Category Archives: Sterling

Baton Rouge Officer Who Shot Alton Sterling Will Not Be Charged

Mother Jones

The Department of Justice will not pursue criminal charges against an officer involved in the videotaped shooting of a man in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, last summer, the Washington Post has reported. The announcement—expected tomorrow—will be the first time under Attorney General Jeff Sessions that the department has publicly declined to press charges against an officer investigated in a high-profile police shooting case.

Alton Sterling, 37, was shot and killed by a Baton Rouge Police Department officer in July 2016, setting off days of protests in the city and nationwide. Two officers had responded to a call about a man outside a convenience store who had waived a gun at someone else. When they arrived, they found Sterling outside the store selling bootlegged CDs. A confrontation ensued in the parking lot (the beginning of the incident was not caught on camera), and an officer tased Sterling after ordering him to the ground, cell phone footage of the encounter shows. Sterling remained on his feet, and an officer tackled him while another rushed to handcuff him. In a second cell phone video, one officer is heard yelling “He’s got a gun!” Then he fires several shots into Sterling. Sterling was armed, but it’s unclear from either video whether he reached for his weapon before he was shot. Witnesses told local new outlets that Sterling never reached for his gun during the encounter.

Sterling’s shooting occurred the day before an officer shot and killed another man in a Minneapolis suburb in an incident that was streamed in part on Facebook Live by the man’s girlfriend, and in the same week that a black man—admittedly upset over police shootings of black men—opened fire on officers at a protest over the two shootings in Dallas, killing nine. Just over a week after that incident, three more officers were killed ambush-style in Baton Rouge.

The Obama DOJ launched a criminal investigation into whether the officer who shot Sterling had willfully violated his civil rights by doing so. On Tuesday, the Trump DOJ—led by adamantly pro-police Attorney General Jeff Sessions—will announce that it will not pursue charges against the officer, the Washington Post reports. The decision is not unsurprising—civil rights cases are notoriously difficult to prove in court. The DOJ declined to file criminal charges against officers involved in high-profile police shooting cases on numerous occasions under President Obama, including in the case of of Michael Brown in Ferguson in August 2014.

The report of the Sterling decision comes amid a flurry of other police-related news this week, including the police shooting death of a 15-year-old boy in a Dallas suburb over the weekend and news today that the officer filmed shooting a North Charleston, South Carolina, man in the back multiples times in April 2015 had pleaded guilty to federal civil rights charges similar to those considered in the Sterling case. You can read Mother Jones‘ deep dive investigation into the trial of that officer here.

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Baton Rouge Officer Who Shot Alton Sterling Will Not Be Charged

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15-Year-Old’s Death Shows What Can Happen When Cops Shoot at Cars

Mother Jones

Update (5/2/2017): The Balch Springs Police Department officer who shot and killed Jordan Edwards on Saturday has been fired, though the department still has not identified the officer. In a statement, Edwards’ family said they were “grateful” for the decision, but that there was still a “long road ahead” to justice.

Saturday’s police-involved shooting of a 15-year-old boy in a Dallas suburb has raised questions about the law enforcement practice of shooting at moving vehicles.

Jordan Edwards was killed while leaving a house party last weekend after a Balch Springs Police Department officer fired his rifle into a car Edwards and several others were riding in. Police officials originally said an officer had shot into the car after it had backed toward the officer in an “aggressive manner.” But at a Monday press conference that Balch Springs Police Chief Jonathan Haber held after reviewing police body camera video, the chief conceded that the vehicle had in fact been “moving forward as the officers approached.” The chief said the shooting “did not meet our core values” and that he was troubled by the video. Edwards is the 303rd person—and the youngest—killed by police this year, according to police shootings database maintained by the Washington Post.

Police shootings targeting moving vehicles have drawn increased scrutiny in recent years, prompting some departments to change their policies to discourage or even ban the practice. In January, the International Association of Chiefs of Police released new use-of-force guidelines that discourage officers from shooting at vehicles barring “exigent circumstances” or an immediate threat. Later that month, the Department of Justice slammed Chicago police officers’ “dangerous” and “counterproductive” habit of shooting at moving vehicles in a scathing report, pointing out that bullets are unlikely to disable a vehicle while carrying a high risk of shooting an innocent bystander or passenger—as was apparently the case in Edwards’ death. Research suggests that banning the practice can lead to fewer police shootings. One study by a criminologist at American University found that police involved shootings dropped by 30 percent in the three years after New York City changed its relevant policy. The number of people killed by police dropped by nearly 40 percent over the same time period.

The shooting took place after two police officers responded to a call about a rowdy house party Saturday night. Officers were inside the house trying to locate the owner when they heard what sounded like gunshots and went outside to investigate, according to a statement released by the police department on Monday. Numerous party-goers fled in panic, and according to Lee Merritt, an attorney for Edwards’ family, the boy, his two brothers, and a friend decided to leave. Once inside the car, Merrit says, they heard someone yelling profanities in their direction—then at least one bullet crashed through a passenger side window as they pulled off. The boys, who were unarmed, drove for about a block before realizing that Edwards had been struck in the head. He was later pronounced dead at the hospital.

Balch Springs’ use-of-force policy encourages officers confronting an oncoming vehicle to “attempt to move out of its path, if possible, instead of discharging a firearm at it or any of its occupants.” The department has not released the name of the officer who shot Edwards or video of the shooting, but the officer has been “relieved of all duties” and placed on leave, Haber said.

The investigation into the shooting is being handled by the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department. Edwards family said he was was a star student and athlete with a 3.5 GPA, and Edwards’ football coach, teachers, and friends’ parents have offered glowing praise of the teen to local media outlets in the wake of the shooting. In a statement on Tuesday, Edwards’ family demanded “JUSTICE FOR JORDAN,” while calling on the community to refrain from protest as they prepare for Edwards funeral.

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15-Year-Old’s Death Shows What Can Happen When Cops Shoot at Cars

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“He Killed a Man by Shooting the Man in the Back Cold-Bloodedly. The Country Isn’t Going to Bow Down.”

Mother Jones

Walter Scott in his Coast Guard days Courtesy of the Scott family

By now, you’ve probably heard that former North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer Michael Slager pleaded guilty on Tuesday afternoon to federal charges of using excessive force and violating the civil rights of Walter Scott in a police shooting that became national news. The big remaining questions are why Slager did so, and how much time he is likely to spend in prison. “It’s murder, regardless of what people think,” Ed Bryant, president of the local NAACP chapter, told reporters outside the courthouse.

Only a life sentence for Slager would be just, Bryant said: “The whole world has seen that. They know what he’s done. He killed a man by shooting the man in the back cold-bloodedly. The country isn’t going to bow down to that. No way.”

Five months ago, a Charleston jury failed to reach a unanimous verdict in Slager’s murder trial—a trial I covered for Mother Jones as part of an in-depth story on the lives of the officer and his victim, the state of police training in America, and the obstacles to convicting cops for the questionable shootings we see so often in the headlines. Here’s a scene from the Slager-Scott confrontation:

The officer returned to his cruiser intending to run Scott’s license through an FBI database, standard procedure. Scott stepped out of his vehicle and then climbed back in when Slager, sitting in his squad car, instructed him to do so. But moments later, Scott got out a second time and ran toward an open field, the site of an abandoned trailer park, and onto a painted asphalt path known locally as the Yellow Brick Road. Slager pursued on foot, warning that he was preparing to fire his stun gun: “Taser! Taser! Taser!” Scott didn’t stop, so Slager hit him with two darts.

The electricity brought Scott to his knees, but he refused to surrender. Slager then “drive-stunned” Scott—put the business end of the Taser directly on him and pulled the trigger—but could not cuff him. The men scuffled on the ground, and a winded Slager pleaded for backup. “One-five-six,” he said into his radio, calling out the badge number of the officer he knew was closest. “Step it up!”

Scott managed to break free and run away in a slow, wobbly gait. This time Slager did not give chase. He unholstered his .45-caliber Glock, took a stance, and put his left hand underneath to steady the weapon. His form was perfect, like in a training video. The only problem was that his gun was aimed at the back of a fleeing man. He squeezed off eight quick shots.

Local prosecutors in South Carolina were scheduled to retry Slager in August, but instead, as part of what is called a “global plea agreement” they agreed to drop the state charges in exchange for a guilty plea in the federal case. Slager, who will be sentenced at a later date, faces up to life in prison, but he will likely get far less. There is no mandatory minimum sentence. And, as I wrote in my prior story, the average sentence for officers convicted of murder or manslaughter over the past decade or so has been less than four years. Slager was led away after the hearing today in handcuffs. His lawyer, Andrew Savage III, said in a written statement, “We hope that Michael’s acceptance of responsibility will help the Scott family as they continue to grieve their loss.”

While reporting my story about the case, I toured the police academy where Slager was trained—for 9 weeks, as opposed to the 26 required of an NYPD officer. Inferior training was a key element of Slager’s defense. And while much of the instruction I witnessed seemed thoughtful enough, there was simply too little of it.

A report issued in March 2016 by the Police Executive Research Forum argued that misguided training—specifically, instruction that teaches officers to “draw a line in the sand” and resolve confrontations quickly—contributes directly to problematic shootings by police. Cops in training spend a median of 58 hours on firearms proficiency but just 8 hours learning de-escalation tactics to bring episodes to peaceful conclusions, according to PERF’s research. The mechanics of firing a weapon are usually taught separately from the question of when to use it.

Savage, Slager’s lawyer, had talked to prosecutors from the start about a possible deal, but they had not been able to agree on the length of a term. Although a judge will impose the sentence, Slager’s defense team and prosecutors most likely will have agreed to a sentence the government will recommend—those terms were not made clear on Tuesday. Before the deal was finalized, the government also contacted the family of Walter Scott to ascertain what penalty—if any—they would consider just. The plea deal, which you can read here, says Slager understands that the government will advocate he be sentenced under the guidelines applied to second-degree murder, the equivalent of manslaughter.

Tuesday’s plea arrangement represents a stark reversal in Slager’s account of what occurred on April 4, 2015, the day he fired eight shots at the unarmed Scott, from behind, as Scott fled. The shooting was caught on video by a bystander and viewed millions of times on the internet. Slager testified late last year that Scott was getting the better of him in a fight and he feared for his life. He told investigators initially that Scott had gained control of his Taser, though the video cast that story into grave doubt. The plea agreement states:

“The defendant used deadly force even though it was objectively unreasonable under the circumstances. The defendant acknowledges that his actions were done willfully, that he acted voluntarily and intentionally and with specific intent to do something that the law forbids.”

Philip Stinson, a criminologist at Ohio’s Bowling Green University who has done extensive research on police-involved shootings, says Slager could have decided to plead guilty for a variety of reasons. The first is that federal charges against officers who shoot and kill civilians tend to be easier to prove—though it is notoriously difficult to convict a police officer in an on-duty shooting. “His defense team may have realized the Justice Department had a good case,” Stinson says. “But it could also be that the defendant exhausted his capital in many ways, not just financial, but in terms of family considerations. He may have wanted closure.”

Slager’s lawyer took the case pro bono, and after the trial last fall said he had provided a defense that would have cost more than $1 million had he billed for it. Stinson points out that one calculation of pleading to federal rather than the state charges is the quality of the respective correctional facilities: “He may end up in a prison that is more tolerable than what would have been the case in South Carolina.”

One reason it is so difficult to convict police officers is that their jobs are, in fact, often dangerous. Police and their defense teams can effectively persuade juries that, even if they made an error in judgment, they reasonably feared for their lives. One thing that made the Slager case different—and the hung jury in the first trial so shocking to many—is that the cellphone video recorded by Feidin Santana, a 23-year-old Dominican immigrant on his way to work as a barber, seemed to show a clearly egregious act.

“I don’t get surprised by much,” said criminologist Philip Stinson, “but that video took my breath away.”

Slager was not under imminent threat. After the shooting, he appeared to plant evidence by retreating to where the scuffle had taken place to retrieve his Taser and then placing it beside Scott’s prone body. Slager described a different sequence of events in the hours after the shooting, but more recently he has testified that he has no memory at all of those interviews with investigators.

His memory loss could be viewed as a calculated strategy. Or, alternatively, as an indication of a defendant who was not in the best of mental states to withstand a new trial and, as he did in the state court, testify on his own behalf.

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“He Killed a Man by Shooting the Man in the Back Cold-Bloodedly. The Country Isn’t Going to Bow Down.”

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The National Urban League Just Released a Report that Shows Black America Has a Lot to Worry About Under Trump

Mother Jones

Black and Hispanic Americans continue to lag behind their white counterparts when it comes to equal access to employment, housing, education, and other areas. But a new report argues that with a new presidential administration unlikely to enforce longstanding civil rights laws, black America must also fight to protect the progress that they have already made.

That’s the main takeaway from the 2017 State of Black America report, released Tuesday by the National Urban League, a civil rights organization established in 1910 to focus on the economic empowerment of African Americans. The report, which has been released annually for more than four decades, evaluates how black life in America compares to that of whites on a number of issues, including housing, economics, education, social justice, and civic engagement.

For the past 13 years, the report has utilized a “National Equality Index,” a set of statistical measurements that provide a quantitative breakdown to assess exactly how the lives of blacks and Hispanics stack up when compared to whites in the United States. White America is given the baseline number of 100, which is intended to represent the full access to opportunity that whites have historically been afforded when compared to other racial groups. By giving each metric a score out of 100, the report is able to provide a specific assessment of the progress nonwhite groups have made in narrowing the gaps, and how much they continue to lag behind over time.

This year’s report tracks through the end of 2016, making it the last one to follow the progress of black America under President Barack Obama. Marc Morial, the President of the National Urban League, tells Mother Jones, that while looking at yearly changes in the measured variables make it difficult to grasp long-term shifts in the equality of nonwhite groups, this year provided an opportunity to assess the difference in the status of black Americans after eight years with the first African American president. “During the Obama era, the economy added 15 million new jobs, the Black unemployment rate dropped and the high school graduation rate for African Americans soared,” Morial notes in the report. “Now that progress, and much more, is threatened.”

The 2016 edition, which was entitled “Locked Out: Education, Jobs, and Justice,” emphasized that black America still had much farther to go, but this year’s report—”Protect our Progress”—argues that under the Trump administration many hard-won gains are in jeopardy. In an interview with Mother Jones before the report’s launch, Morial noted that the presidential election had played a large role in the shift in tone of the report, adding during the official launch on Tuesday, “It would be difficult to pinpoint any moment in recent history where so much of our economic and social progress stood at dire risk as it does today.”

“There are several actions taken by the new administration that raise great cause for concern,” Morial says. He points to the Justice Department as his most immediate concern, noting Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ efforts to undermine consent decrees with police departments and voting rights enforcement “are inconsistent with the idea of a Justice Department that should enforce civil rights law.” He also points to the Department of Education, and “what could be an anti-public schools agenda” should the agency make good on its promise to promote school choice.

The report notes there have been small, but important, developments over the past year. Overall, Black Americans are 72.3 percent equal to their white counterparts, slight progress from last year when they stood at 72.2 percent. Specific areas reveal a more complicated picture. Across individual metrics there were some slight increases for black America, with education moving to 78.2 percent from 77.4 percent last year, likely because of an increase in the number of students working with more experienced teachers and a decline in the number of high school dropouts across all racial groups. Health outcomes improved from 79.4 percent to 80 percent, which may be because of more equal Medicare expenditures among blacks and whites. Economics—a metric that takes employment rates, wages, and business ownership into account—increased slightly to 56.5 percent from 56.2 percent with continued improvements in the black unemployment rate.

Black Americans are more civically engaged than whites, scoring 100.6 percent in both years. Social justice declined, falling to 57.4 percent in 2017 from 60.9 percent last year. The National Urban League attributes much of the decline to the change in the way the Bureau of Justice Statistics—a main source of raw data for the social justice index’s calculation of racial disparities in traffic enforcement—reports racial disparities in traffic stops.

The report also tracks the equality of Hispanics compared to whites, finding that overall, Hispanic Americans are at 78.4 percent in 2017 compared to 77.9 percent in the previous year. Much of this increase was due to a jump in the health index, which can be attributed to a decrease in the maternal mortality rate and an increase in insurance coverage. Similar to black Americans, there were also increases in economics and education. These increases helped offset declines in civic engagement and social justice.

The National Urban League also tracks gaps in unemployment and income equality between racial groups living in major metropolitan areas, and found the Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, California, metro area continues to have the smallest gap between the incomes of black and white residents. Minneapolis, Minnesota, has the largest. The unemployment rate between the races in the San Antonio-New Braunfels, Texas, metro area has the smallest disparity, while Milwaukee has the greatest. For Hispanics, the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton, Florida, metro region is best for unemployment equality—Rochester, New York, is the worst. While Modesto, California has the smallest racial income gap, Springfield, Massachusetts, has the largest according to the report.

The State of Black America describes the problems but it also attempts to outline proposed policy solutions in the portion of the report entitled “Main Street Marshall Plan.” During Tuesday’s press conference, Morial called the plan—which supports several policy proposals including a $15 minimum wage, universal childhood education, summer jobs for youth, job training and workforce development, infrastructure, and affordable housing—a “forward-leaning investment,” suggesting that its rigorous research could provide politicians with some guidance as they plan for the future.

Critics have already slammed the Trump administration for being weak on civil rights, and the president notably declined an invitation to address the National Urban League’s annual conference during the election season. The National Urban League has not met with Trump recently, but members of the organization have met with Ivanka Trump and spoken to Jeff Sessions. In the past month several groups, particularly the Congressional Black Caucus, have held discussions with the administration and offered policy proposals for communities of color, only to then speak out when the administration moved against civil rights in some way.

Still Morial remains confident that even under these conditions, there is a chance for progress. “Obviously in this political environment, we are going to face headwinds,” he says. “However I think that this is just a question of politicians being able to get their act together.”

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The National Urban League Just Released a Report that Shows Black America Has a Lot to Worry About Under Trump

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Sean Spicer Runs Away from Press Briefing Without Answering Questions

Mother Jones

Sean Spicer’s tenure as White House press secretary has been rife with endless gaffes, back-flip defenses of his boss, and a highly combative relationship with the reporters he has to face daily.

On Tuesday, it appeared as though Spicer may finally have had enough. Here he is ditching his own press briefing, while stunned reporters erupt in cries for him to answer their questions:

The soundtrack for a presidency.

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Sean Spicer Runs Away from Press Briefing Without Answering Questions

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