoghue, said in his public statement about Pantaleo. “An officer’s mistake, fear, misperception or even poor judgment does not constitute willful conduct under federal criminal civil rights law.”

A narrow path

Many news outlets reported that the decision to close the Garner case happened once U.S. Attorney General William Barr ordered the case dropped, overruling the Civil Rights Division in his own department.

Activists have questioned Barr’s civil rights record, noting that while serving as President George H.W. Bush’s attorney general, Barr released a report titled “The Case for More Incarceration.” Barr’s predecessor, Jeff Sessions, quashed the Justice Department’s attempts to reform policing.

Still, I’m not sure the outcome would have been different with someone else in the White House.

In fact, disagreements on whether the case could be successfully prosecuted in federal court also snarled proceedings during the Obama administration. And there was only ever a narrow path to prosecution.

When Donoghue gave a detailed explanation for his decision, he took an unusual step. Most of the time, when officers don’t get charged, the reasons are shrouded in secrecy. Instead, Donoghue gave a painstaking explanation of the ambiguities in the video, the conflicting medical expert reports, and the reasons he believed the high standard of intent could not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

I once served in the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, which Donoghue now runs. I hate the fact that many people will never feel that justice was done in Eric Garner’s tragic and avoidable death.

Yet I’m not sure that I could have reached a different conclusion myself.The Conversation


How Eric Garner's Death Changed New York And The NYPD

The sad reality is, that unless your oppression negatively impacts your oppressor, they have no incentive to change.  Even New York Police Commissioner, James P. O'Neill, whose comments begin at 2:26 in the timeline, acknowledges how the protest over no indictments being issued in Eric Garner's death, culminated in the death of two police officers, which was the moment the police department realized they needed to make a change.


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation. The editorial note preceding the article and the video and comments at the end were not part of the original.