Walter Scott Shooting Is Reminder of Why We Must Defend Our Right to Record

A police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina has been charged with murder in connection with the shooting death of an unarmed motorist named Walter Scott.

Patrolman Michael Slager initially claimed that following a traffic stop for a broken headlight, motorist Walter Scott tried to take Slager’s taser. The two struggled, Slager feared for his life, and shot Scott as the two fought over the taser.

Then an absolutely devastating video emerged. The video shows Slager shoot the unarmed Scott eight times in the back as Scott tries to fee. After the shooting, Slager handcuffs the dying man, leaves him lying facedown without medical attention, and retrieves an object to drop near the body.

After the video emerged, Slager, a five-year veteran with the force, was taken into custody, charged with murder and denied bond at his initial hearing. He was fired from his position with the force. The attorney who went on record with Slager’s story about the shooting occurring during a struggle over the taser is no longer representing him.

Query:

How do you think it would have played out without the video?

All over the country, our right to record is under constant assault from police who treat citizens recording them as law-breaking obstructionists. Walter Scott’s death is a stark and heartbreaking reminder of why we must vigorously defend the right to record.

Sarah Baker is a libertarian, attorney and writer. She lives in Montana with her daughter and a house full of pets.

Most Police Abuse Committed by a Handful of Officers

Jonathan Turley at Res Ipsa Loquitur has posted an interesting snippet about a study concluding that the majority of police abuse incidents are committed by a small group of officers:

… A relatively small number of officers are responsible for over half of police abuse claims. We have seen similar results in studies of malpractice cases of doctors. Yet, this small group of officers not only tarnish the reputations of all officers but cost massive amounts of money. …

Law professor Craig Futterman, who runs the University of Chicago’s Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project, has done some interesting work in this area. His study of the Chicago Police Department found the same officers fueling these costs. It suggests that a better job of self-policing could result in substantial savings for police departments and more importantly greater protection for citizens.

UCLA law professor Joanna Schwartz has found similar results.

In the wake of the shooting of two police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, and the executions of two officers in New York City in December, it is unquestionably important to keep this in mind. I generally think most of us in the reform movement already know it.

The problem is that we lack confidence in police efforts to police their own. As Turley notes:

…Most cities still resist keeping records that would help identify such officers and track patterns. This would seem to offer obvious areas of reform for departments. We have certainly seen anecdotally that officers involved in controversies often seem to have checkered histories of prior lawsuits or serious complaints. The problem is the political will to implement the academic findings.

The lengths departments are willing to go to remain ignorant of the bad apples in their barrels are reflected in the costs passed on to taxpayers. Chicago paid a half a billion dollars over a ten year period. New York City paid that amount over a five year period. A single division in Los Angeles cost the city $125 million.

Yet Lou Reiter a former Los Angeles deputy police chief who trains police departments on “liability management,” says departments rarely ask themselves what they could have done differently to avoid those costs. Instead they blame the courts or the public for not understanding the difficulties inherent in the job.

Many do not keep records or make an effort to run the numbers to identify the “relative handful of officers” who account for half of all complaints:

While New York City pays the Police Department’s skyrocketing legal bills, the department makes almost no effort to learn from lawsuits brought against it and its officers. The department does not track which officers were named, what claims were alleged or what payouts were made in the thousands of suits brought every year.

What’s more, officers’ personnel files contain no record of the allegations and results of lawsuits filed against them. Neither the Police Department’s Internal Affairs Bureau nor the Civilian Complaint Review Board investigates allegations made in lawsuits, and police officials review only the litigation files of the few dozen cases each year that result in payments of $250,000 or more.

The majority of police officers are innocent of abuse.

But when good men do nothing, evil triumphs.

Sarah Baker is a libertarian, attorney and writer. She lives in Montana with her daughter and a house full of pets.

Chicago Police Using Domestic “Black Site,” The Guardian Reports

Chicago’s police department is running an “off-the-books interrogation compound” that attorneys liken it to the domestic equivalent of a CIA black site, according to a chilling report from the Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman.

Suspects, like the trio of potheads who wanted to attack Obama’s re-election campaign headquarters with a slingshot and marbles in protest of the NATO summit, are taken to “Homan Square.” But no one is ever booked inside it walls. No public, searchable record of their time there is generated. Neither their families nor their attorneys are informed of their whereabouts. Lawyers attempting to gain access are turned away, even if their clients are in custody inside.

At Homan Square they don’t process paperwork about your arrest. You’re just gone. No one knows.

At some point they have to do the paperwork and prosecute you. After they get your confession, you wind up back in the paperwork.

Suspects allege being beaten, kept in chain link cages, and shackled for extended periods while held inside Homan for as long 24 hours, without access to a lawyer, before being transferred precincts for booking or simply released.

“They just disappear,” said Anthony Hill, a criminal defense attorney, “until they show up at a district for charging or are just released back out on the street.”

Brian Jacob Church, one of the NATO Three, was picked up for suspected terrorist plotting in connection with protests against the NATO summit. He was taken to Homan Square, handcuffed to a bench for 17 hours, and interrogated without being read his Miranda rights. Anticipating he might be arrested in connection with the protests, Church had scrawled an attorney’s phone number on his arm, and explicitly demanded an opportunity to call that lawyer. That request was denied.

“I had essentially figured, ‘All right, well, they disappeared us and so we’re probably never going to see the light of day again,’” Church said.

Since the raid that resulted in Church’s arrest was well publicized, a team of attorneys was simultaneously searching for him to offer their services. Through 12 hours of active searching, he and his co-defendants could not be located. No booking record existed. Attorneys ultimately complained to Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Only then did they learn about Homan Square, and only hours later were Church and his co-defendants taken for booking at a police precinct.

Richard Brzeczek, Chicago’s police superintendent from 1980 to 1983, who also said he had no first-hand knowledge of abuses at Homan Square, said it was “never justified” to deny access to attorneys.

“Homan Square should be on the same list as every other facility where you can call central booking and say: ‘Can you tell me if this person is in custody and where,’” Brzeczek said.

“If you’re going to be doing this, then you have to include Homan Square on the list of facilities that prisoners are taken into and a record made. It can’t be an exempt facility.”

The NATO Three were ultimately found guilty of lesser charges (possessing an incendiary device and “mob action”), but acquitted of terrorism related offenses.

[D]efense attorneys, bolstered by undercover police recordings that prosecutors played in court, argued that the three were “goofs” who talked big and were goaded on by two undercover police officers.

[T]hey were frequently drunk, high and unable to complete simple tasks, once missing out on a protest because Church had to wait for his pot dealer.

One of the undercover officers told an apologetic Church that he needed to make a to-do list in the morning before smoking pot.

Church also said he wanted to attack four police stations but didn’t want to Google the locations of two of them. Chase advocated attacking Obama’s re-election campaign headquarters with a slingshot and marbles.

Church declined when Nadia Chikko, one of the undercover officers, asked Church if he wanted to try out one of the Molotovs they’d built with four empty beer bottles, some gasoline and a cut-up bandana from Mehmet Uygun, the other undercover officer.

“I’m too (expletive) cold to be going anywhere. I want to wrap up in my blanket and sleep,” he said.

A lawyer named Eliza Solowiej told The Guardian that she had represented a man who had already been entered into Chicago’s central booking station, and she had personally observed him in a police station without any injuries. Thereafter, someone changed his name in the system and had him moved to Homan Square without any record of the transfer. After his time in Homan Square, he was then taken to a hospital to be treated for head injuries he had incurred sometime in the interim.

Another lawyer reported taking a call from a worried mother. She believed her 15-year-old son had been arrested, but she was having trouble finding where he was being held. After “12, maybe 13” hours, the 15-year-old was released without charges.

A 44-year-old detainee named John Hubbard died in an interview room at Homan, allegedly of heroin overdose. But The Intercept’s Juan Thompson says there are no official records or even a coroner’s report confirming that cause of death. Nor are there records that explain why he was detained in the first place.

Chicago police at first did not respond to The Guardian’s questions about the facility. Once the story was initially published, the department issued a statement insisting there was nothing untoward taking place at Homan, that records are generated for arrests, and that if “lawyers have a client detained at Homan Squire, just like any other facility, they are allowed to speak to and visit them.”

As noted by The Guardian, the statement does not address how long into an arrest or detention those records are generated, or whether they are made available to the public, such as family members looking for relatives who have been picked up and attorneys searching for their clients. The department did not respond to The Guardian’s request for clarification on that issue.

[A] retired Washington DC homicide detective, James Trainum, could not think of another circumstance nationwide where police held people incommunicado for extended periods.

“I’ve never known any kind of organized, secret place where they go and just hold somebody before booking for hours and hours and hours. That scares the hell out of me that that even exists or might exist,” said Trainum, who now studies national policing issues, to include interrogations, for the Innocence Project and the Constitution Project.

Sarah Baker is a libertarian, attorney and writer. She lives in Montana with her daughter and a house full of pets.

Georgia Legislature to Consider Modest Reforms for ‘No-Knock’ Raids

On May 28th, 2014 around 3:00 a.m. in Habersham County, Georgia a SWAT team raided a house the police believed to be occupied by Wanis Thonetheva, an alleged drug dealer. In the chaos of the raid instead were four children and up to four adults. The youngest of the children, 19 month-old “Bou Bou” Phonesavanh was burned and permanently disfigured from a flash-bang grenade which set the play pen he was sleeping in ablaze.

No drugs or contraband of any kind was found in the home. Also absent from the residence was the man they were looking for.

Bou Bou was taken to Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta where he was put into a medically induced coma. Doctors were not sure if the toddler would ever wake up but fortunately, he did.

This is not by any means, the end of the Phonesavanh family’s problems with Bou Bou’s medical expenses around $1.6 million and surgeries into adulthood. These expenses, by the way, that will not be paid by the county or the departments responsible for severely injuring this child.

In the aftermath of this botched SWAT raid, several Georgia legislators are looking to reform the use of “no-knock” raids. Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) introduced a bill he’s calling “Bou Bou’s Law” which would require a slightly higher standard for no-knock raids than required by SCOTUS. Bou Bou’s Law would require “the affidavit or testimony supporting such warrant establishes by probable cause that if an officer were to knock and announce identity and purpose before entry, such act of knocking and announcing would likely pose a significant and imminent danger to human life or imminent danger of evidence being destroyed.”

In the House, Rep. Kevin Tanner (R-Dawsonville) introduced a similar bill which would go even further by requiring that no-knock raids be conducted between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. unless the judge issuing the warrant “expressly authorizes” another time. Tanner’s bill also requires that each department keep records of each raid which would be compiled with all the other records around the state into an annual report which would be sent to the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and the Speaker of the House.

While these are laudable reforms which I would hope would pass any state legislature, these reforms do not go nearly far enough. Several of the articles I read in preparing this post had titles like “No Knock Warrants Could be a Thing of the Past.” In reading over these bills, I’m not quite that optimistic. As Jacob Sullum pointed out at Reason, its not at all clear that Bou Bou’s Law would have prevented the raid from happening. The police at the time thought their suspect was probably armed; it probably wouldn’t take much to convince a judge to issue the no-knock warrant.

As I took another look at Rep. Tanner’s bill, I saw no language that would restrict the hours of the standard knock and announce raids. His bill seems incredibly vague to my lay reading “all necessary and reasonable force may be used to effect an entry into any building or property or part thereof to execute such search warrant if, after verbal notice or an attempt in good faith to give verbal notice by the officer directed to execute the same of his or her authority and purpose”.

Its human nature to stretch and bend language in such a way that is favorable to one’s objectives. I can imagine the police “interpreting” this law to mean they could gently knock on the door at 3 a.m., speaking in a barely audible voice “Police, search warrant open up,” counting 1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi, 3 Mississippi, CRASH!

There is some concern by those who think that even these modest reforms put the police in unnecessary danger – police lives matter. I’m of the opinion that ALL lives matter and propose some (admittedly) radical ideas as to how and when SWAT tactics and/or police searches should be used to protect the life and liberty of all concerned:

– If the reason for a surprise raid on a residence is that the evidence could be quickly flushed down a toilet or easily destroyed by other means, then this isn’t enough reason for such a raid in the first place. A couple of ounces of any drug flushed down a toilet is not sufficient reason to put the lives of those in the residence or the police at risk.

– SWAT should not be used at all unless its an active shooter situation, a hostage situation, or credible reason to believe there will be active, armed resistance to the search. Unless there is a very real clear and present danger, leave your military grade toys at the station.

– Each and every police officer involved in the search wears a camera (preferably on the head to have a true POV). All video from the search would be made available to the suspect’s defense attorney.

– The police departments involved are responsible for any and all “collateral damage” to life and property. In the event an innocent life is taken, the individual officer(s) responsible should be treated as anyone else who takes a life. Investigation/prosecution would be conducted by an independent investigators and prosecutors.

– Absolutely no raids or searches of any kind between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m. (though stakeouts and other activity which does not require interaction with the suspect(s) during these hours is permissible).

I’m sure that some if not all of these ideas are too radical for many lawmakers. If we really believe that “all lives matter”, however; these proposals should be thoughtfully considered.

If you would like to make a small donation to help pay Bou Bou’s medical expenses, go to this GoFundMe page which has raised nearly $43k so far.

Let Us Rediscover the Art of the Peaceful Protest and Civil Disobedience this MLK Day

In the year 2015 there are many good reasons to protest: police brutality, injustice, the war on (some) drugs, the war on (some) terror, etc. One thing from Martian Luther King Jr.’s legacy that seems to be lost and something we should rediscover is the art of the peaceful protest and civil disobedience.

King understood that for positive change to occur, he had to truly win the hearts and minds of his fellow Americans. Being a positive example by showing the world that he and his followers would take a stand against injustice without resorting to violence was even more important than the words he spoke to that end. Certainly, not everyone believed in using the non-violent approach. Malcolm X and the Black Panthers believed that violence was necessary to achieve their shared goals.*

Who was right?

Personally, I find the pictures and the videos from the non-violent protests and the acts of civil disobedience to be far more compelling. There’s just something about seeing people refusing to act in a violent fashion against the state which inherently IS violence. This has a way of changing hearts and minds.

Contrast this with today’s protests in Ferguson, New York, and elsewhere concerning the police. For the most part, the protesters are peaceful and are using tactics which King would likely be proud. Unfortunately, however; it’s the nasty protesters that are violent, incite riots, or cheer at the news of cops being ambushed which receives far too much of the publicity. Even holding up signs like “The only good cop is a dead cop” or “fuck the police,” though certainly permissible as recognized by the First Amendment, turns people off who might otherwise be sympathetic to one’s cause.

Sadly, it’s not just a few misfit protesters who think that aggression is sometimes warranted to get one’s way. No less than the pope himself last week in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks said: “(If someone) says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”

The leader of the same Catholic Church which normally advocates finding non-violent solutions to conflict (such as the Just War Doctrine) says that because someone says something offensive about one’s parents or faith it is permissible to use violence against that person! People’s feeling are more important than the concept of free expression.

I’m not interested in living in a world where I cannot insult the pope or his religion nor do I want to live in a world where the pope cannot insult me or my atheism. The world I am interested in living in is one where we can have passionate, even hurtful disagreements without fearing physical harm to my family, my friends, or myself.

Let us all rediscover the art of peaceful protest and civil disobedience on this Martian Luther King Jr. Day.