Tag Archives: Sanford

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.

Despite outcry, stand-ground law repeals unlikely

Despite an outcry from civil rights groups, a call for close examination by President Barack Obama and even a 1960s-style sit-in at the Florida governor’s office, a jury’s verdict that a former neighborhood watch volunteer was justified in shooting an unarmed black teenager is unlikely to spur change to any of the “stand your ground” self-defense laws in various states.

George Zimmerman, a 29-year-old former neighborhood watch volunteer, was acquitted this month of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges in the 2012 shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in a gated community in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman told police he shot Martin only after the African-American teenager physically attacked him. But Martin’s family and supporters say Zimmerman, who identifies as Hispanic, racially profiled Martin as a potential criminal and wrongly pursued him.

Zimmerman’s lawyers decided not to pursue a pretrial immunity hearing allowed by Florida’s stand-your-ground law. But jurors were told in final instructions by Circuit Judge Debra Nelson that they should acquit Zimmerman if they found “he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary.”

Before Florida’s “stand your ground” law was passed in 2005, the instruction would have read that Zimmerman “cannot justify his use of force likely to cause death or great bodily harm if by retreating he could have avoided the need to use that force.”

Since the law was enacted, justifiable homicides in Florida have risen from an annual average of 13.2 between 2001 and 2005 to an average of 42 between 2006 and 2012, including a record 66 in 2012, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

FBI data have shown similar increases in some states that enacted similar laws, such as Texas, while others haven’t seen an uptick.

At least 22 states have laws similar to Florida’s, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Many are conservative and lean toward laws that defend gun owners’ rights. So far, there does not appear to be an appetite in Florida and other states to repeal or change the laws, which generally eliminate a person’s duty to retreat in the face of a serious physical threat. In fact, some states are moving in the opposite direction.

Since the Florida jury’s verdict, the Republican governors of Florida, Arizona and Georgia have all reiterated their support of “stand your ground” laws.

“The debate about ‘stand your ground’ laws largely reproduces existing divisions in American politics, particularly between blacks and whites and between Democrats and Republicans,” said John Sides, associate professor of political science at George Washington University.

Beyond Florida, the states that have some form of a “stand your ground” law include: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

Speaking recently to a convention of the NAACP in Orlando, Fla., U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the Martin shooting demonstrates a need to re-examine the laws. The laws “senselessly expand the concept of self-defense” and increase the possibility of deadly confrontations, he said.

Obama said the nation needed to do some “soul-searching.” He questioned whether a law could really promote peace and security if it sent the message that someone who is armed “has the right to use those firearms even if there is a way for them to exit from a situation.”

“By standing his ground, George Zimmerman was able to get away with murdering a 17-year-old black man,” said Chelsea Jones, a student who spoke at a Dallas rally. “I can only imagine what the black community can achieve by standing their ground.”

Even entertainer Stevie Wonder has joined the outcry, vowing not to perform in Florida and other states with “stand your ground” laws on the books. The Rev. Al Sharpton suggested that the law’s opponents might boycott Florida orange juice, and other groups want to boycott the state’s tourist destinations. Both are multibillion-dollar industries.

Florida state Sen. Chris Smith, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, said the Zimmerman verdict was a “wake-up call” that should at least open fresh debate on “stand your ground” laws.

He noted that in the wake of the 2011 acquittal of Casey Anthony in the killing of her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee, Florida lawmakers passed legislation making it a felony for a parent or guardian to fail to report a missing child within 36 hours. Caylee’s disappearance was not reported for 31 days.

“We are calling for the same type of action,” Smith said.

But The Associated Press has found scant support for repeal of the laws in Florida and elsewhere. Scott told reporters he agreed with the findings of a task force he appointed on the subject after Martin’s shooting, which recommended no changes to the state’s “stand your ground” law. Of the protesters in his Capitol office, Scott said, “I think it is great that people are exercising their voices.”

After Holder’s speech, the National Rifle Association, which strongly backs the laws and holds enormous sway in many state legislatures, issued a statement claiming that Obama’s administration was aiming more at the broader political goal of restricting gun rights.

“The attorney general fails to understand that self-defense is not a concept, it’s a fundamental human right,” said Chris W. Cox, executive director of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action. “To send a message that legitimate self-defense is to blame is unconscionable.”

In fact, in states with “stand your ground” laws similar to Florida’s, the trend has been toward greater gun rights. In Wisconsin, for example, Gov. Scott Walker in 2011 signed a castle doctrine law, which provides criminal immunity and protection from civil suits for homeowners and business owners who use deadly force self-defense. 

Wisconsin and other states also have passed open carry measures that allow people with concealed carry permits to display their handguns openly in a holster. 

Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, appeared on NBC television’s “Meet the Press” and called the laws “one of the things that has incited and ignited, I believe, this movement across the nation, which I think is the beginning of a new civil rights movement.”

Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said during the show that the question now is whether it’s proper for the federal government to tell states with stand-your-ground laws how to change or remake them. His answer: “No. I mean, this is something that’s going to have to be worked out state by state.”

Shooting stokes furor over gun laws

The fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Sanford, Fla., has led to mass protests, a congressional hearing, Justice Department scrutiny and widespread debate on gun laws, bias crime and racial profiing.

The death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin on Feb. 26 is not a whodunit – without question it was volunteer neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman who shot and killed Martin with a licensed 9 mm semiautomatic handgun.

But many questions do remain about the incident in the Retreat at Twin Lakes gated subdivision in suburban Orlando – and how the local police department and prosecutor’s office responded. Zimmerman, 28, who has not been arrested, claims he acted in self-defense. He claims Martin seemed suspicious and became the aggressor, breaking Zimmerman’s nose and bashing his head.

Martin’s family and their many supporters, however, claim Zimmerman pursued the teen because of his color. They maintain that the 17-year-old, who was carrying a can of iced tea and a package of Skittles while talking on a cellphone to his girlfriend, posed no threat.

On March 27, Martin’s parents spoke briefly at a congressional hearing on bias crime and racial profiling. Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee called the hearing for “a discussion of the issues surrounding when the federal government can intervene in matters relating to hate crimes.”

U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., who presided said, “Today is not to examine the specific facts of the case. That will be left to the Department of Justice and the state investigation that is under way. Our job is to understand the legislative and legal concepts that exist to consider what can be done to prevent similar tragedies from happening again.”

Lawmakers heard testimony from an attorney for the Martin family, as well as from representatives of the Justice Department and civil rights groups, including the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT group.

“This case is a tragedy,” HRC deputy legislative director David Stacy testified. “We don’t know the degree to which racial bias played a role. That is an important question for the investigation, not only in finding justice for Trayvon and his family, but also so that we can determine how best to prevent another tragedy.”

Stacy named several LGBT people killed in bias crimes and noted several anti-LGBT crimes in Washington, D.C., in recent months.

“Bias-motivated crimes terrorize an entire community. Individuals feel less safe, less secure and less free,” he said. “As we see with the incredible national response to Trayvon’s death, or as we saw with the deaths of James Byrd Jr. and Matthew Shepard, these specific incidents have a much broader impact.”

Stacy described the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act that Barack Obama signed into law in 2009 as “badly needed authority to expand the federal government’s ability to investigate and prosecute hate crimes.”

The Justice Department and the FBI are investigating the Martin shooting to determine whether federal charges should be filed under the Shepard-Byrd law, which expanded the U.S. government’s role in investigating and prosecuting bias crime and also expanded classifications to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

During a March 20 speech at a conference on LGBT issues at the University of Texas-Arlington, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said that under the Obama administration, Justice’s Civil Rights Division has taken “preventing, investigating and prosecuting hate-fueled crimes and violence” to a “new level.”

In fiscal 2011, Justice set records in the number of hate crimes cases filed, the number of defendants charged and the number convicted. Seven cases have been indicted under Shepard-Byrd, 24 defendants have been charged and eight have been convicted, Holder said.

Valerie B. Jarrett, senior advisor to the president, also addressed the conference, which was co-hosted by the White House Office of Public Engagement. She reminded attendees that when the president signed the Shepard-Byrd act he said, “No one in America should be forced to look over their shoulder because of who they are.”

The federal government first showed an interest in the Trayvon Martin case as citizen protests began over the Sanford Police Department’s failure to arrest Zimmerman and the lack of prosecutorial action from the Seminole County State Attorney’s office.

Now, as the Justice Department and FBI continue to investigate, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is conducting a state review and a local grand jury will hear evidence.

Several Florida Democrats have suggested holding a special legislative session to review the Stand Your Ground law that the Sanford police chief has said gave Zimmerman the authority to shoot. The statute allows a person who feels threatened to use force to prevent harm.

Similar statutes are under scrutiny in other states, including the so-called “Castle” law in Wisconsin that was cited in the defense of a homeowner’s killing of 20-year-old Bo Morrison in West Bend on March 3. Morrison, also black and unarmed, died a week after Martin.

At a rally at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on March 3, organizer-activist Dan Suarez of the International Socialist Organization characterized both deaths as “lynchings.”