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After Ferguson, New Focus on Race and Policing

  • Carolyn Weaver

Last month's fatal shooting of an unarmed African American teen by a white police officer after a street confrontation in Ferguson, Missouri, has drawn a new focus on other such cases throughout the U.S., amid protests and demands by civil rights leaders for investigation of racial bias in aggressive policing.

Barely a week after Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, police in nearby St. Louis shot and killed Kajieme Powell, a mentally disturbed 25-year-old black man who held a small steak knife. Two police officers fired within 15 seconds of arriving at the scene where Powell was walking around, seemingly aimlessly, with his hands at his side.

In Utah, a 22-year-old black man was shot dead on September 10 by police in Saratoga Springs. He had been carrying on his back a one meter-long souvenir Samurai sword he had bought in a gift shop, and some witnesses said he appeared “distressed.” His family says he was shot in the back while running away.

In New York, marchers demanded justice for Eric Garner, a 43-year-old African American man who died two months ago after police used a chokehold on him while arresting him for a misdemeanor. A grand jury is investigating the role of the banned chokehold in Garner’s death.

Family members of two other black men killed in local police shootings in 2011 and 2012 held rallies outside the federal courthouse in lower Manhattan, calling for the U.S. Justice Department to finish its investigations into those deaths.

Constance Malcolm’s 18-year-old son, Ramarley Graham, was shot and killed in 2012 by a narcotics unit police officer who chased him into his home in the Bronx, breaking down the door, and into an upstairs bathroom. Officer Richard Haste reportedly said he fired when he thought he saw Graham reaching for a gun in his waistband. No gun was found, though a small amount of marijuana was in the toilet.

Graham’s grandmother and six-year-old brother were present. Malcolm recently took a petition with 33,000 signatures demanding action from federal prosecutors."We have to put a stop to police brutality. Our kids matter. Our black and Latino boys matter. You can't just shoot them down and pretend they're target practice, because they're not,” she said.

There is no national database of police-involved deaths. The FBI says that most of the U.S.’s 18,000 local police departments voluntarily report a total of about 400 justified killings by police per year, including many in exchanges of gunfire. But the FBI does not verify the accuracy of the reports, and police killings that are deemed unjustifiable are not included. All the available evidence suggests that even police officers accused in unjustified killings are rarely indicted or convicted. An estimated 25 percent of those killed are African American, double their representation in the population. About half of all those killed, according to some estimates, are mentally ill.

Kenneth Chamberlain’s 68-year-old father, Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr., a retired Marine, lived alone in White Plains, New York, and suffered from heart disease and emphysema. He was fearful and held a knife through a crack in the door when police were called to his home after he accidentally triggered his medical alarm pendant.

“I know I’m going to get hurt,” he yelled, refusing to open the door all the way. Police pulled the knife through the crack in the door, but continued to demand entrance. Much of the 2011 incident was recorded by the medical-alarm service and by a camera on a police Taser.

“Go away! I’m okay,” an agitated Chamberlain shouted, over and over. Police refused, called him “Mr. Chamberlain” at times, and “Kenny” at others. “You’re a grown-ass man, Kenny,” one said to him. Another addressed him at one point with a racial slur. Chamberlain grew more confused, calling out to someone named Lynette, and invoking the names of other elders in his church. He also cried out, “They’re breaking through, Mr. President, they’re breaking through! I’m outnumbered!”

Police declined the offer of a niece who lived in the same building to help calm her uncle, as well as a suggestion to call his son, who lived nearby. After an hour, they took the door off the hinges, Tasered and shot beanbags at Chamberlain, and then two live shots. One fatally wounded Chamberlain in the chest.

“I’ve challenged anyone to listen to that audio and tell me that you don’t come back with a fact-based conclusion that this was misconduct and murder,” said his son, Kenneth Chamberlain, Jr. He has filed a wrongful death suit and is awaiting the results of a Justice Department investigation begun in May 2012.

A grand jury declined to return an indictment against the police officer who shot Kenneth Chamberlain, after the first indictment was dismissed by a judge due to prosecutorial error. The officer who used the racial slur at the scene was later dismissed. A two-page report by outside experts commissioned by the White Plains police department found the shooting to be “totally justified,” saying that “negotiations and all non-lethal means were unsuccessful, and Mr. Chamberlain came at a police sergeant with a knife.”

Donna Lieberman, director of the New York City Civil Liberties Union, disagrees.

“What happened to Mr. Chamberlain is another example of a fundamental lack of respect for some people,” she said, noting that people who die in encounters with police are often poor, members of a racial minority, or emotionally disturbed.

Advocates for the mentally ill also say that police too often respond with excessive force when called to deal with, or help, an emotionally disturbed individual. A 2012 story in the Portland Press Herald in Maine cited numerous cases of fatal police shootings of mentally ill people, including the shooting in the back of a man who had been threatening suicide, and “a pen-wielding, wheel-chair-bound double amputee,” shot in the head.

Last March, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a SWAT team shot and killed an unarmed homeless man who was retreating from them, a death now under criminal investigation. A 2014 Justice Department study of 37 other Albuquerque police shootings from 2009 to 2012 found the majority unreasonable and unconstitutional.

“Albuquerque police officers often use deadly force in circumstances where there is no imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm to officers or others,” the report said. A federal monitor may be appointed to oversee the city’s police, as in several other large U.S. cities, including Detroit, New Orleans, Los Angeles and Seattle.

Former police officer Eugene O'Donnell says that he believes police are restrained in most instances. But he says they are rarely trained to deal well with emotionally disturbed people.

"When you send the police to a mental illness call, it is the worst possible thing you can do. I can't think of anything worse," he said. "The cops come with weapons. They're oriented towards force. They have to hold onto those weapons. They think worst-case scenario.”

Lieberman and O’Donnell agree that an underlying cause of some unnecessary police-involved deaths is over-policing and arrests for petty infractions, often demanded by lawmakers or even the public. An arrest for spitting on the sidewalk or illegally selling cigarettes can spin out of control. “To reduce police violence,” O’Donnell said, “you have to reduce their footprint. You have to ask them to do less."

“It’s worth noting that every hostile interaction that the police have with the community has the potential to run out of control,” Lieberman said, adding, "The police have a very important and dangerous job, and it's inevitable that mistakes will be made. But the mistakes tend to follow a pattern. We have to wonder if Ramarley Graham had been white, would that have happened?"

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