Serve and Protect?

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 Center.

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 shootings.

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 report misconduct.

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 was carrying.

"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 force.

"[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.

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