The two NYPD plainclothes detectives who shot and killed Kimani Gray in Brooklyn on March 9 have a documented history of lawsuits related to the use of extrajudicial violence and other civil rights abuses, according to reports by several news outlets.
The two officers, finally identified as Sergeant Mourad Mourad and Officer Jovaniel Cordova, had been named as defendants in a total of five lawsuits prior to the March 9 slaying of Kimani Gray.
The information raises specific questions about why the officers were able to continue serving in high-stress roles as plainclothes New York City police detectives, and more general questions about the capacity of police oversight agencies nationwide to hold the police accountable.
Attorney Brett Klein, who filed four of the five lawsuits, told the New York Daily News that “our clients’ interactions with Sergeant Mourad and Officer Cordova expose a disturbing pattern of unconstitutional and aggressive stop-and-frisk practices.”
Perhaps even more disturbing in light of the officers’ now disputed claims that Kimani Gray brandished a firearm is that “in each case,” according to Klein, “Mourad and Cordova attempted to cover up their misconduct by falsifying and fabricating evidence.”
Given the reticence of state and police institutions nationwide to prosecute police officers for criminal misconduct in criminal court, brave victims seeking redress for injustices are typically turned into litigants in civil court.
With a few notable exceptions, it is normally the only way that victims or surviving family members can publicly document police abuses and bring perpetrators of crimes who are also police officers to public account for their actions.
The city settled the five cases against officers Mourad and Cordova, resulting in no admission of wrongdoing by the city. The suits do not appear to have lead to disciplinary action. (It might in fact be interesting to see how their promotions have been affected by or even coincided with these lawsuits).
Rather than analyzing the lawsuits as a vital document trail informing the public about a greater pattern of abuse, one that is more than likely representative of myriad abuses that went unreported, it appears that it was “business as usual” for the detectives… right up until March 9.
On the heels of three nights of protests over the police slaying of 16 year old Kimani Gray, the NYPD has turned the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn into a State of Exception, claiming emergency powers to suspend the constitutional guarantees of the citizenry.
The people regularly targeted by police harassment and violence, overwhelmingly the city’s poor and minority populations, have taken to the streets to speak out against the NYPD’s draconian tactics. The police have in turn responded with even further harsh measures by suppressing the right of the people to voice dissatisfaction with that very same police force.
Cops kettled protesters at Wednesday night’s candlelight vigil, resulting in 46 arrests. Police even arrested Kimani Gray’s distraught sister, Mahnefeh.
The NYPD euphemistically calls the public spaces in which the Constitutional rights of the people are suspended “frozen zones.”
Allison Kilkenny wrote about the NYPD’s so-called “frozen zones” in December 2011:
“The ‘frozen zone’ is an arbitrary, official police business-sounding title that has absolutely zero legal merit. It’s something the NYPD made up, just as the ‘First Amendment zone’ is something [Los Angeles Mayor Antonio] Villaraigosa made up to suppress media coverage of the Occupy raids.”
According to FIERCE, the “frozen zone” in East Flatbush is being used to prevent media from covering the protests and arrests. Meanwhile, people inside the “frozen zone” can be subjected to arrest merely by exercising their constitutional rights.
“It basically means the area is under temporary martial law,” writes FIERCE. “The last times the NYPD declared a Frozen Zone was on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and during the beginning of OWS.”
An arbitrary dictate that arrests protest and free speech, set forth by the institution that is itself the target of the protests, creates a potentially dangerous precedent of placing the NYPD beyond reproach.
Occupy Austin reposted this poignant summary of events by Jen Roesch as they were unfolding in Brooklyn last night:
“East Flatbush, Brooklyn is under martial law as the NYPD declares it a ‘frozen zone’. Media are being monitored and kept from moving and reporting freely. Dozens of arrests and much brutality. Kimani was shot in the back seven times; a witness is sure he was unarmed; multiple reports are coming out that the police had been waging a campaign of harassment against the young man (including taunting him about a friend who had died in a car accident and threatening to shoot him when he tried to leave). This is just blocks from where Shantel Davis was shot, dragged from her car and left to bleed to death in the street last summer. After that shooting, police went to all the surrounding delis and confiscated their surveillance videos. Residents in the neighborhood live in a state of terror. Heartbreaking, enraging, the stuff that riots are made of. This city is at a breaking point.”
Kimani Gray’s parents are scheduled to hold a press conference this evening to address the March 9 police slaying of their young son.
Saturday, February 23
11 am – 5 pm
University of Chicago
Ida Noyes Hall
1212 E 59th St
By the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression Organizing Committee to
Stop Police Crimes, and the Human Rights Program at the University of Chicago
The Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, numerous organizations, and victims of police crimes call upon all of our sisters and brothers from all strands of the people’s movement to join us in calling the 2nd People’s Hearing on Police Crimes.
The 2nd People’s Hearing on Police Crimes will focus on the problem of police crimes, exploring how police crimes affect violence in the community, and encourage distrust and violence between the community and the police. The Hearing is also a call to action where we will discuss solutions to hold criminal police accountable for their actions, and for ending the absolute police impunity that currently exists.
[For more on the 1st People’s Hearing on Police Crimes, click here and here. For a full video, click here]
The Hearing will provide a public forum where the victims of police crimes and community organizations can present their cases and demands for justice. Victims will share stories of police abuses, such as murder, assaults, frame-ups, harassment, drunken driving, and drunken shootings. Due to the absolute unwillingness of Chicago institutions to discipline criminal cops, the People’s Hearing is for many victims their only chance to be heard. We will also discuss the proven police “code of silence,” which encourages and protects criminal police, allowing police crimes to become the norm and not the exception to the rule.
Without a mechanism in place to destroy the police code of silence and protect moral, law-abiding police, the distrust between our communities and the police only grows. As long as criminal police are protected by the system, our communities will only become more violent and our citizens will only become less cooperative with police investigations.
We believe that a Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC) is essential in the effort to repair the broken relationship between the police department and the communities they are supposed to protect. We hold that an institution that can truly discipline and prosecute criminal police, and encourage and uplift moral, law-abiding police, can transform the untenable police lawlessness that currently exists.
The 2nd People’s Hearing will provide the people with the tools to free their community from police crimes. Along with the typically silenced voices of police crime victims, we will discuss the following:
What is CPAC and how can we ensure its enactment
A comprehensive victim’s plan of action
Where to find and how to develop, a police crimes victims support group
How to demand action from the proper politicians or public servants, or how to replace them
How to file a complaint if you have been a victim of a police crime
Details and explanation of your human rights and civil rights
It is time for the people to demand that the City Council pass and implement legislation that creates an elected Civilian Police Accountability Council, one with the power to end the reign of terror in Black and Latino communities, and requires that the police truly serve and protect the people of Chicago.
Sponsors and endorsers:
Khalid Abdullah, National Jericho Movement, Chicago Chapter
Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression
Arab American Action Network
Jeff Baker, Committee for Better Chicago
Marissa Brown, Occupy the South Side
Rosemary Cade, mother of Antonio Porter, a Chicago Police torture victim
The Campaign to End the New Jim Crow
Frank Chapman, CAARPR
Chicago Area Peace Action
Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights
Matthew Clark, Chicago Police beating victim
Elois Clayton, sister of David Poole, wrongfully convicted
Mark Clements, Chicago Police Torture victim
Curley Cohen, Affordable Power and Justice
Ibi Cole, Vigil for True Justice
Mrs. William Crosby
Gladys Daniel, mother of Ewrin Daniel, Chicago Police torture victim
James Daniel, father of Ewrin Daniel, Chicago Police torture victim
Aaron Dellutri, Chicago Area Peace Action
Curtistine Delony, mother of Chicago Police torture victim Javan Deloney
Clarice Durham, CAARPR
Mike Elliott, Chair, UAW Local 551 Union Solidarity Committee, CAARPR, Coalition of Black Trade Unionists
Bertha Escamilla, mother of Nick Escamilla, Chicago Police torture victim
Emmett Farmer, father of Flint Farmer, murdered by Chicago Police
Linda Flores, mother of John Galvin, Chicago Police torture victim
Maxine Franklin, mother of Jerry Gillespie, Chicago Police torture victim
Dickey Gaines, wrongfully convicted
Dylan Hayworth-Weste, NATO 5 Defense Committee
Mildred Henry, mother of Kilroy Watkins, Chicago Police torture victim
Pat Hill, African American Police League
Kamm Howard, N’COBRA, Chicago Chapter Co-Chair
Human Rights Program, University of Chicago
Illinois Coalition Against Torture
Joe Iosbaker, Committee to Stop FBI Repression
Bishop Edgar Jackson, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Coalition
National Jericho Movement/Chicago Chapter
Carolyn Johnson, mother of Marcus Wiggins, a torture victim
Mary L. Johnson, mother of Michael Johnson, police torture victim
Attorney Larry Kennon
Gregory Malandrucco, Chicago Police beating victim
Mrs. Rosalind Morgan, wife of Howard Morgan, victim of attempted murder by Chicago Police (shot 28 times), serving 40 years in prison falsely convicted
Rev. Dr. Otis B. Moss III, Senior Pastor, Trinity United Church of Christ
Ronelle Mustin, Vice President, 22nd Ward IPO
Attorney Lewis Myers
NATO 5 Defense Committee
EvAngel Mama Dee Nubian, YHWH Nation of Obedience
Aidali Oquendo, father of Carlos Santos, Chicago Police torture victim
Ted Pearson, CAARPR
Annabel Perez, mother of Jaime Haude, Chicago Police torture victim
Jeanette Plummer, mother of Johnnie Plummer, Chicago Police torture victim
Kenyatta M. Rosemond, sister of Rekia Boyd who was murdered by Chicago Police
Randy Ryder, Keepin’ It Real Law Project
A. J. Segneri, Foundation for a United Front
Mrs. Armanda Shakleford, mother of Gerald Reed, Chicago Police torture victim
Martinez Sutton, brother of Rekia Bouyd, murdered by Chicago Police
Gayle Tuliman, Stateville Speaks
Kevin Tyson, Trinity United Church of Christ, Chicago
Enrique Valdez, Chicago Police torture victim
Aida Valencia, sister of Carlos Santos, Chicago Police torture victim
Danalene Powel-Watts, mother of Stephon Watts, murdered in his home by Calumet City Police
Steven Watts, father of Stephon Watts, murdered in his home by Calumet City Police
Cherese Williams, CAARPR, Cabrini-Green Legal Aid
Mary Williams, mother of William Ephraim, Chicago Police Torture victim
Attorney Standish Willis
Jonathon Winbush, Occupy the South Side
Women’s All-Points Bulletin
Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., Pastor Emeritus, Trinity United Church of Christ
CHICAGO—In an unanticipated move, the City of Chicago took tangible legal steps in federal court this week to silence the Chicago Police Department’s “code of silence.” The city announced it had struck a macabre deal with Karolina Obrycka, a bartender who was infamously beaten without provocation by off-duty Chicago police officer Anthony Abbate in February 2007, which was captured on surveillance video and viewed by millions around the world.
On December 3rd, the city agreed to quickly pay Obrycka the $850,000 in damages awarded by a federal jury, reversing its earlier impassioned vows to appeal the November 13th ruling. In exchange for quick payment, the city obligated Obrycka to request that a federal judge erase the jury’s landmark finding that the City of Chicago “had a widespread custom or practice of failing to adequately investigate and discipline its officers and a police code of silence.”
The importance of the jury’s November 13th verdict acknowledging the code of silence is not to be overlooked.
Evidence presented during the high-profile two and half week trial revealed not only that the Chicago code of silence directly supported Abbate’s confidence in being able to assault Obrycka without consequence, but that Chicago police brass and police brethren concealed evidence and obstructed legitimate investigation into the assault. Such actions, the jury ruled, were characteristic of more general, systematic practices within the department to conceal police crimes through an organizational code of silence that aims to protect criminals within its ranks, akin to what the mafia commonly refers to as “omertà.”
The city has in essence cynically maneuvered to”silence” the ruling as a likely avenue for hundreds of police brutality victims to receive some modicum of justice.
The potential deal between Obrycka and the City of Chicago is now in the hands of U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve, who on Friday morning December 7th allowed legal scholars to file an amicus brief where they will argue why the jury decision on the code of silence should not be vacated. The judge is expected to make a final ruling in two weeks.
Criticism of not only the city’s deal, but also their prior legal maneuverings related to the incident, came from all sides.
The Chicago Tribune wrote this week that the city was “essentially agreeing to pay the woman $850,000 now in return for erasing the jury’s finding that a police ‘code of silence’ protected the cop.”
University of Chicago law professor Craig Futterman, who investigates issues of police accountability in Chicago and is one of the legal scholars filing the amicus brief in the case, likened the maneuver to seeking a “code of silence on the code of silence.”
Even police officer blog “Second City Cop” was highly critical of the city’s tactics.
The criticism should come as no surprise, as the decision to cut a deal with Obrycka was an about-face for the city. Its decision to pay up rather than appeal came suddenly after waging a protracted five year legal war in which the city spent an estimated $5 million, and came long after rejecting Obrycka’s initial request of $400,000 in damages. For five years, the city in fact offered Obrycka nothing – not a penny – for her ordeal: assault, police intimidation, and attempted cover-up of the CPD’s actions and inaction.
Interestingly, the city claimed that the battle was being fought on “principle” – that principle however remains a bit of a mystery. Even after the jury’s November 13th ruling, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration promised to continue the battle through the extensive appeals process, even while contradictorily vowing to fight the code of silence wherever it existed within police ranks.
All of that was before Rahm Emanuel’s administration filed its motion on Monday, where it contended that the Abbate assault happened several years ago and that things had since changed. It is not without irony that one of their primary arguments for why the case is no longer relevant is the amount of time passed since the city began to wage its costly legal battle against Obrycka some years ago.
In the intervening period, the Office of Professional Standards, which investigated the Abbate case, was rebranded as the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), now with subpoena power and the pretense of independence and greater transparency. City lawyers even tried to contend that the new mayor brought change.
But the city’s own statistics tell a completely different story.
Based on the available data regarding IPRA, it is clear that the city’s arguments that change has taken place amount to little more than double-speak.
In the 2009-10 fiscal year, IPRA sustained a mere 47 of the 3,067 investigations it opened into police misconduct and brutality allegations, or 1.5%. It was hardly more successful in its first two years. In all, IPRA sustained only 1.7% of its own investigations over its first 3 years. In comparison, under the Office of Professional Standards, the City of Chicago in 2004 sustained 4% percent of the complaints brought against police officers for the use of excessive force.
The City of Chicago’s attempt to vacate the jury decision is part of its long history of concealing systemic CPD crimes and torture, and its more recent attempt to prosecute those who record Chicago police officer misconduct with the vigor law enforcement agencies normally reserve for its most violent criminals.
The city’s latest attempt to silence the vital ruling on its “code of silence” shows that the Chicago police omertà has been and remains central operating procedure in the city, and one for which legal acknowledgement is too much to handle.
In her final decision, expected within two weeks, Judge St. Eve “will have to weigh the interests of the parties involved in the lawsuit against the interest of the public in having the record of the jury’s verdict stand,” writes the Tribune.
There is federal precedent for the court to reject motions where cases of misconduct have wider importance to the general public. The Tribune writes that a judge presiding over a similar motion in a Virginia police brutality case in 2000 gave an opinion that, “the public’s interest in judicial economy, finality of judgment and the integrity of the courts outweighs the parties’ interest in having the verdict vacated.”
In the absence of civil proceedings, the prospect for holding officers accountable for incidences of police brutality in the City of Chicago is statistically next-to-impossible.
Should Judge St. Eve allow the landmark jury decision in Obrycka v Chicago to be vacated, she would effectively snatch the precedent away from other police brutality victims, leaving victims of police crimes in the city with even fewer avenues for justice.
The following paper was given on a panel that explored the connections between police crimes and violence in black and Latino communities. I included parts of the paper that I omitted at the event due to time. The event, organized by the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, was held on October 20, 2012 at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. Also on the panel were Patricia Hill, former Chicago Police Officer and Adjunct Professor at Northeastern Illinois University, and Lawrence Kennon, former Assistant Cook County State’s Attorney.
On the Relation between Police Crimes and Violence in Black and Latino Communities
Let me begin by saying that this is a massive field of inquiry, one that for me personally is an organic scholarly pursuit that I’ve only recently embarked upon in the aftermath of being brutally assaulted by Chicago police officers in February 2010, an experience that continues to change my life, and reshape my intellectual interests in unforeseeable ways.
When we speak about violence in black and Latino communities, we need to speak about the rise of both a highly-aggressive, punitive “police” or “carceral-state,” and the simultaneous economic and political transformations in the United States over the past 40 years. The highly aggressive mode of policing instituted in the US during this period is the concrete, interpersonal form of domination over communities of poor blacks and Latinos, so aggressive that it produces horrific police crimes like the numerous individuals – overwhelmingly from these ethnoracial groups – shot and killed right here in Chicago by police each year.
Police institutions can thus be seen as the Blue Front of both abstract economic forces and real-world political decisions that have decimated these communities over the past 40 years. The series of liberalization reforms instituted during this period, coupled with new job-replacing industrial technologies, have resulted in unsustainable levels of joblessness, making black and Latino men in the American city expendable, an army of surplus bodies, with few prospects in the formal economy.
In the political sphere, the War on Drugs, initiated by President Nixon in the early 1970s and sustained and intensified by successive Republican and Democratic administrations and law enforcement agencies nationwide, has effectively led to the warehousing of these surplus bodies as objects of profit in the booming American carceral system.
Contrary to the rhetoric of less-state intervention in the economy over the past thirty-plus years, we have seen an enormous redistribution of resources from social welfare programs to the carceral-police state, as anthropologist Loïc Wacquant shows. For example, the US in 1980 spent $21 billion on public aid such as food stamps and $7 billion on corrections. In 1996, so in just 16 years time, the spending on corrections in America increased to a whopping $54 billion per year, by then surpassing welfare spending by some $8 billion. To repeat: $7 billion was spent on corrections in 1980, $54 billion in 1996.
The police in the US represents the frontline in this “racialized penalization of poverty,” as Wacquant calls it, with state-sanctioned violence used to subdue these marginalized populations of highly-expendable surplus humanity, a population whose labor is no longer necessary. Instead of creating wealth through labor in the industrial sector, aggressive policing tactics confront this surplus to create economic growth by filling jails and prisons to the profit of everyone from the federal government, through a prison labor corporation which it owns, to the Taser manufacturer. The result has been an absolute explosion of the prison population in the US, from 380,000 in 1975 to over 2 million in 2010. Jails nationwide process 12 million bodies per year.
Using one state as an example, in Pennsylvania for instance, population increased 7 percent from 1970 to 2010, while the prison population exploded by 800% over the same period. This “Police hyperactivism,” according to Wacquant, “is disjoined from trends in crime,” as crime itself is not the cause of the dramatic rise in aggressive policing and incarceration. Indeed, if we hold the crime rate constant, the US penal state is shown to be six times more punitive than it was in 1975.
The working-class in Chicago, as in other rust-belt cities, has suffered from simultaneous deindustrialization and the cutting of the social safety net in the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, in 1970, 72% of black men in Chicago, ages 16-64, were employed. By 2010, that level fell to just 48.3%, which says nothing of the difference in quality of jobs – a transfer from industrial jobs to highly-flexible, low-wage service economy jobs. Further, Chicago’s black population has a poverty rate of 32.2%, making Chicago home to the poorest African-American population in any US city. It is no coincidence that these same places of joblessness and let’s say, hopelessness, are precisely the same communities where deadly violence is concentrated, as Steve Bogira recently showed in the Chicago Reader.
The intensification of police aggression in poor communities of color only ripens conditions for violence in these communities. As Tyler Zimmer argues, more aggressive policing only worsens crime and leads to new, egregious instances of police misconduct, police crimes, and civil rights violations. “The CPD itself has an unsavory track record of misconduct and illegal activity in the very communities — overwhelmingly populated by people of color — where the violence is the most acute.”
The constant intensification of police violence against poor black and Latino populations produces excesses of state power and a myriad of extrajudicial police abuses in these communities, with responsible law enforcement agents rarely if ever punished. This impunity amounts to the state-sanctioning of violence, but also the state-sanctioning of criminality, which highlights the hypocrisy and duality in the application of the state’s laws.
I’ll go further to suggest that systemic police violence against these communities (leading to the criminal actions of law enforcement agents) is not an error or in some way excessive, but rather achieves the desired result. It is a psychological tool if you will that is very much within the goals of creating disciplinary subjects through helplessness, insecurity, and fear – the type of feelings that lead poor youth to join gangs for security, which only fuels the cycle toward greater incarceration and criminality.
All of this might itself seem counter-intuitive to the regular Joe. Why would there be a connection between police aggression and violence in poor neighborhoods? Police are there to fight crime and violence, we are told, the way firefighters respond to fires. Yet this perception is extremely narrow and limited. Using more aggressive policing to combat crime that is the result of deep structural conditions is more akin to fighting the heat of global warming with the more widespread use of air conditioners: the irony here of course being that the more widespread use of air conditioners only further contributes to the greenhouses gasses that produce global warming.
But then the question is how this simplistic narrative – that more aggressive, or better police tactics can combat a broad social problem – persists in light of the enormous data showing how aggressive policing destroys communities, is deeply racist and classist in origin, application, and function, and rather than breaking the cycle of violence, forms the very structural core of that violence, thus further contributing to it.
In this way, I think it might be useful to look at the rising public awareness of violence in Chicago neighborhoods like North Lawndale, Englewood, and Washington Park. In the spring of 2012, the news of violence in these neighborhoods hit the Chicago mainstream media with a vigor not seen in recent memory. Why has the issue of violence in these communities suddenly become of interest to the public? I see two different groups with highly divergent interests raising awareness:
1. Concerned citizens and activists seeking to make the violence in black and Latino communities visible to the public in a way similar to the violence of rampage shootings that victimize mostly white Americans. This is an extremely important and noteworthy endeavor, that is, to show that the value of all life (black, brown, white) is the same, and that the effects of violence are just as deep and traumatic no matter the color or class of the person it touches. Beyond this, they ask the public to consider the level of trauma and emotional distress caused by experiencing such forms of violence and insecurity on a day-to-day basis. To sum up, this first position stresses civic equality, the equal value of all life regardless of race, ethnicity, or class.
2. The other major source, and by far that with the most reach, is this awareness co-opted by the police force, the police union, segments of the mass media, and “law and order” politicians who feed on the reproduction of racism and fear. These activists portray the violence in a highly decontextualized manner, or reconfigure crime to be of ethnoracial or individual moral failings, rather than a social problem of poverty. Aggressive policing is thus shown to be the facile method to stem violence. This position further enables the association of these already-marginalized populations with criminality, which results in increased targeting and criminalization of minor deviance. This message is especially useful in shaping public opinion against the diminution of police ranks in a time of significant municipal government austerity.
Without understanding the context and social causes that lead to crime, the easy solution is more aggressive and racially targeted policing of minorities. News reports devoid of context tacitly justify race-based policing without recognizing how race-based policing contributes to cycles of violence, both state violence and violence among poor people.
Naturally, these reports fail to grasp how Draconian policing in the drug war leads to real forms of social stigmatization, diminishes life opportunities, limits basic rights, creates mass joblessness, and leaves individuals with few alternatives to the informal economy. Meanwhile, at the socially general level, targeted arrest of people of color for things like petty drug possession, though drugs are statistically used equally by all populations, recreates the stigma of criminality attached to black and brown skin.
[I should add quickly that this association of blackness and criminality, held so closely in the minds of Americans today, is a really recent historical phenomenon that took off in the 1970s, as Wacquant shows. The racial makeup of the American prison for example, once 70% white and 30% non-white, has over the last four decades reversed to become 70% African-American and Latino, even while the percentage of blacks arrested for murder, rape, robbery and assault has declined over the same period].
Though policing solutions to socially produced phenomena (like labor-replacing technological advancements, inequality, racism, and segregation) are in the best interest of the police as a bureaucratic institution, corporate profiteers in the penal-state apparatus, and the police union, these solutions produce nothing more than cyclical violence and a poverty to prison life-path for millions. In fact, we can say that the aforementioned interests benefit, even profit, from this cycle of violence.
But we should not think that the individuals who create and implement policies are unaware of this larger context. For example, in response to a Chicago Reader report on the racial disparity in pot arrests(the ratio of black to white arrests for marijuana possession in Chicago is 15 to 1, with convictions at 40 to 1, despite equal use and possession among all residents of Chicago), a spokeswoman for Chicago police superintendent Garry McCarthy said “Crime and disorder issues emerge from a complicated web of social ills which law enforcement alone cannot correct.”
It is an incredibly honest and accurate statement on the limits of policing solutions to deeper social problems, directly from the police superintendent’s office.
But it only grasps part of the equation. Not only does crime emanate from a complex web of socio-economic issues, but policing solutions to social problems only further concretize the second-class citizen status marked by race and poverty in the United States, and increase the police violence meted out against these already marginalized communities, both nationally and right here in Chicago.
This is part two of two-part coverage on the People’s Hearing on Police Crimes. Part one can be found here.
CHICAGO – In part one, I presented the July 21st People’s Hearing on Police Crimes, introducing two major categories of police crime discussed at the event, murder and systematic torture. I also covered a third, interrelated category that was a central focus of the program: the near total impunity granted to police officers in Chicago, allowing them to brutalize, torture, and murder without the fear of consequences.
In part two I build upon these categories with a look at testimony by victims of attempted murder, assault, and false arrest in Chicago. I also report on instances in which the Chicago Police Department has served as an active arm of state and political repression. According to testimony, the police have in instances exercised this role upon the same individuals who advocate for greater police accountability in our system.
The lack of enforcement in cases of police crime, coupled with the targeted repression of those who seek to bring equality in the application of laws, is thus an example of the “ruthless pragmatism of power which secretly laughs at its own principles,” as philosopher Slavoj Žižek describes Russia’s current attempt to stifle activists.
In the cases of political repression testified to, police officers and institutions alike were said to intimidate, inflict pain, suffering, and even loss of freedom so as to preserve the surfeit of legal advantages they enjoy.
I conclude with some brief reflections on the People’s Hearing and a glance at the movement that will address these significant issues.
Attempted Murder, Assault, and False Arrest
Rosalind Morgan, the wife of Howard Morgan, spoke on behalf of the Free Howard Morgan Campaign.
On the night of February 21, 2005, Chicago police pulled over Howard Morgan a block from his home for driving the wrong way down a one-way street. Morgan had been a Chicago police officer for 14 years before becoming a railroad detective, a position he had held for 8 years.
Police claim that Morgan, off-duty at the time, exited his vehicle and opened fire on the officers with his service weapon. Morgan on the other hand “testified that he was ‘snatched’ from his van by the officers and searched, then heard ‘gun! gun!’ before a hail of bullets left him unconscious,” writes David Protess. Morgan’s version of events was corroborated by an independent witness during trial.
Chicago police officers shot Morgan 28 times, including 21 times in his back. Somehow, he survived. Officers proceeded to charge Morgan with attempted murder and others charges, including aggravated battery and discharging a firearm.
“Four white officers and one black Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad police man with his weapon on him – around the corner from our home – and he just decided to go crazy? No. That’s ludicrous,” said Rosalind Morgan in an interview with the Sun-Times.
Even though a jury in 2007 found that Morgan did not handle or fire his gun at any time during the incident, it deadlocked on the attempted murder charge.
“Mr. Howard Morgan was shot 28 times, a railroad police officer, a seasoned police officer, that did not commit the crime, found not guilty in the first trial, acquitted of shooting his weapon,” said Rosalind Morgan at the People’s Hearing.
Yet Morgan, 61, was retried in 2012 and, in a ruling that defies logic, was convicted on all counts and sentenced to 40 years in prison.
Chicago police destroyed vital clues in the case, even crushing Morgan’s van before it was tested for forensic evidence.
“We are here today to let you know: if they can do it to Howard Morgan…” said Rosalind Morgan. “Double-jeopardy, take you back to trial, after you’ve been found not guilty for shooting your weapon, if you’re not guilty for shooting your weapon […] then my god why does the first degree attempted murder still stand to your name?”
On the morning of Friday, January 13, 2012, Jess Caver was walking from his South Loop, Chicago residence to work at Rush Presbyterian Hospital, just as he had every other morning, when he was suddenly detained by a swarm of University of Illinois police. With Caver spread against a police car, surrounded by officers, a white female pointed at Caver from the back of a squad car and said “that’s him,” identifying Caver “as the man who came out of the building.”
“I’m thinking, ‘this is just a dream,’” said Caver on the surreal events of that morning.
Caver was turned over to Chicago Police and charged with criminal trespass. He was booked, strip searched, and held over the weekend for bond the next Monday. All charges were ultimately dismissed after a third court appearance in which the complaining witness failed to appear for a third time.
Fred Hampton Jr., founder of the Prisoners of Conscience Committee, appeared before the People’s Hearing with a visibly distraught woman who had witnessed Chicago police officers beat and taser her boyfriend, Antonio Hood, on July 19th.
“This situation happened 2 days ago on 79th and Laflin [in Chicago],” said Hampton. “I want to stress this because we wait until stuff is safe to talk about. I don’t want to sit here 40 years from now, talking about how bad it was. Let’s seize the time now. This is a situation that just happened. I am not talking about back in the 60s, I’m talking about 2 days ago, literally. Not Afghanistan, 79th and Laflin.”
After the beating, Hood was arrested and charged with obstructing justice.
Stephanie Weiner testified on behalf of her husband Joe Iosbaker and victims of a FBI raid in September 2010. Twenty-five federal agents working in conjunction with local law enforcement agents searched the home of Iosbaker and Weiner for 11 hours. Agents confiscated computers, searched their music collection, and systematically collected every piece of paper in the residence, including artwork by their children.
“They went through my teenage son’s t-shirt collection and put them into 2 piles, ‘controversial’ and ‘not controversial,’” said Weiner. “I can make you laugh about the craziness that happened, but as everyone here knows, it’s very real.”
Weiner and Iosbaker had spent years working on wrongful conviction cases and police accountability before turning attention to the peace movement.
“What they’re really trying to do is put the fear in the peace movement, and to slice-and-dice and to keep us busy,” said Weiner.
Neither has been indicted and all confiscated items have been returned.
Matt McLaughlin of Occupy Chicago spoke about police repression of the Occupy movement, culminating in the widespread police violence and targeted intimidation of protesters at the NATO summit in Chicago this past May.
“Across the country, the Occupy movement has faced massive amounts of police repression, everything from tear gassings to mass arrests,” said McLaughlin. “What’s happened in Chicago really hasn’t been much different. During the NATO summit, we saw mass beatings occurring to my brothers and sisters in the streets who were trying to highlight the fact that our mayor spent $60 million creating a police state in our city when many of our social services are being cut.”
McLaughlin spoke about the arrest of the NATO 5 just days before the summit, when State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez took the unprecedented step of prosecuting five young activists under a never-used before Illinois anti-terrorism law. Michael Deutsch of the National Lawyers Guild and the People’s Law Office in Chicago described the charges as “fabricated.”
“What happened was entirely predictable, as part of a script we see rolled out anytime people rise up and try to tell the powers that be that the world we live in needs to change,” said McLaughlin.
“They can all be facing life imprisonment for crimes that they didn’t commit,” he said. “They were set up much like the people we see set up every day on the south and west sides of this city.”
McLaughlin also spoke to the non-violent character of the accused, stating that the goal of the prosecution was to intimidate individuals from participating in peaceful political movements that seek change.
“These are great guys,” said McLaughlin, noting that Brian Church was a street medic and was attending college to become an EMT. “These were not the making of terrorists, they were good kids, they could have been just about anybody.”
Evelyn Johnson of We Care spoke briefly about the police intimidation she experienced after she spoke out against alleged Chicago police complicity in the murders of her three grandsons over a three year period. “I no longer live in Englewood because of intimidation by the police department,” said Johnson.
Muhammad Sankari of the Arab-Action Network addressed the militarization of municipal police departments and the targeting of Muslims under the pretense of anti-terrorism measures.
“The laws that they try to pass directly effect what happens on the south side of Chicago,” said Sankari. “One of the reasons why cops have armor piercing bullets and look more like military personnel fighting a war and not the people who are supposed to be serving and protecting the community is because they can use the lies of terrorism and false threat to beef up and pour millions of dollars into militarizing the police that are patrolling the streets right here.”
Khalid Abdullah of the National Jericho Movement spoke about the United States government’s COINTELPRO or Counter Intelligence Program, in effect from 1956 until 1971, when files on the extensive secret program were removed from an FBI office and distributed to the media.
Documents showed that the FBI had spied on civil rights activists, such as Martin Luther King Jr., and individuals and organizations mobilized against the US war in Vietnam. Sources also show that the FBI was engaged in false arrests, intimidation, and actively sought to muddy the reputations of prominent activists.
“COINTELPRO was the ultimate police crime,” said Abdullah. “And I say that because, until this day, there are hundreds of people who have been locked up for no other reason than trying to put an end to the state of repression and tyranny that we suffer under today.”
According to Abdullah, COINTELPRO continues today in expanded, more secretive, and more insidious forms, despite claims that the program had been halted after its public outing in 1971.
Kamm Howard of the Amos Wilson Institute touched upon the fact that the existence of police institutions is a recent historical phenomenon, dating back only a few hundred years, instituted to “patrol the byways and highways to prohibit African people from freeing themselves from enslavement.”
“How is every interaction with the police nationwide for the last 200-plus years, where African life is lost, justified?” said Howard, citing figures from the Independent Police Review Authority, which sustained only 47 of the 9,000 complaints of Chicago police misconduct in the prior year. “It can only be justified if they’re doing their job,” which is to “thwart the humanity” of people of African descent.
In my work on the People’s Hearing, I felt a special affinity with fellow victims of police crimes and their families. Though we each have had a unique relationship to police crime, we share the experience as survivors and victims beseeching the system to adjudicate its own excesses, a process that itself becomes the system’s ultimate excess, replete with myriad juridical and legislative shrugs and silences that grant police officers systematic, pathological power in the form of radical impunity.
We drew considerable strength from each other.
The People’s Hearing, moderated by Cherese Williams of Cabrini-Green Legal Aid and Lew Myers of the Criminal Justice Program at Kennedy-King College, allowed individuals to courageously voice their experience with various forms of police injustice. Some had to overcome the shame and stigma of police crime victimization to speak out and demand change to a room filled beyond capacity.
Even elected officials present at the Hearing, such as 15th Ward Alderman Toni Foulkes, talked about the need for resilience in the face of the potential backlash for speaking out.
“If… If, they come after me… And I don’t know why, but sometimes you get a little call or something,” said Foulkes. “But I have to stand on what I believe. And what I was taught is that wrong is wrong.”
Frank Chapman addressed the need for change and spoke of the movement to come.
“The police are out of control,” said Chapman. “Maybe we don’t have the answer. But we do know that [IPRA] is not the answer. We need to fight against the police continually acting with impunity. They’re being criminal.”
Chapman added that the goal of the hearing was to build a movement to pass legislation for establishing a civilian control board of the Chicago Police Department to end the reign of impunity.
“This is an alliance. That means an organization of different groups, different nationalities. We are multi-racial, we are multi-national, and also we come from different political positions,” said Chapman. “So we can put those positions aside and fight for this one thing.”
Those who spoke agreed that the People’s Hearing was only a beginning.
“Right now, the Alliance and all of us have come together, we have spoken today, we must continue to galvanize our talents, get on the internet, find out what is going on, we’re walking in faith, because we stand to run this race,” said Rosalind Morgan. “If it happened to you […] will you turn your back to it and turn yourself in shame? No, turn yourself back around and say ‘today I will gain, where I have lost, I will gain. Where I was downtrodden I will stand up.’”
“This is not an event, this is a movement,” said Jeff Baker. “We are going to show that there is power in numbers.”
(This is part one of a two-part series on the People’s Hearing on Police Crimes. Part two can be found here.)
CHICAGO – On Saturday morning, July 21, 2012, I stood with one-hundred and fifty fellow Chicagoans to work toward drafting solutions that address the Chicago Police Department’s use of systematic, extrajudicial force upon its own citizenry.
The event, A People’s Hearing on Police Crimes, created an open dialogue for the general public, elected officials, clergy, and community leaders to hear the accounts of survivors and the families of deceased victims, accounts mostly silenced or reported by the mainstream media with information produced by the very same perpetrators of the illegal acts. As the survivor of a violent Chicago police assault and the ongoing victim of a “Blue Wall” cover-up, I was honored to both participate as an organizer for the People’s Hearing and to speak as a police brutality victim.
The People’s Hearing however was more than an opportunity for victims to counter the official constitution of Truth by the police in crimes involving their own. Participants used the information produced by the victims and survivors to discuss proposals for legislation that would enable prosecution of police crimes through an elected civilian oversight council of the Chicago Police Department.
Led by the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR) and the Criminal Justice Program at Kennedy-King College, and including representatives of 30 organizations, the focus of the Hearing was on building a coalition and a movement that would ultimately transform practices in Chicago-area law enforcement institutions for the benefit of the people, thus ending the reign of police impunity.
Murder and Accountability
Several family members of police murder victims testified, including Emmett Farmer, the father of Flint Farmer, who was lying unarmed and incapacitated on the ground when a Chicago police officer executed him with three shots in his back at point-blank range.
The entire incident was captured on the officer’s own police cruiser dash cam as his partner drove around the block. In the five months prior to Farmer’s murder, Chicago cop Gildardo Sierra shot two other young black men, killing one of them.
The Chicago Police Department ruled Farmer’s death a “justifiable homicide.”
The parents of Stephon Watts spoke about the shooting and killing of their 15 year old son in their suburban Chicago home earlier this year. His parents called police for help in calming Stephon, who was autistic, as they had done before on several occasions. Calumet City Police officers arrived to find Watts at the bottom of the basement staircase wielding a butter knife.
“He’s autistic, he immediately acted nervously around the police. He had a butter knife,” said Steven Watts.
Cops standing at the top of the basement staircase shot and killed Watts. The City has maintained that the officers had no choice but to shoot, an argument that the Watts family firmly refutes.
In the 6 months since Stephon’s murder, Watts has been left wondering if things might have gone differently if officers, as first responders, had been properly trained in dealing with children like Stephon. “I mean this kid is autistic and all you have is a 9 mm for dealing with it?”
The same Calumet City Police Department shot and killed the unarmed Prince Alim Bantu Akbar in broad daylight on January 4, 2010. Akbar, or Jus Rhymz as he was known in the community, was a Chicago Def Jam slam poet, comedian and hip-hop artist.
Police received a call that the 32 year old Akbar was behaving oddly. When police arrived, they claim the unarmed Akbar attacked them.
Akbar’s mother, LaJuana Lampkins, told a different story. She said Akbar was in an altercation with an officer when another officer arrived. Even though the first officer had the situation under control, the second officer shot Akbar dead. (A more complete narration that counters the officially reported police story can be found here).
Lampkins was in prison at the time of her son’s death and was unable to speak out until her release within the past year.
Develt Bradford’s mother talked about her son’s arrest on Nov. 16, 2011, for the murder of an armed security guard at an Aldi food store on the South Side. Bradford, 52, was taken to Area 2 Police Headquarters and booked. He was found dead in his cell at 2 am the next morning, an alleged suicide.
Video cameras that monitor the lockup at the new facility were turned off.
Frank Chapman of the CAARPR spoke on the lack of accountability in cases of police shootings and fatalities, expanding on the individual cases presented at the People’s Hearing to show the institutional nature of impunity.
“In the last 3 calendar years, Chicago police have shot 167 people. Fifty-five were killed. Black people were 122 of them. Latinos were 24. This is according to the Independent Police Review Authority. That’s the police reviewing the police,” said Chapman, a key organizer of the Hearing. “Not a single police shooting was found to be unjustified, even when the victim was committing no crime and had no weapon and posed no threat to anyone.”
Police officers, according to IPRA, were thus deemed “perfect” in their use of lethal force upon individuals. That is, each time a Chicago police officer reached for a service weapon and discharged it upon another person, striking that individual with bullets, the officer’s actions were held justifiable by the very state that employs, and not coincidentally, bears fiscal responsibility for that officer in civil proceedings.
Torture and Forced Confessions
The mothers of torture victims who remain imprisoned gave emotional testimonies, demonstrating that the fallout from Commander Jon Burge’s elaborate torture operations at Area 2 and Area 3 is ongoing, with many of the victims still incarcerated.
Armanda Shackleford, the mother of Gerald Reed, tortured in 1990 by Chicago Detectives Michael Kill and Victor Breska working under the direction of Commander Jon Burge, spoke about her son signing a false confession to end the torture. Based upon that confession, Gerald Reed was convicted of a double murder and sentenced to natural life in prison where he remains.
Jeanette Plummer testified on behalf of her son Johnny Plumber, who was arrested and tortured by detectives working under Jon Burge into making a false confession for two murders. Plumber was only 15 years old. Based upon that confession, he was sentenced to natural life in prison. “These are our sons, these are our kids,” Jeanette Plummer said. “If we don’t push for this to stop, they will keep taking people.”
Carolyn Johnson spoke about her son Marcus Wiggins, who was arrested and beaten in custody at the age of 13. Wiggins was taken to the Area 3 police station where officers applied an electrical shock current to his body.
Bertha Escamilla testified about her son Nick’s ordeal after he was arrested, beaten, intimidated, and threatened into signing a confession for a gang murder he did not commit. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison and served 15 before his release last year.
“I’m sitting down with a few ladies whose [sons] had the same police officers that my son had. These police officers are being investigated, have been investigated! And nothing happens to these police officers.”
Mark Clements, who was recently released from prison after serving 28 years for a crime he did not commit, testified as well. As a 16 year old, Clements was tortured by Jon Burge’s detectives at the Chicago Police Department’s infamous Area 3.
At the People’s Hearing, Clements discussed the institutionalization of torture as a labor practice. “We are a people that have adjusted to torture in our society. We are paid to torture for a job. You have policemen, you have correctional officials, where poor people are paid to torture other individuals. When is this going to stop?”
Clements added the People’s Hearing was necessary “to spotlight the need for an independently elected board of citizens that can investigate these police crimes.”
Jeff Baker of the Committee for a Better Chicago gave a report on the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), the city’s current “enforcer” of police conduct, to highlight the need for civilian control of the police. Baker noted that while IPRA can make recommendations for the police to discipline officers, it does not have the authority to discipline police officers for crimes.
Baker then read some startling statistics related to IPRA’s track record of pursuing Chicago police officers for disciplinary action.
“If [police officers] don’t fear discipline, why would they stop to think twice about pulling the gun and shooting?” asked Baker. “Out of 9,643 allegations, 3,067 cases were investigated by IPRA, and 47 cases were sustained,” amounting to the exceedingly low figure of “.04 percent of allegations” in one calendar year (2009-2010). This means that “the police are damn near perfect” in misconduct cases investigated by the Independent Police Review Authority and the City of Chicago, said Baker.
While I also spoke that day, which was a meaningful experience, I was deeply moved by the talks that came before and after my own. Other victims and speakers shared their own thoughts on the experience of hearing the voices of those who had spoken before them.
Cook County Commissioner and former Illinois State Senator Jesus Garcia was one who was deeply impacted by the testimonies. “The people who came up here are everyday people, ordinary people who have suffered, who are living torture, who are raising the flags of warning that some things are amuck in the criminal justice system,” said Garcia. “They have shared their pain and their suffering and they’re calling us to ban together and figure out how to create accountability in our police system.”
“You’re educating us about the urgency of having greater transparency and real accountability,” said Cook County Commissioner Garcia. “There is great urgency here. All of us are threatened by police departments that may be going wild.”
(In Part Two I will complete coverage of the People’s Hearing on Police Crimes, including speakers on the role of police in political repression, and testimony by Howard Morgan’s wife, Rosalind Morgan, among other victims. I will build upon this with general reflections on the Hearing. For updates on the release of Part Two, follow me on Twitter @gmalandrucco)
Some early-edited video of the People’s Hearing can be viewed here:
The NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program has created two very distinct sets of experiences for the residents of New York City. One portion of the population’s experience embodies relative freedom as we legally and culturally understand it. However, for minority residents of the city, the experience is part of a larger ongoing relationship to the state as potential crime-suspects and targets of surveillance and harassment. One city, two radically different experiences.
For those of you who have never had the displeasure of experiencing the city as a potential crime-suspect, stop-and-frisk is a tactic that essentially allows police to conduct a search of any person of their choosing at any time. So what defines “a person of their choosing?” Reasonable suspicion can be based on something as simple as “movement” or “clothing.” In 2011, so-called “furtive movements” provided the justification for a stop in more than 50% of 685,724 cases, while “clothes commonly used in a crime” was cited in more than 30,000 instances.
Though technically anyone is a potential target, statistics show that the overwhelming majority of individuals stopped and frisked in New York City are people of color. While only 54% of the city’s population is black or Latino, 87% of stops in the first quarter of 2012 involved this demographic. What is more, young black and Latino men made up 4.7% of New York City’s population, but constituted 41.6% of all stops in 2011. Staggeringly, police made 168,126 stops of young black men last year, a number that altogether exceeds New York City’s population of 158,406 young black men.
While New Yorkers are told that stop-and-frisk makes them safer, statistics show time and again that the program yields little in the way of crime prevention. In 2002, a year with 587 homicides, New Yorkers were subjected to 97,296 stops. Last year, 685,724 New Yorkers were stopped and the city experienced 532 homicides. Is the increase in stops by 588,428 directly responsible for the reduction in homicides by 55 persons? It is unlikely, as guns are recovered in only 0.15% of stops.
But perhaps New York’s stop-and-frisk program has never really been about crime prevention. In NY state senator Eric Adams’ sworn affidavit, New York City police commissioner Raymond Kelly once said that stop-and-frisk is intended to serve as a psychological tool applied applied specifically to black and Latino communities. According to Adams, a 22 year veteran of the NYPD, Kelly said in a 2010 meeting that he “wanted to instill the fear in black and Hispanic youths that every time they leave their homes they will feel that they could be stopped and searched by the police.”
It would seem by admission from NYPD’s own that stop-and-frisk is intended to differentially create a climate of psychological stress and fear for New York City’s inhabitants. New York’s stop-and-frisk creates a bifurcation of lived experience, with working poor and poor people of color bearing the significant impacts of differentially enforced laws. By criminalizing minor deviance and intimidating people who mostly lack access to the governing coalition in the city, stop-and-frisk demarcates existing lines of race and class. The impact goes beyond the minority experience in the city, as it also sculpts the perception of young black and brown men as deviants, which is in turn used as justification for further repression.
Fear of punishment for a crime is no longer the primary determinant of behavior. Instead, fear of arbitrary targeting for crime not committed nor even contemplated has become a primary determinant of behavior and experience for New York’s minorities. For, under stop-and-frisk, an individual no longer has to commit a crime to experience a total suspension of rights. The state now meets the individual with the threat of suspension of basic rights each day through humiliating public displays of power, temporarily criminalizing subjects and serving notice to the rest of the community.
In the New York Times editorial, “Why Is the N.Y.P.D. After Me?”, Nicholas K. Peart, a young African-American male targeted for a stop-and-frisk on five separate occasions, poignantly describes the psychological effect of this policing tactic.
“After the third [stop-and-frisk] incident I worried when police cars drove by; I was afraid I would be stopped and searched or that something worse would happen. I dress better if I go downtown. I don’t hang out with friends outside my neighborhood in Harlem as much as I used to. Essentially, I incorporated into my daily life the sense that I might find myself up against a wall or on the ground with an officer’s gun at my head. For a black man in his 20s like me, it’s just a fact of life in New York.”
“The increasingly widespread use of this policing tool in New York City is not to be taken lightly, even in those cases in which the individuals are not detained for more than a few minutes,” wrote judge Scheindlin. “It is deeply troubling if thousands of New Yorkers are being stopped each year without reasonable suspicion, and even more troubling if African American and Latino New Yorkers are being singled out for such treatment.”
While the judge’s decision does provide an avenue for financial recourse for victims of stop-and-frisk, it does nothing to force the NYPD to abandon this racially and socio-economically biased approach to policing.
To ensure that a public institution as large and important as the NYPD operates in accordance with our own societal ideals and guarantees in a constitutional democracy, it is imperative to have its powers checked. Until this type of oversight is institutionalized, it is likely that we will continue to see the use of excess power as well as its differential application on the inhabitants of New York.
CHICAGO, Illinois – There was a time when civilian witness and police accounts represented the most definitive source of information when trying to assess right versus wrong, particularly with something as emotionally charged as a homicide. Those times are gone.
When his son Flint was gunned down by a Chicago police officer on June 7, 2011, Emmett Farmer believed, like many of us, that the killing of a black man in Chicago with only eyewitness and police accounts would not be taken seriously by authorities. For months he believed that Flint was yet another black male mistakenly killed by police in a poor inner-city neighborhood.
“I figured they might be rookie cops, in Englewood, scared of any black man that does anything,” said Farmer as we spoke on the front porch of the family’s Rosewood, Chicago residence on June 5th. “It’s the middle of the night, and there they were, just scared, and shot him. I heard something about the police superintendent saying ‘shoot first’ so I figured that was the case for the first few months.”
Emmett Farmer was led to believe that Flint’s cellphone may have been mistaken for a handgun when the officer, allegedly “fearing for his life,” opened fire killing Farmer.
Four months went by and “the whole time, I was still wondering what happened to Flint, why Flint was killed,” stated Farmer.
Then in October of 2011, the Chicago Tribune contacted Emmett Farmer for an article on Chicago police officer Gildardo Sierra, a veteran cop involved in 3 shootings during a 5 month span of 2011, 2 of which resulted in fatalities. Sierra’s 2nd shooting fatality was Flint Farmer.
Emmett Farmer did an interview with the Chicago Tribune about his son’s case and received notice that a video of the incident would be available to the public online. Prior to that moment, Emmett Farmer did not even know that a video of the incident existed.
In an experience hardly imaginable a few decades ago, video technology made Emmett Farmer a witness to his son’s execution at the hands of a public authority.
“When I had seen that dash cam, it really brought everything to light. When I saw the video I found out that this guy executed Flint.”
The newly released video showed Chicago cop Gildardo Sierra firing 3 fatal shots into the back of Flint Farmer as he lay face down and motionless on the ground. Farmer, unarmed and attempting to evade Sierra, had already been fired on more than a dozen times. Sierra, who claimed that he “feared for his life,” is seen distinctly firing 3 shots into Farmer’s back at point blank range, as evidenced by 3 distinct gun-flashes observed on the dash cam video of Sierra’s cruiser, captured as his partner drove around the block in pursuit of Farmer.
When it was all over Sierra had discharged a full clip of 16 bullets from his 9mm pistol, and an unarmed man was pronounced dead on the scene.
* * * *
Unlike the mood of that tragic evening, it was a pleasant, sunny afternoon on June 5th when I was invited to speak with Emmett Farmer at the family’s Rosewood, Chicago home. Three generations of Farmer men had resided there at some point, though only two are currently living. Flint’s 91 year old grandfather continues to reside there. Flint, 29 at the time of his death, was raised there.
While we sat on the front steps of that home, Emmett Farmer, a 52 year old minister, began to recall events from the night of June 7, 2011. He received a phone call at 4 am. A friend said that Chicago police had killed Flint. Emmett Farmer hurried to the scene of the murder some 40 blocks north at 62nd Street and Wolcott Avenue.
“There were a lot angry folks standing out there when I got there. They knew what happened.” said Farmer. Oddly, when Emmett Farmer arrived on the scene, he was told by eyewitnesses that police “had taken the body and threw it in the back of the police car.” Farmer began to walk under the police line, “and they said ‘no, you can’t come over here’ and I said, ‘well, where’s the body?’”
He was finally allowed to see Flint’s body later that day. “I went to the coroner’s office and identified the body. And then everyone came back here,” said Farmer pointing to the family’s Rosewood house. “There was a lot crying. We actually had the funeral a day before Father’s day.”
According to Emmett Farmer, Flint was recently laid off and moved to a shared residence at 62nd Street and Honore a week earlier. He was staying there only until he could find work. On the night of June 6, Flint and his girlfriend began to argue and got into a physical altercation. Farmer’s girlfriend called police. When cops arrived, Farmer ran out the back door and into an empty lot.
“Flint was unarmed,” said Emmett Farmer. An eyewitness said he saw Sierra firing rounds as Farmer attempted to run away. “Sierra tried to say that Flint had a cellphone and that’s why he shot him. But whatever, when Flint was laying on his stomach, he was no threat then even if he was a threat before. He would’ve been shot up but he wouldn’t have been dead.”
Farmer’s assertion was substantiated by the coroner, Dr. Mitra Kalelkar, who wrote in a report that the three shots fired into Farmer’s back, the same shots captured on video, “coursed downward, hit Farmer’s heart and lung” and were “definitely fatal wounds,” according to the Tribune.
Even with the existence of the dash cam video and the autopsy report stating that Farmer had been shot a total of 7 times, the official homicide investigation absolved Sierra. The Chicago Police Department ruled the murder a “justifiable homicide.”
“The police said [Sierra] was in fear for his life. You can imagine what I think about that,” said Emmett Farmer. “I think it’s a bunch of crap. How are you in fear for your life with Flint laying on the ground?”
Farmer received the police report two weeks before the Tribune made the video of his son’s execution public last October.
After seeing the video, Farmer began to more actively seek justice for Flint’s death. In November, members of the Farmer family, community members, and activists went to the office of State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez to demand Sierra’s arrest. A week later, an assistant to Alvarez called Farmer and notified him that the State’s Attorney was working with the FBI to indict Sierra.
“Thursday has been a year, and we want to see [Sierra] arrested,” stated Farmer. “The City of Chicago, they’re trying to blow past it as much as possible I’m sure, because it’s the police. It makes the city look bad. But we are going to keep on keeping on them.”
I asked the minister and former Air Force serviceman how the struggle for justice over the past year helped him cope with the loss of his son:
“I actually did my son’s eulogy, and that released a lot of pain and pressure. I’m comfortable knowing that Flint is at peace, but I’m still not comfortable with the injustice. Until this man is indicted, tried and convicted of murder for my son, we will not be satisfied. As far as his death, I’m ok. I’m fine. Crying can’t bring him back, money can’t bring him back, none of that, like I said, justice shall prevail. I just believe in God that it will.”
* * * *
Before there were cameras on police, the public mostly had to believe police accounts of events. In all but a few instances, official Truth was constructed by the purveyors of law under the sign and authority of that law. The “benefit of the doubt,” so to speak, was almost universally granted to the state’s “objective” officers, their narratives of events typically held up as Truth.
Today, video captures not only civilians acting beyond the bounds of legality against the state and its laws, but also egregious instances of police officers breaking the very laws they are sworn to uphold. Technology presents us with the unforeseen potential to hold public officials accountable for their actions in swift and certain terms, as equal members of society, ending the reign of “official” Truth and shattering the traditional impunity of law enforcement officers.
While the age of camera phones and mounted surveillance cameras is radically altering this centuries-old construction of official Truth, it is also transforming civilian expectations of justice.
Before seeing the dash cam video, Emmett Farmer had nothing more to go on than to believe that his son was just another African-American man killed by police in a South Side neighborhood.
The video now raises the question of why someone would shoot Flint 3 times execution-style in the back at point blank range as he lay on the ground, already shot 4 times. Furthermore, it forces us all to ask how this person could be allowed to walk free for any period of time.
Emmett Farmer sees a distinct relation between Sierra’s actions and the high levels of impunity enjoyed by police officers, but notes that “Sierra wasn’t expecting to get caught.”
On Wednesday May 9 Orange County Superior Court Judge Walter Schwarm announced that Fullerton Police Officers Jay Cicinelli and Manuel Ramos would stand trial for the death of Kelly Thomas, an unarmed, schizophrenic homeless man savagely beaten and asphyxiated by six Fullerton, California police officers on July 5, 2011. Thomas would die five days later from injuries sustained during the attack.
Given new evidence made public during this week’s preliminary hearing, the announcement came as little surprise, even in a case that seeks to criminally prosecute two police officers in a nation where it is notoriously difficult to hold law enforcement agents accountable for unlawful conduct.
A newly released surveillance video that recorded police officers beating and suffocating Thomas to death is drawing appropriate levels of condemnation and outrage in this country and has garnered international media attention. The video definitively shows that Kelly Thomas, described as “gentle,” “childlike,” and “harmless” by Fullerton residents, never posed a physical threat to police, nor did he “violently resist arrest” as John Barnett, attorney for officer Ramos, claimed last year.
In the surveillance video, Officer Ramos tells Thomas [at 15:20 in the full-length video] “See my fists? They’re getting ready to fuck you up,” after which officers proceed to beat Thomas for nearly eight minutes. During the attack officers punch, knee, “surgically” beat Thomas’ head and face with the butt of a Taser, and shoot him four times with the device. In a shocking moment of pure callousness [at 28:00 in the full-length video], officers share a laugh after the beating while Thomas lies unconscious on the ground in a pool of his own blood. The video also corroborates publicly available eyewitness accounts of the police attack.
Pathologist Dr. Aruna Singhania, who examined the body of Kelly Thomas, testified in court this week that Thomas “ultimately died of brain death” due to asphyxiation, a result of officers pinning his chest to the pavement. “Blunt force facial injuries” and the presence of copious amounts of blood made it more difficult for Thomas to get the oxygen his body desperately needed. To put it quite simply, Kelly Thomas would still be alive if Fullerton police officers did not kill him.
The Thomas family had been asking for the public release of the video since July 2011. With the degree of violence captured on the video, speculation that Fullerton and Orange County withheld its release to quell public outrage now seems well-founded. What is more, withholding its release gave Fullerton police and city officials, officer attorneys and the police-wing of the mainstream media months to spin and sow doubt as to the actual events surrounding the murder of Kelly Thomas.
The video in fact refutes most of their early claims on events surrounding Thomas’ death and places into question the very ethics of these aforementioned parties.
Instead of arresting and charging the six officers in the immediate aftermath of their heinous crime, Fullerton permitted the officers to carry out “business as usual.” Each was allowed to keep their government-issued weapons, their publicly vested authority, and their taxpayer funded paychecks.
Four weeks after the officers murdered Kelly Thomas, and only after the media, the FBI and Department of Justice were drawn to the case, the city of Fullerton finally decided to act by placing the six police officers on paid administrative leave.
In a statement that sufficiently captures the conduct of Fullerton officials, R. Scott Moxley of OC Weekly writes
“City officials have attempted to pay the 37-year-old victim’s father–Ron Thomas, an outraged former Orange County Sheriff’s Department deputy, and his ex-wife–$900,000 as compensation for their loss. Why outraged? Well, in addition to the unnecessary grotesque killing of his son, the police have admitted no wrongdoing, angrily attacked the media for focusing on the story, apparently kept the involved officers on duty and then attempted to muzzle him with a settlement check before any investigation has been completed. And this: A city official reportedly told the parents that they would have offered more money but their son was ‘no rocket scientist.'”
In a surreal act that may as well have starred the Boss Hogg character from “The Dukes of Hazard,” Fullerton Mayor Dick Jones publicly remarked that he did not know why Thomas had died, adding that he had “seen far worse injuries that were survivable” during the Vietnam War.
While mainstream media coverage of this case has been fairly strong overall, it too has periodically facilitated the proliferation of false narratives. At its worst, coverage appears intent on limiting officer culpability and public indignation. In a piece critical of media coverage of the Thomas slaying, one Forbes Magazine blogger notes some of the clever rhetoric deployed by NBC’s Los Angeles affiliate:
“Notice how the beating and multiple tasings are described as a ‘scuffle’. Notice also how NBC does its best to avoid linking said ‘scuffle’ to the death of Kelly Thomas. He simply ‘later died’ as though the two instances were almost entirely unrelated.”
The writer Erik Kain continues
“Good grief people, I realize this is reporting […] but show a little humanity. The ‘scuffle’ left a man dead for goodness sakes. There’s something seriously wrong with that, and maybe your reporting should at least reflect that a tiny bit. At least give us context.”
Only two of the six Fullerton police officers involved in the slaying currently face criminal charges. Officer Ramos is charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. Officer Cicinelli meanwhile has only been charged with involuntary manslaughter and excessive force. The other four officers remain on paid administrative leave “pending the outcome of an internal investigation and an FBI criminal probe.”
The Orange County DA has surprisingly exonerated officer Joe Wolfe, seen on video with officer Ramos initiating the attack against Kelly Thomas. However, should the FBI or Justice Department pursue federal prosecutions, it is hard to imagine that officer Wolfe would not face charges for violating Thomas’ civil rights – at the very least.
Given the powerful evidence provided by the surveillance video, the coroner’s report, and numerous eyewitness accounts, failure by federal authorities to bring charges against all six officers would amount to another form of violence against the Thomas family, which has already endured so much.
The Enemy Within: Modern Policing in Global Perspective