Getting Away With Murder

On October 24, 1996, Officer James Knight shot and killed 18-year-old Tyrone Lewis, an unarmed black man, during a routine traffic stop in St. Petersburg, Fla. Lewis apparently failed to respond when Knight and his partner ordered him out of the car after pulling him over for speeding in the city's predominantly black south side. When Knight's partner broke one of the car windows, the car lurched forward, bumping Officer Knight, who then threatened to shoot. Lewis' car then reportedly lurched forward again, this time striking Knight forcefully. Knight fired his gun three times, shooting Lewis twice in the arm and once in the chest. Police later learned the car was stolen and that Lewis was wanted on three arrest warrants. But community residents who witnessed the incident insist that the police were never threatened.Lewis' death sparked a riot in the resort city's African- American neighborhood. The disturbance covered a 20-square block area; 29 buildings and many cars were set on fire. Eleven people were injured. The grand jury decision not to indict the police officer provoked another round of civil unrest three weeks later.While so far only the black community in St. Petersburg has responded with such destructive rage, black neighborhoods across the country are seething with anger at the impunity enjoyed by police officers who kill black men.Relations between African-Americans and the police have been antagonistic throughout U.S. history. The first organized police forces in this country were slave patrols created to keep enslaved Africans in check. The troubled relationship between blacks and the police has erupted sporadically in violence: Most of the "long hot summer" riots during the '60s were sparked by charges of police brutality. The urban unrest in Miami during the '80s was associated with allegations of police violence. And the nation's largest urban explosion occurred in Los Angeles following the 1992 acquittal of the police who brutalized motorist Rodney King.The police are using deadly force more and more frequently these days--and getting away with it. The stories are eerily similar: *July 30, 1995: Joseph Gould, an unarmed homeless black man, is shot to death outside a downtown Chicago nightclub by Gregory Becker, an off-duty white cop. The officer is initially charged with official misconduct, but vigorous protests convince the Illinois state attorney to increase the charge to armed violence. The city now anxiously awaits Becker's February trial. *October 3, 1995: Jorge Guillen, a Honduran immigrant, dies of suffocation in police custody in Chicago. The state attorney's office declines to prosecute the officers, citing lack of evidence of any criminal conduct. The Office of Professional Standards (OPS), an independent agency of civilian staffers considered by many to be in the pocket of the police, nevertheless concludes that the three officers involved used excessive force. The agency recommends that they receive short suspensions. The recommendation, however, is overruled on December 11, 1996, by the Chicago Police Board, which cites conflicting medical evidence and inconsistent witness statements.*June 13, 1996: Aswan Keshawn Watson, an unarmed 21-year-old black man, is killed when three plainclothes officers fire 24 bullets into him during a drug raid in Brooklyn's Flatbush section.*October 17, 1996: Aaron White, the black owner of a television repair shop in the west-central Mississippi town of Leland, is shot to death by a white policeman. Initially, police say the 29-year-old White was trying to escape from the scene of a traffic accident and fired first on Officer Jackie Blaylock, who successfully returned fire. The police later revise their story, saying White accidentally killed himself in the escape attempt.*November 19, 1996: James Cooper, a black 19-year-old, is shot to death by Officer Michael Marlow during a traffic stop in Charlotte, N.C. The white officer tells investigators he fired because he thought Cooper was reaching for a gun. No gun is found, but Marlow is not charged.Examples of blacks and other minorities killed by police officers with near impunity could fill three times this space. Unfortunately, the list is still not long enough to convince political leaders to effectively confront the racism responsible for these crimes.Escalating police violence reflects a growing fear of black criminality among the broader population. The skyrocketing rate of black imprisonment and the profits to be made from the prison industry (see "My own private Alcatraz," December 23, 1996) suggest that the criminal justice system and young African- Americans are increasingly becoming each other's sworn enemies. "Racist assumptions are built into the very foundation of American policing," says William Geller, associate director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based group that studies law enforcement issues. Geller, the author of several books on police abuse, is not surprised by the ratcheting up of tensions between police and black men. The widening gap between the rich and the poor combined with the absence of well-paying jobs in urban America have placed these two populations at loggerheads, he says. Amnesty International released a report in late June that documented a disturbing pattern of police violence in America's largest police force. Entitled "Police Brutality and Excessive Force in the New York City Police Department," the 72-page report found that the New York Police Department routinely violates international human rights standards as well as its own guidelines governing the use of deadly force. The 18-month investigation found that charges of police brutality in New York climbed from 977 in 1987 to more than 2,000 in 1994. Deaths in police custody rose from 11 in 1991 to 24 in 1994. According to the report, most of the victims were minorities, while most of the offending police officers were white. Amnesty International concluded that excessive use of force has probably led to many more deaths in police custody than the New York Police Department is willing to acknowledge. The report cited several cases in which men in custody subjected to choke holds or sprayed with capsicum pepper died of apparently related seizures or asphyxiation.The report also noted a troubling new development: black undercover police officers being shot by their white colleagues. New York City transit officers Derwin Pannell and Desmond Robinson both were mistaken for criminals and shot by white officers. On November 18, 1992, Pannell was attempting to arrest a farebeater in a dark subway station in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn, when he was confronted by white transit officers who mistook him for a mugger because he was rifling through the woman's handbag with his gun drawn. In later testimony, Pannell said his fellow officers did not identify themselves before opening fire.A Brooklyn grand jury cleared Pannell's assailants of all charges.Officer Robinson had his gun drawn and was in pursuit of a suspect on August 24, 1994, when he was mistaken for a criminal and shot by Peter Del Debbio, an off-duty police officer on his way home. Testimony and evidence in the case suggest that Del Debbio stood over Robinson as he lay helpless on the subway platform and shot him three times in the back. Del Debbio was convicted last March of second-degree assault and sentenced to 200 hours of community service and five years' probation. New York City, of course, is not the only place where white cops have mistakenly shot black cops. In Nashville, Reggie Miller, a black cop, was working on an undercover prostitution sting when five white police officers pulled him over for a traffic violation and forced him to the ground. The officers didn't give Miller the opportunity to identify himself, and within minutes they began beating him for no apparent reason. The offending officers were initially dismissed from the police force, but were later reinstated by the city's civil service commission. The Amnesty International report may cause a temporary spasm of civic embarrassment in New York, but if previous experience in Chicago and Los Angeles is any indication, don't expect much to change. Amnesty International issued a 1990 report describing police torture and brutality in Chicago and an equally scathing 1992 report on the Los Angeles Police Department. Neither the police nor their political overseers in either city have moved to address the concerns raised in those reports. "All of this is part of a larger crackdown on African- Americans," says political scientist and author Andrew Hacker. "White Americans have decided that enough is enough. They want longer prison sentences, and welfare mothers to go out and work. White America is tired of hearing about racism and says 'We've done enough.' "In these times of racial and economic polarization, police officers are increasingly in the line of fire, called upon to quell the growing antagonisms. Criminal justice solutions, however, are woefully inadequate to heal the deep social wounds that plague contemporary America.Placing the black community under police siege will do little to facilitate the struggle for enlightened solutions. Instead, police violence "in the line of duty" will stir up more black anger. When that anger reaches the boiling point, we can expect to see more St. Petersburgs. That would mark the beginning of a downward spiral whose repercussions, rest assured, will not be limited to the inner cities.Impunity in PittsburghOn the same day that Tyrone Lewis was gunned down in St. Petersburg, an all-white jury in Pittsburgh acquitted Officer John Vojtas in the suffocation death of Jonny Gammage. The 31- year-old black businessman died in the custody of five police officers after being stopped for "driving erratically" in the predominantly white Pittsburgh suburb of Brentwood. The case combines all the volatile elements of America's vexing racial dynamic. The five cops were white, the driver was a black man and the car he was driving was expensive, a Jaguar. Gammage, from Syracuse, N.Y., had been visiting his cousin and business partner Ray Seals of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was unarmed and had no criminal record. Gammage's connection to Seals gave the story front-page headlines. Otherwise, his death probably would have been just one more short news item relegated to the back pages.Pittsburgh is one of the Northeast's most segregated cities, and the poverty rate among Pittsburgh's blacks is among the nation's highest. William Tompkins, the vice president of the Pittsburgh branch of the Urban League, says race relations in the city are as bad as he's ever seen them. "The shooting of the brother named Manya Bey in East Liberty--15 times, apparently while he was on the ground. The shooting of the brother in the Armstrong Tunnel, who was killed and found to be unarmed. And now Gammage," he says. "All African-American males. All deceased." The coroner's jury urged that all five officers--Lt. Milton Mulholland, Patrolman Michael Albert, Patrolman John Vojtas, Sgt. Keith Henderson and Officer Shawn Patterson--be charged with criminal homicide. But District Attorney Robert Colville immediately dropped charges against two of the officers and charged the remaining three each with a single count of involuntary manslaughter.In the trial of Officer Vojtas, the presiding judge decided that the jury should be selected from areas outside of Allegheny County where there was less publicity about the case. An all- white jury was gathered from Chester County, 290 miles to the east, where blacks make up about 6 percent of the population. Prosecutor Anthony Krastek thought his evidence against Vojtas was solid. He had proof that Vojtas instigated the 1995 confrontation by striking Gammage. As the victim lay motionless following the five-cop assault, Vojtas was quoted as saying, "I hope he dies." Yet the jury voted to acquit. Many in the city's black community are not surprised by the verdict. "You can almost bet that mainstream America is using just about every high-profile trial of a black man to get revenge for O.J. Simpson's acquittal," says Khalid Raheem, a well-known organizer. "The thing is, young black men had a target drawn on them long before Johnny Cochran pulled O.J.'s balls out of the sand."The trial of the two other police officers--Mulholland and Albert--ended in a mistrial last October after a coroner blurted out improper testimony. The two are scheduled to be retried, but, following Vojtas's acquittal, hopes of conviction are not high."It seems clear to me that issues of race are more important than issues of justice," says Raheem.

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