Jaeah is a former reporter at Mother Jones. Her writings have appeared in The Atlantic, the Guardian, Wired, Christian Science Monitor,Global Post,Huffington Post,Talking Points Memo, and Grist. She tweets at @jaeahjlee.
This is not like the DOJ's civil rights investigations into Ferguson or Cleveland.
Jaeah LeeFeb. 1, 2016 9:30 PM
The US Department of Justice's Ronald Davis (left) at a news conference with San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and Police Chief Greg Suhr
Nearly two months after San Francisco police officers shot and killed a 26-year-old black man named Mario Woods, officials at the US Department of Justice have announced that they will launch a comprehensive review of the police department's policies and practices.
The federal review will "help identify key areas for improvement" in the department's operational policies, training practices, and accountability procedures, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement released Monday.
The announcement comes amid a public outcry over Woods's death last month, which sparked protests and prompted city officials to call for an independent investigation into the incident. On December 2, officers surrounded Woods on a sidewalk in the Bayview district neighborhood after identifying him as a possible suspect in a stabbing that took place earlier that day. The incident was recorded by several onlookers who uploaded cellphone footage to social media, attracting widespread attention.
Push for review
One video showed Woods standing with his back against a wall, facing at least six officers pointing their guns at him. They ordered him to drop a knife. When Woods did not comply, officers fired bean bag pellets and pepper-sprayed him. At one point, Woods appeared to walk away from the officers, and seconds later multiple shots rang out. A total of five officers opened fire, San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr later told reporters. Woods was pronounced dead at the scene. The officers who fired their guns were placed on leave after the shooting but have since returned to desk duty. Woods' family and supporters have demanded the firing of Suhr, who formerly headed the Bayview police station. Family members, who say Woods had struggled with mental health issues, have also filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit against the city.
Several members of San Francisco's board of supervisors, community leaders, and civil rights advocates have called for an independent investigation into Woods' death and the department's use-of-force policies. Suhr and San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee also jointly requested the federal review, according to the DOJ statement, and "have publicly committed to providing the resources necessary for its successful completion."
Protesters march toward Super Bowl City in San Francisco on January 29, 2016. Jaeah Lee
The Justice Department's review into the SFPD, however, differs significantly from the "pattern and practice" investigations into police departments such as those in Ferguson, Missouri, and Cleveland. Pattern-and-practice investigations, handled by the Civil Rights Division and meant to identify department-wide civil rights violations, typically result in court-ordered reforms that are monitored by a judge or a third party and sometimes last more than a decade. The SFPD review, led by the Office of Community Oriented Policing, will result in a report laying out recommended reforms as well as progress reports on their implementation. But those reviews tend to take place in a shorter time period, and the reforms are not legally binding.
Woods's death is the latest in a long line of controversies involving the San Francisco police and their use of force against citizens, particularly those suffering from mental health issues, and communities of color.
More than 60 percent of all fatal police shootings by SFPD cops since 2010 involved people who had a history of mental health problems, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Last February, 20-year-old Amilcar Perez-Lopez was shot to death by two plainclothes SFPD officers in the Mission District neighborhood. Officials said he was carrying a knife.
A month later, a judge cleared four other cops for their involvement in the March 2014 death of 28-year-old Alex Nieto, who allegedly pointed a Taser at police officers. District Attorney George Gascon said the officers, who fired a total of 59 shots, reasonably mistook the Taser for a pistol.
The SFPD also came under heightened scrutiny last April, when Suhr moved to fire eight officers over their 2012 exchange of racist and homophobic text messages. In December, a judge ruled the officers could not be fired or otherwise disciplined because the department had waited too long to address the case, allowing a one-year statute of limitations for any personnel investigations—set by the Peace Officer Bill of Rights—to lapse.
Some experts have already expressed concern that the DOJ's current review of the SFPD does not go far enough.
"It doesn't have the teeth that the Civil Rights' Division investigation does," Aaron Zisser, a former attorney for the division, told the San Francisco Examiner on Monday. The current review, Zisser said, was a strong indicator that there will not be a broader civil rights investigation.
"Don't slow down for any of these idiots who try and block the street."
Jaeah LeeJan. 19, 2016 5:53 PM
Black Lives Matter protesters near St. Paul, Minnesota on January 18, 2016.
A St. Paul, Minnesota police officer has been placed on administrative leave after allegedly telling drivers to run over Black Lives Matter protesters who planned to block traffic as part of a march on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Around 1 a.m. on Saturday, a Facebook user named "JM Roth" posted a comment on a Pioneer Press article about the scheduled protest that said: "Run them over. Keep traffic flowing and don't slow down for any of these idiots who try and block the street." The comment then suggested how drivers could legally justify hitting protesters with their cars:
Screenshot by Andrew Henderson, via St. Paul Pioneer Press
Andrew Henderson, a local activist who maintains the Minnesota Cop Block Facebook page, first noted and reported the comment, which has since been deleted, to the St. Paul Police Department. In phone conversations he recorded and uploaded to YouTube, Henderson told Saint Paul Police Department officials that the "JM Roth" account belonged to Sergeant Jeffrey M. Rothecker. Henderson said Rothecker had admitted in previous comments that he was "JM Roth."
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and Police Chief Thomas Smith have denounced the comment and announced that an investigation into the matter is underway. Senior Commander Shari Gray, the head of the department's internal affairs unit, also met with Henderson on Sunday, according to the Pioneer Press.
"There is no room in the Saint Paul Police Department for employees who threaten members of the public," Coleman said in a statement released on Monday. "If the allegation is true, we will take the strongest possible action allowed under law."
The St. Paul Police Federation, the union for officers, is representing Rothecker, according to the Star Tribune.
The news comes one year after motorist Jeffrey P. Rice struck a teenage girl who was protesting outside a Minneapolis police station. The girl was part of a November 2014 demonstration that took place after a Ferguson, Missouri grand jury declined to indict the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown. The girl suffered a minor leg injury. Last October, Rice, who is from St. Paul, pleaded guilty to a charge for failing to yield to a pedestrian. He was fined $575 and ordered to attend a driver's education course.
Could it have helped Quintonio LeGrier and Bettie Jones?
Jaeah LeeJan. 15, 2016 7:00 AM
The fatal police shooting of Quintonio LeGrier and Bettie Jones on December 26, 2015, has spurred calls to reassess how Chicago cops are trained to approach people who may be having a mental health crisis. Yet for years, the city's crisis intervention training program—which is designed to prevent such tragedies—was considered one of the nation's best.
LeGrier, 19, was fatally shot at the front door of his father's home after police responded to a 911 call about a man carrying a baseball bat. Jones, 55, was a neighbor who lived in the same building and shared the same entrance as LeGrier's father. She was accidentally struck by the gunfire, police officials said.
LeGrier's father, who had initially called 911, later told the Chicago Tribune that his son had "some emotional problems" after spending time in foster care and had previously been admitted to a hospital for those issues. It remains unclear if LeGrier gave any indication of his son's mental health history during his 911 call. Chicago police officials have declined requests to release any call recordings, citing the ongoing investigation.
In response to LeGrier's and Jones's fatal police encounter, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has called for an immediate review of the way cops are trained to handle calls requiring mental health assistance. Meanwhile, advocates have pointed out how a shortage of resources has compromised what used to be seen as a promising crisis intervention program.
Here's some key background on an aspect of police training that's been increasingly drawing national attention:
What exactly is crisis intervention training, and why does it matter? Crisis intervention is a type of police training that prepares officers for encounters with people who may be suffering from mental illnesses. A group of law enforcement officials, mental health experts, and community advocates started the first of these programs in Tennessee in 1988, after a Memphis police officer shot and killed a man with a history of mental illness. Such training can help reduce unnecessary arrests and use of force, research shows. Approximately 7 percent of all police encounters with the public have involved people with mental illnesses, according to one 1999 study. And the Washington Post's ongoing count of fatal police shootings in America suggests that number is on the rise. About a quarter of those killed by the police in 2015 were experiencing a mental illness or an emotional crisis, the Post estimates. Today, there are an estimated 2,700 crisis intervention programs across the country.
How did Chicago's program start? Chicago began offering crisis intervention training to its officers in 2005, after a spate of incidents in which mentally unstable individuals died during encounters with the police. Today, roughly 1,900 of the force's active-duty officers (about 15 percent) have undergone the 40-hour course, according to the Chicago Police Department. Chicago's crisis intervention training is voluntary, as is typically the case with police departments. The Chicago police academy also offers nine hours of training on mental health issues.
The program showed a lot of promise at the outset, with strong support from then-Police Superintendent Philip Cline, says Amy Watson, an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In a 2010 study, Watson and her colleagues found that officers who received crisis intervention training were more likely to direct people to mental health services and less likely to use force. Similar studies have found that specialized training can reduce arrests and help officers avoid getting injured during encounters with people who may be mentally ill.* Chicago's crisis intervention program was "the most widely recognized and adopted best practice model of specialized response in the nation," the city's then-deputy police superintendent, Alfonza Wysinger, testified to a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee in 2014. But recently the program has suffered from a lack of support and funding, according to Watson and mental health advocates.
What changed? The city's support for the crisis intervention program started to wane after Cline retired in 2007, according to Watson. The number of staff managing the program declined from 10 to 4 people, even as the number of 911 calls requesting crisis intervention help has gradually increased. Funding for crisis intervention trainings, which is usually provided by the state-funded Illinois standards and training board, has also been inconsistent. Last year, when Illinois lawmakers and Gov. Bruce Rauner deadlocked over the state budget, the state training board had to cancel hundreds of police trainings, including crisis intervention, due to lack of funding. About 200 Chicago police officers missed out on the course as a result, according to local mental health advocacy groups.
What about other services for the mentally ill? Between 2010 and 2014, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Illinois cut spending on mental health services by 32 percent. Fifty percent of Chicago community mental health centers shut down, along with 30 percent of state facilities.For people dealing with mental illness, it's now "a choice between calling 911 or waiting two months for your appointment," says Watson, the professor from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The Chicago Police Department was likely underreporting the number of calls involving people with mental illnesses, which already vastly outnumbered trained officers on duty, according to the former deputy superintendent, Wysinger. The shortage of resources means there's more risk that officers and the people whom they encounter will get hurt.
What more do we know about the LeGrier and Jones cases? In theory, 911 dispatchers in Chicago should be trained to find out if a caller requires assistance from a crisis-intervention-trained officer, Watson says. But the Chicago Police Department's crisis intervention team, which has been understaffed and stretched thin, has not trained the city's 911 dispatchers since 2011, she says. It's unclear if LeGrier's father informed the 911 dispatcher of his son's mental health history, and if the dispatcher who took the 911 call from LeGrier's father asked any questions to determine if specialized help was needed. The Chicago PD has declined requests—including from Mother Jones—to release a recording of the call. Dispatcher's notes obtained by the Chicago Tribune described a male caller who said someone was threatening his life but refused to answer questions. In a second 911 call placed 30 seconds later, the caller said his 19-year-old son was "banging on his bedroom door with a bat," according to the notes. The dispatcher who relayed the call to officers described it as a "well-being check" and a domestic disturbance, the Tribune reported.
In addition, there isn't a clear and consistent system for 911 dispatchers to identify which officers in the field are trained in crisis intervention. Generally speaking, police department supervisors are supposed to send to dispatchers—who are employed by the city's Office of Emergency Management and Communication—a list of trained officers, their shifts, and assigned dispatcher zones. "That list doesn't always get sent," Watson says.
It's unclear if any of the officers who were at the scene that day had received the voluntary 40-hour crisis intervention training. Even if a trained officer had been present, Watson says, it's hard to say if the shooting could have been prevented. "It really depends on what they saw when the door opened," she says.
What's next? The Chicago Police Department plans to hold 26 crisis intervention training sessions in 2016, making the course available to an additional 910 officers, a Chicago police spokesperson told the Associated Press. That still falls short of Watson's recommendation to train about 35 percent of Chicago officers—which would ensure there is one crisis-intervention-trained officer assigned to each shift and police district at all times. But training more officers alone will make little difference, in Watson's view. The Chicago PD will also need to fix the staffing shortages on its crisis intervention training team and address the gaps in working with outside agencies, including the 911 call center and local clinics.
More broadly, Watson says, the state will need to restore funding for mental health that has been slashed over the years, resulting in clinics closing across Illinois. Last year, roughly 10,000 Chicago patients lost care after five community clinics shut down. "Things have gotten worse pretty quickly," Watson says. "There's just been less and less." That's added to the burden on police officers to assist people in need of treatment.
*The story has been updated to clarify the sources of these findings.
On Wednesday, nearly five months after Sandra Bland was found dead in a jail cell in Waller County, Texas, a grand jury has charged the state trooper who initially arrested the 28-year-old black woman with perjury.
Trooper Brian Encinia pulled over Bland in Prairie View on July 20, citing an improper lane change. Dash cam footage later released by county officials showed that the encounter quickly escalated after Encinia ordered Bland out of her car. In the video, Encinia can be heard saying, "I'm going to drag you out of here," as he reached into Bland's vehicle. He then pulled out what appeared to be a Taser, yelling, "I will light you up!" Encinia eventually forced Bland to the ground as she protested the arrest. Encinia arrested Bland for "assault on a public servant" and booked her into the Waller County jail, where she was found dead three days later.
The video raised questions about how a woman who was on her way to start a new job wound up dying in custody. An autopsy determined that Bland died of "suicide by hanging," but Bland's family countered that suicide seemed "unfathomable" and asked the US Department of Justice to investigate the incident. County officials said Bland had asked to use the phone about an hour before she was found hanging in her cell. Bland's family said they had been trying to help her post bail.
Encinia's class A misdemeanor perjury charge, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine, relates to a statement he made in the incident report following Bland's arrest. It comes a few weeks after the Waller County grand jury concluded that no felony had been committed in Bland's death by the county sheriff or jail staff.
On Monday, more than a year since 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by a Cleveland police officer, a grand jury decided not to indict the cops involved, Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback. Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty said that despite "the perfect storm" of errors that day, those errors "did not constitute criminal conduct."
On the afternoon of November 22, 2014, less than 10 minutes after a man called 911 to report a person in a park waving around what appeared to be a gun, Loehmann and his partner Garmback drove up directly in front of Rice, with Loehmann emerging from the patrol car and shooting the boy almost instantaneously. Surveillance footage showed the officers standing around for several minutes after the shooting without giving Rice, any kind of first aid or tending to his wounds. The boy died at a hospital the next day. The gun in Rice's possession turned out to be a toy replica.
Monday's decision emerges after more than a year of public controversy and investigations into the incident, first by the Cleveland police department and then by the Cuyahoga County sheriff's office, which in July handed over its findings to McGinty. Beginning in October, McGinty released three independent reports assessing the legality of Loehmann's and Garmback's actions. The reports, written by experts tapped by the prosecutor, all appeared to absolve the officers of misconduct. Their release to the public long before the grand jury decision was unusual—grand jury proceedings are typically closed off to the public—and the move prompted Rice's family and supporters to call for a special prosecutor to take over the case. Neither Loehmann nor Garmback ever spoke to investigators, as Mother Jonesfirst reported in May, but in December the two officers released public statements for the first time since Rice's death.
Here are the key events that led up to the grand jury decision:
November 22, 2014: A 911 caller tells a police dispatcher that a man who is "probably a juvenile" is waving around a gun that is "probably fake." The call taker fails to relay those details in the dispatch computer system and codes the call a "priority 1." A radio dispatcher requests officers to the scene. Tamir Rice is shot and killed within 10 minutes of the 911 call.
December 3, 2014: A report from the Cleveland Plain Dealer reveals that Loehmann's personnel record showed the officer had a troubling history with handling guns in the past. According to reports by supervisors at the Independence Police Department—where Loehmann served a six-month stint in 2012 before joining the Cleveland police—he was "distracted" and "weepy" during firearms qualifications training. An Independence deputy police chief wrote that Loehmann "could not follow simple directions, could not communicate clear thoughts nor recollections, and his handgun performance was dismal," and recommended that the department part ways with him.
December 5, 2014: Rice's family files a federal wrongful death suit against Loehmann, Garmback, and the city of Cleveland.
January 2015: The Cuyahoga County sheriff's office takes over the city's investigation into the shooting.
June 11, 2015: A Cleveland judge finds there is sufficient evidence to charge both Loehmann and Garmback, but leaves that decision up to the county prosecutor.
June 13, 2015: After five months, the county sheriff's office releases the results of its probe. Loehmann and Garmback, as Mother Jones was the first to report, refused to speak with investigators despite multiple requests by investigators to interview them.
October 11, 2015: Cuyahoga County Prosecutor McGinty releases two reports that conclude Loehmann's actions were "objectively reasonable" and constitutional, suggesting the investigation may not lead to charges. The two reports note that possible tactical errors made by the officers—such as whether Loehmann issued a warning before firing shots—are not relevant to the findings. The release of the reports stirs a public outcry and prompts Rice's family and supporters to call for McGinty's recusal from the grand jury process and for a special prosecutor to take over the case.
November 12, 2015: McGinty releases a third report that focuses on the potential mishandling of the 911 call and whether Garmback's decision to drive the squad car to within feet of Rice contributed to the shooting. The report concludes that the 911 dispatcher and both officers' actions were reasonable.
November 28, 2015: Two outside law enforcement experts, retained by the Rice family's attorneys, conclude in their reports that Loehmann's and Garmback's actions were "reckless" and unjustifiable under the law. They challenge the three earlier reports released by the county prosecutor.
December 1, 2015: After a yearlong silence, Loehmann and Garmback release their written accounts of what happened on the day of the shooting. Their statements are made public through the county prosecutor. "I had very little time as I exited the vehicle," Loehmann wrote of the moments before he fired two shots at Rice. "We are trained to get out of the cruiser because 'the cruiser is a coffin.'" He added, "I saw the weapon in his hands coming out of his waistband and the threat to my partner and myself was real and active."
December 15, 2015: Rice's family formally requests a Department of Justice investigation into the boy's death and the prosecutor's handling of the grand jury proceedings.