Dashing through wild sunflowers and tall grass, Joe Pulliam slid through the barbed-wire fence that marks the state border. With two large wooden tipi poles slung over his shoulder, sweating in the morning sun, he knew it was trespassing. But this was about something bigger.
Behind him, to the south, was the Pine Ridge Indian reservation – a vast, 3,500-sq mile rectangle of land at the south-western base of South Dakota, home to 20,000 Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe members and where the sale of alcohol is banned.
In front of him, on the ground he was now striding across, was Whiteclay, Nebraska. The town has no local government and only 14 residents. For over a century, its primary purpose has been to sell alcohol to the reservation’s residents. Four million cans of beer left the stores here each year – 11,000 a day. Activists have long argued it has decimated the tribe.
This summer marked the first time that the four liquor stores in Whiteclay had stopped selling. In April, after a history of lawlessness and a recent spate of unsolved murders, the Nebraska state liquor commission voted to temporarily revoke all four licenses.
On this day, as the last days of a long, humid summer had started to evaporate, the state’s supreme court would hear arguments on whether to make the closures permanent. As Pulliam and a group of six other Lakota men went about planting the poles in the ground, wrapping rope around the apex, they wanted to make a lasting statement.
“This tipi rising here represents the end of that oppression, the end of that colonialism,” he said, regaining his breath. “Whiteclay was the destruction.”
“I’m hoping that Nebraska can look at themselves and their Christian ways and ask themselves: will they continue to profit off our people’s addiction?”
On Friday, the Nebraska supreme court ruled unanimously to keep Whiteclay’s liquor stores closed.
Addiction is endemic here. Up to two-thirds of adults live with alcoholism. One in four children are born with fetal alcohol syndrome. Life expectancy is just 66.8 years. Fueled by poverty and addiction – the unemployment rate hovers around 80% – the suicide rate is over four times the national average.
During dozens of interviews during a week spent on the reservation, every single person who spoke to the Guardian said they had either battled addiction themselves or had a family member who had.
Whiteclay had become the focal point of the tribe’s attempts to target abuse head on. Its closure, even if it turned out to be temporary, marked a victory for campaigners who have pushed for years to see the liquor stores gone.
But already many here, just as on other Indian reservations in America, are coming to terms with a struggle that will get even harder in an era of federal budget cuts and austerity. The Trump administration has already made clear its intention to roll back federal funds, a move likely to have a devastating effect on people here, who rely on grant money to keep many basic public programs in operation.
Pine Ridge is the only reservation in South Dakota where the sale and possession of alcohol is illegal. A tribal vote in 2013 to legalize sales was never implemented and “dry” status has been enforced almost entirely since foundation in 1889.
Whiteclay, established around the same time, was created as a non-permanent 50-mile buffer zone to prevent the sale of alcohol close by. But in 1904, after an executive order signed by Theodore Roosevelt reduced the dry zone to a single mile, traders poured into the area, building so-called whiskey ranches that plied the nearby Lakota community with liquor.
Olowan Martinez, a 43-year-old Lakota woman, was 11 the first time she visited the town, accompanying her alcoholic mother, who came almost every day. She recalled sitting in the back seat of their car, watching her mother drink and witnessing brawls from out the window.
“Whiteclay is a hole,” she said, standing in a prayer camp just inside the reservation that was constructed by Pulliam and others shortly after the liquor licenses were revoked. “It’s been based on liquid genocide for generations.”
Martinez started drinking at 14, but sobered up 12 years ago when her mother died, in her early 50s, due to chronic liver damage. “The town killed her. But it wasn’t just alcohol. It was the historical trauma that happened to our nations, too.”
History simmers to the top of many conversations here – from the systemic destruction and criminalisation of Lakota culture through federal laws in the late 19th century, to the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, in the reservation’s south, where up to 300 Lakota men, women and children were mowed down by US cavalrymen, their frozen bodies dumped in a mass grave days later.
The cluster of at least four unsolved murders in the past two decades at Whiteclay, where no permanent police presence led to a de facto state of lawlessness, is also etched in people’s memories.
Pulliam lost two uncles, Wallace Black Elk and Ron Hard Heart, whose body was found mutilated in a ditch just outside the town in 1999.
“It was such a dangerous place,” he said looking at the site their bodies were recovered. “It was so violent and dirty. It was really hell on earth.”
But today, the town is almost silent. Tumbleweed rolls across the dusty streets, the front doors to State Line Liquor, D&S Pioneer Service and the Arrowhead Inn bolted shut, each behind reinforced iron gates.
“I feel a sense of pride when I look at it now,” said Martinez. “Because I don’t see my relatives littered on the street like trash.”
The lawyers representing the four store owners did not return requests for an interview. But Loren L Paul, a Nebraskan county commissioner who supported the owners and had voted to try to keep their businesses open, argued the issue was simply supply and demand.
“It’s market forces,” said Paul at his home in the small city of Gordon.
“I don’t think there’s racism involved. [Whiteclay] is there because there’s a need and somebody is going to supply that need.”
The calls came in at a frantic pace as Lt Jason Lone Hill struggled to understand just what sort of emergency he was speeding towards. The late shift is the loneliest and most dangerous patrol for the tribal police on the reservation.
The department is already stretched beyond its limit. After a loss of grant money under the George W Bush administration, there are now just 32 officers in the entire department – 10 years ago, it was more than 100.
That evening, just three officers were patrolling the entire western sector, an area of around one and a half thousand square miles – larger than the state of Rhode Island. The night before, Lone Hill, a Lakota man who has lived on the reservation his entire life, had been called out to a gang brawl in one of the higher-crime areas in the reservation’s centre.
The homicide rate almost doubled here last year, from nine murders in 2015 to 17 in 2016. Police partially attribute the rise to a surge in methamphetamine abuse.
But just as Whiteclay’s closure has brought hope and opportunity to people here, so has it intensified other problems.
Bootlegging has surged. In every housing cluster, in every district, Lone Hill said, there were now people selling alcohol illegally.
“They’re killing our people, over greed and money,” he said.
Vodka has become the drink of choice, over the beers that were once on sale at Whiteclay. Local bootleggers now travel further afield, to the towns of Rushville and Chadron in Nebraska, about 30 miles from the south of the reservation, to buy gallons of cheap spirits, dilute them with water and sell a 500ml bottle for around $10 – about a 1,000% markup.
This summer the police department reassigned its specialist drug taskforce of four officers to target bootleggers by running undercover stings. But the demand supersedes resources here, and the cops are fighting a losing battle.
As Lone Hill pulled up to the small three-bed home in the Old Crazy Horse neighbourhood in the reservation’s south, following more than a dozen 911 calls, the scene was one of distressing familiarity. A man in his 30s lay prone on the floor outside. His brother was passed out in the doorway while a group of eight young children scampered around in the darkness.
It was difficult to tell if the two men were alive or dead.
“Hey! Wake up!” Lone Hill shouted. “Wake up! It’s the police.”
Eventually both men stirred and Lone Hill was forced to place one in handcuffs and send him off to jail for detox. “Taking him to jail ain’t helping, because we’re going to be back tomorrow night. And the next night. It’s a revolving door.
“Nowadays,” Lone Hill said, “nine out of ten people will be like that, in that condition, because it used to be beer, and now it’s vodka, and vodka gets in your system and messes you up a lot faster.”
In 2000, as the expanding Native American casino industry in upstate New York threatened his own gambling interests in New Jersey, the businessman took aim at the St Regis Mohawk tribe. Trump secretly spent $1m on local newspaper adverts that portrayed the tribe as organised criminals and cocaine pushers. Under a photograph of syringes and lines of powder ran the question: “Are these the new neighbors we want?”
“It showed us what he really thinks of us,” said Eileen Janis, a community leader who runs the Oglala Lakota’s only suicide intervention program with her colleague Yvonne “Tiny” DeCory.
Now in office, Trump threatens to decimate the small gains ushered in by the closure of Whiteclay.
“We know a young mother who used to get together $5 and go up to Whiteclay and buy a big can of beer all the time. One of those big cans gets you drunk. But now she can’t do that. So now she spends her money on her kids, or buys food with it. That is progress,” said Janis.
But Trump’s proposed 25% budget cuts to the food stamp programme (on which at least 49% of people here relied in 2009) would make many more children go hungry here, she said. The administration is also proposing a range of cuts to federal departments the tribe relies on for grant money attached to a range of public services including education, public health and policing.
“It’s going to be bad,” Janis said. “And that’s for all of us.”
Janis lost the federal health grant that paid her salary earlier in the year and is now essentially a full-time volunteer.
She and DeCory work seven days a week, mentoring children and providing mental health outreach in the absence of specialist facilities in the reservation’s only hospital. They often accompany police to domestic disturbances and mental health emergencies. Janis, 56, recently bought a Taser as the intensity of their late-night callouts has grown.
That afternoon, the pair headed deep into the reservation’s centre to a vigil for 22-year-old Tyler Dubray, a college student who had taken his own life four days earlier.
It was the 11th suicide on the reservation since April.
Dubray’s death took people here by surprise. The Lakota man, with bright green eyes and deep dimples, mentored younger children and taught them traditional weaving. His friends and family all referred to him as outwardly content.
“He was full of life,” DeCory told the roughly 200 people clutching candles and lanterns on the grass outside the Dubray family’s small home, where complete darkness engulfed the surrounding empty expanse. “And you all should know that you loved him unconditionally. Know that you were good to him, and you have no regrets for the way you treated him.”
The tipi still stood on the entrance to Whiteclay days after Pulliam had built it up. The men had placed a sign next to it that fluttered in the wind and read: “Sober Indian, Dangerous Indian”.
Olowan Martinez, optimistic the supreme court would keep the liquor stores closed, was among a minority of people who refused to worry about a new era of austerity.
“He could cut whatever he wants. We already know who our oppressor is. That [government] is the oppressor.
“This is our land, our territory, and we’ll be fine,” she said.
“I wish Mother Earth would shake her back and we’d have to start all over. Only the strong will survive.”
In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In the UK the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.
Given all that Donald Trump promised the business world during his bombastic campaign it’s tempting to dismiss the president’s first six months with a “meh”. It would also be myopic.
While protesters are worried about the future, the president has so far failed to pass his tax reforms, which business wanted. But at the same time fears that his China rhetoric, threats of trade wars and Tweets about penalties for US businesses who ship jobs overseas, have not amounted to much.
The economic trends started under Obama have continued: stock markets have continued their giddy ride to uncharted highs, unemployment has continued to drift down and interest rates have remained low.
Trump’s overture may seem a little weak but the president has already made significant moves and still more may be happening in the wings.
Trump has ordered a review of Dodd-Frank, the regulations brought in to tame US financial institutions after they triggered the worst recession in living memory. He has appointed a sworn enemy of net neutrality over at the Federal Communications Commission who is now working to dismantle Obama-era open internet protections. He has freed up energy firms to start polluting rivers again and scrapped a rule which barred companies from receiving federal contracts if they had a history of violating wage, labour or safety laws.
After years of gains for consumer, environmental and worker rights groups, the pendulum is being swung the other way – but most often those changes are happening behind closed doors.
In March, Trump pledged to “remove every job-killing regulation we can find” and deregulation teams have been set up to comb through the statutes looking for rules to cull. A recent ProPublica and New York Times investigation found Trump’s deregulation teams were being conducted in the dark in large part by appointees with deep industry ties and potential conflicts of interest.
It’s hardly surprising given that the Trump administration has literally removed the White House visitors book, so we may never know who has been whispering in the president’s ear. Six months in, it is hard to tell what is being cut and by whom. We may never know the consequences of Trump’s regulation death squads until it’s too late. Dominic Rushe
In the past week, both Emmanuel Macron and Sir Richard Branson have claimed that Donald Trump has been gripped by regret over his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris climate agreement. But hopes that the US president will reverse this decision sit uneasily with the consistency of his administration’s environmental rollbacks.
In Scott Pruitt, Trump has an Environmental Protection Agency chief who understands how the agency works and how to hobble it. Pruitt, who has dismissed the mainstream scientific understanding of climate change, has spearheaded a concerted effort to excise or delay dozens of environmental rules.
Emissions standards for cars and trucks, the clean power plan, water pollution restrictions, a proposed ban on a pesticide linked to developmental problems in children, regulations that stop power plants dumping toxins such as mercury into their surrounds – all have been targeted with efficacious zeal by Pruitt.
The EPA administrator was also a fierce proponent of a US exit from the Paris accord, ensuring that Trump wasn’t swayed by doubts raised by Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, and Ivanka Trump, his daughter and adviser. The US won’t be able to officially pull out until 2020, but the decision has dealt a hefty blow to the effort to slow dangerous global warming and provided a tangible victory for the nationalist, climate change denying elements that now roam the White House.
Elsewhere, public land has been thrown open to coal mining – an industry repeatedly fetishized by Trump – and oil and gas drilling is being ushered into America’s Arctic and Atlantic waters. Two dozen national monuments are under review, several may be shrunk or even eliminated.
In less than six months, Trump has begun to tear up almost all of the key planks of Barack Obama’s environmental agenda. This blitzkrieg is likely to slow now that it faces a thicket of legal action launched by enraged environmental groups and some states, such as New York. But to Trump’s supporters, the president, who pledged during the campaign to reduce the EPA to “tidbits”, is delivering on his crusade to transport the environmental and industrial outlook of the late 19thcentury to the modern day. Oliver Milman
Donald Trump’s bluster over his harsh immigration reform – namely the implementation of a diluted Muslim-targeted travel ban and a crackdown on undocumented immigrants – belies the cost these self-proclaimed victories have had on both the fundamental institutions of democracy and the most vulnerable communities in the United States.
After his second attempt in March was blocked again in the lower courts, the president, seemingly without care for due process or respect for the co-equal branches of government, threatened to simply abolish the federal appeals court he incorrectly identified as responsible for the decision.Trump’s bullish perseverance on the ban, which has left many in Muslim and refugee communities around the US living in fear, has resulted in a temporary ruling in the supreme court that allows a much diluted version of the order to come into effect. Although the president heralded the decision a victory, the ultimate test comes in autumn when the country’s highest court will ultimately rule on the ban’s constitutionality.
The president has also moved quickly to supercharge efforts to round up and deport undocumented immigrants. By empowering Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice), the federal agency responsible deportations, to target essentially anyone in the country without legal paperwork, the number of immigration arrests has soared. Although the administration has celebrated this uptick, it has actually been able to deport people at a much slower rate due to the crippling backlog inside America’s immigration courts.
Trump’s attempt at a solution to this has been to create a network of new courts, attached to remote detention centers and far from the reach of immigration attorneys. The strategy, plagued with due process concerns, has enjoyed mixed success. But, once again, it is those most vulnerable – many of whom have lived in America without paperwork for decades and have no criminal history – who have paid the highest price. Oliver Laughland
First, the good news. Donald Trump has not started a war. He has therefore, so far, avoided the worst case scenario that some predicted for his presidency. One eighth of the way through his term, he does not yet have a stain on his record like George W Bush has with Iraq. Instead his Twitter spats with cable TV hosts and their indulgence by the media are a luxury of peacetime.
But in other, important ways, the US president has set about diminishing America’s global leadership role and diplomatic standing. He has emphasised the defence of America and western civilisation and downplayed democracy and human rights. He has warmed to authoritarian leaders in China, the Philippines,Russia and Saudi Arabia while going cold on Britain (still no visit), the European Union and Australia. His attacks on the press send an alarming message to dictators everywhere.
The world has noticed. A major survey of 37 countries by Pew Research last month found that just 22% of respondents had some or a great deal of confidence in Trump to do the right thing when it comes to international affairs. After his performance at Nato and G7 meetings, German chancellor Angela Merkel said pointedly: “The times in which we could completely depend on others are, to a certain extent, over. I’ve experienced that in the last few days. We Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands.” At the G-20, he cut a lonely, isolated figure.
This damage could be undone relatively quickly but the “America first” president’s proposed 30% cut to the state department, where many top staff have left and not been replaced, threatens to be a lasting legacy. Max Bergmann, a former official, wrote in Politico: “The deconstruction of the state department is well underway... This is how diplomacy dies. Not with a bang, but with a whimper. With empty offices on a midweek afternoon.”
The outlier in Trump’s foreign policy came on 6 April, when the US launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at an airfield in Syria in retaliation for the regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. It was a move welcomed by hawks and loathed by “anti-globalists” in Trump’s support base. But the most urgent issue, enough to test any US president, is North Korea. There is little evidence so far to suggest he will succeed where others have failed. David Smith
Gender and equality
Trump’s White House has wasted little time erasing many of the changes that advocates for trans rights, reproductive rights and survivors of sexual assault achieved under the Obama administration.
The Trump team is in the middle of sharply reversing how the federal government enforces laws against gender bias. In February, the administration withdrew the Obama-era guidelines requiring schools to give transgender students unfettered access to bathrooms and locker rooms matching their gender identity. And Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, may restrict the federal government’s ability to intervene when colleges and universities do a questionable job of handling students’ complaints of sexual assault.
Trump is also attempting to dismantle the nation’s public safety net for family planning, with an assist from his party in Congress. The president has signed legislationencouraging states to withhold federal family planning dollars from Planned Parenthood. The latest version of Republican’s attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act would eliminate the birth control mandate – which is also under fire from Trump’s health department – not to mention maternity coverage requirements.
Every repeal attempt has contained a measure to block women on Medicaid from using their insurance at Planned Parenthood – measures that would shutter scores of Planned Parenthood clinics across the country. And the administration is poised to give the green light to states, like Texas, that axe Planned Parenthood from their Medicaid programs.
The White House also has aims to zero out funding for the government-funded Legal Services Corporation, which is the main source of legal assistance for women attempting to escape domestic violence, when Congress passes a budget this fall.
Finally, there’s US supreme court justice Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s pick to replace the late Antonin Scalia, who observers say “has all the makings of an extreme anti-abortion justice”. Trump named Gorsuch eleven days into his presidency, fulfilling a longtime campaign promise to nominate justices who will vote to overturn Roe v Wade. Molly Redden
Much of what the federal government can do on criminal justice is left to Congress, since most criminal justice happens at state and local, rather than federal levels. However, Trump’s administration hasn’t spared much time doing what it can to reverse a roughly decades long retreat from the peak of tough-on-crime, mass-incarceration dogma.
So far, efforts on criminal justice have been much more sizzle than steak, but the prospect of dramatic policy change looms just around the corner. Stuffed in a suite of executive orders signed in February, Trump commissioned a taskforce to make recommendations on combating “the menace of rising crime”, which has been an enduring theme of the administration despite being debunked by experts. That taskforce, which reportedly, and curiously, does not include police chiefs or criminologists is scheduled to make its recommendations on 27 July.
“If you’re going to see anything from the Trump administration proposing new [or longer] mandatory minimums and a general return to the tough on crime tactics, I think you’ll see those recommendations made by the task force,” said Ames Grawert, a criminal justice researcher with the Brennan Center for Justice.
It remains unclear how much support there might be in Congress for taking up such recommendations. As recently as December there was real momentum behind a bipartisan bill to make sentencing less punitive, not more.
In another reversal from the Obama era, Sessions has also signaled that the DoJ will not use its authority to investigate or reform local police departments, even in cases where gross negligence, or rampant civil rights violations may be occurring. Sessions tried, and failed, to pause a consent decree negotiated in Baltimore after the Freddie Gray unrest, and his department has so far flaked-out of a similar effort that was slated for Chicago under the previous administration.
As Donald Trump’s election victory was cemented during celebratory inauguration events in the nation’s capital, the dissent and divisive discord his campaign produced was evident on the streets of Washington DC as throngs of protesters arrived to disrupt proceedings.
A large group of activists from the anarchist group known as the black bloc smashed storefront windows and cars as they clashed with police shortly before the swearing-in ceremony was due to begin. Officers in riot gear responded with pepper spray and stun grenades as the breakaway protesters were overwhelmed with force less than two miles from the US Capitol.
The group of around 200 people, many wearing black hoodies and masks, were eventually contained by officers as they chanted: “This is what a police state looks like” and “You’re protecting fascists.” Eyewitnesses reported only a handful of arrests.
Most of the protesters declined to be interviewed or named, but one said their purpose was to reject “a system of economic exploitation called capitalism.”
“It’s not just about no order,” he said. “It’s about human freedom and an economy that’s run by the people.”
Another group of activists attempted to shut down a number of the security points allowing access to the public viewing area of the inauguration on the National Mall on Friday morning.
Hundreds of protesters appeared to have gained access to the public viewing areas on the Mall, many chanting “not my president” and holding signs with slogans including “Can we impeach him today?” and “Fascist.”
As the chief justice, John Roberts, rose to administer the oath of office for the incoming president, six protesters, seated on the lawn just in front of the steps to the Capitol, tore off their coats, jumped on to their chairs and began chanting.
“A nation united can never be divided,” they said. Together the letters on their shirts spelled: “Resist!”
Around them, supporters shouted and called for them to leave. A man shook their chairs until one of the protesters fell. Eventually, security arrived and they were removed from the event.
The focal point for many was likely to be an organized rally being held at the US Navy Memorial, which is situated along the inaugural parade route. Dozens of speakers from activist groups around the country were addressing a crowd of a few hundred people on Friday morning, as some complained that “thousands more” were waiting to get into the rally but had been prevented from entering by the secret service.
James Ebersole, a protester who had come to Washington from Virginia, said he had decided to come to DC in order to “voice dissent, to say that this is not OK.”
“I think it’s unifying people,” he said of Trump’s election, while brandishing a sign that read “Misogyny is a danger to society.”
“It’s a call to action, a wakeup call, and it unites us against this threat.”
Barbara McQueeney had never attended an inauguration before, but she felt compelled to fly out from St Augustine, Florida, to protest outside the barricades lining the National Mall.
“I live in an area where there’s a lot of Trump supporters and I’m crushed,” she said. “We need hope.”
McQueeney, who is retired, did not engage in much shouting. She instead stood quietly at the center of a protest lifting a homemade poster with the letters USSR spelling out “United States Satellite of Russia.”
“Everyone knows they were involved,” she said of Vladimir Putin’s government, “but everyone is just going forward like it’s business as usual.”
“This day is about celebrating a peaceful transfer of power, but it’s the first time we transferred from a free country to a country that’s influenced by a foreign power.”
Hundreds of thousands of protesters are expected to descend on Washington for a Women’s March that is scheduled for Saturday, with similar events organized in cities around the country.
On Thursday night police used pepper spray to disperse protesters as chaos erupted outside an event, named the DeploraBall, attended by a number of figures associated with the so-called “alt-right,” a far-right movement that endorsed Trump during the campaign.
“Nazi scum!” a masked man yelled through a police barricade at a woman in a sequined gown as she defiantly waved her ticket for the event. A woman held a sign that read “Look, Ma. It’s a racist misogynist” with an arrow pointed toward the guest line. In response a man flipped open his suit jacket to show her his shirt, which read: “Deplorable lives matter.”
Young black men were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by police officers in 2015, according to the findings of a Guardian study that recorded a final tally of 1,134 deaths at the hands of law enforcement officers this year.
Despite making up only 2% of the total US population, African American males between the ages of 15 and 34 comprised more than 15% of all deaths logged this year by an ongoing investigation into the use of deadly force by police. Their rate of police-involved deaths was five times higher than for white men of the same age.
Paired with official government mortality data, this new finding indicates that about one in every 65 deaths of a young African American man in the US is a killing by police.
“This epidemic is disproportionately affecting black people,” said Brittany Packnett, an activist and member of the White House taskforce on policing. “We are wasting so many promising young lives by continuing to allow this to happen.”
Speaking in the same week that a police officer in Cleveland, Ohio, was cleared by a grand jury over the fatal shooting of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African American boy who was carrying a toy gun, Packnett said the criminal justice system was presenting “no deterrent” to the excessive use of deadly force by police. “Tamir didn’t even live to be 15,” she said.
Protests accusing law enforcement officers of being too quick to use lethal force against unarmed African Americans have spread across the country in the 16 months since dramatic unrest gripped Ferguson, Missouri, following the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a white officer.
Overall in 2015, black people were killed at twice the rate of white, Hispanic and native Americans. About 25% of the African Americans killed were unarmed, compared with 17% of white people. This disparity has narrowed since the database was first published on 1 June, at which point black people killed were found to be twice as likely to not have a weapon.
The Guardian’s investigation, titled The Counted, began in response to widespread concern about the federal government’s failure to keep any comprehensive record of people killed by police. Officials at the US Department of Justice have since begun testing a database that attempts to do so, directly drawing on The Counted’s data and methodology.
The FBI also announced plans to overhaul its own count of homicides by police, which has been discredited by its reliance on the voluntary submission of data from a fraction of the country’s 18,000 police departments. The Guardian’s total for 2015 was more than two and a half times greater than the 444 “justifiable homicides” logged by the FBI last year.
The FBI director, James Comey, said in October it was “embarrassing and ridiculous” that the government did not hold comprehensive statistics, and that it was “unacceptable” the Guardian and the Washington Post, which began publishing a database of fatal police shootings on 1 July, held better records. The Counted will continue into 2016.
Data collected by the Guardian this year highlighted the wide range of situations encountered by police officers across the US. Of the 1,134 people killed, about one in five were unarmed but another one in five fired shots of their own at officers before being killed. At least six innocent bystanders were killed by officers during violent incidents; eight police officers were killed by people who subsequently died and appeared in the database.
More than 21% of deadly incidents began with a complaint to police alleging domestic violence or some other domestic disturbance. About 16% arose from officers attempting to arrest a wanted person, execute a warrant or apprehend a fugitive. Another 14% of killings followed an attempted traffic or street stop, 13% came after someone committed a violent crime and 7% after a non-violent crime.
“It would appear that police officers are often confronting people who are armed, non-compliant and threatening,” said David Klinger an associate professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St Louis.
The extensive demographic detail gathered as part of the study also shed light on the diverse set of people who died during confrontations with law enforcement. The group ranged in age from six-year-old Jeremy Mardis, in Marksville, Louisiana, to 87-year-old Louis Becker in Catskill, New York. Officers killed 43 people who were 18 years old and younger.
Mental health crises contributed directly to dozens of police-involved deaths. In at least 92 cases that led to fatalities this year, police had been alerted over a suicidal person or someone who was harming him- or herself. In 28 other deadly incidents, relatives or associates later said that the person killed had been suicidal before they died.
Of 29 military veterans who were killed by police in 2015, at least eight were said to have been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following their service. In all, mental health issues were reported in relation to 246 people killed by police this year – more than one in every five cases. On at least eight occasions, the death was officially ruled a suicide, prompting claims from relatives that officers were escaping scrutiny.
“We have a tremendous problem,” said Dr Daniel Reidenberg, the managing director of the National Council for Suicide Prevention. “In a society where firearms are as prevalent as they are, and where people know law enforcement are trained to respond to a certain situation in a certain way, we have a problem.”
Regional disparities also emerged from the year’s data. Earlier this month, the Guardian published a series of special reports on Kern County, California, where police killed more people relative to the size of its population than anywhere else in the country. Law enforcement officers there killed more people in 2015 than the NYPD, which has 23 times as many officers policing a population 10 times as big.
Following a spate of killings in recent weeks, New Mexico’s 21 deaths in 2015 represented the highest per-capita rate of any state. New Mexico’s rate of one killing by police for every 99,300 residents was more than 10 times greater than that of Rhode Island, where only one person among a population of more than a million was killed by law enforcement.
The death of Kenneth Stephens, 56, in Burlington, Vermont, last week meant that all 50 states and the District of Columbia had at least one death caused by police in 2015.
Only one of the 21 people killed by police in New Mexico, however, was unarmed. By contrast nine of the 25 people killed in New York state were unarmed, and seven of these were black men. While five of Georgia’s 38 deaths followed a suspect being shocked with a Taser – the highest proportion in the country – no Taser-involved deaths were recorded in more than half a dozen states.
In all, 89% of deaths by police in 2015 were caused by gunshot, 4% were Taser-related, 4% were deaths in custody following physical confrontations and 3% were deaths of people struck by police officers driving vehicles.
Law enforcement officers were charged with crimes in relation to 18 of 2015’s deadly incidents – 10 shootings, four deadly vehicle crashes and four deaths in custody.
By the end of the year, one officer had been acquitted of charges relating to a fatal shooting in Pennsylvania, and the first attempt at prosecuting one of the officers involved in the deadly arrest of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, had ended in a mistrial. Two deputies in Georgia charged over the in-custody death of Matthew Ajibade were cleared of manslaughter but convicted of cruelty, perjury and falsifying paperwork.
Philip Stinson, an associate professor at Bowling Green University who monitors the subject, said the number of officers being charged had risen sharply this year. “There is more public awareness, and I do think that in the past few years the veracity of police officers is being questioned more, after their statements were shown to not be consistent with video evidence,” he said.
The white police officer who fatally shot Tamir Rice, an African American 12-year-old, will not face criminal charges, it was announced on Monday, more than a year after the shooting in Cleveland.
A grand jury declined to indict officer Timothy Loehmann, who opened fire on Rice less than two seconds after arriving at a park where the 12-year-old was playing with a toy gun on Nov. 22, 2014. Loehmann’s partner, Frank Garmback, will also face no charges, Cuyahoga county prosecutor Timothy McGinty announced at a press conference.
Subodh Chandra, an attorney for Tamir’s mother Samaria, said they had been given no information about the announcement beforehand and had learned it was taking place through a public statement made by the county prosecutor’s office about an hour earlier. “I expect we’ll be making a statement,” he said.
McGinty said he had spoken to Tamir’s mother Samaria shortly before the decision was made public. “It was a tough conversation,” McGinty said, adding “she was broken up”.
McGinty said that despite the “perfect storm of human error ... the evidence did not indicate criminal conduct by police”.
In announcing the grand jury’s decision, McGinty said it was also his recommendation that no charges be brought.
He argued the crucial piece of evidence was an enhanced image of Tamir at the time the officers approached, which he said made it “indisputable that Tamir was drawing his gun from his waist”.
Tamir’s family argued it would have been impossible for the officers to have issued commands given the fraction of time that elapsed before shots were fired.
The officers were responding to a report that there was a juvenile in the area with a weapon that was “probably fake”. The full details of the call were not passed on to the officers, according to other accounts released by McGinty.
Samaria Rice testified to the grand jury about the loss of her son. In a statement, her attorney said that she had asked the jurors whether the officers’ actions “could possibly be ‘reasonable’ or ‘justifiable’”. It said: “She believes that the answer is plainly no.”
Tamir’s death in 2014 followed the high-profile police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, which sparked a new civil rights movement across the United States.
Calvon Reid writhed in pain before he died. “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe,” the 39-year-old screamed. Reid, an African American father of two, was held face-down by two police officers on a grassy lawn inside a predominantly white, gated retirement village in the south Florida suburb of Coconut Creek in the early hours of 22 February.
Moments before, two officers, standing 10ft away, had deployed their weapons in tandem. Not guns, but Tasers. The barbs struck Reid in the chest, according to eyewitnesses, unleashing 50,000-volt shocks to his body. Reid stopped breathing within moments; two days later, he died in the hospital.
“The whole thing seemed brutal,” 58-year-old locksmith John Arnendale told the Guardian from the ground-floor apartment at Wynmoor Village retirement homes where he watched Reid lose consciousness for the last time.
It is not clear why the officers were trying to arrest Reid in the first place. He was not accused of any crime. Though police say he was acting aggressively, other witnesses have disputed this.
“They didn’t have to use a Taser to stop him,” Arnendale said. “There were four of them and he wasn’t huge or particularly athletic. They certainly didn’t choose the least harsh thing to do with him. They were kind of punishing him.”
Reid’s case is, in many ways, tragically typical of the other deaths following the use of a Taser by police in 2015: he was unarmed, as in all but three cases. Like nearly 40% of the victims, he was black. And as in at least 53% of such cases, the suspect was displaying signs of intoxication before his or her death. As with many of these incidents, Reid died following shocks administered seemingly in violation of national guidelines, by officers belonging to a police department with lax rules on how these less-lethal weapons should be used.
As Tasers became an increasingly prevalent part of police officers’ arsenals around the world, the US Justice Department funded the Police Executive Research Forum (Perf), an independent policing thinktank, to revise guidelines on their use in 2011. These rules are designed to encourage officers to know Tasers “should not be seen as an all-purpose weapon that takes the place of de-escalation techniques” – and to acknowledge the lethal potential of electronic control weapons (ECW) deployed for more than three standard shock cycles of five seconds each.
“When Tasers were first introduced, it was thought they really could be used without causing any harm,” Perf executive director Chuck Wexler said in a phone interview. “Subsequently, in our research and work, we realised that extended use of ECWs could cause injuries and death. That is why we stipulate restrictions on their use.”
The Guardian can now reveal that many police departments are still not regulating the use of Tasers in accordance with these nationally accepted standards. According to 29 guidebooks on ECWs obtained by the Guardian from police departments where a death has occurred after the weapon was deployed this year, an overwhelming majority of them flout key tenets of the expert advice:
Twenty police departments do not guide officers against more than three shocks in all but exceptional circumstances.
None of the 29 departments, according to their use of force guidelines, mandate use-of-force investigations into incidents where an ECW is deployed for more than 15 seconds.
Twenty-two departments do not advise against deploying ECWs if the sole justification is that the suspect is fleeing.
Twenty-five departments do not advise against using an ECW’s “drive stun” mode, when the weapon is thrust directly into the skin to cause pain, as a compliance technique.
Thirteen departments do not explicitly restrict officers from deploying their ECWs if a suspect is already in handcuffs and does not pose an exceptional threat.
Eight departments do not even explicitly require officers to give a warning, when possible, before the ECW is deployed.
“One of the key challenges in American policing is that you have 18,000 police agencies,” said Wexler, frustrated. “So when we put forward our guidelines, we can only emphasise that departments consider them.”
Indeed, all of these guidelines were seemingly overlooked in the case of Calvon “Andre” Reid.
But Reid’s death was also exceptional in that Taser shocks were explicitly found to be the cause.
While the pathologist in Coconut Creek determined that Reid had cocaine and alcohol in his blood and had a predisposed heart condition, his death was ruled a homicide caused directly by an ECW.
One reason deaths that follow Taser use may be attracting less of the spotlight is the difficulty pathologists often have in assessing the weapon’s role, if any, in how a person dies. When someone is shot with bullets, the cause of death is usually unquestionable. But in deaths following a Taser shock, there is often a complicated mixture of circumstances, and in many cases it is drug use, or the deceased person’s resistance to arrest, that is determined to be the cause.
Of the 47 officer-involved deaths that have occurred following the use of a Taser this year, the Guardian has obtained 19 rulings by medical examiners. Seven have been declared homicides, with five ruled “undetermined”, six “accidental” and one attributed to “natural causes”. Although police activity, often directly acknowledging the ECW, was ruled a factor in 13 of the 19 cases, only in Reid’s was the ECW determined to be the primary cause of death.
Taser International, which sells ECWs to 17,800 of the United States’ roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies and commands an overwhelming monopoly on the market, has said their weapons do not kill. The billion-dollar company has also sued medical examiners in the past, in one case leading to the examiners’ representative body to state that Taser International’s actions were “dangerously close to intimidation”.
“A Taser exposure is not risk-free,” a company spokesman said in an email response to a detailed list of questions for this article.
But the company’s position increasingly flies in the face of a growing medical argument to the contrary, as researchers insist that under certain circumstances, however rare, Taser shocks can lead directly to a person’s death.
These medical professionals argue the lethal potential of Tasers is being underestimated – partly thanks to an “aggressive” push by Taser International to fund research of its own – and that the weapons are likely responsible for many more deaths than coroners can easily record.
Science takes on real-life circumstances at heart of Taser debate
The precise circumstances of why Reid was present in the parking lot of that south Florida retirement home in February remain unclear. Eyewitnesses quoted in a recently filed lawsuit against the officers, however, claim he was neither aggressive nor committing any crime before police arrived. He had approached a resident asking for medical help, but when an ambulance arrived, Reid declined their assistance. It was at that point when police were called and the situation escalated.
By the time John and Bonnie Arnendale awoke the next morning, they said all signs of altercation had disappeared, police tape had been removed, and Taser wires were no longer on the ground.
“It was like nothing had ever happened. It was just peaceful and beautiful. It almost felt dream-like,” said Bonnie Arnendale. “Or nightmare-like.”
The Coconut Creek police department took almost two weeks to publicly acknowledge Reid’s death and did not interview the Arnendales until the story broke in local media the following week. Two months later, all four officers were cleared of any wrongdoing in an internal investigation, but a criminal investigation by the county attorney remains open.
“We believe that if they had not used the Tasers, our son would be alive today,” Calvon’s mother, Mamie Reid, said from her South Carolina home. “Why was he treated so inhumanely? Why in America would cops treat people in that manner?”
The Coconut Creek police department declined all interview requests from the Guardian. But some information has slowly seeped out: three of the four officers involved in the incident did not have up-to-date certification for using a Taser – a violation of Florida state law and internal policy. Reid was seemingly shot in the chest and shocked by multiple weapons simultaneously. One month after the incident, Coconut Creek police chief Michael Mann was forced to resign.
There is little dispute that ECW use, under appropriate conditions, is both effective and safe. A 2011 Justice Department survey of 12 police departments using Tasers found that deploying an ECW over other comparable use-of-force tactics, such as physical force, reduced the odds of a suspect’s injury by 60%. In the same year, the Justice Department found that the risk of death in an ECW-related incident was “less than 0.25%”, adding that in the “large majority” of even these cases the weapons “do not cause or contribute to death”.
In 2009, Taser International noted that of more than 650,000 Taser exposures among law-enforcement volunteers, none reported significant effects on their heart rhythms. Taser International told the Guardian that this number now stood at more than 2m voluntary exposures.
But critics point to the reality that these exposures – typically a short, single-weapon shock delivered to the back of a healthy police officer – do not reflect the circumstances of many ECW applications.
Numerous studies, such as one published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine in August 2011, point out that the majority of subjects exposed to Tasers in the field were either “under the influence of alcohol or illicit drugs, or had psychiatric co-morbidities”. And, as in many of the cases where a suspect has died in 2015, field situations also frequently involve multiple discharges.
Experts argue that all these factors dramatically increase the chances that an ECW exposure could be followed shortly by death.
The discussion is based in part around a principle cardiologists refer to as “capture”. Since the heart uses electrical impulses to coordinate its beating rhythm, electricity from sources outside the body have the capacity to “capture” the heart and alter its beat. This is the same principle behind defibrillation, when doctors use electrified paddles to shock a patient’s heart back into a normal beat when its rhythm has become too irregular to properly pump blood.
When a heart is beating correctly, however, electricity can instead disrupt the impulses from its internal pacemaker and cause the heart to enter into a dangerous and irregular rhythm known as ventricular fibrillation, or VF. Left unaddressed, VF rapidly leads to cardiac arrest and then death. And unlike defibrillators, which will typically try to pace a heart at 70 beats a minute, a standard Taser X26P pulses at a rate of 19 shocks a second, or 1,140 a minute.
According to Dr Douglas Zipes, a cardiac electrophysiologist and professor of medicine at Indiana University, that presents a problem. “The normal heart cannot withstand such rapid rates,” he said. “When a normal heart rate stimulated by electricity exceeds 250 times a minute, the entire conduction system breaks down and the heart goes into cardiac arrest.”
Laboratory research remains split on whether the high-voltage, low-current shock delivered by an ECW is capable of triggering the irregular rhythm of VF. For ethical reasons, many available studies on the potential cardiac effects of Taser charges have been conducted on anesthetized animals – often pigs, whose hearts are biologically similar to humans.
“The animal studies have been the underpinning of understanding what can happen, however they can only go so far,” Zipes said, noting physiological differences between pigs and humans, as well as the difficulty in recreating the variables of a Taser deployment in the field.
In 2012, Zipes published a report looking at eight cases when a person who had been Tasered in the chest lost consciousness “during or immediately after” being shocked by police. In all eight incidents, EKG readings show either VF, ventricular tachycardia (VT) or asystole, which is the medical term for a flatline reading with no detectable heart rhythm. Zipes concluded that “cardiac arrest due to VF can result from an ECD shock”, referring to an alternative name for electronic control weapons. He also concluded that law enforcement officers “should be judicious how and when to use the ECD weapon, [and] avoid chest shocks if possible”.
Steve Tuttle, the Taser International spokesman, said Zipes’s report is “based on uncontrolled and anecdotal observations”, and noted in an email to the Guardian that it “does not prove a cause-effect association”. He pointed to a 2012 Wake Forest study funded by the National Institute of Justice which found that out of 178 field chest strikes with Taser weapons, no subjects suffered any heart-related complications.
But in the case of 18-year-old Israel Hernandez-Llach, a graffiti artist from Miami who died after being shocked in the chest in August 2013, the pathologist ruled the teenager died from “sudden cardiac death” as a result of the shock. Hernandez-Llach had fled from Miami Dade police officers after painting on an abandoned building. Nonetheless, his death was ruled accidental. Prosecutors, who did not charge officer Jorge Mercado over the death, argued the officer did not intend to kill the teen as he did not know the weapon could be lethal.
Although a records request for the full autopsy in the death of Calvon Reid – who was, according to eyewitnesses, shocked in the chest with two Tasers – was rejected pending an ongoing criminal investigation, a medical source with intimate knowledge of the case told the Guardian that the pathologists involved “stood by what is on the death certificate”.
“This case was done very, very well. It’s a well thought-out opinion in cause and manner of death,” the source said, before declining to elaborate.
Taser International strongly denies the suggestion that its weapons are capable of triggering VT, a rapid heart rate that can sometimes precede the irregular and potentially fatal rhythms of VF. Still, in 2009 the company updated its recommended targeting guide to chest shots, in order to avoid “the controversy about whether ECDs do or do not affect the human heart”.
Mamie Reid remains unconvinced. “I would like for them to have three cops – Tasing them at the same time, in the chest, see if they could take that test,” she said. “Then maybe we could all be believers.”
Only 12 of the 29 police department rulebooks obtained by the Guardian from around the country explicitly advise against shocks to the chest.
Death by Taser: a difficult determination
Chance Thompson was striding and shadowboxing when two Yuba County deputies encountered him on top of a wall outside a deserted manufacturing plant in rural California. It was the early hours of 15 February, and both deputies, Jaime Knacke and Daniel Trumm, observed that Thompson appeared to be high on drugs.
They instructed him to get down, but when Thompson seemed oblivious to their requests, Trumm grabbed him by the trousers and pulled him off the ledge. A passerby captured part of the altercation on video, showing the two grappling briefly before Knacke deployed her Taser. Thompson fell to the ground instantly.
The video shows that Trumm is seemingly able to gain control of the 35-year-old, who was flat on his face after the Taser is fired. But the eyewitnesses stopped recording shortly after. According to the deputies’ account, Thompson subsequently “bucked” them both off and continued resisting.
The data from Knacke’s Taser, revealed in documents released to the Guardian by the county prosecutor, shows Thompson was subsequently shocked another five times – each for a full five-second cycle – before he was placed in handcuffs. He was then shocked once more, meaning a total of seven cycles – or 35 seconds.
It was at this point, according to their report, when the deputies noticed Thompson was having difficulty breathing. He had “white foam around his mouth and nose, his face was red, and his pupils were fully dilated with no iris color visible,” they observed. Shortly after that, he lapsed out of consciousness and his heart stopped beating. Despite later being revived, Thompson was pronounced brain-dead in hospital. The life-support machine was switched off two days later.
“What Chance was doing was non-violent. Nobody was in danger from him – he was out in the middle of the country,” Thompson’s stepfather, Ray Guthrie, said in a telephone interview. “You Taser him once, and he’s on his back, with the officer’s knees in him. He’s not resisting arrest anymore. But they just continued.”
The Yuba County sheriff’s department has one of the more restrictive policies obtained by the Guardian, advising that deputies should acknowledge signs of intoxication before use, refrain from deploying Tasers on people in restraints, and avoid shocks in the chest. But both internal and criminal investigations found no wrongdoing.
Thompson’s autopsy, conducted two days after the altercation and obtained under a records request, classed the cause of his death as a lack of oxygen to the brain following cardiac arrest after a “violent struggle”. While the pathologist noted the “attempted restraint with electronic control device” as a significant condition, the manner of death was left “undetermined”. The Taser darts were noted in Thompson’s lower back and left shoulder.
For Yuba County district attorney Patrick McGrath, this medical ruling appeared to be enough to absolve the officers of criminal responsibility. “I’m not even sure [the Taser] contributed,” McGrath told the local newspaper. Noting the high levels of methamphetamine found in Thompson’s blood (the 35-year-old had a long history of substance abuse), McGrath continued: “His methamphetamine level ... was off the charts.”
Thompson’s family considers that line of argument part of a cover-up. “It was quite obviously excessive use of force,” said Guthrie. “He wouldn’t have died if they hadn’t have tased him several times. Obviously.”
Other studies on the lethal potential of ECWs have centred on the question of whether multiple shocks – irrespective of placement – can contribute to a cardiac arrest.
Dr Zian Tseng, a cardiologist and electrophysiologist at the University of California San Francisco, argues that ECW shocks can cause death by what he calls the “indirect method”, where the “intense pain and adrenaline surge can indirectly induce cardiac arrest”.
Much of the argument relies on a process called metabolic acidosis. Since ECWs cause muscle tissue to rapidly contract, they also force muscles to produce the byproduct of contraction: lactic acid. This is the same substance that causes muscle soreness hours or days after a strenuous workout. When lactic acid rapidly enters the bloodstream at a speed faster than the kidneys can process, it lowers the pH of the blood, which can increase the risk of a fatal arrhythmia or cardiac arrest. Single Taser shocks produce little lactic acid, but prolonged use increases the amount. It is believed that illicit drugs in a person’s system can further add to this risk.
In 2008, a California jury found that Taser International “knew or should have known that prolonged administration of electricity from the devices pose a danger, i.e., a risk of acidosis to a degree which posed a risk of cardiac arrest”.
The finding came in a civil lawsuit against Taser International by the family of 40-year-old Robert Heston, who died after receiving at least 25 shocks over a 74-second span. The medical examiner in Heston’s case ruled his death was due to cardiac arrest caused by his “agitated state associated with methamphetamine intoxication and applications of Taser”. The jury declared Taser International 15% responsible for Heston’s death, and Heston himself 85% to blame.
Tuttle, the Taser International spokesman, argued that “human studies” on the effects of acidosis “consistently show no interference with breathing”.
Part of the difficulty in parsing studies on the potential medical effects of Taser use is the outsize influence of Taser International in funding research. Several of the more prolific researchers on the subject were either partially funded by Taser International or forged official relationships shortly thereafter.
For example, Jeffrey Ho, who has authored dozens of papers on the safety of Tasers, was named the company’s medical director in 2009 and owns shares in the company. Another prominent researcher, Mark Kroll, who co-authored a 2009 book on Taser weapons with Ho, also serves as a board member and scientific adviser for Taser International. According to the company’s 2014 annual report, Kroll owned 34,130 shares of Taser International as of 17 March, at a value of just over $800,000 according to the share price of $23.44 for that day. (Ho and Kroll did not respond to interview requests from the Guardian.)
Tseng told the Guardian that in 2005, after he was quoted in a San Francisco Chronicle article suggesting that Tasers could induce cardiac arrhythmia, the company asked him to reconsider his position and offered him grant money for new research.
“They were very, very aggressive with me in my early career,” Tseng said.
Tuttle argued that the weapons are “the most studied less lethal tool on an officer’s belt”. He stated in an email that of more than 700 “safety studies, human studies, abstracts, reports, letters, etc”, 78% were “independent of Taser International”.
Cases like Chance Thompson’s underline the difficult position pathologists often find themselves in when assessing the role an ECW may have played in a death.
“It’s essentially impossible to make that assessment through an objective examination of the body itself,” said professor Marcus Nashelsky, president of the National Association of Medical Examiners and a professor of pathology at the University of Iowa. “As important is to have a very clear, sequential understanding of what was occurring during this event immediately before, during and after use of the ECW.
“It’s the information about circumstances, and changes in the decedent around the time of the use of the ECW, that provides extremely valuable information to the medical examiner.”
Simply put: if an ECW is likely to contribute to or cause a death, it is expected that a suspect will go into distress shortly after the shocks are administered. But determining whether this occurred can often mean medical professionals are relying on a police officer’s account of the incident.
In Thompson’s case, the Yuba County coroner’s office – which is part of the sheriff’s department – confirmed that the eyewitness video was not reviewed by the pathologist who made the determination. Instead, the deputies’ own report of the event was used to determine the course of events.
In the case of Terrance Moxley, a 29-year-old African American from Mansfield, Ohio, who was staying at a halfway house following his release from prison after a drug-dealing conviction, even video evidence was not enough to assess the effects of multiple Taser shots to the chest.
Moxley, who had been violently tripping on synthetic marijuana on 10 March before police were called, was carried to a cruiser in handcuffs by a group of five officers. He managed to break free of the restraints, and officers deployed two Tasers. CCTV captured the entire exchange on video but, as Moxley was surrounded by officers, it is not clear from the footage at what point the Tasers were deployed and at what point Moxley went into medical distress.
Although police accounts later suggested Moxley continued to resist officers after he was shocked, a police incident report, written on the day of Moxley’s death and released to the Guardian under a records request, notes he was unresponsive “shortly after the Taser was deployed”.
In an autopsy, also obtained under a records request, pathologist Lisa Kohler acknowledged the video footage did not reveal when the Tasers were deployed and what Moxley’s reactions were. But she noted: “The contribution of the Taser use to this death cannot be confirmed or negated based on the information made available to this pathologist; however the barb injuries are in the area of the heart.”
Nonetheless, the Richland County coroner, who ultimately decided the cause and manner of death, ruled it a drug overdose, describing the manner as accidental. The toxicology reports contained in the autopsy, however, only tested for the presence of synthetic cannabinoid in the blood, not the levels it displayed at.
“We can only put what we can confirm we know,” said Tom Stortz, an investigator in the coroner’s office who worked on the Moxley case. “We can’t put probables or maybes.”
This thinking seems to have been applied in other similar cases. For example, in the death of Brian Pickett II, an autopsy, obtained under a records request, found the 26-year-old African American went into VF shortly after he was shocked in the chest. The Los Angeles County pathologist classed the manner of death as “undetermined” and the cause linked to methamphetamine use. But, in a handwritten note, it is added: “Cannot exclude electromechanical disruption device effects during restraint maneuvers.”
Critics might argue that such a ruling in the Moxley case is a cautious one. From 2005 to 2006, Dr Kohler, Ohio’s first female medical examiner, ruled a homicide in the deaths of three men who, in separate instances, had struggled with police and been Tasered. Use of the ECW was recognised in the cause of each death.
But in an aggressive move, Taser International subsequently sued Kohler and a number of her colleagues under a suit captioned “complaint to correct erroneous cause of death determinations”. A judge ruled for the company and forced Kohler, who has said in interviews that she stands by these determinations, to change the manner of deaths from homicide to either accidental or undetermined and wipe all references to the ECW.
Jeffrey Jentzen, who was president of the National Association of Medical Examiners at the time of Taser’s successful suit, described the legal action as “dangerously close to intimidation”.
In a brief phone interview, Kohler referred all questions on the Moxley case to the county coroner who made the final determination over Moxley’s manner and cause of death.
In other instances, it is alleged that police departments have actively withheld video evidence from pathologists.
Mario Ocasio, a 51-year-old from the Bronx in New York, died on 8 June after a group of NYPD officers hit him with batons and then used a Taser to shock him twice in the back. He was reportedly high on drugs and had been acting violently before officers arrived at his girlfriend’s residence. According to a recently filed federal lawsuit, video of the altercation was captured on the cellphone of Ocasio’s girlfriend, which was subsequently confiscated by police at the local precinct.
Lawyers working for Ocasio’s family contend that this video evidence has not been handed to the pathologist working on the case. Affidavits from eyewitnesses to the altercation state that Ocasio, who had previously served 20 years in prison for the attempted murder of a police officer, was in handcuffs at the time a senior officer deployed the Taser.
“After he was shot [with the Taser],” Ocasio’s girlfriend, Geneice Lloyd, stated in an affidavit, “Mr Ocasio’s last words were, ‘I see God’ he stopped moving or speaking and then he turned blue. He was completely unresponsive and his head movement had completely stopped.”
A spokeswoman for the New York City medical examiner’s office confirmed the cause of Ocasio’s death is still pending, but would not comment on whether video evidence had been reviewed. When contacted by the Guardian, the pathologist involved declined to comment. The NYPD also declined to comment.
A ‘new toy’ for law enforcement, born of sci-fi fantasies
The emergence of electroshock devices in the repertoire of US law enforcement traces back to the civil rights era across the American south and winds between law enforcement, racial tensions and business savvy. In 1963, the New York Times reported that “electric prods” were being used to “herd negro demonstrators” in Alabama. These devices, more commonly known as cattle prods, were designed for and until that point had only been used to herd livestock.
George Bartell, who ran a leading manufacturer of the prods called Hot-Shot Products, “expressed distress” that the devices were being used against people. “We never manufactured them as a law enforcement device,” Bartell said in the article. Within a year, however, his company had patented an electrified police baton.
But those devices never became popular, due in large part to the images of such of devices being aggressively deployed against nonviolent demonstrators.
“Their use,” said Darius Rejali, a political scientist professor at Reed College and an expert in electro-torture, “marked a key moment, when civil rights protesters could say not only that the police were putting them down, but that they were also being treated as animals. That raised a whole series of issues.”
Nearly a decade later, inventor John Cover filed to patent the very first Taser ECW in 1973. Trained as a nuclear physicist, Cover developed the device partly in response to the emerging trend of airplane hijackings. The original Taser was imagined as a gadget that could subdue a prospective hijacker without subjecting the plane to the undue risk of a missed shot from a marshal’s firearm.
Cover drew at least some of his inspiration for the device from a science-fiction series about a young boy named Tom Swift, whose futuristic inventions led him on grand adventures. In one installment, Swift develops an electric rifle and takes it with him to Africa to poach elephants for ivory, and against the native Africans described as “wild, savage and ferocious ... like little red apes”.
“Mercifully, Tom and the others ï¬�red only to disable and not to kill,” the book reads. “Tom’s electric riï¬‚e was well adapted for this work, as he could regulate the charge to merely stun.”
Cover’s real-world Taser would derive its name from a loose acronym of the book’s title: Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle. Unlike prods, the Taser’s launchable probes, propelled by gunpowder, gave it a range of approximately 15ft, well beyond the close contact needed to deploy a baton shock. Rather than a constant current of electricity over a small patch of skin, the first-generation Taser applied it to a larger area, and in order to cut down on battery size it used short oscillating bursts of current just millionths of a second long.
The Taser’s inventor struggled for decades to discover a market for his device, finding law enforcement agencies more troubled at the prospect of citizens armed with Tasers that could incapacitate officers than they were interested in adding a less lethal device to their arsenals.
But in 1982, the Los Angeles city council banned police from using chokeholds, and civilians did not fare better with the metal batons that the department adopted instead. Excessive force complaints doubled between 1983 and 1988, and the department was, by the end of the decade, recording nearly 900 baton deployments each year.
And so Cover’s “police special” model was born. The PS-83 Taser was retooled from its consumer-focused design into a more rugged, street-ready device. He built the trigger for the grip of a police officer – more powerful and quicker than that of a flight attendant. City officials in Los Angeles placed their first order for 700 devices in 1983.
But as Taser use proliferated among Los Angeles-area police, so did civil liability lawsuits, personnel complaints and disability compensation claims. Officers were often using them without discretion, most infamously in the case of Rodney King, who was beaten by a group of LAPD officers and Tasered three times. In the aftermath of the King incident, Tasers fell into disuse.
In 1993, brothers Rick and Tom Smith formed a small company, Air Taser, using money borrowed from their parents to reinvent Cover’s technology. The first Air Taser device used compressed gas, rather than gunpowder, to propel the electrode barbs, skirting many of the regulatory issues that left Cover’s early models, at various times, to be classified as a firearm.
The Smith brothers renamed their company Taser International in 1998 and launched Project Stealth to develop a more effective weapon that could stop subjects regardless of their mental focus or pain tolerance, culminating in the 1999 release of the M26 Taser.
The new weapon was much more powerful, reimagined by Taser’s designers from a simple long-distance shock weapon into an electromuscular disruption (EMD) device, which emitted electrical signals to effectively override those that the human body uses to trigger muscle movement.
The device impressed law enforcement officials across the country, and sales took off: between 1999 and 2009 the growth rate of ECW penetration in the market was 84%. (The rate of growth for mobile phones over the same time period was slightly more than 5%.)
While EMD technology was adopted by other manufacturers, nearly all of that growth funnelled directly to one firm: in 2002, its first full year as a public company, Taser International posted net sales of just under $7m. The company sold $91m worth of its professional-grade ECW devices in 2014. On Tuesday, Taser posted record quarterly profits of $50.4m, largely on the back of the company’s focus on the new, lucrative market for body cameras and video storage.
The rapid adoption of Tasers offered researchers a novel way to step back and look at the risks they might pose. In 2009, Dr Tseng and colleagues published an epidemiological study on the in-custody death rates of 50 California police departments in the five years before and five years after they adopted ECWs. The study found a startling 600% increase in sudden-death incidents in the year after Taser introduction, and then a 40% increase over pre-Taser rates for the next four years.
Tseng said the rise seemed to indicate that the weapons carry a distinct sudden-death risk, in part because of how fervently Taser International defends its products’ safety.
“You have this new toy and you’re told by Taser International that it’s non-lethal: ‘The world is great because you don’t need to shoot somebody, you don’t need to be close to them to use pepper spray, so have at it,’” Tseng said. “Then they’re recognizing, hey, it’s not non-lethal, it is associated with certain sudden-death risk, we better implement some corrective strategies so we don’t cause excess harm.”
This is what Tseng believes accounts for the decline in sudden death after a department’s first year of Taser implementation.
“Getting hit with a Taser is not pleasant but an analogy I use sometimes is chemotherapy,” Rick Smith said in 2011 interview describing his views on the product’s benefit to society. “If you’ve got cancer, they do awful things to your body to try and save you. Well, our society has a cancer. We are a violent, dangerous society, and we have a device that, while it’s not pleasant, it can make a huge difference and save tons and tons of lives.”
‘Excited delirium’: real science or a cop-out?
You promised that you wouldn’t kill me,” Natasha McKenna whimpered as five Fairfax County deputies advanced outside her Virginia jail cell door, crouched behind a riot shield. “I didn’t do anything.”
McKenna, a diminutive African American woman with a long history of schizophrenia, stood naked and unarmed. She had flung feces and urine in her cell shortly before. The deputies, wearing gas masks and white Hazmat suits, piled in and attempted to place her in restraints before a cell transfer. McKenna was already handcuffed.
The entire “extraction” on 3 February was recorded on video. It unfolded like a horror movie.
McKenna is shoved against the wall with the riot shield and slides to the ground. The struggle continues for about 15 minutes until the 37-year-old is lifted, her head now covered in a black “spit sock” and her hands handcuffed behind her back, onto a restraint chair.
As she moans, she is warned that continued resistance will result in use of the Taser. She is then “drive-stunned”, meaning the weapon is thrust into the skin without deploying the probes, and then Tasered with a full deploy of the probes into her leg three times – each for the full five-second cycle – as officers accuse her of continued resistance. She groans in pain at various points.
After the last shock is administered, McKenna continues to grunt and shake her legs. But slowly her movements begin to fade. Roughly three minutes after the final Taser shock, it appears she is no longer moving.
“If that’s not torture, I don’t know what is,” Harvey Volzer, an attorney for the McKenna family, said in a telephone interview. “When you have someone who is already restrained – her hands handcuffed behind her back, her feet shackled, a spit hood over her head – there’s nothing she could do. Why do you need to Taser someone four times? The answer is: you don’t.”
The videographer, a Fairfax County lieutenant, follows the officers as McKenna’s limp body is wheeled on a restraint chair through the back channels of the Fairfax adult detention center. She is parked by an exit as deputies, still dressed in gas masks, discuss the best way to load her into a transfer vehicle. Her head, still inside the “spit sock”, is slumped forward as a deputy pulls off the blanket, revealing part of her naked body to show the restraints to another officer. Minutes later, after a nurse checks her for a pulse, it is finally realised that McKenna is unresponsive.
“Hey, we’ve got bad news,” a deputy can be heard saying, his voice still muffled inside a gas mask.
McKenna was admitted to hospital in cardiac arrest with lactic acidosis and hyperthermia, according to the detailed account of events provided by the commonwealth’s attorney’s investigation. Despite being revived, after an hour of CPR, she was declared brain-dead. Days later, the life-support machine was switched off.
The medical examiner classified McKenna’s death as accidental, describing the cause as “excited delirium with physical restraint including use of conducted energy device”.
In September, Virginia commonwealth attorney Raymond Morrogh announced that none of the six officers who restrained McKenna would face any criminal charges. He appeared to use this diagnosis to blame McKenna’s own resistance for her death.
“In the end,” wrote Morrogh, “it was McKenna’s severe mental illness, coupled with tremendous physical exertion she put forth over an extended period of time struggling with deputies that resulted in a cascade of lethal chemical reactions inside of her body.”
Volzer, the McKenna family’s attorney, was disgusted. “Excited delirium is junk science,” he said in phone interview. “Why waste all that time if they were going to base it on excited delirium which is a non-reason? It was a joke.”
The term has featured in five of the 19 pathologists’ rulings in the 47 deaths following Taser use so far in 2015. Research by Amnesty International indicates it has been cited as the cause of death in 75 cases after Taser use between 2001 and 2008.
Yet the terminology of “excited delirium”, which loosely refers to a combination of psychotic behaviour, high body temperature and extreme aggression, is not recognised by the American Medical Association or the American Psychological Association. Tuttle, of Taser International, said in a 2007 interview that the company distributed sympathetic literature on the condition, which is recognised by the National Association of Medical Examiners, to pathologists around the United States. He told the Guardian that Taser no longer distributes this information.
“It seems like it is a catch-all,” said Justin Mazzola, a researcher at Amnesty International US who has monitored deaths following Taser use. “It’s not that it’s necessarily letting the officers off the hook, rather than explaining away the negative effects of the Taser.”
Volzer said the McKenna family are planning to file a civil suit. In April, the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office banned all use of Tasers at the county jail, citing “an unusual event”.
Additional reporting by Jon Swaine and the Guardian US interactive team
Two police officers who corroborated a seemingly false account of the fatal shooting of Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati were previously implicated in the death of an unarmed, hospitalised and mentally ill black man who died after he was “rushed” by a group of seven University of Cincinnati police officers.
Kelly Brinson, a 45-year-old mental health patient at Cincinnati’s University hospital, suffered a psychotic episode on 20 January 2010 and was placed inside a seclusion room at the hospital by UC officers. He was then shocked with a Taser three times by an officer and placed in restraints. The father of one – son Kelly Jr – then suffered a respiratory cardiac arrest and died three days later.
In court documents obtained by the Guardian and filed by Brinson’s family in a civil suit against UC police and the hospital, all seven officers are accused of using excessive force and “acted with deliberate indifference to the serious medical and security needs of Mr Brinson”.
According to the lawsuit, before Brinson was placed in restraints he “repeatedly yelled that slavery was over and he repeatedly pleaded not to be shackled and not to be treated like a slave”.
The documents named University of Cincinnati officers Eric Weibel and Phillip Kidd – the same men who, in a formal report, supported officer Ray Tensing’s claim that he was “dragged” by DuBose’s vehicle on 19 July.
Tensing’s account that he was “dragged” was used as justification for the lethal use of force. It was later dismissed as an attempt to mislead investigators and as “making an excuse for the purposeful killing of another person” by the Hamilton County prosecutor Joseph Deters, who charged Tensing with murder on Wednesday.
The revelation that officers Weibel and Kidd provided the corroboration for Tensing’s account of the incident was met with anger by Brinson’s family members, who told the Guardian on Thursday that if both officers had been disciplined correctly in 2010, the death of DuBose might have been avoided.
“If something had been done in 2010, I don’t think this wouldn’t have happened,” Kelly Brinson’s brother, Derek, said in an interview.
The officers involved in his brother’s death were “supposed to be fired”, Brinson said. “But what happened was because we had an out-of-court settlement, they had immunity and they couldn’t be prosecuted.
“Everybody … associated with this case was supposed to be terminated,” he said. “And they didn’t – they didn’t terminate them.”
Brinson’s family settled a federal civil court case with the hospital and the police department for $638,000. All University of Cincinnati campus police officers were also removed from patrolling the psychiatric wards at the hospital after Brinson’s death.
The University of Cincinnati police division report on DuBose’s death, which supports the argument Tensing was dragged, was written by officer Eric Weibel. Weibel did not claim to have witnessed the shooting, but he wrote of Tensing’s uniform: “I could see that the back of his pants and shirt looked as if it had been dragged over a rough surface.”Weibel also quoted from a discussion with Officer Kidd, writing: “Officer Kidd told me that he witnessed the Honda Accord drag Officer Tensing, and that he witnessed Officer Tensing fire a single shot.”
A Guardian analysis of Tensing’s body-camera footage released by the Hamilton County prosecutor on Wednesday shows that on two occasions immediately after DuBose is shot, Kidd reinforced Tensing’s claim he was dragged: “Yeah, I saw that,” Kidd said in the aftermath of a split-second killing of DuBose, as Tensing recounted how he was dragged.
On Thursday, the prosecutor’s office released the footage from Kidd’s body camera, which shows that the officer – along with another University of Cincinnati police officer, David Lindenschimdt – was behind Tensing during the shooting.
Shortly after the release of their body-camera footage, UC police confirmed officers Kidd and Lindenschmidt had been placed on administrative leave.
A synced-up video of body camera footage from Tensing, Kidd and Lindenschimdt reveals the dramatic aftermath of the shooting and shows that Lindenschimdt also backed Tensing’s claim he was dragged, later telling another officer: “I just arrived to back him [Tensing] up, the guy took off. The officer was stuck in the vehicle. He fired one round.”
Neither Kidd nor Weibel responded to requests for comment from the Guardian left at listed numbers.
Witness documents for the 2010 case show that it was a different officer who deployed the Taser against Brinson, but both Kidd and Weibel were involved in restraining him. In Weibel’s handwritten account of that incident, he stated that he had observed Brinson was “greatly agitated” after he was placed in a seclusion room and a request for leather restraints was made.
Following five minutes of discussion between hospital staff and Brinson, Weibel recalled that force then became “warranted” and he indicated to another officer “that I was going to rush the patient” as Brinson “turned his attention away”.
“At this point, without announcement, I quickly lundged [sic] at the patient,” Weibel wrote in block capital letters.
Brinson was then shocked with a Taser and placed in restraints, according to the complaint filed in US district court. Weibel wrote in his statement that he later observed Brinson was non-responsive and “had a blank stare on his face”, at which point a doctor was called.
According to Kidd’s deposition, he heard “grunts” coming from Brinson after the Taser was used. Kidd told attorneys he assisted in restraint by placing his elbow on Brinson’s jaw and his hand near his temple and face.
The University of Cincinnati police division declined to respond to a request for comment on the 2010 death.
A criminal prosecution for murder will be brought over the death of Freddie Grayin Baltimore, the city’s top prosecutor announced on Friday morning.
The announcement came after nearly two weeks of growing anger over Gray’s death, and only hours after state’s attorney Marilyn Mosby received the results of a police investigation.
“Mr Gray’s death was a homicide,” Mosby declared. His arrest was illegal, and his treatment in custody amounted to murder and manslaughter, she said.
Mosby said Gray sustained fatal neck injuries because he was handcuffed and shackled in the back of a police van without a seatbelt after his arrest on 12 April
“To the people of Baltimore: I heard your call for ‘no justice no peace’,” Mosby said at a Baltimore press conference. Praising young people who had taken to the streets to protest over Gray’s death, she said: “I will seek justice on your behalf.
“This is a moment. This is your moment,” said Mosby. “Let’s ensure that we have peaceful and productive rallies that will develop structural and systemic changes for generations to come. You’re at the forefront of this cause. And as young people, our time is now.”
Whoops of joy and cries of “justice” were heard from bystanders as Mosby, a 35-year-old African American woman who has been in the job for less than six months, spoke. At an intersection in west Baltimore that has become the base for demonstrations, cars honked their horns and drivers pumped their fists in the air.
Officer Caesar Goodson – the driver of the police van – was charged with second-degree murder, while charges including manslaughter, assault, and misconduct in public office were brought against five other officers. Goodson, who has refused to cooperate with investigators, faces up to 30 years in prison.
Officer William Porter and Sergeant Alicia D White were charged with manslaughter, assault and misconduct.
Lieutenant Brian Rice, Officer Garrett Miller and Officer Edward Nero were charged with manslaughter, assault, misconduct and false imprisonment.
All six officers involved were charged, and Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said later that five of the six officers were in custody and that she had ordered police commissioner Anthony Batts to suspend all of them from their jobs. They are expected to be arraigned in court later on Friday.
“No one is above the law,” Mosby said.
Gray, 25, was arrested after catching the eye of a senior officer and running away. He was placed in the back of a police transportation wagon and was not placed in a seatbelt, as is required under Baltimore police regulations.
Past prisoners have suffered serious injuries during so-called “rough rides” in Baltimore vehicles.
She said Gray’s arrest was illegal, since the knife in his pocket was not a switchblade and so was legal under Maryland law. In any case, the knife was not discovered until after he was arrested, Mosby said.
The announcement marked an extraordinary turn in the case, which has led to civil unrest in the city and reinvigorated discussions around poverty, discrimination and injustice suffered by African Americans across the United States.
Protests over Gray’s death turned to rioting on Monday, as young people – many of whom accuse Baltimore police of systematic brutality and mistreatment – clashed with officers. Shops were looted and buildings were burned. More than 200 people were arrested.
Protesters have been calling for all six officers involved in the arrest to be charged since Gray’s death on 19 April.
“This is a turning point in the world. This is a turning point in America,” shouted Jay Morrison of the YMC community coalition, part of the small group of Baltimore residents who assembled to hear Mosby’s announcement.
Mosby said she came from five generations of police officers, and that the charges against these six officers should in no way damage the relationship between police and prosecutors in Baltimore.
Her announcement came as the city braced for two move waves of protests on Friday and Saturday.
Barack Obama said it was “absolutely vital” the truth about what happened to Gray came out.
“It is my practice not to comment on the legal processes involved,” the US president said at a press conference. “That would not be appropriate. But I can tell you that justice needs to be served. All the evidence needs to be presented. Those individuals who are charged obviously are also entitled to due process and rule of law.
“So I want to make sure that our legal system runs the way it should. The justice department and our new attorney general [Loretta Lynch] is in communications with Baltimore officials to make sure that any assistance we can provide on the investigation is provided.”
He added: “What I think the people of Baltimore want more than anything else is the truth. That’s what people around the country expect.”
In a brief statement, Rawlings-Blake, the mayor, said: “There will be justice for Mr Gray, there will be justice for his family, and there will be justice for the people of Baltimore,” she said in a brief statement.
Rawlings-Blake said she was “sickened and heartbroken” by details of the charges against the officers.
“No one in our city is above the law,” she said. “Justice must apply to all of us equally.”
The mayor said most police officers served with “honour and distinction”, but said: “To those of you who wish to engage in brutality, misconduct, racism and corruption, let me clear: there is no place in the Baltimore city police department for you.”
The decision to charge all six officers caught many by surprise. Baltimore City police had only handed the findings of their own investigation into Gray’s death to Mosby’s office on Thursday.
Flanked by members of her own investigative team, Mosby said she decided to press charges after “independently verifying” all facts provided by the police department, and stated: “From day one, I also sent my own investigators to the scene.
“What we received from the police department yesterday we already had,” said Mosby.
Before her press conference, the Baltimore police officers’ union asked her to appoint a special independent prosecutor for the investigation into Gray’s death.
“All death is tragic. And death associated with interaction with police is both shocking and frightening to the public,” Gene Ryan wrote.
“As tragic as this situation is, none of the officers involved are responsible for the death of Mr Gray. To the contrary, at all times, each of the officers diligently balanced the obligations to protect Mr Gray and discharged their duties to protect the public.”
Despite claiming full faith in Mosby’s professional integrity, Ryan cited “very deep concerns about the many conflicts of interest presented by your office conducting an investigation in this case”.
Ryan specifically called into question Mosby’s personal and professional relationship with the Gray family attorney William Murphy.
Murphy was among Mosby’s biggest campaign contributors last year, donating the maximum individual amount allowed, $4,000, in June. He was also on Mosby’s transition team after the election.
But after announcing the charges on Friday, Mosby said she would not turn the case over to a special prosecutor.
For those outside the steps of the War Memorial Building, where Mosby held her press conference on Friday morning, the decision to prosecute was seen as nothing other than a move for justice and a potential turning point for the city recovering from widespread rioting and looting in the wake of Gray’s death.
Freddie Gray had no seatbelt on in the police van where he was placed in handcuffs and later put in leg irons, police said as they confirmed the possible breach of protocol forms part of their investigation into his death.
Protesters have marched in West Baltimore for the fifth night in a row following the death in custody of 25-year-old Gray. Despite two arrests, tensions seemed to have eased on Thursday night compared with the previous demonstrations.
Six officers involved in the incident have been suspended. On Thursday an attorney working for the officers said he did not believe Gray had been wearing a seatbelt when he was placed in the van.
Baltimore police confirmed on Thursday it was policy to provide proper seatbelts during the transport of prisoners but declined to release photographs from inside the van carrying Gray.
Gray was not belted in, said attorney Michael Davey, who represents at least one of the officers under investigation. But he took issue with the rules. “Policy is policy, practice is something else,” particularly if a prisoner was combative, Davey told the Associated Press. “It is not always possible or safe for officers to enter the rear of those transport vans that are very small, and this one was very small.”
Commissioner Anthony Batts said there were no circumstances under which a prisoner should not be wearing a seatbelt during transport. “He wasn’t wearing a seatbelt and that’s part of our investigation,” Batts told the Associated Press.
On Thursday, a group of up to 200 marchers set off from Baltimore’s City Hall, which was heavily guarded by police. The Baltimore transport department had advised those working in the city centre to leave before 3pm ahead of the protests. Protesters only briefly shut down intersections and remained peaceful as they marched through the opulent Inner Harbor area and towards the Western District police station several miles away.
Two were arrested for disorderly conduct and destruction of property, before the marchers met with another group outside the police station a few blocks from the site of Gray’s arrest on 12 April. The 25-year-old died on Sunday after his neck was broken at some point in the immediate aftermath of the arrest.
Eyewitness video showed at least one of Gray’s legs hanging limp as he was placed in a police van during after his arrest. Gray asked for an asthma inhaler two minutes after he was apprehended and senior officials have acknowledged a delay in providing medical assistance. The van stopped twice: once so Gray could be placed in leg shackles and a second time to pick up a second prisoner, before medical assistance was called for, around half an hour after the arrest.
Batts also said another man who was in the van during the tail end of Gray’s ride told investigators that Gray was “was still moving around, that he was kicking and making noises”, up until the van arrived at the station.
But Batts was careful to say that the investigation includes “everything the officers did that day”.
At the Western District police station on Thursday, protesters were met by a long line of officers two deep and fences encircling the perimeter of the building. Barricades that on Wednesday night kept the protesters from crossing the street to the station were gone.
One or two bottles were thrown at police before protesters shouted: “Don’t throw anything, don’t throw anything.” Maryland state police were also present as reinforcements at the initial stage of the march.
Donald Smith, 29, a local resident and hospital worker, arrived at the protests clutching a copy of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. “It’s going on today – if they’re not incarcerating us they’re killing us. This goes back to the Jim Crow era.
“What you see out here is real,” he said, pointing to the assembled crowds. “We’ve been dealing with it for hundreds of years.”
John Goins, 57, stood close to the police line and said: “Most of the Baltimorepolice officers are not from here. They’re from Pennsylvania and West Virginia. They don’t recruit from this city because they don’t want the people who live here to be part of it.”
Goins, a retired corrections officer, said that while still working he was once beaten by a police officer when walking home from work out of uniform. His grandson Darion, 13, added: “They beat me, too, when I was 12 years old. I was just riding my bike.”
Damien Jones, 22, said he had been out every night since Gray died. He knew him for 10 years and lives in the Gilmor public housing project, which is on the corner of the street where Gray was taken into custody.
“I want justice for Freddie. Prosecute all the police officers. All six. We’ll be here all night and all day,” he said.
Lieutenant Brian Rice faced actions in Maryland’s civil courts over alleged domestic violence in 2008 and 2013, according to public filings. In both cases, requests for protective orders were denied by the judge. For a week in 2013, Rice was also ordered not to abuse, contact, nor go to the home or workplace of a second person who took him to court.
Rice, 41, was one of six officers suspended over Gray’s death on Sunday. Gray, who was 25, was arrested a week earlier after being chased when he made eye contact with Rice and ran away, according to police chiefs. Gray’s neck was left “80% severed” by the breaking of three vertebrae and his voice box was almost crushed, according to his family’s attorney.
According to the court filings, a judge in Baltimore county denied the first accuser’s request for a protective order against Rice in April 2008, ruling there was “no statutory basis” for it. A clerk in Carroll County said the accuser’s request for an emergency protective order there in January 2013 was denied by the court.
A judge in another Carroll County court revoked a “peace order” that was implemented for a week in January 2013 in response an application by the second accuser, also ruling “no statutory basis” existed for it to continue.
A ruling of “no statutory basis” does not necessarily mean the allegations were unfounded. It may mean the accuser could not meet the required burden of proof or that the nature of the alleged abuse was not covered by the order they requested under Maryland law.
Maryland residents who were accused of domestic violence may apply to the judge to have accusations against them shielded from the public if a protective order was denied. The accusations against Rice remain open to the public.
Rice’s first accuser declined to discuss details of the cases on Tuesday. “Brian is a good guy,” she said. The second accuser declined to comment. The Guardian is aware of their identities but will not name them due to the nature of the allegations. Rice did not respond to an email requesting comment. His attorney did not respond to a voicemail and email.
Police have not given further details of the roles each officer played in Gray’s detention. Rice was named by a spokesman on Tuesday along with sergeant Alicia White, 30, and police officers William Porter, 25, Garrett Miller, 26, Edward Nero, 29, and Caesar Goodson, 45. All are suspended on full pay pending the inquiries into what happened.
Rice and one other officer are said to have pursued Gray on their bicycles after he “fled unprovoked”. A knife was found in one of Gray’s pockets when he was searched and he was charged with illegally carrying it.
Cellphone video of the arrest released last week showed Gray being dragged into a police van by officers. The video did not show his initial treatment by police. While he was shouting in apparent pain and moving his head, at least one of his legs appeared limp.
However, police said in a report filed to court in Gray’s knife case that he was arrested “without force or incident” and had suffered a “medical emergency” during his transportation in the police vehicle. Senior officials echoed this claim and said all the officers deny using force.
City authorities are carrying out a separate criminal inquiry into the incident. The investigation is scheduled to be completed on 1 May. State prosecutors will then decide whether or not to bring a prosecution.
A spokesman for the Baltimore police department did not respond to a request for comment on the past allegations against Rice and declined to provide a department photograph of the lieutenant, who joined the police force in 1997.
Rice won plaudits in November 1998 for being one of three officers to rescue a toddler from a burning house while looking for a suspect in a separate case. The officers subsequently charged the child’s mother with child neglect and reckless endangerment.
‘We want all six’ – protests continue in Baltimore
On Tuesday night hundreds of protesters positioned themselves outside the Baltimore West District police station, chanting “We want all six” in a call for the officers to be charged.
Despite the federal civil rights inquiry, tensions remained high during the demonstrations with many people expressing their anger.
“We will be here until justice is served. Injustice in the Baltimore police department has gone on long enough,” said Pastor Jamal Bryant on a loudspeaker as Gray’s mother stood with tears in her eyes behind him.
Bryant added: “He [Gray] did nothing wrong, unless it has become illegal to walk while you are black. Arrests need to be made on all of those officers.”
At a press conference on Monday senior city officials acknowledged a delay in providing medical assistance after Gray was placed in the police van. The Baltimore city mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said Gray had sustained his injuries, which his family’s lawyer said was an 80% severing of his spine at the neck, whilst in the van.
The group of protesters walked back along North Mount street, where many of the houses were boarded up and derelict, to the Gilmor Homes public housing project where a vigil was taking place at the scene of the arrest. At this point crowds swelled to more than 1,000 people before marchers took off again around the neighbourhood, stopping traffic along the way and escorted by a number of Baltimore police patrol cars.
They chanted “No justice, no peace” and stood in silence for a number of minutes outside the St Peter Claver Church on Pennsylvania Avenue before heading back towards the West District police station.
The marchers were fired up by passing motorcyclists who revved their engines and did wheelies down the road, high-fiving protesters. At one point a marcher, carrying a banner which read “Fuck the police”, posed for photographs with a Baltimore police officer who shook his head with frustration.
As the sun set over the station the protesters were met with a heavier police presence. A long line of officers stood behind barriers staring straight towards the protesters. The event remained peaceful despite a reported single arrest.
“We have the power and today showed we have the numbers,” said Wesley West, a charismatic 27 year-old pastor at the Faith and Power ministries who led much of the march from the front.
“When it comes to standing together we, the community, will show up,” he added. Protesters have vowed to protest again outside Baltimore’s City Hall on Wednesday evening.
The Nobel prize-winning author Toni Morrison has delivered a frank assessment of race relations in America, declaring that until racial disparities in the criminal justice system are resolved, the conversation about racism will never be over.
Morrison, who won the Pulitzer prize in 1988 for her novel Beloved, which told a story of racism and slavery in 19th-century Kentucky and Ohio, drew on a recent spate of high-profile killings of unarmed African Americans by law enforcement officials to illustrate the ongoing struggle.
“This is the conversation. I want to see a cop shoot a white unarmed teenager in the back.”
She added: “And I want to see a white man convicted for raping a black woman. Then when you ask me, ‘Is it over?’, I will say yes.”
Since the fatal police shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August last year, thousands of protesters have taken to the streets around America, demanding criminal justice reform under the banner of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Morrison also argued that economic forces still drove racial inequality and racism in the US.
“Race is the classification of a species,” she said. “And we are the human race, period. But the other thing – the hostility, the racism – is the moneymaker. And it also has some emotional satisfaction for people who need it.”
Morrison argued that slavery had “moved this country close to the economy of an industrialised Europe, far in advance of what it would have been”, and added, in reference to controversial New York police tactics employed regarding racial minorities: “They don’t stop and frisk on Wall Street, which is where they should really go.”
Hundreds of Wisconsin high school and university students left their classrooms and occupied the state capitol building on Monday to protest about the fatal police shooting of unarmed black teenager Tony Robinson, who was killed by a white Madison police officer last week.
The protesters held signs bearing the hallmarks of the national movement against police brutality that has erupted following the fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson in August 2014, and chanted “Hands up, don’t shoot!”
Robinson was killed on Friday at around 6.30pm CT after police responded to a call reporting that the 19-year-old was jumping in and out of traffic and was alleged to have been involved in an assault.
Madison police officer Matt Kenny broke into an apartment where Robinson had been located after hearing a “disturbance”.
Police say Robinson assaulted the officer before he was shot dead by Kenny.
Police scanner audio posted online on Saturday shows that officers had been told Robinson’s name and age before arriving on the scene. He is described by the police dispatcher as “yelling and jumping in front of cars”. The dispatcher later says “Tony hit one of his friends” adding “no weapons seen”.
Protesters eventually left the capitol and marched down State Street, past the federal courthouse before reaching the City County Building, a block from the state capitol.
There, leaders of the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition as well as Robinson’s sister, entered the building and asked to speak with the chief of police, Mike Koval.
When they were told the chief was not available, the group began chanting: “United we stand, divided we fall. An injury to one is an injury to all.”
Justice Muse, 14 and a cousin of Robinson’s, told the Guardian: “It was great what they’re [protesters] doing for him. It’s great how they’re trying to bring justice for him, and I’m happy with what they’re doing. I want to see the cop who killed him put in jail. I want to see him punished for his actions.”
Local reports suggested that some of those on the protest were students of Sun Prairie high school, from which Robinson had recently graduated.
The protests come as local politicians seized on the incident to call for Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker, to approve further funding for the state department of justice, which is leading the investigation into Robinson’s death.
The Wisconsin legislature passed a bill last April that mandates outside investigators examine fatal incidents at the hands of law enforcement officials. But Democratic state representative Chris Taylor, one of the bill’s sponsors, said Walker had declined to provide key funding to allow the legislation to work effectively.
Two state attorney generals have requested additional funding of $736,000 over two years to allow the state department of justice to employ five extra staff to oversee these investigations. Walker did not provide any additional funding in the most recent state budget.
“This governor needs to fund the law that he has touted,” Taylor told the Guardian, adding that she would push for further oversight and due process in investigations into fatal police shootings. “This [legislation] was just a little tip of the iceberg … It was never going to be a panacea to solve all the problems. It was just a first step.”
Madison’s police chief has acknowledged similarities between the shooting of Robinson and that of Brown in Ferguson, but has defended his department in the wake of criticism.
“To the extent that you have, again, a person of color, unarmed, who subsequently loses his life at the hands of the police, I can’t very well distance myself from that brutal reality,” Koval told reporters on Saturday.
“What I can suggest, however, is that while I cannot castigate other shops, I can be proud of the shop that I own.”
On Monday Koval published a post on the Madison police website issuing an apology for the death.
“Reconciliation cannot begin without my stating ‘I am sorry,’ and I don’t think I can say this enough. I am sorry. I hope that, with time, Tony’s family and friends can search their hearts to render some measure of forgiveness,” Koval wrote.
Protests and vigils in Madison over the weekend were peaceful and Koval, and Mayor Paul Soglin pledged transparency in communicating results of the investigation.
The police shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson last year set off weeks of protests. Early protests in Ferguson were accompanied by looting and the police response was criticised as heavy-handed. That and a long delay in releasing the name of the officer who shot Brown fueled outrage over the shooting.
Madison, a city of 240,000 people, has a mostly white population that is 7% African American, US census figures show.
Kenny is on paid administrative leave while the Wisconsin department of justice investigates the shooting.
He was exonerated in 2007 after he shot and killed a 48-year-old man who pointed a gun at officers and refused to drop his weapon. The suspect’s gun was later determined to be a replica, not a real weapon.
Wisconsin court records show that Robinson pleaded guilty to armed robbery last year and received a probated six-month sentence.
The department of justice investigation into the shooting is likely to take weeks if not months to complete.
Organisers say more protests are planned throughout the week.
“The harms of Ferguson’s police and court practices are borne disproportionately by African Americans, and there is evidence that this is due in part to the intentional discrimination on the basis of race,” concluded a damning investigation published by the US department of justice on Wednesday.
The report, a stinging indictment of the criminal justice system in a small city at the centre of national and international focus since the fatal police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in August last year, identified systemic failings in a number of areas.
It described the police department’s routine overuse of force, unlawful arrests, and a municipal court system designed to collect funds instead of serving justice impartially.
Behind each of these broad observations lies human stories: anonymous black men, women and children who had their rights violated by law enforcement officials in Ferguson.
Here are just five examples included in the report:
The boy mauled by a police dog
In 2011, a 14-year-old black boy was mauled by a police dog handled by a Ferguson officer while he waited for friends in an abandoned house.
According to the police account of the incident, the boy was found hiding in a storage unit by the officer and refused to comply. But the boy, who was interviewed by investigators, provided a dramatically different account. He says he was given no warning before the attack, and was instead chased down by the dog, who first bit his ankle and then went for his face, but was parried by his left arm, which took the bite.
The boy claimed that police officers then struck him on the ground, with one “putting a boot on the side of his head”.
“He recalled the officers laughing about the incident afterward,” the report states.
There was not sufficient documentation to back up the boy’s account, but investigators argued that the deployment of the dog was an overuse of force as officers had no reason to suspect the teenager was armed, and that his only offence could have been trespassing.
Investigators found that in every police dog bite incident where race was recorded, the victim was black.
The woman financially crippled by a parking fine
In 2007, a black woman parked her car illegally. Seven years later she has still been unable to pay the fines and has spent time in jail.
The woman, who the report states “experienced financial difficulties and periods of homelessness over several years” was charged with seven separate failure to appear offences after missing court dates or fine payments following the initial infringement. Each of these resulted in new fines and arrest warrants.
“From 2007 to 2014, the woman was arrested twice, spent six days in jail, and paid $550 to the court for the events stemming from this single instance of illegal parking,” the report notes.
She attempted to pay back in small installments - $25 and $50 at a time – but the court refused to accept anything less than the full payment. Eventually, the court relented and she is now described as making regular payments.
“As of December 2014, over seven years later, despite initially owing a $151 fine and having already paid $550, still owed $541,” the report states.
In 2013, the municipal court issued over 9,000 warrants on cases mostly involving minor infringements such as parking infractions.
“The court’s practices,” says the report, “impose unnecessary harm, overwhelmingly on African-American individuals, and run counter to public safety.”
The man accused of paedophilia with no probable cause
In 2012, a 32-year-old black man was arrested by an officer as he sat in his car cooling off after a basketball game in Ferguson public park. The officer demanded to see identification documents and accused the man of being a paedophile, referencing the presence of children in the park. He ordered the man out of his car for a pat-down and vehicle search.
When the man refused, citing constitutional rights, the officer reportedly pointed a gun at his head and arrested him, charging the man with eight counts. These included making a false declaration (the man initially provided his name as “Mike” instead of “Michael”) and providing a false address (the address provided, though legitimate, did not match the one on his driving licence).
The man then lost his job as a contractor with federal government as a direct result of the charges, he told federal investigators.
“As with its pattern of unconstitutional stops, FPD routinely makes arrests without probable cause. Frequently, officers arrest people for conduct that plainly does not meet the elements of the cited offense,” the report states.
The man racially abused by police
One man interviewed by investigators said that in August 2014, police entered his apartment following an altercation inside. He claims he was pulled out of the unit, and told an officer “you don’t have a reason to lock me up”.
According to his account, the officer responded: “Nigger, I can find something to lock you up on.”
“Good luck with that,” the man claims to have responded.The officer slammed the man’s face into a wall and he fell to the floor.
“Don’t pass out, motherfucker, because I’m not carrying you to my car,” the officer is claimed to have said.
The woman shot in the chest with a taser
In November 2013, a black woman was shot in the chest with a Taser by a correctional officer at a city jail after she failed to follow commands to walk to a cell.
The woman had been arrested on drink driving charges and had yelled an “insulting remark” at the officer. The report notes “her conduct amounted to verbal noncompliance or passive resistance at most”.
According to the incident report, written by another Ferguson police officer, the woman was tasered for “not doing what she was told”.
Kenneth Ricks is homeless for the first time in his life. The 51-year-old has lived in New York since he was born, but after he lost his job, had his foot amputated following an accident and spent six months in hospital, he could no longer keep up the rental payments on his Flatbush, Brooklyn apartment.
Ricks has spent the past month on the streets, but this past week, when on Friday temperatures in the city fell to a record of low of -16.5C, has been his toughest so far.
“To your bone you’re cold,” Hicks said, stood outside the Bowery Mission in lower Manhattan, where he has been sleeping for the past few weeks, “I’ve never experienced this, and I’m a New Yorker. When it was cold, I used to be able to go inside.”
Ricks is one of an estimated 58,284 homeless people in New York City, according to the most recent statistics from New York’s department for homeless services, who are amongst the most vulnerable as the polar vortex grips the north-east US. Advocates estimate that the number is slightly higher at just over 60,000, making it the largest number of homeless people ever recorded in New York.
But a few blocks away at the New York City Rescue Mission, David Chicaguala, the shelter’s chief operating officer, is preparing for a further influx of guests. On Thursday night the shelter was at almost double capacity – 140 people - as the city called a “Code Blue”, meaning shelters were instructed to keep their premises open all day and admit everyone in need, even if that meant going over capacity.
Sleeping mats are laid out on the floor of the chapel, chairs line the corridors. Chicaguala expected another Code Blue on Friday. One has been called every night this week.
“It might not be the most comfortable thing, but they’re out of the elements,” said Chicaguala, keen to emphasise that the shelter is always at capacity, even when temperatures are not as extreme.
The mission expects to serve 400 meals a day over the weekend.
“This is the worst I’ve seen,” said Jose Peguero, who has been staying in the shelter for three weeks. Peguero, 61, lost his job as a car salesman in the recession and became homeless three years ago.
“I like this place,” he said of the shelter. “You come to sleep, to have your meals and all that. At least it’s something that helps.”
Once a Code Blue is called in the city, the department of homeless services doubles its outreach staff. They are tasked with finding those in need of help, traveling the subways or walking the streets to deliver them to shelter for the night.
The homeless population has increased in other major cities in the north-east, the region hardest hit by the extreme weather of the polar vortex.
In Boston, advocates estimate around 30% more people are homeless this winter than last. There too, authorities have scrambled as record snowfall and freezing temperatures have engulfed the city for weeks.
Back at the Bowery, Kenneth Ricks is contemplating another night at the overcrowded shelter, where he sleeps on the floor.
“You can’t even roll over, the mats aren’t even twin sized,” he said, taking a last puff of a cigarette and heading back inside to the warmth. “I just came from major surgery, and I’m constantly worried about that because any trauma through this weather could lead to me losing my leg and a lot of other things.”
An NYPD officer who shot and killed Akai Gurley, an unarmed 28-year-old black man, in Brooklyn last year has been indicted, according to a lawyer for Gurley’s family.
Scott Rynecki, who is representing Gurley’s partner Kimberly Ballinger, told the Guardian that NYPD officer Peter Liang will be arraigned in court at 2pm on Wednesday.
The Policemen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), a union representing rank and file NYPD officers, confirmed they had been notified by the district attorney’s office of the indictment. Laing will have PBA representatives with him at his arraignment on Wednesday, a spokesperson for the union confirmed.
The nature of the charges is unclear at present. Ken Thompson, the Brooklyn district attorney who convened a grand jury following his department’s investigation into the death, said in a statement that he would not comment on the matter until after Wednesday’s arraignment. He said the grand jury decision will remained sealed.
Gurley was shot dead in November as he descended the darkened stairwell of a block in the Louis Pink Houses project in East New York. Police maintain that Liang fired accidentally. But community members and local politicians have asked why the officer was patrolling the project with his gun unholstered.
“This officer deserves the same due process afforded to anyone involved in the accidental death of another. The fact the he was assigned to patrol one most dangerous housing projects in New York City must be considered among the circumstances of this tragic accident,” said PBA president Patrick Lynch.
The National Action Network (NAN), the organisation headed by the Rev Al Sharpton, who were joined by Gurley’s family at a national march in Washington, said they were pleased by the announcement.
“NAN has supported [Gurley’s girlfriend] Kimberly Ballinger and the child of Akai Gurley since the unarmed young black man was killed and we are pleased that the process will now allow for a fair and impartial hearing.”
The decision to indict the officer responsible for Gurley’s death bucks a nationwide trend, which has recent seen grand juries in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City decline to indict officers in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner - both unarmed black men.
The decisions in these cases sparked nationwide protest against perceived police impunity.
The New York City police commissioner, Bill Bratton, said on the day after Gurley’s death that Liang’s firearm discharged accidentally during his patrol. Reports suggested that Liang contacted his police union straight after the shooting, before radioing for medical assistance.
Thompson resisted calls to hand the Gurley case over to a special prosecutor following the decisions in the Garner and Brown cases, which saw heavy criticism levelled at the district prosecutors responsible.
“I was elected by the people of Brooklyn to do this job without fear or favour, and that is exactly what I intend to do,” Thompson said in a statement at the time.
Last month both Ballinger and Rynecki expressed confidence in Thompson’s handling of the case. “We have total faith in his investigation and the way he will be presenting it to a grand jury,” Rynecki told the Guardian in January. “We think he is going to truly try and get to justice in this matter.”
Federal agencies tried to use vehicle license-plate readers to track the travel patterns of Americans on a much wider scale than previously thought, with new documents showing the technology was proposed for use to monitor public meetings.
The American Civil Liberties Union released more documents this week revealing for the first time the potential scale of a massive database containing the data of millions of drivers, logged from automatic license plate readers around the US.
As President Obama’s nominee for attorney general prepared for a second day of confirmation hearings in Washington, senior lawmakers also called on the US Justice Department to show “greater transparency and oversight”.
Further documents released by the ACLU on Wednesday show that Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officials in Phoenix planned on “working closely” with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to monitor public gun shows with the automatic technology in 2009.
Although the DEA has said the proposal was not acted upon, the revelations raise questions about how much further the secret vehicle surveillance extends, which other federal bodies are involved and which other groups may have been targeted.
“The broad thrust of the DEA is to spread its program broadly and catch data and travel patterns on a massive scale,” Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with ACLU, told the Guardian. “This could be a really amazing level of surveillance that we’ve not seen before in this country.”
The ACLU warned that the buildup of a vehicle surveillance database, the existence of which first surfaced on Monday, stemmed from the DEA’s appetite for asset forfeiture, a controversial practice of seizing possessions at traffic stops and vehicle pullovers if agents suspect they are criminal proceeds.
“I think that a number of people would have questions about how the Department of Justice manages its asset forfeiture program,” Loretta Lynch, Holder’s would-be replacement, said before a Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday.
In a letter to Holder on Wednesday, senators Chuck Grassley and Patrick Leahy wrote that they “remain concerned that government programs that track citizens’ movements, see inside homes and collect data from the phones of innocent Americans raise serious privacy concerns.”
Citing the ACLU’s first batch of documents, which were first reported by the Wall Street Journal, the senators referred to the attorney general’s flagging of the forfeiture problem. “Any program that is dedicated to expanding the Justice Department’s forfeiture efforts requires similar oversight and accountability,” they wrote.
Senator Leahy’s office did not respond to multiple requests for clarification from the Guardian on Wednesday and Thursday, but privacy advocates said the revelations raised serious questions that demanded answers from Washington.
Clark Neily, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based libertarian law firm, said Americans would be disturbed to know that law enforcement’s quest for revenue impelled mass surveillance.
“It’s deeply concerning and creepy,” Neily said. “We’re Americans. We drive a lot.”
The ACLU followed up Monday’s tranche of DEA documents, which were obtained under Freedom of Information Act (Foia) requests, with the further documents revealing that federal agents planned to use automatic license plate readers to monitor attendees at gun shows in April 2009. The group said it did not know whether the car surveillance was still going on, or how wide it ever spread.
The heavily redacted documents show that DEA officers in Phoenix planned on “working closely” with ATF officials “in attacking the guns going to [redacted] and the gun shows, to include programs/operation with LPRs [license plate readers] at the gun shows.”
The Department of Justice, which encompasses the DEA, did not respond to a further request for clarification from the Guardian.
The perception that an average citizen’s car could be monitored upon entering or leaving a gun show – or any other lawful assembly – infringed upon civil rights, said Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.
“It would be chilling,” Olson said. “You could think twice about exercising that right.”
The latest redacted responses left many questions unanswered, said Stanley, the ACLU analyst. “We just happened to get that tidbit about the gun shows. Whether they targeted other groups we just don’t know. That’s the problem. We’re like archaeologists trying to read a scrap of bone and build a picture of the whole organism.”
The license-plate readers have fed hundreds of millions of records about motorists into a national database, the first round of ACLU documents show. If license plate readers, also known as LPRs, continued to proliferate without restriction, and the DEA held ldata for extended periods, the agency would soon possess a detailed and invasive depiction of people’s lives, the ACLU has warned.
Officials have publicly acknowledged they track vehicles near the Mexican border to combat drug trafficking.
According to DEA documents, the primary goal of the program was to seize cars, cash and other assets belonging to criminals. However, the database’s expansion “throughout the United States”, as one email put it, also widened law enforcers’ capacity for asset forfeiture.
The revelation that asset forfeiture was linked to mass surveillance could unite progressives and conservatives, Olson said. “At some point left and right come together.”
Neily, the Institute for Justice attorney, said government assurances about surveillance safeguards “varied tremendously from reality”.
The ACLU noted that other law enforcement bodies have used license plate readers to monitor public events in the past. In 2009 the Virginia state police collaborated with the US secret service to monitor license plates at President Obama’s inauguration and campaign rallies for then vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. The ACLU also questioned why documents proving the gun show proposal’s cancellation were not returned in the Foia request.
The revelations highlight the risks federal agencies endure as they implement widespread scale surveillance technology to fight crime.
Further documents included in the most recent publication, show the DEA believe elements of the national LPR database has “verified defendant statements, tracked fugitives, solved a gang related homicide, identified vehicles involved in vehicular homicide and used to injure CBP [Customs and Border Protection] checkpoint officers” as well as identified routes used by criminals in drugs and weapons smuggling.
After an apparent protest against the broadcasting company Fox, a man shot himself in the chest in front of the News Corp building in New York on Monday morning and later died. The man was a former employee of a local Fox affiliate in Texas, according to a report from the Wall Street Journal, and had been claiming the company “ruined his life”.
A gun and a suicide note were found at the scene, a New York police department spokesman told the Guardian. Nobody else was injured.
Unnamed sources told the New York Post, a News Corp-owned newspaper, that the man had been asked to move away from the building – on the busy Sixth Avenue in midtown Manhattan – before he was found slumped outside at around 9am.
He had been handing out leaflets accusing News Corp of ending his career, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The man, described by the NYPD as 41 years old and “Hispanic”, was taken to Bellevue hospital but died shortly after.
News Corp directed all requests for comment to the police department, which did not provide the man’s name.
• If you are having suicidal thoughts, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline on 1-800-273-8255. In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 08457 90 90 90. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14.
Police in North Miami Beach have been forced to defend using the mugshots of black men for target practice after a board riddled with gunshots that displayed photographs of six young men was found after a training exercise last month.
The photographs were discovered by south Florida resident Sgt Valerie Deant, a member of the National Guard 13th army band who arrived at the Medley Firearms Training Center after members of the force had been practising. Deant told local media she was horrified to discover her brother’s mugshot, taken 15 years ago, was one of those that had been fired at.
Deant’s brother, Woody, who was 18 at the time of his arrest by North Miami Beach police for drag racing, is now married with children. Two bullet holes can be seen in his photograph on the recovered target board.
“The picture actually has, like, bullet holes,” he said. “One in my forehead and one in my eye … I was speechless.”
“Now I’m being used as a target? I’m not even living that life according to how they portrayed me as. I’m a father. I’m a husband. I’m a career man. I work nine to five.”
North Miami Beach police did not immediately respond to questions from the Guardian, but a spokeswoman told the Huffington Post that the force uses a variety of mugshot line-ups for target practice, including some that feature only white men, some that show only Hispanic men, and another featuring only women.
“The public thinks there should be one woman and one white man and one black, but that’s not really what test is about,” says Major Kathy Katerman of the department’s media unit. “We have targets of all races.”
North Miami Beach police chief J Scott Dennis told NBC South Florida that while the use of Deant’s mugshot was poor judgment as he had been arrested in their jurisdiction, the policies of the force were not violated and were not discriminatory.
“There is no discipline forthcoming from the individuals who were involved with this,” Dennis said. He maintained that using real-life photographs was an important part of training.
NBC surveyed a number of federal and state law enforcement agencies as well as five local police forces, who all said they do not use real-life mugshots in gunfire training.
The sea of blue uniforms – made up of thousands of police officers from throughout the US – was long and deep, extending for hundreds of metres down 65th street.
The crowd stretched so far it was impossible to ascertain just how many police officers turned their backs in protest as New York City mayor Bill de Blasio stood inside the Aievoli Funeral Home in Bensonhurst to give detective Wenjian Liu’s eulogy. Groups turned sporadically but the majority appeared to remain facing the screens as De Blasio began his oration.
Detective Liu, 32, had “walked a path of courage, a path of sacrifice, and a path of kindness”, the mayor said. His story was “a classic New York story” – arriving in the city from China at the age of 12 and working his way up through the public school system before eventually landing a job with the force, “protecting and serving the city he loved”.
Liu was shot dead with his partner, Rafael Ramos, two weeks ago, as they sat in their patrol car on a street corner in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood. The gunman, 28-year-old Ismaaiyl Brinsley, shot himself dead shortly afterward.
The ambush killing and its aftermath has strained already difficult relations between police unions and de Blasio, who union leaders have said contributed to an environment that allowed the killings by supporting anti-police protests following the deaths last summer of Eric Garner on Staten Island and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
The sea of blue uniforms – made up of thousands of police officers from throughout the US – was long and deep, extending for hundreds of metres down 65th street.
The crowd stretched so far it was impossible to ascertain just how many police officers turned their backs in protest as New York City mayor Bill de Blasio stood inside the Aievoli Funeral Home in Bensonhurst to give detective Wenjian Liu’s eulogy. Groups turned sporadically but the majority appeared to remain facing the screens as De Blasio began his oration.
Detective Liu, 32, had “walked a path of courage, a path of sacrifice, and a path of kindness”, the mayor said. His story was “a classic New York story” – arriving in the city from China at the age of 12 and working his way up through the public school system before eventually landing a job with the force, “protecting and serving the city he loved”.
Liu was shot dead with his partner, Rafael Ramos, two weeks ago, as they sat in their patrol car on a street corner in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood. The gunman, 28-year-old Ismaaiyl Brinsley, shot himself dead shortly afterward.
The ambush killing and its aftermath has strained already difficult relations between police unions and de Blasio, who union leaders have said contributed to an environment that allowed the killings by supporting anti-police protests following the deaths last summer of Eric Garner on Staten Island and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Brinsley, an emotionally troubled man who shot and wounded his ex-girlfriend before shooting the two officers, posted messages on social media that mentioned Garner and Brown.
De Blasio’s emotive eulogy ended with a direct plea: “As we start a new year,” he said, “a year we’re entering with hearts that are doubly heavy, let us rededicate ourselves to those great New York traditions of mutual understanding and living in harmony. Let us move forward by strengthening the bonds that unite us, and let us work together to attain peace.”
“A hero’s funeral is about grieving, not grievance,” the commissioner wrote in a memo, earlier in the week.
Before the funeral began, officers attending gave mixed responses when asked about such police protests.
“It’s not our fight,” said detective sergeant Dan Vierra, who had travelled to the funeral from Ceres in central California, “but we do represent the brotherhood of law enforcement and if they feel strongly enough in their plight against the mayor we would have to agree with them because they’re in the same uniform we’re in.”
But detective Calvin Laughlin, an African American officer from Piscataway, New Jersey, predicted De Blasio would be saluted, as he had been at the wake for Liu on Saturday.
“What he said was true,” Laughlin told the Guardian. “It needed to be said, and some people took it the wrong way. In every profession there is 1% bad apples – doctors, teachers, police officers. But I’ve been 20 years in the job and I love to serve.”
Following the protests, the Guardian requested comment from more than a dozen NYPD officers. All declined but one echoed the message on the protester’s placard. “Dump de Blasio,” he said, before declining to elaborate.
The crowd may have been divided on loyalty to the mayor but all united as Liu’s widow, Pei Xia Chen, spoke.
“He was fearless in and out of work,” Chen said, through tears. “He spoke about how much respect he had for the law.”
She described Liu as a “a caring son, a loving husband and a loyal friend” and paid homage to his dedication to the Chinese community in Brooklyn.
“You are an amazing man. Even though you left us early I believe [you are] still with us,” she continued. The couple had been married just two months.
As Chen’s speech drew to a close, crowds inside the funeral home and on the streets broke into applause. About a dozen Asian American officers stood close to the entrance to the funeral home. Two broke into tears.
Officers from Liu’s 84th precinct lined the road as his coffin was carried out. Three helicopters flew overhead and Chen appeared in the doorway, clutching a framed photograph of her husband. She watched as six gloved officers carried the coffin to the hearse. The last post played on speakers.
Chen then took her seat in a stretch limousine that held other members of Liu’s family. A long procession of police motorbikes sped past, representing forces across the state. Liu’s father, who had also addressed the funeral in Cantonese through a translator, thanking the NYPD, the mayor and president Obama for their support, could be seen looking out of the window.
He stared into the distance, not at the motorcade that continued to drive past.
The last words of Eric Garner became the rallying cry for protests that swirled in New York after a grand jury refused to indict a police officer who placed the unarmed black man in a chokehold, reigniting racial tensions that have been simmering for months in the US.
“I can’t breathe,” protesters chanted, in mostly peaceful demonstrations that brought longstanding strains over race to the heart of America’s most populous city. Eighty-three arrests were made during the protests overnight, an NYPD spokesman confirmed to the Guardian.
The protesters’ anger echoed the tensions in Ferguson, Missouri, the scene of violence and rioting after another grand jury declined to bring charges against a white police office in the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager suspected of robbing a convenience store. His death sparked hundreds of protests across the country and snapped into focus seething race issues.
Garner, who was black, died in July after being put in a chokehold by Pantaleo. Police had stopped the heavy-set father of six on suspicion of selling untaxed “loose” cigarettes. Garner had been arrested previously for selling untaxed cigarettes, marijuana possession and false impersonation.
A video shot by a bystander shows Garner resisting arrest as a plainclothes officer attempts to handcuff him. Backing away from the officer, Garner tells him: “This stops today,” which has become a rallying cry for protesters in New York. After a struggle during which Garner is wrestled to the ground by several officers, he gasps “I can’t breathe” until his 350lb body goes limp.
President Barack Obama, criticized for his response to unrest in Ferguson, suggested the Garner case had reaffirmed his determination to ensure all Americans are treated equally in the criminal justice system.
“When anybody in this country is not being treated equally under the law, that’s a problem,” the president said in Washington. “And it is my job as president to help solve it.”
After the decision not to bring criminal charges in New York, the US attorney general, Eric Holder, announced a federal investigation. “All lives must be valued,” Holder said. “All lives.”
Holder’s announcement was not enough to placate the anger in the city. About 200 protesters partially closed the West Side Highway, before police made several arrests, while other groups descended on various locations in midtown Manhattan, including Grand Central station, the Lincoln tunnel and Brooklyn bridge. Protesters also targeted the annual lighting of the Christmas tree at the Rockefeller Center, but were kept away from the ceremony.
As crowds rallied in Times Square, one young black man likened the treatment of minorities in the US in the 21st century to the early days of slavery. “It goes back to the foundations of the country. We’ve been dehumanised since we’ve been here, and we are being dehumanised now,” he said.
“Every 28 hours a young black man is killed by police,” one young woman told the Guardian, referring to nationwide statistics. “Only 2% of police are indicted. Those numbers are crazy. It’s telling young black men that their lives don’t matter and their deaths can be passed over.”
Groups of protesters continued marching well into the night.
The mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, had earlier urged calm. De Blasio, who is white, said that he and his wife, Chirlane McCray, who is black, had spent years teaching their mixed-race son, Dante de Blasio, 17, how to “take special care” around police officers.
We “have had to [talk to] Dante for years about the dangers he may face,” de Blasio said in an emotional news conference. “Because of a history that still hangs over us, we’ve had to train him, as families have … in how to take special care in any interaction with the police officers who are there to protect him.”
The New York police department has long denied racial profiling in its law enforcement practices, despite a finding by federal prosecutors in 2000 that the practice was routine for street crimes units.
The mayor called on protesters to remain nonviolent, saying he had just met Ben Garner, Eric Garner’s father. “Eric would not have wanted violence,” the mayor quoted the father as saying.
De Blasio acknowledged the widespread discontent the grand jury decision was likely to cause. “It’s a very emotional day for our city,” he said. “It’s a very painful day for so many people of this city.” The mayor said the country was at a crossroads, calling discrimination and inequality before the law “all our problem”.
“Anyone who believes in the values of this country should feel a call to action right now,” De Blasio said. “It is a moment that change must happen.”
Minutes later, Garner’s family appeared alongside civil rights campaigner the Rev Al Sharpton in Harlem to address the media.
Garner’s widow, Esaw, vowed to continue fighting for justice. “As long as I have breath in my body I will fight the fight,” she said.
In Washington, Holder said that Garner’s death as well as that of unarmed teenager Brown, who was shot dead by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson in August, “have tested the sense of trust between law enforcement and the communities they are charged to serve”.
Holder said he respected the rights of protesters to voice their disappointment but called on them to remain peaceful.
Tensions had been simmering all week as New Yorkers braced for the verdict.
Activists called for a day of action following the verdict to protest the decision not to pursue charges against Pantaleo. Protesters have also been demanding an end to a policing philosophy championed by NYPD commissioner William Bratton. The policing model, known as broken windows, emphasises attention to petty crime – such as selling untaxed cigarettes – as a means of stymying large-scale crime.
The decision may compound already frayed relations between the New York police department and minority communities, which Bratton and de Blasio have pledged to repair.
The NYPD banned chokeholds over two decades ago, because they can be deadly if administered inappropriately or carelessly. Still, between January 2009 and June 2014, the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent agency that investigates police misconduct, received 1,128 civilian complaints involving chokehold allegations. Of these, only a small fraction of the cases are ever substantiated– just ten over the five and a half year window.
In the days after Garner’s death, Bratton said all 35,000 officers would be retrained on the department’s use of force policy.
Sharpton announced a rally in Washington on 13 December. “It’s time for a national march to deal with a national crisis,” he said. “We are not going away.”
Additional reporting by Mae Ryan and Ana Terra Athayde in New York.
Students and workers across the US walked out of classrooms and offices on Monday, as nationwide protests following the decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson over the fatal shooting of the unarmed teenager Michael Brown continued into a second week.
The “Hands Up Walkout” demonstrations – named after the “Hands up, Don’t Shoot” slogan that was adopted by protesters in the immediate aftermath of Brown’s death – were planned to occur at dozens of campuses and public places, according to a map of locations published by organisers.
In New York City, hundreds of protesters gathered at Union Square; in Cambridge, Massachusetts, students reportedly closed down Harvard Square; and in Clayton, Missouri, students at Clayton high school staged a so-called “die-in”. There were four actions planned in the vicinity of St Louis, where Brown was shot dead in the suburb of Ferguson on 9 August, and dozens planned in states around the US.
Organisers used the anniversary of Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her bus seat for a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama, as a galvanising image on social media. The iconic moment in US civil rights history occurred 59 years ago, on 1 December 1955.
Parks’s booking photo following her second arrest, in 1956, was circulating under the #HandsUpWalkout hashtag along with the question “What risk will you take today?”
Images of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s were also employed during protests over the weekend, as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began a week-long march from Ferguson, Missouri, to the state governor’s mansion in Jefferson City.
The NAACP president, Cornell William Brooks, told the Guardian that the march was designed to inspire the spirit of the Selma to Montgomery marches of 1965.
On Sunday, five players from the St Louis Rams NFL team made “hands up” gestures before a game against the Oakland Raiders, in a show of solidarity with Brown and his family.
The move drew criticism from the St Louis Police Officers Association, which described it as “tasteless, offensive and inflammatory” and called for the players to be disciplined.
Protests have been staged across the US since a grand jury decision not to indict Wilson for Brown’s shooting prompted rioting in Ferguson and demonstrations elsewhere.
A former Amazon employee embroiled in a legal battle with the online retailer is set to go on hunger strike in an attempt to force the company to change business practices which he calls “deceptive and fraudulent”.
Kivin Varghese plans to start his vigil on Tuesday outside Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle in order to raise awareness of what he alleges are poor business practices and employee treatment by the company.
“I think if Amazon customers took a few minutes to look at this and see how Amazon treats employees they’d be shocked,” he said. “My goal with stepping it up with a hunger protest is really to drive more awareness of their practices and really what happens when people buy from Amazon. Every dollar that is spent at Amazon is going to fund this bad behaviour.”
Varghese is in the midst of a court case with the company, in which he claims wrongful discharge after he worked on an advertising platform for Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablet. Amazon has called for the claims to be dismissed, stating in court documents that Varghese was an “underperforming employee who had a difference of opinion with his employer”.
Varghese, who plans to only drink water during his protest, is calling for the company to add three items to its 14 leadership principles. He wants Amazon to commit to better treatment of employees, improve ethical standards and “make decisions that are better for our environment”.
He is also asking for customers to boycott Amazon on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, the two major US shopping days that fall after the Thanksgiving holiday, and wants workers to strike or take sick days in protest at conditions.
“What I’m really trying to accomplish is a much more thorough and accountable effort to get Amazon to pay attention to employee treatment,” he said. “Not only employee treatment in Seattle but more importantly employees who are toiling away at these fulfillment and cost centres across the country.”
The protest coincides with anti-Amazon action in the UK. The group Amazon Anonymous is encouraging consumers to avoid using the company during December, in an attempt to “disrupt their business”. The group is criticising the company’s tax practices and calling for it to “pay its workers a living wage”.
When asked for comment, Amazon stated that the company does not give any on active litigation.
Amazon has just announced a “long-term commitment to achieve 100% renewable energy usage” for its global infrastructure footprint.