Monday, April 19, 2021

Across Nation, Cops Still Behaving Badly

            George Floyd’s death under the weight of Derek Chauvin’s knee ought to have been a teaching moment for police officers all around the country to rethink their reflexive resort to force in unruly encounters with civilians, but apparently not. Even with saturation coverage of Chauvin’s trial over the past three weeks, deadly run-ins between police and civilians have continued unabated, according to a compilation by The New York Times.

            At least sixty-four people have died at the hands of police officers nationwide since testimony began in Chauvin’s trial on March 29, according to the Times’ double-bylined article by reporters John Eligon and Shawn Huber in the newspaper’s April 18 print edition. More than half of the victims were Black or Latino,  The deaths testify, according to the reporters, to “the split-second choices and missteps by members of law enforcement that can escalate workaday arrests into fatalities.”

            Too often, as Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020, shows, the cop’ instinctive resort to lethal force has little if anything to do with keeping the people of their communities safe. Floyd posed no threat to public safety in the Twin Cities, but he did pose a threat to Derek Chauvin’s authority. As Chauvin told a police dispatcher while forcing Floyd onto the ground, “We’ve got to control this guy.”

            Caron Nazario, a uniformed U.S. Army officer, was a victim of the same sort of bullying behavior by cops on December 5 when two Windsor, Virginia, police officers stopped him for a supposed traffic violation and pepper sprayed him as he sat, unarmed, in his vehicle. Nazario drove for a mile toward a well-lit area with the officers flashing their vehicle’s lights behind him. The officers grow increasingly angry with Nazario as the in-uniform second lieutenant explains that he fears for his safety.

            Body-camera video of the episode showing that the officers pointed weapons at Nazario emerged three months later and went viral as Chauvin’s trial  continued in Minneapolis.The video shows Nazario insistently asking for an explanation of the traffic stop and pleading with the officers to calm down as their tempers are evidently flaring.

 Nazario is shown with his hands, empty, raised in compliance with the officers’ demands. R.D. Riddle, police chief in the tiny town in southeastern Virginia, is blaming the entire episode on Nazario’s supposed failure to comply with the officers’ instructions but also crediting the officers with de-escalating the confrontation by holstering their firearms in favor of their tasers.

            Riddle has confirmed that an internal investigationi was instituted after the incident and one of the officers, Jose Gutierrez, was fired after the review was completed. The second officer, Daniel Crocker, is still on the job. Nazario has sued both of the officers in federal court for $1 million in compensatory damages for allegedly violating his First and Fourth Amendment rights.

            A somewhat similar traffic stop in a Minneapolis suburb ended tragically last week [April 11] with the shooting death of the unarmed driver, twenty-year-old Duante Wright, at the hands of the veteran Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter. Potter and two other officers had stopped Wright for expired registration tags and for an air freshener hanging from his car’s rearview mirror. After checking, the officers learned that Wright, who was Black, had an arrest warrant pending for an attempted armed robbery charge two years earlier.

            Body camera video of the encounter shows a scuffle between Wright and the officers as he attempted to get back into his car. Potter can be heard to say, “I’m going to tase you.” All but inexplicably,  Potter, a 26-year veteran of the force, draws and fires her firearm instead of her taser—a mistake, as she later explained. “Oh, shit,” Potter is heard to exclaim. “I shot him.”

Later news coverage showed that the two weapons differ by weight, appearance, and material, but even so some news organizations uncovered evidence of more than a dozen similar mistakes over several years. The Brooklyn Center police chief also told reporters that protocol calls for officers to carry their firearm on their dominant side and their taser on the opposite side.

Potter, who is white, resigned after the episode; so did the police chief. A state court grand jury indicted Potter three days later [April 14] for second-degree involuntary manslaughter, defined in Minnesota law as a homicide resulting from “culpable negligence.” The indictment came after three days of tense demonstrations in the mostly white suburb.

 The debate over police use of force intensified after video emerged The of the March 29 shooting death of a Black Chicago teenager, Adam Toledo, at the hands of a Chicago police officer, Eric Stillman. The video shows the officer chasing the 13-year-old boy down an alley and ordering him to stop and show his hands. The video appears to show the boy tossing a handgun onto the ground and raising his hands as instructed just as the officer fires a fatal shot into the boy’s chest.

Stillman, who had a record of several use-of-force complaints without discipline, has been placed on administrative leave pending a full investigation into the episode. Criminal charges would be difficult, if not impossible, legal observers appeared to agree, even as law enforcement-minded commentators defended Stillman’s decision to shoot as he confronted a split-second decision about his own safety.

            With the broad national debate ongoing, Derek Chauvin’s trial reaches a critical juncture today [April 19] as lawyers present closing arguments before the case is turned over to the racially mixed jury. Legal experts generally credit the prosecution with a well-presented case showing that Floyd died from asphyxiation and that Chauvin’s restraint technique went against police policies. Chauvin’s defense attorney, Eric Nelson, has fulfilled his ethical obligation by challenging the prosecution on both premises, but overall the prosecution’s case appears mostly unshaken.         


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