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DEADLY FORCE: Families question justice in Arkansas police shooting probes

by Amanda Claire Curcio, Hunter Field | March 14, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.
Lucy Crowder looks around the property in Manila where her son Timothy Dwayne Johnson was shot by police in 2015. The officer who shot her son was cleared of wrongdoing within two months, but Crowder insists questions about Johnson’s death remain unanswered.

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Lucy Crowder tries to remember her son in terms of how he lived: a loving father, a brother who teased his younger sister, the kind of friend who cried with you when your dog died.

Instead she interrupts her memories about her son Timothy Johnson, fixating on what she believes police did or didn’t do when a Manila officer shot him in 2015.

Even when asked about her own life, Crowder quickly directs the focus back to Johnson’s death and the investigation that followed. She often travels with a large plastic basket, brimming with loose papers and file folders stuffed with records — all pertaining to his death.

Everything else is on hold.

Too many questions are left unanswered, she says.

Crowder’s concerns about the official probe into her son’s death reflect those of others who lost loved ones in police encounters.

“It makes me so angry and upset to know these are people we’re looking to protect us, to protect our kids, not to hurt our kids,” said Sylvia Perkins, whose 15-year-old son was shot and killed by a Little Rock police officer in 2012.

Perkins’ son, Bobby Moore, was one of at least 67 people, including Timothy Johnson, killed by law enforcement officers in Arkansas from 2011 through Dec. 31, according to an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette analysis of six years of police shooting files.

Another 68 were shot but survived.

Officers who shoot people are rarely charged with a crime, the newspaper’s investigation found.

None have been convicted.

Case files also show that investigations of police shootings are not always conducted independently, giving rise to questions about impartiality and conflict of interest.

Direct comparisons of shooting investigations between departments were difficult to make because not all of the files examined by the newspaper contained the same information.

A few files contained an officer’s entire training history, photos and sketches of the crime scene, witness interview transcripts, dash-camera footage and forensic testing results. Others consisted only of an incident report, and a one- or two-page letter from the prosecutor’s office exonerating the officer.

The lack of prosecutions and independent investigations upsets families of victims and leaves some people feeling vulnerable.

A system intended to protect them appears to be rigged, they say.

Joshua Hastings, the officer who shot Bobby Moore, was fired after Little Rock detectives determined that the shooting didn’t happen the way Hastings said it did.

Hastings, a son of a police captain, was charged and tried twice for manslaughter. Both trials ended with jurors unable to reach verdicts, and prosecutors dropped the charge in August 2014, two years after Moore’s death.

“These little kids are going to grow up with this feeling in their mind,” Moore’s mother said. “When these kids get 18 and 19, that’s all they’ll know: ‘Yeah, I had an uncle. The police killed him.’”

‘THAT THIN BLUE LINE’

Officer-involved shooting investigations in Arkansas tilt in favor of police, the Democrat-Gazette’s analysis of case files found.

In 60 of 135 cases reviewed, detectives investigating officers worked for the same police departments.

That’s what happened in Benton after officers there shot and killed 29-yearold Clifford Jones after a shootout and car chase in 2013.

The Benton Police Department investigated its own officers in Jones’ death, with help from the Arkansas State Police.

Prosecuting Attorney Ken Casady ruled the shooting justified.

To Jones’ mother, Elizabeth Stephens, departments investigating their own cops is just one example of how “they look at people as expendable.”

By “they,” Stephens means law enforcement, mostly. She also questions the integrity of certain officials, such as mayors and prosecutors.

“They only want to protect each other. It’s a good-oldboys network,” she said.

“No one will cross that thin blue line.”

One of the officers involved in the Jones case, Kyle Ellison, was investigated in the shooting death of 17-year-old Keagan Schweikle in October. He was cleared by Casady.

Last year, Benton officers fatally shot three people. The department investigated each shooting — choosing not to call in the state police for review.

Capt. Kevin Russell, a Benton patrol division commander, said the department was large enough to avoid any conflict of interest. There are 65 police officers in the department.

“Small [departments] may not have all of the available resources to conduct an investigation, but we do,” Russell told the Democrat-Gazette.

Even when state police or the county sheriff’s office have been called in to investigate, the newspaper’s review of deadly force cases found that those investigators came from nearby departments that often worked with the department in question.

Cops tend to look out for other cops, regardless of agency, Stephens said.

The Little Rock Police Department’s policy of investigating its own officer-involved shootings also was called into question recently.

Black Lives Matter Little Rock said there are discrepancies between eyewitness accounts and Police Department statements regarding October’s fatal shooting of 46-year-old Roy Lee Richards.

Police reports state that Richards was outside, pointing a rifle at his uncle, Darrell Underwood, when officers arrived at the scene. Police shot Richards at that point, according to the reports.

But Underwood insisted he was inside his house when he heard shots ring out.

During a November meeting, Black Lives Matter leaders asked the city’s Board of Directors to request an independent investigation of the shooting.

The department refused to turn over the investigation to an outside agency.

‘JUSTIFY A SITUATION’

At least 13 officers who investigated deadly police encounters have themselves been sued in federal court for excessive use of force. One investigator shot a man while on duty in 2012.

Those officers have participated in multiple investigations of police shootings.

And as of February, 15 civil rights lawsuits have been filed involving the cases reviewed by the Democrat-Gazette. Two cases are ongoing, some were settled by police departments, others were dismissed and one was recently appealed.

At least 25 officers who shot someone in the past six years were sued previously in federal court — some more than once — for other instances of excessive force.

The police-shooting files also show that investigators give the officers deference that a shooting suspect, or a witness, usually doesn’t get.

For example, officers often get several days to prepare statements about what happened in a case, and are not required to be interviewed by internal affairs or state police investigators on the same day the shooting occurred. But, witnesses and surviving victims in the same instances are questioned almost immediately, the files show.

During his manslaughter trial, former Little Rock officer Joshua Hastings acknowledged that his interviews with investigators from his department were more like friendly chats than interrogations. He voluntarily submitted to questioning the same day of the shooting even though he could have gone home and been interviewed some other time, he testified.

Hastings also said the two teens who were with Moore likely were questioned in less comfortable circumstances than he was.

And records show that when more than one officer is involved in the same incident, they are not routinely separated before being questioned, as witnesses and suspects typically are.

In many cases, an attorney — who had been hired by the police union or the department in previous incidents — represented officers who were involved in the same shooting.

Interview transcripts of officers often parrot one another and are replete with police jargon, such as “imminent danger” and “eliminate the threat.”

For instance, four Conway police officers involved in the 2013 shooting of John Raines, a 21-year-old white man known to be mentally ill, all reported fearing for their lives or those of their fellow officers. They all said they observed Raines dangerously “charging” or “lunging” toward an officer with a knife.

A police video of the shooting offers another perspective. It shows officer Rachel Hanson approaching Raines, her stun gun raised, while Raines stands still.

When Raines takes one step in her direction, she fires her Taser, and three nearby officers fire 18 shots from their service weapons.

The Conway Police Department ultimately cleared its own officers in its investigation. Raines’ family then filed a federal civil rights lawsuit, which is ongoing.

Legally, use of deadly force relies on an officer’s perceived sense of fear. But officers have been cleared even when they do not explicitly state feeling threatened, the newspaper’s review of the case files shows.

Advocates for greater police accountability cite cases like Raines’ as a reason why fear needs to be legitimately proven before officers’ actions are ruled as justifiable.

“Police officers are trained in the academy to say they were in fear for their life,” Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen said.

“In a regular homicide case, we’d say that was suspicious. We’d think that they’d been coached.

“There’s something wrong when … [an] officer is justified to use lethal force when he is in fear for his life without real evidence,” Griffen said. “That is not the standard by which any other homicide is ruled. … There has to be a basis for fear.”

Sometimes officers cite fear to mask their poor decision-making or inadequate training, said Spencer Ellison, a former Little Rock police detective and now criminal justice instructor at the University of North Texas at Dallas.

Ellison’s father was shot and killed in 2010 by two off-duty Little Rock officers while they were working as apartment security guards. In that case, the officer who pulled the trigger was married to the homicide sergeant who was supervising the detectives investigating the shooting.

“It can be used to justify a situation where a threat is not of the magnitude that should warrant deadly force,” said Ellison. “But because the officer involved is poorly trained or inept at handling the situation, he may feel threatened anyway or may, through anger, poor discipline and poor judgment, escalate the situation to the point that he or she now perceives a threat, where there was none initially.”

Available training records revealed that, in many instances, officers lacked certain training, going years without completing courses on de-escalation, nonlethal force, racial profiling or crisis intervention, for example.

At times, officers made unsafe decisions that went against U.S. Department of Justice and local law enforcement agency guidelines.

For instance, Arkansas police fired guns into moving cars or shot during highspeed pursuits in at least 20 of the cases the newspaper reviewed.

In one incident, a Benton officer continued to rapidly fire his gun after a man crashed his speeding truck into a concrete traffic divider.

‘US AGAINST THEM’

Deadly force is not just about individual officers but also about the larger law enforcement apparatus, police accountability proponents say.

“If you begin to question this system, it’s like an onion,” said Griffen, the circuit judge. “The deeper you get, the more layers you pull back, the more your eyes burn.”

Once a case leaves the investigating agency, elected prosecutors, who routinely work with police departments and unions, must determine if the shooting was justified.

Calling in a special prosecutor who is independent of local pressures is an option, but in the 135 cases reviewed by the Democrat-Gazette, a special prosecutor was appointed only twice.

Griffen said deadly force reviews should be conducted by an independent agency with prosecutorial and investigative authority. Special prosecutors should always be called in, he said.

Prosecutors usually wait until investigators complete their review of a shooting before issuing a decision on a case, but they can act unilaterally.

Just two days after the shooting death of Joseph Garcia in December, 16th Judicial Circuit Prosecuting Attorney Don McSpadden cleared state troopers and Independence County deputies of wrongdoing in the Mississippi man’s death.

McSpadden’s decision came days before he was sworn in as circuit judge on Jan. 1.

His letter to the state police, dated Dec. 27, is concise: “After review of the video DVDs that you furnished my office, I find that the shooting of Mr. Garcia, although tragic, was justified.”

Yet the videos cited by McSpadden only partially capture the incident. Body camera footage does not show Garcia moments before deputies opened fire.

Bill Sadler, a spokesman for the state police, said the investigation was still “active” at the time McSpadden issued his ruling on the shooting.

“Regardless of Mr. Mc-Spadden’s letter, special agents assigned to the department’s Criminal Investigation Division continue to transcribe witness statements and work with forensic experts at the Arkansas State Crime Laboratory,” Sadler told the newspaper.

It was not until March 2 that the state police completed that investigation.

Currently, even officers fired for wrongly resorting to deadly force can find employment at another law enforcement agency.

Chief Coleman “Duke” Brackney, for instance, was hired to lead the Sulphur Springs Police Department three years after he pleaded guilty to the 2010 negligent homicide of James Ahern, an unarmed motorist Brackney shot while working at the Bella Vista Police Department.

The Bella Vista department dismissed Brackney after an investigation revealed that he’d shot six times at Ahern, with the final round striking Ahern in the back.

Former Benton County prosecutor Van Stone, whose office prosecuted Brackney, said he was not consulted before Brackney was hired by Sulphur Springs.

In some cases, officers don’t face any disciplinary actions and go on to find better policing jobs.

In 2011, Jonesboro officer Nick Holley shot and killed Cletis Williams, who was unarmed and in his own home. The family’s federal lawsuit was settled. Holley later went to work for the state police.

And some officers with histories involving excessive force come from other states.

A case in point is Washington County Deputy Scott McAfee. He was involved in two deadly shootings in Arkansas — Joshua Thomas in 2012 and Victor Barron in 2004. Both shootings were ruled as justified.

Before coming to Arkansas, McAfee was a Los Angeles County deputy and was named in three federal civil rights lawsuits alleging excessive use of force in the 1980s.

One suit alleged that McAfee repeatedly bashed unarmed 40-year-old Robert Whealon’s leg with a baton after Whealon was unconscious, shattering the bone in at least 10 places. A $500,000 settlement was reached in the case.

It is unclear how the other cases, which also claimed that McAfee assaulted arrestees, were resolved. According to the Los Angeles Times, the sheriff’s office said it was not concerned about McAfee’s abilities as a law-enforcement officer.

McAfee remained on the Washington County force until his resignation on Jan. 7, 2016. He is not working at any other law enforcement agency in Arkansas.

It is difficult to tell how often such instances happens.

The state does not officially track “gypsy cops” — those who frequently transfer from one department to the next because of poor performance or misconduct allegations.

Also, officers can choose to resign, rather than be fired, which shields their personnel records from being open to the public.

The public cannot easily access the status of an officer’s law enforcement certification. Yet, in Arkansas, the licensure status of a teacher or doctor is readily available from online databases.

A handful of lawmakers are addressing police use of force during the current legislative session.

“There’s a propensity for the whole law enforcement community to just close ranks,” state Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, told the Democrat-Gazette. “And it’s us against them.”

Collecting more information about police shootings should help weed out “bad apples,” especially those who too often resort to force, Flowers said.

“We also have to recognize that as long as this problem continues, it’s a threat to officers,” Flowers said. “There is no disconnecting how people are seeing these tragedies and seeing police, and then the safety of officers on the streets.”

Flowers filed two useof-force-related shell bills during the current legislative session. One bill calls for a more “uniform standard” when collecting data among law enforcement agencies. The other seeks to create “incentives” for officers’ use of body cameras.

Flowers acknowledged that police accountability is a “delicate issue” and said she expects the proposed legislation to spark criticism.

Like Flowers, state Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, said “transparency is key” to improving police relations with the public.

Elliott also hopes the proposals are not viewed as “anti-cop.”

“If we continue down this road,” Elliott said, “trust is going to erode, and the sides will become more ensconced and apart than they are now.”

‘NO INVESTIGATION’

Less than a week after Manila police officer Jared Camp shot Lucy Crowder’s son, the department’s internal affairs unit cleared the officer of any wrongdoing.

Police reports say Crowder’s son, 41-year-old Timothy Johnson, wielded a knife before Camp fired two .40-caliber rounds into Johnson’s chest and one at his head. Investigators also mentioned Johnson’s mental health issues.

Two months later, 2nd Judicial Circuit Prosecuting Attorney Scott Ellington determined that the shooting was justified.

Crowder said she learned of Ellington’s decision from news reports, but she’d begun her own investigation days after Johnson’s funeral.

Her collection of records related to her son’s case sits in a nearby stack, plucked from the basket she carries with her everywhere. More notes are gathered, day by day.

“There was no investigation,” she says, to anyone who will listen.

“I’m not going to let it rest.”

Photo by Staton Breidenthal
North Little Rock police detectives pick up evidence in early March 2014 after an officer responding to a disturbance on a bus fatally shot 52-year-old Robert Storay, who witnesses said attacked the officer with a wooden cane.
Photo by Helaine Williams
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen
Photo by J.T. Wampler
Although protests over police shootings in Arkansas have been rare, about 40 people participated in a vigil in May to mark the death of Willie Tillman, 33, who died after being shot by a Fayetteville officer in April. Tillman was shot as he drove away from a traffic stop with an officer clinging to the car, according to police.

Print Headline: Scales tilt in favor of police; Families question justice in shooting probes

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