Tag Archives: police officers

Miami officers fired for ‘jokes’ about target practice in primarily black neighborhoods

Three police officers were fired for making comments on a group chat about using Miami’s primarily black neighborhoods for target practice.

Officers Kevin Bergnes, Miguel Valdes and Bruce Alcin were fired on Dec. 23, after an internal affairs investigation concluded that they violated department policies, said the Miami Herald, citing documents it obtained.

The remarks angered local civil rights activists keeping tabs on a department that is currently scrutinized by the U.S. Department of Justice for a pattern of excessive force.

“It’s indicative of the casual conversations and comments that young and even more seasoned police officers are used to making without a lot of repercussions,” said Julia Dawson, an activist who has been part of law enforcement oversight panels in Miami.

The Miami police department confirmed that officers Bergnes, Valdes and Alcin were fired, but did not explain the reasons behind the dismissals.

In a statement, Chief Rodolfo Llanes said an internal affairs investigation found the officers’ actions “inconsistent with the mission and values of our department.”

Attorney Stephan Lopez, who represents the three officers, told The Associated Press that his clients were joking and that the comments were taken out of context. He said Alcin is African-American and Valdes has a black grandfather.

“They wanted to make an example out of this. But they made an example of the wrong people,” Lopez said. “These guys didn’t shoot anybody. They were clearly joking around. They are kids. You don’t terminate them the day before Christmas Eve.”

The incident happened June 30, when the three officers responded to other rookie colleagues’ questions about shooting ranges in a WhatsApp chat they often used to communicate, the paper said. According to documents obtained by the Herald, the officers-in-training shared department information on that thread.

It said the documents show Bergnes sarcastically suggested the friend looking for a shooting range try a Bank of America, adding “they’ll even give you some cash.” He then suggested Model City — the police district that includes Liberty City and handles the bulk of the city’s shootings — as another location.

Valdes suggested a particular intersection in the Overtown community, according to the paper. It added that Alcin followed up, saying Valdes “wouldn’t understand” until he’s worked there.

The next day, an officer warned them that their words were offensive even though she didn’t think they were racist. “Your words can come back to bite you,” she allegedly wrote.

A sergeant learned of the conversation and ordered one officer to apologize. He also wrote a memo to a lieutenant about the matter, according to the Herald. Internal affairs began an investigation and concluded on Dec. 19 that they broke social media, courtesy and responsibility rules, the paper said.

Lopez, the attorney, said it’s too early to say whether he will file a lawsuit for wrongful termination or negotiate to get their jobs back. The officers were still on probation after being sworn in earlier this year.

Javier Ortiz, president of the police union, said he didn’t agree with the “joking texts” but that it wasn’t enough for dismissal. He said the city manager would “rather focus on text messages than the senseless killings and violent crime.”

The incident came months after the city of Miami agreed to go under supervision of the U.S. Justice Department to reform its policing after a series of police shootings from 2008 to 2011. The agreement followed a report that questioned 33 police shootings, including seven black men and teenagers who were killed in a short time.

 

Wisconsin legislator announces ‘Blue Lives Matter’ bill

A Wisconsin legislator announced a “Blue Lives Matter” bill Monday to make targeting law enforcement officers a hate crime in the wake of the Dallas shooting that killed five officers last week.

Rep. David Steffen, a Green Bay Republican, said he believes the law enforcement community deserves the additional protection of hate crime laws, adding Wisconsin to a growing list of states discussing similar bills.

Louisiana became the first state to enact a Blue Lives Matter law in May, allowing prosecutors to seek stronger penalties when police, firefighters and emergency medical crews are intentionally targeted because of their professions. Lawmakers in at least 13 other states and in Congress have floated similar proposals.

Blue Lives Matter laws have failed in four states and is pending in five others and in Congress, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Lawmakers in at least four other states have said they plan to introduce similar legislation but haven’t officially done so.

Steffen said his proposal is “a small, single step” that Wisconsin can take to “reinforce its commitment” to supporting and protecting law enforcement officers.

But Republicans in Madison have cut back severely on revenue sharing with cities, which has made it more difficult for municipalities to maintain an adequate number of police officers and fire fighters. Gov. Scott Walker’s 2011–13 budget cut shared revenue by 9 percent, the biggest cut in at least a decade.

The cuts endanger safety both for professionals and the public.

The reduction in shared revenue are partly the result of massive tax breaks for the wealthiest Wisconsinites. About 78 percent of Walker’s tax cuts have gone to the state’s top 0.2 percent of earners.

But civil rights organizations and activist groups have criticized Blue Lives Matter bills for other reasons, saying a person’s profession should not be included with race, religion and other characteristics that are protected under hate crime laws.

Chris Ahmuty, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, said police officers and their families won’t be helped by “a heighted sense of victimization.”

“We should recognize the stress they confront, but piling on by claiming that there is a war against police, or that the law isn’t already penalizing attacks on police severely, does a disservice to everyone,” he said in an emailed statement.

In Wisconsin, people convicted of a crime can face an enhanced penalty if they targeted the victim based on their race, religion, color, disability, sexual orientation, national origin or ancestry. If deemed a hate crime, the penalty for a felony can carry an additional $5,000 fine and an additional five years in prison. The penalty increase for misdemeanors deemed hate crimes depends on the severity of the crime, possibly including additional jail time and thousands of dollars in additional fines.

Steffen’s Blue Lives Matter bill, which he plans to formally introduce in January, would extend hate crime protection to law enforcement officers.

“Law enforcement isn’t just some profession. It is one upon which our quality of life largely depends,” said Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, the state’s largest police union.

Palmer said the legislation would send an important, symbolic message, but that the Legislature could do other things to better protect officers and support law enforcement, including ensuring adequate staffing and improved training. He said legislation to protect law enforcement and efforts to resolve problems between officers and their communities shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.

2 more wounded officers suing Wisconsin gun shop

A second lawsuit is set for trial against a Wisconsin gun shop after a jury in October found the owners of the store were negligent in selling a gun used to injure two Milwaukee police officers.

The new case involves two different injured officers who allege that owners of Badger Guns negligently sold the gun used to wound them in 2007. The trial is set to start May 16 and is scheduled to last up to three weeks, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently reported.

In October, jurors awarded Officer Bryan Norberg and former Officer Graham Kunisch nearly $6 million. The jury found that Badger Guns and its owner violated federal laws and sold the gun used to injure the officers to a straw buyer — someone buying a gun for someone who cannot legally purchase one.

The issue gained national attention when presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton said she would push to repeal a George W. Bush-era gun law that Badger Guns’ attorneys say protected the store.

Attorneys for the owner and operators of the shop said they can’t be held liable for wrongdoing committed with a weapon they sold.

The two officers later settled the case for $1 million and avoided what was expected to be an appeal that lasted years.

The new lawsuit is brought by Officer Jose Lopez and former officer Alejandro Arce. Kunisch, Norberg, Arce and Lopez are among six police officers wounded over a 20-month period with guns sold by Badger Guns or its predecessor, Badger Outdoors, the Journal Sentinel reported. The other two officers did not sue.

Badger has disputed the claims by the officers in the new lawsuit.

Lopez and Arce were shot by a 15-year-old in November 2007. The teenager was using a gun purchased and provided to him by a 24-year-old. That gun as well as one other were purchased by the 24-year-old just weeks earlier.

He had been convicted of drug possession. Selling a gun to a drug user is against the law. The complaint alleges that Badger Gun employees should have known that, and that the sales just days apart should have been a red flag that it was a straw purchase.

Arrest of NYPD officer brings filming of officers into focus

Charges against a police officer accused of arresting a man for filming him with a cellphone camera have drawn fresh attention to a decades-old issue: citizens’ rights to record police.

Officer Jonathan Munoz pleaded not guilty recently to official misconduct charges in the March 2014 arrest of 21-year-old Jason Disisto.

Even before Munoz’s arrest, Disisto contended in a lawsuit filed in Manhattan federal court that New York Police Department officers intimidate or arrest people recording police activity. He cited instances since 2005 when people, including journalists, were arrested after recording police with cameras or phones.

Police spokeswoman Sophia Mason says NYPD employees are reminded not to interfere with people recording police activity.

Patrick Lynch, president of the union representing police officers, said people sometimes abuse their rights, using them to torment or harass officers.

“It escalates the tension and makes it more dangerous for everyone involved,” Lynch said. “The act of recording police starts from the belief that every officer is doing something wrong and that’s insulting to all police officers.”

For officers, problems arise when recording can be interpreted as interfering with police activity, union officials say.

They add that officers understand they may be filmed, but the line between interference and documentation is blurred when a bystander shoves a cellphone into a crime scene from an arms-length away and yells aggressively at officers.

Prosecutors say their case against Munoz, 32, was built in part through surveillance video from a commercial establishment disproving his claim that Disisto entered a “fighting stance” before lunging and swinging a fist at him as officers investigated a young woman suspected of buying marijuana.

“Had this officer’s attempts to conceal his alleged misconduct succeeded, an innocent man may still be facing charges for a fabricated crime,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said in a news release.

Munoz’ lawyer did not immediately return a message Thursday seeking comment.

Christopher Dunn, associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said court fights over the issue have occurred periodically since a 1973 lawsuit resulted in a settlement four years later.

In it, the city agreed arrests would not result when someone merely takes photographs, remains near an arrest, or speaks out — even with crude or vulgar language — as long as there is no threat to safety and no law is broken.

In a report this year, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which investigates allegations of police wrongdoing, said video recordings _ including those on someone’s phone _ had an increasingly important role in substantiating misconduct complaints. In 2012, only 3 percent of the agency’s investigations included video evidence, growing to 17 percent in the first half of 2015.

Dunn said the recording trend has exposed police.

“There are more and more instances surfacing where it is clear the police officers have lied in their descriptions of what happened in an incident,” he said. “That sort of police perjury is unconscionable and something police departments really have to tackle.”

Number of police officers charged with murder or manslaughter triples in 2015

The number of U.S. police officers charged with murder or manslaughter for on-duty shootings has tripled this year — a sharp increase that at least one expert says could be the result of more video evidence.

In the past, the annual average was fewer than five officers charged. In the final weeks of 2015, that number has climbed to 15, with 10 of the cases involving video.

“If you take the cases with the video away, you are left with what we would expect to see over the past 10 years – about five cases,” said Philip Stinson, the Bowling Green State University criminologist who compiled the statistics from across the nation. “You have to wonder if there would have been charges if there wasn’t video evidence.”

The importance of video was highlighted last week with the release of footage showing a Chicago officer fatally shooting a teenager 16 times. The officer said he feared for his life from the teen, who was suspected of damaging cars using a small knife. He also had a powerful hallucinogen in his bloodstream.

“This had all the trappings of a life-threatening situation for a law-enforcement officer – PCP-laced juvenile who had been wreaking havoc on cars with a knife,” said Joseph Tacopina, a prominent New York defense attorney and former prosecutor who has represented several police officers. “Except you have the video that shows a straight-out execution.”

When he was charged with first-degree murder last week, officer Jason Van Dyke became the 15th officer in the country to face such charges in 2015.

Over the last decade, law-enforcement agencies have recorded roughly 1,000 fatal shootings each year by on-duty police. An average of fewer than five each year resulted in murder or manslaughter charges against officers, Stinson found.

The cases are often difficult to prove. Of the 47 officers charged from the beginning of 2005 through the end of last year, about 23 percent were convicted, Stinson found.

“For forever, police have owned the narrative of what happened between any encounter between a police officer and a civilian,” said David A. Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who has written extensively on police misconduct. “What video does is it takes that power of the narrative away from the police to some extent. And that shift in power of control over the narrative is incredibly significant.”

In case after case, that is exactly what has happened this year.

Stinson said Van Dyke would “never, ever” have been charged without the video. He said the same is true for Ray Tensing, the white University of Cincinnati police officer who is charged with murder and voluntary manslaughter in the July 19 death of Samuel DuBose, a black motorist whom Tensing shot to death after pulling him over for a missing front license plate.

Tensing’s attorney said the officer feared he would be dragged under the car as Dubose tried to drive away. But, Stinson said, the video from the officer’s body camera shows that his explanation “doesn’t add up.”

Other cases around the country also reveal just how important the video is.

In Marksville, Louisiana, for example, two deputy city marshals were charged with second-degree murder after authorities reviewed video from one of the officers’ body cameras, which showed a man with his hands in the air inside a vehicle when the marshals opened fire. The man was severely wounded and his 6-year-old autistic son killed.

Just how dramatically a video can shift the balance of power was apparent in North Charleston, South Carolina, when officer Michael Slager shot and killed Walter Scott, an unarmed black man as he ran away after a traffic stop.

Slager told investigators that Scott had tried to grab his gun and Taser. But after a video from a cellphone showed Slager taking careful aim at Scott as he ran away and then picking up his Taser and dropping it near Scott’s body, Slager was charged with murder.

“If not for the recording, I have no doubt that the officer in the Walter Scott case would be out on patrol today,” Harris said.

Videos have also played a key role in cases in which the victims were, in fact, armed – something that Tacopina said typically brings to a halt any thought of charging officers.

Chicago prosecutors concluded that McDonald did not pose a threat to Van Dyke, despite the small knife that he was carrying.

Likewise, prosecutors in Albuquerque, New Mexico, charged two officers with second-degree murder of a mentally ill homeless man who was holding two knives when he was shot to death. Defense attorneys have said the officers shot James Boyd out of concern for their lives, but Boyd appears to be turning away from the officers when the shots were fired.

In another case, an officer may owe her freedom to the camera that was attached to her stun gun.

Lisa Mearkle, a police officer in Hummelstown, Pennsylvania, was charged with third-degree murder, voluntary and involuntary manslaughter after shooting an unarmed man twice in the back as he laid face-down in the snow. But after watching a video that showed the man’s hands repeatedly disappear under his body as Mearkle shouted at him to keep his hands where she could see them, the jury acquitted Mearkle. 

Deadly force: A look at the latest cases involving white officers killing black men

Two recent shootings involving white law enforcement officers who killed black men — one in South Carolina and one in Oklahoma — have re-ignited the debate over the use of deadly force and race relations in the U.S.

Here is a look at those cases.

SOUTH CAROLINA

The man in the car with Walter Scott before he was shot while running away from a white officer during a traffic stop said he doesn’t know why his friend ran – but that he didn’t deserve to die.

Pierre D. Fulton released a statement this week through his lawyer, Mark A. Peper. Fulton called Scott a dear friend and asked for prayers for Scott’s family. Fulton also asked for privacy moving forward, and his lawyer said he would not comment further until any court proceedings get underway.

“I’ll never know why he ran, but I know he didn’t deserve to die,” Fulton said in the brief remarks.

The shooting was captured on a cellphone video recorded by an eyewitness who was walking nearby. The footage shows Officer Michael Slager, who is white, firing eight times as Scott, who was black, runs. Scott then falls to the ground.

Video from the dashboard of a police cruiser captured Slager telling someone in a phone call that Scott had tried to grab his Taser. The attorney who represented him immediately after the shooting also said Scott had reached for the officer’s Taser.

Slager was charged with murder days later, immediately after the cellphone video surfaced showing the officer shooting at Scott as he ran away.

OKLAHOMA

A 73-year-old reserve deputy turned himself in on and was booked into the county jail on a manslaughter charge after authorities said he confused his stun gun and handgun and shot a suspect subdued on the ground, the deputy’s attorney said.

Robert Bates could face up to four years in prison if convicted of second-degree manslaughter. Bates was released after posting bond.

A video of the incident recorded by a deputy with a sunglass camera shows a deputy chase and tackle Eric Harris, 44, who authorities said tried to sell an illegal gun to an undercover officer.

A gunshot rang out as the deputy wrestled with Harris on the ground, and a man says: “Oh, I shot him. I’m sorry.”

Harris’ family blasted the way deputies treated Harris after he was shot, saying in a statement that he was treated as “less than human.”

Harris’ brother, Andre Harris, has said he does not believe the shooting was racially motivated.

President calls for reforming criminal justice system

President Barack Obama is calling for reform to America’s criminal justice system after racially-charged controversy over police shootings in Missouri, New York, Milwaukee, Cleveland and elsewhere.

The president says Americans may have different takes on the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York. Both were unarmed black men who died after confrontations with white police officers.

But Obama says all can understand a father’s fear that his son can’t walk home without being harassed. And he says all can understand the concerns of a policeman’s wife who can’t rest until he comes home.

Obama says in his State of the Union address that lower crime and incarceration rates should allow all sides to come together to reform America’s criminal justice system so it protects and serves all.

2 Albuquerque officers charged with murder in March shooting

Deadly police encounters in New York and Missouri resulted in no charges against the officers recently amid closed-door grand jury proceedings that infuriated some members of the public. Faced with a similar decision for a high-profile police shooting in New Mexico, the top prosecutor in Albuquerque took an entirely different approach.

The Albuquerque district attorney brought murder charges this week against two officers who shot a mentally ill homeless man during a standoff last year, bypassing a grand jury and taking the case before a judge who will decide at a public hearing whether the case should move forward.

“Unlike Ferguson and unlike in New York City, we’re going to know. The public is going to have that information,” District Attorney Kari Brandenburg said. “I think officer-involved shooting cases are important around the country where we want to share all that information with the public.”

The March shooting death of 38-year-old James Boyd led to protests and helped lead to a major federal-ordered overhaul of the Albuquerque Police Department amid a rash of police shootings over the last five years.

It also came during a year when police tactics came under intense scrutiny nationwide, fueled by the fatal shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri, and the chokehold death of another unarmed man in New York City. Grand juries declined to charge officers in those cases, leading to more large protests.

Police said SWAT team member Dominique Perez and former detective Keith Sandy fatally shot Boyd, who had frequent violent run-ins with law enforcement. Video from an officer’s helmet camera showed Boyd appearing to surrender when officers opened fire, but a defense lawyer characterized him as an unstable suspect who was “unpredictably and dangerously close to a defenseless officer while he was wielding two knives.”

“I’m looking forward … to the DA’s office presenting one single witness that says this is murder,” said Sam Bregman, a lawyer for Sandy.

Brandenburg refused to provide specifics about the reasons for bringing the case, but said it was a lengthy and deliberate process involving several members of her staff.

A date for the preliminary hearing has not been set. The officers have not been booked or arrested. That would not happen until a judge renders a decision at the preliminary hearing. A date has not been set.

The case suddenly elevates the stature of the district attorney, who has been elected to four consecutive terms and been in office since 2001. Brandenburg is the daughter of a prosecutor who served as a public defender before becoming the prosecutor in New Mexico’s most populous city.

The criminal charges were the first Brandenburg has brought against officers in a shooting. She is also waging a fight with the Albuquerque Police Department over allegations that she committed bribery while intervening on behalf of her son in a burglary case.

Police believe she should be charged with bribery because, they say, she offered to pay a victim not to press charges. The attorney general’s office is handling the matter.

Brandenburg said the charges against police had nothing to with the agency’s investigation into her and that her office got the case long before the bribery claims came to light.

Each officer faces a single count in the March death of the 38-year-old Boyd. The charges allow prosecutors to pursue either first-degree or second-degree murder against the officers.

Even before Boyd’s death, the U.S. Justice Department was investigating the use of force by Albuquerque police. The department recently signed an agreement to make changes after the government issued a harsh report. The agreement requires police to provide better training for officers and to dismantle troubled units.

Since 2010, Albuquerque police have been involved in more than 40 shootings – 27 of them deadly. After Boyd’s death, outrage over the trend grew and culminated with protests that included a demonstration where authorities fired tear gas and another that shut down a City Council meeting.

Bregman said there is “not one shred” of evidence to support the case and insisted the officer had no criminal intent when he encountered Boyd. He said Sandy followed training procedures outlined by the police department.

Luis Robles, an attorney for Perez, said he was “confident that the facts will vindicate officer Perez’s actions in this case.”

The FBI is also investigating, but U.S. authorities have not said if the officers will face federal charges.

Police are legally empowered to use deadly force when appropriate, and a 1989 Supreme Court decision concluded that an officer’s use of force must be evaluated through the “perspective of a reasonable officer on scene rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”

Philip Matthew Stinson, a professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio who studies police misconduct, found that local officers were charged in 41 cases with murder or manslaughter stemming from on-duty shootings between 2005 and 2011. By comparison, over the same period, police agencies reported more than 2,700 cases of justifiable homicide by law enforcement officers to the FBI, and that statistic is incomplete.

The figures suggest it’s difficult to get a conviction “because juries are so reluctant to second-guess an officer’s split-second decision,” Stinson said.

Democrats ask Justice for excessive force data

More than 50 congressional Democrats are calling on U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the Justice Department to collect and publicly release data about the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers.

The letter begins, “We share a strong commitment to building a fairer, more equitable criminal justice system and write today to request the Department of Justice (DOJ) collect data about the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers in the United States and produce a publicly available annual summary of the data. This reporting is currently required under (the) Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, however according to media reports the most recent report was issues in 2001.”

The letter refers to deaths in Sanford, Florida, Ferguson, Missouri, Staten Island, New York and Cleveland that “illustrate a significant need for criminal justice reform. Reliable information is necessary in order to implement meaningful change. Experience in our communities indicates that the use of excessive force disproportionally affects communities of color, but we lack the empirical data from the Department of Justice.

In order to ensure that (the) criminal justice system provides equal justice for all, the DOJ should establish a standardized procedure by which local law enforcement agencies collect and report relevant data. This procedure should leave it to local authorities to judge what is ‘excessive,’ but rather should provide DOJ with sufficient information to allow DOJ to make that judgment.

We request that you respond to our request and report on the steps that the DOJ will take to ensure that instances of excessive force are tracked and reported. Recent events make it clear that this is an urgent matter.”

The letter cites a provision in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 that requires the attorney general to compile data on the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers and also refers to a 2014 article in The International Business Times by Keith Ross that was headlined, “How Many Police Shootings Have There Been? In The Aftermath of Michael Brown’s Death, The Absence of Police Shooting Statistics Leaves The Question Unanswered.

Signers, all of them Democrats, include Mark Pocan and Gwen Moore of Wisconsin, as well as Alan Grayson of Florida, Hank Johnson of Georgia, Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, Steve Cohen of Tennessee, Corrine Brown of Florida, André Carson of Indiana, Frank Pallone of New Jersey, Charles Rangel of New York, Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, José Serrano of New York, Bennie G. Thompson of Mississippi, Maxine Waters of California, Dianna DeGette of Colorado, Juan Vargas of California, Gregory Meeks of New York, John Yarmuth Kentucky, James Clyburn of South Carolina, Rush Holt of New Jersey, Mike Honda of California, Jared Huffman of California, Hakeem Jeffries of New York, Barbara Lee of California, Alan Lowenthal of California, Carolyn Maloney of New York, Jerrold Nadler of New York, Grace Napolitano of California, Eleanor Holmes Norton the District of Columbia, Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, Judy Chu of California, David Cicilline of Rhode Island, Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, Yvette Clarke of New York, John Conyers of Michigan, Danny Davis of Illinois,  Peter DeFazio of Oregon, Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, Sam Farr of California,  Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania, Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, Janice Hahn of California, Loretta Sanchez of California, Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, John Sarbanes of Maryland, Alma Adams of North Carolina, Tim Ryan of Ohio, Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, Jared Polis of Colorado and Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas.