[Hpn] Serve and Protect?
Mon, 26 Feb 2001 18:05:05 -0800
Serve and Protect?
Marta Russell, AlterNet
February 20, 2001
Viewed on February 26, 2001
DETROIT -- A policeman was charged with manslaughter Wednesday for shooting
to death a deaf-mute who approached officers with a rake in his hands. David
Krupinski, 23, fired on 39-year-old Errol Shaw after police were called
about a family dispute Aug. 29. The Detroit NAACP called the shooting of
Shaw 'horrifying and sickening.'" (Detroit News Sept. 29, 2000)
Deaf and disability activists were horrified too. Why would 5 police
officers with weapons drawn and aimed at Errol Shaw ignore repeated pleas
from relatives that he was deaf and could not understand their command to
"drop the rake"? Why was no sign language interpreter brought in to
facilitate communication and perhaps diffuse the situation? Why was Shaw's
mental health history not a factored into the police strategy as they
arrived on the scene?
A report issued by Amnesty International offers an explanation. "Race and
brutality are inextricably linked in the USA," points out Angela Wright,
Amnesty International researcher, "but the mentally ill, homeless and gay
people are often harassed or subjected to undue force by police."
Indeed, the Detroit police firing of two fatal bullets into Errol Shaw's
left side is the latest in a string of killings by cops across the nation
involving mentally disabled individuals:
* In July of this year, Shannon Lee Smith, 27, a mentally impaired man,
pulled away from an Illinois gas station without paying for $15.05 worth of
gas for his car. Area clerks who had served Smith in the past said it was
common for him to forget to pay and he normally made amends on a later
visit. About an hour later local police who also knew Smith, spotted his car
and began chasing him. Soon, officers from three agencies boxed in Smith's
car on a bridge, got out of their cruisers and demanded he get out of his
car. When Smith disregarded the instructions and instead tried to ram a
patrol car out of his way, officers opened fire on his vehicle. It is
estimated that as many as five bullets struck Smith in the back, through the
rear window. He died on the scene.
* In May, Calvin Champion Jr., an autistic man, died in a Nashville
department store parking lot after police pepper sprayed him twice,
hand-cuffed him, tied his ankles together and placed the overweight man
face-down on the pavement where a cop held him in a prone-restraint. He
began vomiting, aspirated and drowned. His paid companion/attendant had
phoned police saying Champion had become agitated. A former aide, Tracey
Doron, who worked with Champion at Outlook Nashville from 1993 to 1998, was
among many who described Champion as a "gentle" man. "With Calvin being
autistic, being handcuffed was probably the worst thing they could have
done," she told the Tennessian. "He probably got really scared. There was
nobody who could communicate with him."
* In February, William Anthony Miller Jr., age 42, who was mentally
disabled, was shot by San Diego police when five police officers answered a
report that a man was assaulting people with a tree branch. Three officers
shot Miller seven times.
* In January, Harold Greenwald was yelling that he had a computer chip in
his head and pulling at his pants when a Philadelphia cop fired one fatal
shot into Greenwald's stomach. Six months later Amtrak Police shot Robert
Brown, an emotionally disabled man, who was wandering through a food court
at the station, cursing and gesturing. According to news reports when Brown
picked up a chair and lunged towards police, an officer fired one shot that
struck Brown in the abdomen, killing him.
* Eleanor Bumpus, a 73 year old mentally disabled woman who was being
evicted, was shot by the NYPD when Bumpus resisted being thrown into the
street. City Marshals called in a contingent of heavily armed NYPD Special
Services who wearing full body armor and carrying Plexiglas shields shot
Bumpus when she threatened police with a knife. Bumpus died from two shotgun
blasts. Although the first shot tore off the hand holding the knife, the
officer fired a second point blank into her chest.
* Last year, Margaret Mitchell, a 5'2" 102-pound homeless woman, was shot by
Los Angeles police officer Edward Larrigan after he and his partner
attempted to stop Mitchell to investigate whether the shopping cart she was
pushing was stolen. When the officers ordered Mitchell to stop, according to
the police account, she ignored them and began walking rapidly away,
reaching into her cart and grasping the handle of what turned out to be a
screwdriver. The police then claimed that Mitchell raised her screwdriver
and lunged at an officer. That cop fired a single shot, struck Mitchell in
the chest, and she died less than an hour later at Cedars-Sinai Medical
There are countless other similar shootings. What is wrong with this
picture? Even the Police Executive Research Forum, which studies such
matters, concludes that since emotional or even violent outbursts by
mentally disabled persons are often of short duration that it is better to
let the outburst dissipate rather than wrestle with a person who is under
extreme emotional duress. But what works best -- diffusion through patience
and communication -- does not supersede the fact that street officers are
taught (and deploy) the shoot-to-kill 21-foot rule: anyone within that
distance armed with any type of weapon, including a rake or a screwdriver,
may be shot in "self-defense."
The most often cited diffusion program is the Crisis Intervention Team in
Memphis, Tennessee. The team consists of a unit of specially trained police
officers who work in conjunction with mental health staff to respond to
crisis calls that require mental health, substance abuse, or domestic
violence interventions. Before Memphis created its crisis intervention team
in 1988, an average of 7 mentally disabled persons were killed each year by
the city cops. Since then, 2 have been killed and injuries to police
officers have declined 40%. These decline in deaths suggest that while
mentally disabled individuals are fingered as "the problem," it is cops who
often are the ones unnecessarily escalating a confrontation to the brink of
We know that more mentally disabled persons are on the streets (and subject
to interaction with police). The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law and
the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), for instance, conclude
the current system is "criminalizing persons with mental illness" by failing
to respond to this population. For lack of access to community mental health
treatment and other public services people with mental illnesses are
increasingly booked into jails -- 670,000 of them in 1996. At a given
moment, 40% of all Americans with a serious mental illness are estimated to
be in jail or prison, comprising from 10%-30% of all inmates.
But also the locus of the problem is that supportive community services have
taken a back seat to prison and police funding. Conservative social forces
have politically directed available public funds to building the largest
prison industrial complex in the world rather than funding community support
services. In our market society, a disabled body is worth more to the GDP in
prison that it is living in freedom. In addition, the nation's history of
segregating and institutionalizing disabled persons (whether in nursing
homes or prison) bears responsibility. Groups of persons who lack access to
quality healthcare, education, housing, transportation are relegated to a
marginal position in the economy (70% unemployed) will have fewer options to
exercise in society to gain control over their lives.
The Civil Rights Question
Jennifer Mathis of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law says "While
there may not be a lot of case law in this area, this doesn't mean mentally
disabled persons have no rights. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
needs to be used *more* to protect the rights of mentally disabled persons."
So far, there aren't enough experienced or interested lawyers to take such
cases. Given the lack of success of civil rights to protect citizens in such
discrimination cases and lack of government commitment behind ADA
enforcement, are civil rights protections -- even if they are enforced --
enough to stem the tide of police brutality described above?
Clifford Payne, Vice-President of Accessibility Development Associates, in
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, notes "there may be more training classes now, ten
years after the passage of the ADA, but it is equally true that officers who
abuse their authority too often get a free pass from their fellow officers."
Margins of Error?
A Human Rights Watch study into police brutality found that brutality is
persistent; that systems to deal with abuse have had similar failings in all
the cities; and that, in each city examined, complainants face enormous
barriers in seeking administrative punishment or criminal prosecution of
officers who have committed human rights violations. Despite claims to the
contrary from city officials where abuses have become scandals in the media,
efforts to make meaningful reforms have fallen short.
Police departments continue to label questionable shootings as "justifiable
homicide" and officers fall back on the "margin of error" defense to escape
consequences. The margin of error defense is often an ambiguous claim such
as "I thought he had a gun" or "my life appeared to be in danger." Fellow
officers usually back up the shooting officer's story and 80 percent of
shootings and abuses by police are cleared because of this rule.
The conviction of three New York City police officers for lying about the
torture of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant brutally assaulted by police in
a Flatbush station house in 1997, was only the latest in a series of
revelations about police who break the law in the name of fighting crime and
lie to protect their fellow officers. In Los Angeles this year, the code of
silence was broken when police admitted that a special anti-gang unit had
engaged in years of abuse, including fabricating evidence, lying and
shooting a handcuffed gang member in the head. Still 40 LAPD officers found
it necessary to file a class-action lawsuit alleging that LAPD officials
support the department's code of silence by retaliating against those who
Would Errol Shaw still be alive today if officers had provided an
interpreter? No one can know for certain, but it is not likely. The exertion
of fatal force in both the Errol Shaw and Margaret Mitchell shootings (which
received much public scrutiny) are awash with dubious circumstances.
In Shaw's case, Detroit police claim that they feared for their lives when
Shaw -- one man -- stood holding a rake 15 feet from Krupinski, the officer
who shot him. Nine family members told the Detroit Free Press that Shaw
never threatened officers with the rake and officer Krupinski fired without
warning. The LAPD officer who shot Mitchell, Larrigan, contended that he was
within his rights to shoot. But James Moody, who stood about 12 feet from
Mitchell when she was shot and was the closest civilian witness, told the LA
Times the woman never lunged at the two officers with the screwdriver she
"It was the officer's fault," Moody, a 68-year-old retired truck driver,
said in an interview in June. "She wasn't close enough to stick that man
with a screwdriver. She wasn't close enough, period."
A second witness, who spoke to the Times on condition of anonymity, watched
the shooting unfold from the La Brea Avenue car dealership where he works.
"It wasn't like what [the officer] said. She did not attack him. She did not
drive the screwdriver at him."
LAPD Police officials had earlier stated that those same witnesses backed
the officer's version of events.
The only LAPD officer to break rank, John Goines, also a witness to the
events, questioned the overall handling of the confrontation leading up to
the shooting. The veteran officer said in a deposition it was clear that
Mitchell was a frail, lethargic, mentally ill woman who posed little or no
threat to officers Larrigan or Clark. He told the LA Times "I would say that
[Mitchell] was not an immediate threat."
Philip Kirchner, disability activist and member of the NAMI, says "That is
blatant outright murder and deserves an indictment from any civilized grand
jury in any legal jurisdiction."
More often, internal affairs within police departments serve as judge and
jury, acquitting officers of misdoing. According to Amnesty International,
police internal investigations into shootings or other use of force remain
for the most part shrouded in secrecy, and all too often police officers
involved in questionable shootings or use of excessive force are exonerated
by criminal or administrative inquiries or receive a token punishment.
An investigation of the Detroit police department by The Detroit News found
police investigations of fatal shootings were often inadequate and slanted
toward clearing officers of wrongdoing. In the 40 fatal shootings in the
past five years, 35 officers were exonerated; four were charged. One Detroit
officer shot three people to death and wounded six in four years and
remained on the job. Since 1995, Detroit has paid $8.6 million to settle six
lawsuits in which officers were cleared following shooting incidents. While
off duty Krupinski had been arrested last year after he allegedly threatened
to kill a black motorist. Charges were not filed against him. Community
outrage over Shaw's killing let to the Detroit district attorney eventually
indicting Krupinski on manslaughter.
After an internal investigation, LAPD Chief of Police Bernard Parks said the
shooting of Margaret Mitchell was "in policy," meaning that the use of
deadly force was justified because the officer felt his life was in danger.
Over one year past the killing of Mitchell, despite community protests and a
finding by the civilian Police Commission which oversees the LAPD that
directly countered the LAPD findings, there has been no indictment of
Larrigan by the LA district attorney's office.
Reigning in the Out-of-Control Police Departments
The excessive use of force by police officers, including unjustified
shootings, severe beatings, fatal chokings, and rough treatment persists,
according to Human Rights Watch, because overwhelming barriers to
accountability make it possible for officers who commit human rights
violations to escape due punishment and often to repeat their offenses.
To counter police abuse, Human Rights Watch says collection of reliable data
on deaths in police custody and police shootings is sorely lacking in the
USA and that the Justice Department needs to comply with a 1994
congressional requirement that it collect data on police use of excessive
"[Attorney General] Janet Reno's Justice Department has yet to comply. Its
current data collection efforts are carefully calculated to avoid tackling
the problem head on. They are thinly disguised exercises in irrelevancy,"
Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, said.
Deaf and disability activist groups might ask the Justice Department for one
more -- a breakdown of incidents where police violate the civil or human
rights of deaf and disabled persons by using excessive force.
It is clear that democratic action needs to be asserted to confront the
out-of-control police forces across the nation. Reformers sometimes point to
Civilian Review Boards as the solution. The LAPD civilian Police Commission,
however, did not steer a satisfactory outcome in the Mitchell/LAPD shooting
incident making the weakness of the Civilian Police Review board concept
evident. Legislation calling for Civilian *Control* Boards emerged over a
decade ago when it became increasingly clear that the hard-won Civilian
Review Boards were inadequate. Significantly, a Civilian Control Board would
have subpoena power, a voice in the police department's budget, and have
disciplinary control over police. This seems a more potent model --
disability rights organizations should support these efforts.
**In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is
distributed without charge or profit to those who have expressed a prior
interest in receiving this type of information for non-profit research and
educational purposes only.**
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