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.
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.
Did Laquan McDonald, Mario Woods, and others die because of a police training myth from the 1980s?
Dec. 14, 2015 7:00 AM
Screenshot taken from a video showing the police shooting of Mario Woods in San Francisco on December 2, 2015.
Last month, the attorney representing the Chicago police officer who shot and killed 17-year-old Laquan McDonald offered an explanation for his client's actions: "There is this 21-foot rule," the attorney, Dan Herbert, told CBS News. "It talks about how an individual is a significant threat to a police officer when they're in that 21-foot boundary."
Chicago police officials said the black teen held a four-inch folding knife on the night of the shooting last October, and that he waved it aggressively at Jason Van Dyke and other officers, ignoring orders to drop the weapon. But the video, released in late November on court orders, showed McDonald was wielding a knife but was shot with 16 bullets as he was facing away from the officers and then fell to the ground.
A week later, a video emerged showing multiple police officers in San Francisco fatally shooting another knife-wielding suspect, Mario Woods, on December 2. San Francisco PD officials said Woods was the suspect of a stabbing that occurred earlier that day, and that Woods refused to relinquish a kitchen knife even as officers ordered him to drop it, fired bean bag pellets, and pepper-sprayed him. A cell phone video from a bystander showed Woods standing against a wall, surrounded by the police with their guns drawn. As Wood began to walk away, an officer stepped in his path, and a series of gunshots rang out. Five officers opened fire, according to the SFPD.
Both McDonald's and Woods's deaths have sparked protests and raised questions about whether it was really necessary for the officers to open fire against suspects who had knives but didn't appear to pose an immediate threat. And with lethal force by the police under intense scrutiny, experts are now callingattention to how the "21-foot rule" cited in the McDonald case—referring to a decades-old article about handling suspects who are wielding edged or blunt weapons—has been widely misconstrued over the years.
The concept originated with a March 1983 SWAT magazine article, "How Close Is Too Close," by Dennis Tueller, a retired lieutenant and former firearms instructor with the Salt Lake City Police Department. "Let's consider what might be called the 'Danger Zone' if you are confronted by an adversary armed with an edged or blunt weapon," Tueller wrote. Tueller conducted a series of tests and found that in the time it took for the officer to unholster, aim, and shoot his gun—1.5 to 2 seconds—the attacker could cover a distance of 21 feet.
"The '21-foot rule' concept spread throughout the law enforcement community almost like a virus."
Tueller never called this idea a rule, but that's how it became known. "The '21-foot rule' concept spread throughout the law enforcement community almost like a virus," Ron Martinelli, a retired cop and forensic criminologist, wrote in a March 2015 Law Officer article about the so-called rule. "Tueller never imagined when he designed his simple firearms training drill that, 30 years later, the 21-foot rule would eventually become a police doctrine that is taught and testified to hundreds of times a year."
The problem is that interpretation of Tueller's concept has been too simplistic, explains Seth Stoughton, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law and a former police officer in Florida. "If the officer is already aware that a person has a weapon and pointed at the suspect, then the officer needs much less than a second and a half to make a decision to fire," he says. "But it's also dangerous for cops because, in some cases, 21 feet doesn't give enough time to properly respond to an aggressive threat." He added, "Nevertheless, it remains enshrined in policing."
In recent years, Martinelli and other policing experts haveraised concerns. In an interview with theMarshall Project's Beth Schwartzapfel last month, even Tueller tried to address the misinterpretation of the concept. "I have more than a mild disagreement with that term," Tueller said.
The "21-foot rule" isn't typically required curriculum in police academies, but as Stoughton and others note, it remains widely cited and taught as part of informal training seminars. After revisiting Tueller's research, Martinelli said he found "no forensic testing, examination, reconciliation of data, or scientific oversight of a research model was ever conducted." He added, "The truth is that the 21-foot rule should not be considered to be an absolute rule at all."
Despite the recent efforts to clarify it, Stoughton says, "the '21-foot rule' remains one of the persistent and frustrating urban myths of law enforcement training."
Curtis J. Cope, a policing consultant who previously served as an officer and a training instructor, says he believes most officers are well aware that the "21-foot rule" is not a rule in and of itself, and that they operate based on the departmental policies and laws governing the use of force. "If you're going to be faced with a knife, you need to know the potential for you being stabbed or cut," he says. "You need to be able to figure out what types of defenses you're going to be able to utilize based upon the circumstances that you're faced with."
"Officers get very little training in confronting suspects other than using a firearm."
But many police officers in America are trained to draw their guns when facing a potentially lethal threat, Stoughton says, even though the threat to officers from suspects holding edged weapons—such as knives—has "decreased substantially" over the past few decades. "Officers get very little training in confronting suspects other than using a firearm," he says, because much of their training focuses on deadly encounters, when in reality officers are more likely to face less lethal or nonlethal threats.
A recent survey of 281 police agencies found that young officers spend far more time getting trained on firearms and defensive tactics than on de-escalation tactics and crisis intervention. But officers need more training on how to contain and disarm suspects without a gun, Stoughton says. He points to past examples such as police in the United Kingdom disarming a man waving a machete by closing in on him with riot shields, and Seattle police disarming a man with a knife using a ladder after an 11-hour standoff. "Without that training and experience, officers fall back on the weapon that they know they can rely on—and that's a firearm."
People gathered at a vigil for Mario Woods on December 3, 2015
Dozens of people gathered at a candlelit vigil on Thursday night in San Francisco, at the spot where 26-year-old Mario Woods was killed by police the day before. Woods, who is black, died in a hail of bullets fired by San Francisco Police Department officers on Wednesday afternoon in the city's Bayview district. Police identified him as the suspect in an attack whose victim was apparently stabbed in the shoulder but is expected to survive. Police officials said Woods was wielding a kitchen knife that he refused to relinquish even as officers ordered him to drop it, fired bean bag pellets, and pepper-sprayed him.
The moments leading up to the shooting were captured on several widely circulated videosrecorded on cellphones. In one, Woods can be seen standing with his back against a wall, surrounded by police whose guns are drawn. When Woods begins to walk away, an officer steps in his path, and within seconds a series of shots rings out. SFPD Chief Greg Suhr told reporters that a total of five officers opened fire. (Warning: graphic images)
Woods died at the scene. A resident who lives next to the site of the shooting told Mother Jones that he counted at least 36 shell casings on the sidewalk after the violence was over. Another angle also captured the shooting (graphic).
SF Weeklyreported that Woods had been a gang member in 2009 and had previously served prison and jail time for possession of a firearm by a felon. Woods' mother, Gwendolyn, told ABC7 News that her son had suffered from mental health issues but was getting through them. "He just needed some help," she said. "He fought past them." She told interviewers that her son had "gotten his uniform" for his new job with the United Parcel Servicethat he was slated to begin the day after he died.
The San Francisco police departmenthas had a troubled history of police aggression and racism toward minority communities. In February, four San Francisco police officers were cleared in the shooting death of Alex Nieto, a 28-year-old Hispanic man who was shot 10 to 15 times by police in March 2014. Police officers mistook a Taser for a gun. In March, a series of racist and homophobic text messages sent among a group of officers in 2011 and 2012 emerged as part of a federal case against a former San Francisco police sergeant convicted of corruption charges, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The department tried to fire eight officers and suspend several others involved, but the disciplinary process is ongoing. In August, a video of more than a dozen San Francisco police officers surrounding and tackling a disabled homeless man went viral, spurring outrage.
Neighborhood residents where Woods was shot questioned the level of force used to subdue him.
"They had six officers against this one little guy," area resident Cedric Smith told the San Francisco Chronicle. "They could have used batons. They could have backed off. They didn't need to shoot him." And Chemika Hollis, another resident, wondered why police officers shot him so many times. "How can you feel a threat when you have 10 cops around you?" she said.
Thursday's vigil was set up on the spot where Woods was gunned down, with pictures of him, candles, and a sign posted to the wall reading, "Black Lives Matter." A few blocks away from the vigil, dozens more gathered at a community meeting in the St. Paul of the Shipwreck Catholic church, while others held apeaceful protest outside.
San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr has said the officers were justified in shooting Woods, and he promised a thorough investigation.
"It's a tragic loss anytime somebody dies. We never want to do that," he told reporters after the shooting. "But this is all they could do. I really don't know how much more you can make it plain to a wanted felon that he should drop the knife."
Officers' accounts of the incident highlight tactical blunders, expert says.
Jaeah LeeDec. 3, 2015 7:00 AM
A still from surveillance footage of the shooting.
The grand jury investigating the fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by Cleveland police last fall is "now very near a decision" on whether to recommend criminal charges against the shooter, according to a lawyer for one of the two officers involved.
Officer Timothy Loehmann, who shot and killed Rice within two seconds of arriving on the scene (a Cleveland park) is the sole subject of the criminal investigation and grand jury proceedings—although three outsidereviews of the case have stated that the actions of Officer Frank Garmback, who pulled the officers' cruiser to within a few feet of the boy, warrant a criminal investigation as well.
On Tuesday, after a year of silence, the two officers released their own accounts of the shooting, which took place last November 22 and was captured in surveillance footage. Loehmann and Garmback had remained tight-lipped despite multiple interview requests from county sheriff's investigators and subpoenas from the grand jury. With a grand jury decision imminent, it was "time for us to present our statement to the Sheriff, if we were going to do so," Michael Maloney, Garmback's attorney, told Mother Jones in an email. (The prosecutor's office would not discuss the grand jury's timetable, and Loehmann's attorney has not responded to requests for comment.)
"I kept my eyes on the suspect the entire time," Loehmann wrote in his letter, adding that he and Garmback thought Rice was going to run toward a nearby community center. "I was fixed on his waistband and hand area. I was trained to keep my eyes on his hands because 'hands may kill.'" Loehmann wrote that he saw Rice pull out a gun, and that he then fired twice toward Rice's hands. One of those shots struck the child in the abdomen—he died at a hospital the next day.
Garmback, in a separate letter, wrote that he first saw Rice had a gun "about the time Ptl. Loehmann exited the cruiser. The male was pulling it from the right front area of his waistband. I thought the gun was real." In June, the county sheriff's five-month investigation revealed that the 911 dispatcher had failed to relay the caller's description that Rice was "probably a juvenile" and that his gun was "probably fake." Indeed, it was a toy replica.
The officers' statements, which attorneys for Rice's family called "self-serving" and "inconsistent," left key questions unresolved. The accounts were "flatly contradicted by the objective video footage," the family lawyers wrote in their own statement on Tuesday. "Hopefully, the grand jury will see through this."
"The bottom line is that you don't come barreling in. You follow him if he runs. You don't get up close."
Loehmann and Garmback, for instance, claimed Rice was heading toward the recreation center before he turned toward the squad car as it pulled up. But that's not apparent in the surveillance video. Loehmann also wrote that he and Garmback issued multiple warnings for Rice to show his hands as the cruiser pulled up, and as Loehmann was getting out. Garmback, however, wrote that the car windows may have been rolled up.
The officers' statements revealed troubling tactical errors, according to Dave Klinger, a former cop and a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. For one, Loehmann described the scene as "an active shooter situation." That's inaccurate, Klinger explains. "An active shooter is what happened in San Bernardino—someone who is actively shooting at people. So right off the bat something is not right. There's so much we don't know about what was going on in this guy's mind and the mind of his partner officer."
The biggest tactical blunder, Klinger says, was in Garmback's pulling the vehicle so close to Rice. Garmback wrote that "the cruiser did slide when I applied the brakes. I am not sure how far. The car did not stop where and when I intended." Even so, Klinger says, "the bottom line is that you don't come barreling in. You follow him if he runs. You don't get up close. That doesn't make any sense."
Klinger, who has testified as an expert witness in police-shooting cases, adds that the verbal warning Loehmann and Garmback said they issued—"show me your hands"—was a "brain-dead" move. "It's not a warning, it's a command," Klinger says. "And it's the wrong command to issue when someone has their hands not in plain view in that moment. I do not understand why police officers are sometimes trained that 'show me your hands' is an appropriate thing to do when somebody who you believe had a gun has their hands not in plain view."
Neither officer explained in his letter why he neglected to administer first aid or tend to the child's wound—even after the scene was secured.
Neither officer explained in his letter why he neglected to administer first aid or tend to the child's wound—even after the scene was secured. Earlier this year, Cleveland police sergeant Janell Rutherford told investigators that the city's police vehicles are not equipped with first-aid kits, and that Cleveland officers receive no medical training at the academy, except for CPR.
The officers' statements are the latest pieces of evidence made public by county prosecutor Timothy McGinty. Beginning in October, McGinty released three reports from current and former law enforcement officials he'd tapped for that purpose. The reports unanimously concluded that Loehmann and Garmback had acted reasonably under the law, and that any tactical errors they may have made did not warrant criminal charges. In releasing those reports, McGinty broke with a longstanding tradition of keeping grand jury documents off limits to the public, raising suspicions about his motives. Rice's family and supporters have called for a special prosecutor to take over the case.
Klinger, the former cop, says the officers' tactical errors don't rise to the level of criminal offenses, although they may facilitate a settlement in a wrongful death suit the Rice family has filed against the city. But two expert reports released last week by the family's lawyers call the officers' actions "reckless" and legally unjustifiable. Those findings were echoed in June by the Cleveland judge who found probable cause to charge the officers, but left the decision to the county prosecutor.