Dozens of killings by US police ruled justified without public being notified

The Guardian – by Jon Swaine and Ciara McCarthy

Dozens of killings by police in the US are being ruled justified without the public being notified, according to a Guardian study that sheds new light on the lack of official transparency surrounding the use of lethal force by law enforcement officers.

Officers involved in one in every six deaths recorded during the first quarter of 2015 have a year later been cleared of wrongdoing and returned to work despite no announcements being made by authorities or local media reports appearing.  

If this rate is maintained, almost 200 deaths in 2015 will be officially approved away from the public eye, despite the sharply increased scrutiny of shootings and other lethal encounters by police officers over the 18 months since unrest gripped Ferguson, Missouri, following the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old.

At the same time, another one in four deaths at the hands of police officers in early 2015 remain unresolved and are still under investigation more than a year later, restricting the information available to members of the public, including families seeking answers about why relatives were shot or subjected to other deadly force.

Professor Samuel Walker, a criminal justice expert at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, described the figures as “alarming and unacceptable”. “It does not serve the interests of justice and creates community distrust,” he said.

The findings emerged from a new review of data obtained for The Counted, an ongoing project recording all deaths caused by police officers in the US. The federal government has kept no comprehensive count itself, leading to sharp criticism.

Last year, the project prompted the Department of Justice to embark on a new program to collect the same information, drawing on the Guardian’s data and mirroring its methodology. It also pushed the FBI to pledge that it would improve its own discredited system for counting homicides by police, which relies on police departments voluntarily submitting data.

The project also involves an unprecedented effort to monitor the outcome of investigations into every deadly case – whether the actions of police officers were ruled justified, a criminal prosecution is under way, or the death remains under investigation.

Of 289 people killed in the first three months of 2015, 202 cases have now been ruled justified or accidental. But in 51 of these, no public statements announcing the decision appear to have been made by authorities involved, and no local media reports could be found through extensive online, public records and media archives searches.

Multiple prosecutors confirmed they had not actively informed the public of the decisions, taken either by themselves or by a grand jury bringing a “no bill” against officers. “We do not have a formal policy on such announcements,” William Lee Hon, the district attorney in Polk County, Texas, said of the decision to rule justified the fatal police shooting of Eugene Smith in Onalaska in March last year. “Depending upon the level of public and media interest, we may or may not send out a release.”

In another 71 cases of deaths caused by law enforcement officers during the first quarter of 2015, the authorities involved either confirmed that inquiries continued more than a year later, or declined to give details of any developments in the case despite at least three requests from reporters to do so.

‘Prosecutors have an obligation to the public’

Ten police officers have so far been charged with crimes relating to deaths in the first quarter of 2015, following a sharp increase in prosecutions that has been widely noted. So far, one conviction has resulted from these cases: Jason Kenny, a former deputy in Chatham County, Georgia, was found guilty of cruelty to an inmate following the death of Matthew Ajibade from injuries sustained during a violent restraint in jail.

Four officers were reprimanded or fired from their jobs in relation to cases in early 2015. One acquittal has also been registered: Hummelstown, Pennsylvania, police officer Lisa Mearkle was found not guilty of third-degree murder and manslaughter for fatally shooting the unarmed David Kassick in the back as he lay on the ground after fleeing a traffic stop.

While much of the public and media attention has been focused on cases taken to the courts by prosecutors, a strikingly large number of other cases have been concluded without official action or comment, even on occasions when the circumstances or actions of officers were sharply questioned. Four such cases involved the killing of people who were completely unarmed and four involved people accused of using their vehicles as weapons.

One of the unarmed people killed, Joshua Garcia, refused to stop when a deputy in Lynn County, Texas, tried to pull him over. After a chase, and a crash, the 24-year-old was arrested, handcuffed and placed in a police car.

Officers alleged that as they processed his arrest and inspected his car, however, Garcia managed to bring his cuffed hands around in front of him from behind his back, and tried to drive the police vehicle away. The officers opened fire on him and Garcia was fatally struck. Garcia’s mother, Delia, said the officers were found to have fired 14 times.

Nothing has been stated publicly about this unusual case since Garcia’s death 15 months ago. Sheriff’s lieutenant Pete Vallejo said in an interview, however, that the shooting had in fact been ruled justified and the deputies had returned to work. “Generally we don’t make media releases if the deputy involved is cleared,” said Vallejo, a spokesman for the department. “That’s just the current sheriff’s policy.” The local district attorney’s office did not return several requests for comment.

Delia Garcia said she had not been aware the shooting had been ruled justified until she was contacted by the Guardian this week. She said she received the original police incident reports from an attorney who was courting her as a potential client.

“The shooting just could not have happened the way they say it did,” Delia Garcia said. “It doesn’t make sense. But no one has called me, no one has told me anything since a deputy arrived at my house on the day it happened and said there had been a ‘slight incident’.”

Philip Stinson, an assistant professor at Bowling Green State University, Ohio, who monitors police-involved deaths, said regional authorities often allowed cases involving killings by police to be forgotten – either by drawing out the process or quietly concluding it – because of their incendiary nature.

“District attorneys typically don’t want to prosecute police officers if they can avoid it,” said Stinson. “There is an inherent conflict of interest in that they have to rely on their local law enforcement colleagues at other times, so they’re reluctant to deal with these cases.” Amid increased pressure on prosecutors from some quarters of the public to act against officers for excessive force incidents, however, often “they’re not going to issue a press release saying we declined to prosecute”, said Stinson.

Other analysts said prosecutors may simply decline to announce decisions by them or grand jurors to not bring charges against officers for the same reason as with any other defendants. “I do think it’s a problem, though prosecutors never announce declinations,” said Katherine Levine, an assistant professor at New York University law school. Levine argued, however, that “because of the nature of police killings, prosecutors have an obligation to the public that they don’t in others”.

Stinson said many district attorneys remained quiet about non-prosecutions mainly so as not to damage an overall prosecution success rate to which they can point during their re-election campaigns. “It’s the great unknown with prosecutors,” said Stinson. “If something is no-billed in most jurisdictions, they wouldn’t put it out there, because they don’t want people thinking they are bringing forward cases and failing to get indictments.”

Authorities in Arizona were found by the review to have discreetly cleared officers over their involvement in 10 separate deaths in the first three months of 2015 – more than in any other state. “There was no press release,” officer Kevin Watts of Scottsdale police department said of the decision to clear two officers for the fatal shooting of Dewayne Carr in January last year. Carr, an African American 42-year-old, was accused of reversing his car at a detective’s vehicle during an operation to arrest him for credit card fraud. “There is no policy on what is announced,” said Watts. “It is evaluated on a case-by-case basis.”

A spokesman for the Maricopa County attorney’s office, which handled the Carr case and several others from the 10 in Arizona, did not respond to a request for comment.

Six more cases ruled justified that went unannounced were found in Texas, and five in Oklahoma. “We do not have a policy on that,” Lieutenant Paco Balderamma of the Oklahoma City police department said regarding the public disclosure of decisions to not prosecute officers, adding that this was done “as needed”.

Four cases each were found to have been cleared without announcement in California, Florida and Alabama. Two concluded cases were found in Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Maryland – “typically, we do not make an announcement of declination,” said TJ Smith of Baltimore police department – along with one each in Alaska, Iowa, Kentucky, Virginia, Mississippi, Utah, New Mexico, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.

In the Tennessee case – that of James Greenwell, 31, in Memphis – authorities appeared not to have announced a finding that Greenwell in fact killed himself, rather than having been shot dead by officers on the porch of his parents’ house, as was said at the time of his death in March last year. Greenwell was widely reported to have been killed by officers, and as a result appeared in both Guardian and Washington Post databases of killings by police. “This was a suicide,” said officer Louis Brownlee. “The medical examiner determined Greenwell shot himself.”

Several police departments stressed that to their minds, responsibility for any announcement lay exclusively with the office of the prosecutor who cleared the officers involved, which then decided not to make public statements.

“We generally do not prepare press releases on other agencies’ investigations,” said Maj Johnny Greenwood of the Putnam County, Florida, sheriff’s office, regarding the clearing of deputies who shot Andrew Williams, 48. Williams was shot dead in his car during a chaotic drugs sting operation in March last year. The deputies, who alleged that Williams reversed his car toward them, were cleared by state investigators and the district attorney.

Dozens of incidents remain unresolved

At the same time, however, dozens more deadly incidents involving police officers across the US are still unresolved more than 12 months after they took place. In at least 15 cases involving the deaths of completely unarmed people, authorities confirmed that the investigations remained open more than a year later, or declined to give any status update when asked several times by reporters.

Sheldon Haleck was unarmed when he was killed in a violent encounter with police officers in Honolulu, Hawaii, in March 2015. More than a year later, a spokeswoman for the police department said, the case is still “pending review by the prosecutor’s office”. Investigative work was done by the Honolulu police department itself.

Haleck, a national guard veteran who had suffered from PTSD since working to clear bodies of people killed by the 2004 tsunami in Thailand, was wandering in a street while high on methamphetamine. When he did not obey orders from officers to move to the sidewalk, Haleck, 38, was shocked with a Taser, pepper-sprayed and roughly restrained.

A medical examiner quickly declared his death a homicide in a ruling that was not publicly disclosed for months. Basic police incident reports were only given to Haleck’s parents, William and Verdell, in recent weeks following persistent pressure from their attorneys.

“It’s very stressful,” William, a former senior police officer himself, said in an interview. “You’re dealing with unknowns and what-ifs and asking: ‘What did they actually do to my son?’ There’s no closure, no information from anyone. They’re stalling in giving us reports that were probably completed within two or three days.”

Dave Korga, a spokesman for the Honolulu prosecuting attorney, declined to say when the Haleck case was expected to be concluded, nor how its duration compared with other cases handled by their office. “We’ll take the time we need to make the right decision,” said Koga.

Video footage of part of the deadly encounter, which was recorded by one of the officers’ Tasers, was released by police without warning later last year. Haleck’s parents were given no warning and saw it like any other viewer of the local news bulletin. “How would you like to see your son die on TV?” said William.

“It was heartbreaking and devastating,” said Verdell.

Stinson, the police use-of-force expert at Bowling Green University, said the process “shouldn’t take that long”. He cited as a problematic example the indictment for murder last August of Adam Torres, a former police officer in Fairfax County, Virginia, over a fatal shooting almost two years earlier, following apparent bureaucratic maneuvering behind the scenes.

“This is a very professional organization in a sophisticated county government,” Stinson said of Fairfax. “It makes me wonder what is going on elsewhere.”

An extended inquiry period can frequently mean that pertinent disclosures are made long after the glare of public attention has moved on. Robert Zapf, the district attorney in Kenosha County, Wisconsin, announced that the fatal shooting by police of Aaron Siler, 26, almost a year earlier, was justified.

orres had been on his first day back at work following 10 days of leave after he shot a 64-year-old Vietnam veteran, who was allegedly armed with a knife. Siler, who was being pursued over a probation violation, was said to have ignored the officer’s orders to get down and even told him to shoot.

Zapf waited until officer Pablo Torres was cleared in the shooting before revealing that Siler was in effect unarmed when he was killed. Authorities initially told the public that Siler was killed when he “armed himself” following a car chase. This was interpreted by some media outlets to mean that Siler was wielding a firearm, a knife or a metal pipe.

Only a year later did the prosecutor tell the public that Siler was in fact carrying an empty plastic bucket. “It is conceivable that had officer Torres not fired his weapon when he did, Siler would have attacked officer Torres [and] caused him or the civilian witnesses great bodily harm,” said Zapf.

One thought on “Dozens of killings by US police ruled justified without public being notified

  1. I told you this — they’re only going to court, and you’re only hearing about them when there’s public outcry.

Join the Conversation

Your email address will not be published.