Thousands dead, few prosecuted

An evidence photo shows a Chevy Malibu that Cleveland police officers riddled with bullets after a chase that ended in the deaths of an unarmed man and woman. Officer Michael Brelo, who investigators say fired 34 shots at the car and then climbed on the hood and fired 15 more through the windshield, is on trial on two counts of voluntary manslaughter.
Kimberly Kindy, Kimbriell Kelly, April 11, 2015

Among the thousands of fatal shootings at the hands of police since 2005, only 54 officers have been charged, a Post analysis found. Most were cleared or acquitted in the cases that have been resolved.

On a rainy night five years ago, Officer Coleman “Duke” Brackney set off in pursuit of a suspected drunk driver, chasing his black Mazda Miata down rural Arkansas roads at speeds of nearly 100 miles per hour. When the sports car finally came to rest in a ditch, Brackney opened fire at the rear window and repeatedly struck the driver, 41-year-old James Ahern, in the back. The gunshots killed Ahern.

Prosecutors charged Brackney with felony manslaughter. But he eventually entered a plea to a lesser charge and could ultimately be left with no criminal record.

How the analysis was done: The 54 criminal prosecutions were identified by Bowling Green State University criminologist Philip M. Stinson and The Washington Post. Cases were culled from news reports, grand jury announcements and news releases from prosecutors. For individual cases, reporters obtained and reviewed thousands of pages of court records, police reports, grand jury indictments, witness testimony and video recordings. Dozens of prosecutors and defense attorneys in the cases were interviewed, along with legal experts, officers who were prosecuted and surviving relatives of the shooting victims.

Now, he serves as the police chief in a small community 20 miles from the scene of the shooting.

Brackney is among 54 officers charged over the past decade for fatally shooting someone while on duty, according to an analysis by The Washington Post and researchers at Bowling Green State University. This analysis, based on a wide range of public records and interviews with law enforcement, judicial and other legal experts, sought to identify for the first time every officer who faced charges­ for such shootings since 2005. These represent a small fraction of the thousands of fatal police shootings that have occurred across the country in that time.

In an overwhelming majority of the cases where an officer was charged, the person killed was unarmed. But it usually took more than that.

When prosecutors pressed charges, The Post analysis found, there were typically other factors that made the case exceptional, including: a victim shot in the back, a video recording of the incident, incriminating testimony from other officers or allegations of a coverup.

Forty-three cases involved at least one of these four factors. Nineteen cases involved at least two.

In the most recent incident, officials in North Charleston, S.C., filed a murder charge Tuesday against a white police officer, Michael T. Slager, for gunning down an apparently unarmed black man. A video recording showed Slager repeatedly shooting the man in the back as he was running away.

“To charge an officer in a fatal shooting, it takes something so egregious, so over the top that it cannot be explained in any rational way,” said Philip M. Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green who studies arrests of police. “It also has to be a case that prosecutors are willing to hang their reputation on.”

But even in these most extreme instances, the majority of the officers whose cases have been resolved have not been convicted, The Post analysis found.

And when they are convicted or plead guilty, they’ve tended to get little time behind bars, on average four years and sometimes only weeks. Jurors are very reluctant to punish police officers, tending to view them as guardians of order, according to prosecutors and defense lawyers.

The definition of “officers” used in the analysis extends beyond local police to all government law enforcement personnel who are armed, including sheriff’s deputies and corrections officers. The analysis included some shootings that officers described as accidental.

There is no accurate tally of all the cases­ of police shootings across the country, even deadly ones. The FBI maintains a national database of fatal shootings by officers but does not require police departments to keep it updated.

‘As soon as I fired the shot, I knew the threat was done’

Ten years after killing an unarmed man in downtown Detroit, Michigan State Trooper Jay Morningstar remembers the event that changed his life.

(Whitney Leaming / The Washington Post)

Over the past year, a series of controversial police killings of unarmed victims — including Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Tamir Rice in Cleveland and Eric Garner on Staten Island — has raised questions over what it takes for officers to face criminal ­charges. Often, the public is divided over whether the police went too far. Only in rare cases­ do prosecutors and grand juries decide that the killing cannot be justified.

Such cases include a Michigan state trooper who shot and killed an unarmed homeless man in Detroit as he was shuffling toward him, the man’s pants down past his knees. The incident was captured on video, and the officer, who said he thought the man had a gun, was charged with second-degree murder. A jury accepted the officer’s account and found him not guilty. He remains on the job.

They also include a police officer in Darlington County, S.C., who was charged with murder after he chased an unarmed man wanted for stealing a gas grill and three U-Haul trailers into the woods, shooting him in the back four times. A jury, believing that he feared for his life, found him not guilty.

Two Atlanta plainclothes officers opened fire and killed a 92-year-old woman during a mistaken drug raid on her home. As they pried the bars off her front door, she fired a single warning shot with an old revolver. The police responded by smashing the door down and shooting at her 39 times. One of the officers tried to disguise their error by planting bags of marijuana in her basement. The two officers pleaded guilty and received unusually stiff sentences of six and 10 years in a federal prison.

A rap musician, Killer Mike, wrote a song to memorialize the death of this African American grandmother at the hands of white officers, comparing her killing to “the dream of King when the sniper took his life.”

After the death of Michael Brown last summer, concerns about racism in policing have exploded in public debate, in particular whether white officers use excessive force when dealing with minorities and whether the criminal justice system protects the victims’ rights.

Among the officers charged since 2005 for fatal shootings, more than three-quarters were white. Two-thirds of their victims were minorities, all but two of them black.

Nearly all other cases­ involved black officers who killed black victims. In one other instance, a Latino officer fatally shot a white person and in another an Asian officer killed a black person. There were a total of 49 victims.

Identifying the exact role of race in fatal shootings and prosecutions is difficult. Often, prosecutors pursued charges against a backdrop of protests accusing police of racism. Race was also a factor in court when federal prosecutors stepped in and filed charges­ against officers for allegedly violating the victims’ civil rights. Six officers, all white, faced federal civil rights charges for killing blacks.

In interviews with more than 20 prosecutors across the country, they said that race did not factor into their decisions to bring charges against officers. The prosecutors said they pursued cases­ based on the legal merits.

Coleman ‘Duke’ Brackney
Charged with felony manslaughter in the death of James Ahern. In a deal with prosecutors, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of negligent homicide. No conviction was imposed.

But defense lawyer Doug Friesen, who represented a white officer convicted in 2013 for fatally shooting an unarmed black man, said that “it would be naive” for prosecutors to say race isn’t a consideration.

“Anytime you have politicians that have to make charging decisions, realistically that is part of their decision-making process,” Friesen said. “They are asking themselves, ‘Is there going to be rioting out in the streets?’ ”

Both Officer Coleman “Duke” Brackney and his victim James Ahern, shot dead in his Miata, were white.

Brackney, 32, recalled in an interview that he believed Ahern was about to back his car up and run over him. The engine was racing and the backup lights flashed, Brackney said.

A video, captured by a camera mounted on his cruiser’s dashboard, indicated that the sports car was not moving when the officer opened fire. The existence of that video was the key reason why prosecutors decided to bring charges, they said.

“In my mind, it was the third time he tried to run me over,” Brackney said in an interview with The Post. “His right hand came up in this sweeping motion, and I thought he was going for a gun. I don’t know what a jury would have believed — and that’s the problem. There was this risk, so entering a plea, I viewed it as a business decision.”

After pleading to a reduced charge of negligent homicide, a misdemeanor, Brackney served 30 days in jail as part of a plea agreement. The judge deferred the conviction, and if Brackney fulfills the terms of his probation, the case will be dismissed.

“No one wants to take a life, but at the end of the day, I realize that I’m the one who got to go home,” he said, adding, “I wouldn’t change what I did.”

He was fired by the Bella Vista Police Department, where he worked at the time, but was given another chance by the city of Sulphur Springs, Ark. Two years ago, city officials hired him to run the police department, where he manages a force of four officers who spend much of their time patrolling quiet streets and arresting small-time drug dealers.

Most of the police officers were white, most of the victims were black

In three-quarters of the reviewed cases, the race of the charged officer was white. Of those, two-thirds shot and killed a black person. In none of the cases did a black officer fatally shoot a white person.

Most of the time, prosecutors don’t press charges against police — even if there are strong suspicions that an officer has committed a crime. Prosecutors interviewed for this report say it takes compelling proof that at the time of the shooting the victim posed no threat either to the officer or to bystanders.

Jay Hodge, a former South Carolina prosecutor, said the question boils down to this: Can the evidence disprove the officer’s story that he was defending himself or protecting the public. Hodge recounted one case he had prosecuted in which a sheriff’s deputy said he had opened fire on an unarmed suspect who grabbed for his gun. The autopsy report, Hodge said, told a different story.

“You don’t shoot someone in the back four times and then claim self-defense,” he said. “They can’t be going for a gun if they are running away.”

In half the criminal cases­ identified by The Post and researchers at Bowling Green, prosecutors cited forensics and autopsy reports that showed this very thing: unarmed suspects who had been shot in the back.

Not that long ago, police had wide latitude to shoot fleeing felons. But a 1985 Supreme Court decision changed that. In Tennessee v. Garner, the justices ruled that it was not justifiable for officers to shoot simply to prevent a suspect’s escape. The suspect had to pose a significant threat of death or serious harm to either law enforcement or innocent bystanders for the shooting to be legally justified.

In a third of the cases­ where officers faced charges, prosecutors introduced videos into evidence, saying they showed the slain suspects had posed no threat at the moment they were killed. The videos were often shot from cameras mounted on the dashboards of patrol cars, standard equipment for most police departments.

In nearly a quarter of the cases, an officer’s colleagues turned on him, giving statements or testifying that the officer opened fire even though the suspect posed no danger at the time.

Such testimony carries almost unequalled weight with judges and juries because police officers are considered highly credible eyewitnesses as well as experts in the proper use of force, according to prosecutors and defense attorneys. Moreover, because officers so rarely cross the “thin blue line” to testify against a colleague, their evidence can be especially powerful.

And in 10 cases, or about a fifth of the time, prosecutors alleged that officers either planted or destroyed evidence in an attempt to exonerate themselves — a strong indication, prosecutors said, that the officers themselves recognized the shooting was unjustified.

Tim Robertson, left, trains officers at a firing range in Florence, S.C. Now a reserve deputy retired from the Darlington County Sheriff’s Department, Robertson was acquitted in 2006 of a murder charge in the death of a suspect who had been shot in the back four times. (Alice Keeney for The Washington Post)

It was late one South Carolina evening 10 years ago, when Darlington County Sheriff’s Deputy Tim Robertson finally caught up with William Sheffield, a 45-year-old white man wanted for stealing a gas grill and three hauling trailers. Under the dim porch light of a mobile home, Robertson, who is white, urged the man to surrender, forcing him to spread his hands against the cab of his GMC pickup truck.

But as Robertson prepared to put the handcuffs on, the suspect lunged to the right, turned and then tried to grab the deputy’s gun, Robertson recounted in an interview with The Post. Robertson, who said he feared for his life, fired two shots. Sheffield broke away and ran for the woods. Robertson gave chase, opening fire again. According to prosecutors, the deputy gunned down the unarmed suspect in the back.

“There was no threat because there was no one around who could get hurt. There was a trail of shell casings that showed the deputy chased him and shot at him as he ran away,” said J.R. Joyner, the lead prosecutor in the case. “One shot was point-blank — an execution shot.”

Joyner said the forensics evidence was “the strongest of any case in my career.”

Prosecutors successfully indicted Robertson on a murder charge, citing the law that bars an officer from shooting a fleeing suspect in the back.

But at trial, jurors would go on to acquit Robertson, believing his account that he was forced to fire the final, fatal shots because the suspect turned back during the chase, attacked him and grabbed for his gun a second time. Robertson would keep his job at the sheriff’s department and be put in charge of training deputies in firearms and use of force.

Michael Brelo
Charged with two counts of felony voluntary manslaughter in the deaths of Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell.

In Cleveland, Officer Michael Brelo, who is white, was indicted for killing a pair of black suspects after a grand jury reviewed a wide range of evidence, including nearly two dozen video recordings from dashboard cameras, traffic cameras and surveillance cameras mounted at businesses and a school.

The deadly encounter began when the pair, Timothy Russell, 43, and Malissa Williams, 30, drove past the Cleveland police headquarters on a November night in 2012 and their Chevy Malibu fatefully backfired. Officers mistook the sound for gunfire and went in pursuit. Soon, 62 police vehicles were chasing the Chevy through city streets at speeds of up to 110 mph.

The cameras captured the furious pursuit with officers’ Dodge Chargers rocketing past repeated red lights and weaving through traffic at breakneck speed, tires squealing as panicked drivers peeled onto the shoulders.

The suspects, later found to be under the influence of drugs, came to a stop in a middle school parking lot. Eleven officers got out of their cars and formed a semicircle around the Chevy, court records show. Although two police radio broadcasts had reported that the pair was unarmed, according to transmissions compiled by state investigators, the officers opened fire, shooting 139 times.

Brelo himself fired 34 shots at the car and then climbed onto the hood of the Chevy and fired 15 more times “at close range” through the windshield, state investigation records show.

In a statement to investigators with the Ohio attorney general’s office, Brelo did not deny firing the shots but said he believed gunfire was coming from inside the vehicle. “I’ve never been so afraid in my life,” he said. “I thought my partner and I would be shot and that we were going to be killed.”

A grand jury indicted Brelo on two counts of voluntary manslaughter, saying he acted in a “fit of rage” and “under the influence of sudden passion.”

A lawyer for Brelo, whose trial began Monday, declined to comment.

Stinson, the Bowling Green criminologist, said it is often the case that questionable police shootings are an act of passion. Sometimes, he said, the encounters start with something as simple as a traffic stop and escalate when someone fails to obey the officer’s directions.

“They are used to giving commands and people obeying,” said Stinson, who previously worked as a police officer. “They don’t like it when people don’t listen to them, and things can quickly become violent when people don’t follow their orders.”

Cuyahoga County assistant prosecutor Erica Barnhill asks a state witness about details of a crime-scene photo, above left, that shows bullet holes in the windshield of a Chevy Malibu in which two unarmed people, Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, were killed after a police chase in November 2012. Above right, Cleveland Officer Michael Brelo, left, sits with attorney Tom Shaughnessy during an administrative hearing last month. Brelo’s trial on two counts of voluntary manslaughter in the deaths of Russell and Williams began Monday. (Photos by Associated Press)

Levi Randolph, a black police officer in Gary, Ind., fatally shot a black 16-year-old robbery suspect in the back of the neck after the fleeing teen climbed a fence to escape, court records show.

Prosecutors charged Randolph with reckless homicide.

But when the case went to trial, his attorney told jurors that Randolph had felt threatened by the 6-foot, 200-pound teenager, Vince Smith Jr. Twice during the chase, Randolph said in a deposition, Smith turned around to confront him, both times reaching into the front pocket of his black hooded sweatshirt. He said he thought the teen was going for a gun.

Although Smith turned out to be unarmed, it took jurors only two hours of deliberation to acquit Randolph. Randolph could not be reached for comment.

“Jurors tend to be sympathetic toward police officers,” said Randolph’s attorney, Scott King. “For every movie like ‘Training Day,’ there are 10 movies where cops are underpaid, hard-working, struggling against insurmountable odds and on the side of good.”

The outcome of Randolph’s case is more the rule than the exception and demonstrates the daunting task facing prosecutors in those rare instances when they do charge officers in connection with fatal shootings.

Of the 54 officers who were charged for fatally shooting someone while on duty over the past decade, 35 have had their cases resolved. Of those, a majority — 21 officers — were acquitted or saw their charges dropped.

Jurors usually see the officer as “the good party in the fight,” said David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor and expert in police use of force. “To get them to buy into a story where the officer is the bad guy goes fundamentally against everything they believe.”

Most jurors, experts say, view officers as those who enforce laws, not break them. And unlike civilians, police officers are allowed, even expected, to use force.

“It’s a question of whether it was too much force,” Harris said. “It’s a very flexible standard that has to be interpreted in every case. All this makes it very difficult to convict an officer.”

Most laws that apply to on-duty shootings require jurors to essentially render a verdict on the officer’s state of mind: Was the officer truly afraid for his life or the lives of others when he fired his weapon? Would a reasonable officer have been afraid?

That’s what Clay Rogers says he was asked to do when he served as a juror for the 2009 trial of a Hartford, Conn., narcotics officer charged with fatally shooting a fleeing black suspect.

“It’s difficult to prove an officer is not justified beyond a reasonable doubt, because you almost have to get inside their head to know what he was thinking and feeling,” Rogers said in an interview with The Post.

The officer, Robert Lawlor, who is white, had fired five shots at a car as it sped away. Two bullets struck a passenger, 18-year-old Jashon Bryant, in the back of the head, killing him.

The officer testified before a grand jury that he had initially approached the car, a black Nissan Maxima, because it matched the description of a vehicle used in a homicide. He said he opened fire at the car because he believed that Bryant had a gun and that the vehicle was barreling toward another officer.

Although no weapon was found, Rogers said he and his fellow jurors had to take seriously the officer’s claim that he believed his life and that of his partner were in jeopardy.

Rogers said the jury was also influenced by the tough questions directed at the car’s driver on the witness stand. The officer’s attorney grilled the driver about his criminal past, bringing up the cocaine found in the car and marijuana he had in his jacket on the day of the incident.

“The way the defense made it look was there were these two gangsters out there, riding around, and selling crack,” Rogers recounted. “You had an officer using deadly force, but he was up against dangerous drug dealers. It worked.”

The jury acquitted Lawlor.

His attorney, Michael Georgetti, said in an interview that he worked to build what he sees as a natural alliance between jurors and officers to win the case. “You don’t get people on a jury with a criminal record,” Georgetti said. “If a police officer says stop, they stop. They don’t put their car in drive and speed away.”

As hard as it is for prosecutors to win a conviction or an admission of guilt, it’s even harder to persuade a judge or jury to give an officer significant prison time.

For the nine officers convicted in state prosecutions, sentences ranged from six months to seven years, The Post analysis shows. One of the other cases, the shooting death of the 92-year-old woman in Atlanta, was taken up by federal prosecutors, who added civil rights violations to manslaughter charges and won stiffer sentences, ultimately sending the two convicted officers to prison for six and 10 years.

Six of the officers who faced state prosecutions were convicted after going to trial. On average, they got 3 1/2 years.

But prosecutors were eager at times to dispense with cases without a trial by negotiating a plea agreement. Winning a conviction against an officer is tough. And the cases can come with bruising headlines and strained relations with the very police department that prosecutors rely on daily to help build other criminal ­cases.

In at least six cases, lawyers for the officers were able to get the charges reduced, resulting in lighter sentences. These cases included convictions as well as instances in which judges deferred convictions and put officers on probation for their actions. These officers on average did about 2 1/2 years behind bars.

Antonio Taharka, a former police officer in Savannah, Ga., fatally shot a probation violator as he scrambled over a fence, trying to escape arrest. He ended up spending three months in a county jail.

The grand jury that indicted Taharka on voluntary manslaughter charges, which can bring up to 20 years in prison, said the officer had killed the suspect “while acting solely as the result of a sudden, violent and irresistible passion.”

But members of the local African American community rallied around Taharka, recalled former prosecutor David Lock, who had presented the case to the grand jury. “He was an African American officer and was beloved,” Lock said. “There was more of an outcry about why he was being charged versus why not.” At the same time, Lock said, there was little public sympathy for the 41-year-old victim, Anthony Smashum, a black man who had a long rap sheet, including convictions for rape and assault.

Lock said he believes these factors delayed the prosecution and ultimately contributed to lessening the charge against Taharka.

Chatham County District Attorney Meg Heap, who replaced Lock in the elected post, downgraded the charges from voluntary manslaughter, agreeing that Taharka could plead guilty instead to the less-serious charge of involuntary manslaughter, which carries a maximum of 10 years. Heap said in an interview that the lesser charge was a better fit for the facts of the case. But she said her office made no promises about a reduced sentence, leaving that up to the judge.

At sentencing in 2009, Superior Court Judge John E. Morse Jr. said he had to strike “the most delicate balance.” In assessing the fatal incident, he said, “All I can glean from what I have read and heard up to this particular point is that it was not malicious and ill-wanton.” He told Taharka moments later, “What you have to deal with from a day-to-day basis as an officer of the law, no one can stand in your shoes other than you.”

Morse ordered Taharka to spend three months in jail and nine months confined to his home except when he was working. If he follows the terms of his probation of nine years, his record will be wiped clean.

Messages left for Taharka’s lawyers were not returned, nor were a series of e-mails requesting comment. Taharka resigned from the police department about a year after the 2007 shooting.

Other videos of police shootings

Georgia Ferrell’s daughter is a police officer. Her son was shot dead by one.

“My daughter loves being a police officer, but she knows that the uniform doesn’t make you a good person,” she said.

Officer Randall Kerrick of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police department is scheduled to face trial this summer on charges of voluntary manslaughter arising from a fatal encounter with Ferrell’s son in September 2013.

It was well after midnight when Jonathan Ferrell, 24, a former Florida A&M football defensive back, crashed his Toyota Camry, rolling it into a ditch, according to the police report. Dazed, he kicked out the rear window, crawled from the vehicle and made his way to a nearby house to seek helps.

But when he started banging on the door, the woman who lived there panicked and called 911. The officers who responded to the call told investigators that they believed that Ferrell was a threat, records show. When Ferrell, who was black, did not follow their orders to get on the ground, Kerrick, who is white, shot him 10 times, police officials said.

After Police Chief Rodney Monroe saw the 15-second dashcam video of the incident, he arrested Kerrick within the day, saying the officer “did not have a lawful right to discharge his weapon during this encounter.”

Kerrick’s attorney Michael Green said the video tells a different story. “Officer Kerrick did his job that night. Although the shooting was a tragedy, it was justified,” Green said. “On the video, you hear the officer telling him multiple times to get down on the ground . . . and at trial, I think you’ll find folks who say [Ferrell] wasn’t necessarily looking for help that evening.”

Georgia Ferrell worries that jurors will believe that account. As someone who has personal reasons to hold most police in high regard, she recognizes how difficult it is to convict and punish an officer.

“Society has put it into our heads that the officer is always right,” she said. “That has to change.”

Alice Crites and Steven Rich contributed to this report.

Kimberly Kindy, Kimbriell Kelly, “Thousands dead, few prosecuted”, April 11, 2015, Washington Post,


American Cops Killed More People in March than the UK Did in the Entire 20th Century

A new report by unearthed disturbing figures when it came to the number of police-related deaths that occurred in America in the month of March alone.

Just last month, in the 31 days of March, police in the United States killed more people than the UK did in the entire 20th century. In fact, it was twice as many; police in the UK only killed 52 people during that 100 year period.

According to the report by ThinkProgess, in March alone, 111 people died during police encounters — 36 more than the previous month. As in the past, numerous incidents were spurred by violent threats from suspects, and two officers were shot in Ferguson during a peaceful protest. However, the deaths follow a national pattern: suspects were mostly people of color, mentally ill, or both.

This high number in March increased the average for police killings from every 8.5 hours, to nearly 1 police killing every 6.5 hours in the US.

These numbers are staggering and show a serious problem of the violent tendencies within the US policing apparatus.

Let’s look at our immediate neighbors to the north, Canada. The total number of citizens killed by law enforcement officers in the year 2014, was 14; that is 78 times fewer people than the US.

From 2010 through 2014, there were four fatal police shootings in England, which has a population of about 52 million. By contrast, Albuquerque, N.M., with a population 1 percent the size of England’s, had 26 fatal police shootings in that same time period.

China, whose population is 4 and 1/2 times the size of the United States, recorded 12 killings by law enforcement officers in 2014.

On average, US police kill people at a rate 70 times higher than any of the other first world countries as they “protect and serve” the American citizens.

Matt Agorist, “American Cops Just Killed More People in March than the UK Did in the Entire 20th Century”,, April 6, 2015,

Grandparent caregiver paralyzed following attack by Alabama police.

February 12
Officer who threw 57-year-old man arrested

The FBI is investigating an incident in which an Indian grandfather’s encounter with police in Alabama left the man partially paralyzed. An officer involved in the incident is under arrest, and the police chief  proposed that he be fired, police said Thursday.

A spokesman for the FBI said that the agency became involved shortly after the Feb. 6 incident, and it is being treated as a civil rights investigation. The findings will be turned over to the Justice Department for review.

Sureshbhai Patel had recently come to the United States from his farm in India to help care for his grandson, who was born prematurely and was suffering from health complications.

Madison Police Department released dashboard camera footage of a police officer throwing a 57-year-old man to the floor in Alabama. The officer, Eric Parker, turned himself in on charges of assault in the third degree. (City of Madison Police Department)

At about 9 a.m. on Friday in Madison, Ala., just days into his visit, Patel was strolling through his family’s neighborhood when he was approached by police. A neighbor had called authorities and told them a man who looked  “suspicious” was peering into garages, according to the Huntsville Times. That man, police determined, was Patel.

Within minutes, the 57-year-old grandfather was face down on the ground with a severe neck injury that left him partially paralyzed.

A lawyer for Patel has filed a lawsuit against the Madison Police Department, alleging that his constitutional civil rights were violated and seeking damages. The lawsuit was filed Thursday in federal district court.

“First, I’m hoping that the truth will come out, second that this case might bring to life the real issues we have in this country about the police abuse of power where someone can’t try to blame it on the victim,” Hank Sherrod, the family’s attorney, told The Washington Post. “Here we’ve got someone who is truly blameless and innocent. He was brutalized, and hopefully will, but may never, walk again.”

Representatives from the Indian government visited Patel in the hospital on Thursday, Sherrod said.

Madison Police Chief Larry Muncey told reporters Thursday that he has recommended termination for one of the officers involved in the incident. Officer Eric Parker, Muncey, said, has also turned himself in on charges of assault in the third degree.

The Madison police concluded from its investigation into the incident that the officer’s actions “did not meet the high standards and expectations” of his department, Muncey said. Muncey apologized to Patel, Patel’s family, and the community. The police chief added that the FBI was conducting a “parallel inquiry to ascertain if there were any federal violations.” He declined to answer any questions, citing the pending lawsuit.

The department also released portions of audio and video pertaining to the incident. In a non-emergency call to police, a neighbor described Patel as a “skinny black guy” and said that he’d “never seen him before” in the neighborhood. Patel, he said, was “just wandering around” and “walking close to the garage.” The caller added that he was following Patel at a distance. When asked to estimate his age, the caller guessed Patel was in his 30′s.

The neighbor also told the police dispatcher he was “nervous” leaving his wife because of Patel’s presence in the neighborhood.

Syed Akbaruddin,  a spokesman for India’s Ministry of External Affairs, said Friday that the government was “extremely disturbed” about the incident and had expressed its concern to the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, and also planned talks with officials in Washington and Alabama.

“We take the incident involving an Indian national very seriously,”  he said. “We want to make it abundantly clear we are extremely worried about what happened to Mr. Sureshbhai Patel, an Indian national.”

In an earlier statement, police said that Patel attempted to pull away from officers as he was being patted down, leading at least one officer to force him to the ground, “which resulted in injury.” Patel’s son, Chirag, told the Huntsville newspaper that police escalated the incident, not his father.

“He was just walking on the sidewalk as he does all the time,” said Chirag Patel, who arrived in the United States a decade ago to study engineering before getting married and becoming an American citizen. “They put him to the ground.”

“This is a good neighborhood. I didn’t expect anything to happen.”

Two videos of the incident later released by Madison police include both audio of the officers involved, and visuals of the exchange. In one video, a pair of officers approach Patel and ask him where he’s headed, what his address is, and request to see his ID. One officer says, “he’s saying ‘no English.’ ” The second officer continues to ask Patel questions, including “are you looking at houses and stuff?”

Sureshbhai Patel said he tried to tell the officers that he doesn’t speak English by saying “No English. Indian. Walking,” according to the lawsuit. He says he repeated his son’s house number and pointed toward the residence.

In the police video, an officer then tells Patel, “Do not jerk away from me again. If you do, I’m gonna put you on the ground.” The officer asks,  “Do you understand?” and tells Patel to “relax.”

That’s when an officer twisted his arm behind his back, Patel said, and forced him to the ground, face-first. His face was bloodied, but worse, he also injured his neck and was left paralyzed in his arms and legs, the lawsuit alleges.

One of the two police videos shows the officer holding Patel forcefully, pushing him to the ground. Patel, on the ground, is then told to “chill out” by one of the officers. The officer tells a third, approaching officer that Patel doesn’t “speak a lick of English,” and that they were trying to pat him down. “I don’t know what his problem is, but he won’t listen,” one of the officers adds.

Patel remains on the ground as the officers call for medical assistance.

“Stand up, let’s go,” one officer says. “You’re all right.” For several minutes, the officers repeatedly attempt to get Patel off the ground and into a patrol car.

One officer asks, “He OK?”

Sherrod, the family’s attorney, said things went wrong as soon as a neighbor who didn’t recognize Patel called police and reported suspicious activity.

“This is broad daylight, walking down the street,” Sherrod told the Huntsville Times. “There is nothing suspicious about Mr. Patel other than he has brown skin.”

Sherrod said officers left Patel on the ground, injured and bloodied and in desperate need of a paramedic.

“This is just one of those things that doesn’t need to happen,” the attorney said. “That officer doesn’t need to be on the streets.”

Speaking to The Post after the Thursday press conference, Sherrod said that he “appreciates [the police] doing the right thing on Thursday,” but criticized the department for not acting sooner. “On Monday they were trying to blame Mr. Patel,” he added.

Patel underwent cervical fusion surgery to relieve pressure on his spinal cord and has regained some feeling in his arms and one leg. He remains partially paralyzed. His left leg is entirely or mostly paralyzed and he lacks grip strength in his arms, the lawsuit said.

A fund was established to help cover the cost of Patel’s medical care and a recovery that could take months. He does not have health insurance.

Patel’s son told the Times that before the incident, he was proud to own a home in Madison. He chose the community, he said, because of the educational opportunities the area would someday provide his son. Now, he said, he’s not so sure about his decision.

“It is a dream for me because I came from a very poor family and I worked so hard here,” he told the paper. “I’m totally devastated that I might have made a big mistake.”

Alabama police officer arrested after Indian grandfather left partially paralyzed”, The Washington Post, February 12, 2015,

Fairfax County police shot an unarmed man in his home and they won’t say why

November 27, 2014

WHEN WILL Fairfax County and federal authorities stop stonewalling in the 2013 death of John Geer, an unarmed man shot at point-blank range by police as he stood in the doorway of his home?

How is it possible that 15 months after he was shot in the chest and left to bleed to death in his home , the authorities have neither disclosed the name of the county police officer who fired the deadly shot nor provided even the bare bones of an explanation for the shooting?

Are the Fairfax County police incapable of matching even the imperfect transparency and accountability of the police in Ferguson, Mo., where Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager? Was the Fairfax police chief, Edwin C. Roessler Jr., even remotely sincere when he promised to “hold myself accountable” to Mr. Geer’s family?

And what about the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, Dana J. Boente, to whom the case was handed by county prosecutors in February? Why has Mr. Boente, whose office has conducted at least preliminary interviews, been mum? Is he pursuing the case? If so, what is taking so long? If not, has he dropped it? And if he dropped it, why?

Will Mr. Boente not answer any of these questions even after they were posed to him, in a Nov. 13 letter, by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who will soon become chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee? Are U.S. Attorneys accountable to no one? Does the fact that Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors hired a high-powered Washington lawyer to represent it in the case mean that the board has abdicated its responsibility to press police for a truthful accounting of the facts?

And by the way, what are the unspecified conflicts of interest that caused county prosecutors to punt the case to the feds?

What in the world is going on here? At least two other police officers witnessed the shooting at close range; are their accounts to remain hidden indefinitely? What accounts did other witnesses to the shooting, who include friends and neighbors, give to the authorities?

Has anyone contradicted the accounts of witnesses who told journalists that while Mr. Geer had been drinking and was distraught that his longtime girlfriend was moving out, he brandished no weapons and posed no threat to the police or to public order?

Following the shooting, why was Mr. Geer allowed to bleed to death inside his home? Why did police and emergency personnel leave his body unattended for an hour? Could prompt medical attention have saved his life?

Does the officer who fired the fatal shot remain on the county police force with full pay? Will he or anyone be held accountable for the shooting of Mr. Geer?

How much longer will the stonewalling in Fairfax go on?

Editorial Board, “Fairfax County police shot an unarmed man in his home, and they won’t say why”, The Washington Post, November 27, 2014,

Home-school Parents Tasered, Pepper-Sprayed, Handcuffed, for “Messy House” As Kids Watched

By John Vibes, November 23, 2014

Nodaway County, Missouri – Last week, Jason and Laura Hagan, of New Hampton, Missouri filed a lawsuit against the Nodaway County Police for a SWAT team raid against their family, where tasers and pepper spray were used by the invading officers. The lawsuit is the newest fight in the family’s lengthy legal battle with the county over the raid, which took place in 2011.

The case began years ago when Child Protection Services (CPS) agents were sent to the home because they were homeschooling their children and they reportedly had a “messy house.”

According to the complaint filed last week, the family was harassed by CPS agents on multiple occasions and one day, they refused to let the agents inside their home. The agent then called Chief Sheriff’s Deputy David Glidden and Sheriff Darren White of the Nodaway County police department.

When the officers arrived at the home they were told by Jason Hagan that they were not allowed to enter his property without a court order. Glidden responded by forcing his way into the home and spraying both Jason and Laura in the face with pepper spray.

Next, Glidden uses his taser on Jason, shooting him in the back with the weapon. Horrified, Laura shut the door to separate herself and her husband from the officer, who triggered the taser 3 more times through the closed door, as the barbs were still stuck inside of Jason.

Officer White then helped Glidden force open the door again and found the couple both laying on the floor in pain. The officers then pepperspayed the couple as they laid on the floor. With the couple subdued, the officers turned to the family dog and sprayed it with a chemical agent, and then threatened to shoot it if it did not stop barking.

At the end of the raid the couple was arrested and both of them were charged with resisting arrest and child endangerment. In court, the cases against Jason and Laura were both dismissed, with the judge ruling that their 4th amendment rights had been violated in the raid.

Now with the criminal cases behind them, the family is taking the fight against the county. Sadly the only people who will have to pay for the incompetence and abuse of these officers and local officials are the tax payers of Nodaway County.

John Vibes, “Home-school Parents Tasered, Pepper-Sprayed, Handcuffed, for “Messy House” As Kids Watched.” Free Though Project, November 23, 2014

Police can not shoot you in the back, decides US Supreme court. In 1985.

Tennessee v. Garner

Tennessee v. Garner
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg

Argued October 30, 1984
Decided March 27, 1985
Full case name Tennessee v. Edward Garner, et al.
Citations 471 U.S. 1 (more)

105 S. Ct. 1694; 85 L. Ed. 2d 1; 1985 U.S. LEXIS 195; 53 U.S.L.W. 4410
Prior history On certiorari from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
Subsequent history Remanded
Law enforcement officers pursuing an unarmed suspect may use deadly force to prevent escape only if the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority White, joined by Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun, Powell, Stevens
Dissent O’Connor, joined by Burger, Rehnquist
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. IV

Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985)[1], was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States held that under the Fourth Amendment, when a law enforcement officer is pursuing a fleeing suspect, he or she may not use deadly force to prevent escape unless the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.

Facts and procedural history

At about 10:45 p.m. on October 3, 1974, Memphis Police Department Officers Leslie Wright and Elton Hymon were dispatched to answer a burglary call next door. Officer Hymon went behind the house as his partner radioed back to the station. Hymon witnessed someone running across the yard. The fleeing suspect, Edward Garner, stopped at a 6-foot-high (1.8 m) chain-link fence. Using his flashlight, Hymon could see Garner’s face and hands, and was reasonably sure that Garner was unarmed. The police testified that they believed Garner was 17 or 18 years old; Garner was in fact 15 years old. After Hymon ordered Garner to halt, Garner began to climb the fence. Believing that Garner would certainly flee if he made it over the fence, Hymon shot him. The bullet struck Garner in the back of the head, and he died shortly after an ambulance took him to a nearby hospital. Ten dollars and a purse taken from the burglarized house were found on this person.

Hymon acted according to a Tennessee state statute and official Memphis Police Department policy authorizing deadly force against a fleeing suspect. The statute provided that “if, after notice of the intention to arrest the defendant, he either flee or forcibly resist, the officer may use all the necessary means to effect the arrest.”

Garner’s father then brought suit in the United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee under the Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, naming the City of Memphis, its mayor, the Memphis Police Department, its director, and Officer Hymon as defendants. The District Court found the statute, and Hymon’s actions, to be constitutional. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed. The Court of Appeals held that the killing of a fleeing suspect is a “seizure” for the purposes of the Fourth Amendment, and is therefore constitutional only when it is reasonable. The court then found that based on the facts in this case, the Tennessee statute failed to properly limit the use of deadly force by reference to the seriousness of the felony.

Majority opinion

Justice White wrote for the majority, first agreeing with the Sixth Circuit’s determination that apprehension by use of deadly force is a seizure, then framing the legal issue as whether the totality of the circumstances justified the seizure. In order to determine the constitutionality of a seizure, White reasoned, the court must weigh the nature of the intrusion of the suspect’s Fourth Amendment rights against the government interests which justified the intrusion.

The use of deadly force against a subject is the most intrusive type of seizure possible, because it deprives the suspect of his life, and White held that the state failed to present evidence that its interest in shooting unarmed fleeing suspects outweighs the suspect’s interest in his own survival.

White examined the common law rule on this matter and its rationale. At common law, it was perfectly legitimate for law enforcement personnel to kill a fleeing felon. At the time when this rule was first created, most felonies were punishable by death, and the difference between felonies and misdemeanors was relatively large. In modern American law, neither of these circumstances existed. Furthermore, the common law rule developed at a time before modern firearms, and most law enforcement officers did not carry handguns. The context in which the common law rule evolved was no longer valid. White further noted that many jurisdictions had already done away with it, and that current research has shown that the use of deadly force contributes little to the deterrence of crime or the protection of the public.

On the basis of the facts found by the district court, Hymon had no reason to believe that Garner was armed or dangerous. White ordered the case to be remanded for determination of the liability of the other defendants.


In her dissent, Justice O’Connor highlighted the fact that police officers must often make swift, spur-of-the-moment decisions while on patrol, and argued that the majority did not properly consider this aspect of the case. Moreover, burglary is a serious crime which often leads to rape and murder, and the Tennessee statute represents the state legislature‘s judgment that such crimes may require the use of deadly force in order to protect the public against those who commit such crimes. She also disagreed that a suspect’s interest in his own life necessarily extends to the right to flee from the scene of a crime. The suspect believed he was in imminent danger and therefore fled the scene.

See also

Utah Police shoot man in the back 6 times, killing him. Ruled Justified.

By Curtis Skinner

Tue Nov 4, 2014


Darrien Hunt

A Utah prosecutor on Monday said police were justified in shooting and killing a 22-year-old black man accused by officers of lunging at them with a sword the man’s family described as decorative.

Issues of race and police killings had been thrown into the national spotlight just weeks earlier by the police killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

A grand jury is considering whether to charge the white officer in that case.

Utah County Attorney Jeff Buhman told a news conference that police were right to have fatally shot Darrien Hunt in Saratoga Springs in September, saying they feared he could use the samurai-style sword to injure bystanders.

“There were multiple persons that Mr. Hunt could have assaulted or even killed if he had been allowed to continue to escape,” Buhman told reporters at the conference broadcast by television station Fox 13.

Authorities said Hunt lunged at two officers responding to a report of a man walking around with a sword, before he fled and was fatally shot by the policemen.

A private autopsy on Hunt showed he was shot six times, with no bullets entering his body from the front.

He was in costume as a Japanese anime character when he was killed, his mother Susan told the Salt Lake Tribune newspaper.

The sword had a dull, rounded blade and was a showpiece instead of a weapon, Hunt’s family said through their attorney.

The Hunt family attorney, Robert Sykes, said on Monday that he would still pursue a wrongful death civil suit against the police department, Fox 13 reported.

“I think it’s a whitewash. I think it’s an exaggeration, and I think they ignored good, hard evidence to the contrary,” Sykes told a separate news conference aired by the station.

Saratoga Springs, a mostly white community of 22,000 people some 30 miles (48 km) south of Salt Lake City, gained national attention when then Mayor Mia Love sought in 2012 to become the first African-American woman Republican elected to Congress. She lost, but is running again this year.

Curtis Skinner,  “Utah police justified in death of man weilding sword, prosecutor says”. Reuters, Tue Nov 4, 2014

Progress: California Passes Prison Reform Prop. 47

Prosecutors and jailers scramble to deal with the effects of the law that reduces penalties for some crimes
California is the first state to downgrade certain drug possession cases from felonies to misdemeanors
Thousands of felons are now eligible for immediate release from prisons and jails after Prop 47’s passage

Los Angeles County Public Defender Ron Brown walked into a Pomona court Wednesday and saw first-hand the impact of Proposition 47 — the voter-approved initiative that reduces penalties for drug possession and other nonviolent crimes.

His office had deliberately postponed sentencing for a defendant facing more than a year behind bars for possessing heroin and methamphetamine to the day after Tuesday’s election, waiting to see what voters would do.

The gambit worked. The man was sentenced and released from custody with no further jail time.


Proposition 47: In the Nov. 6 Section A, an article about passage of Proposition 47 identified Molly Rysman as the operator of a housing program for homeless people on Skid Row. She is the Los Angeles director for Community Support Housing, which provides assistance to housing programs citywide.

“They were felonies yesterday. They’re misdemeanors today,” Brown said. “This is the law now.”

The day after California voted to reduce punishments, police agencies, defense attorneys, prosecutors and even some advocates were scrambling to figure out exactly how it was going to work.

The greatest effect, experts said, would be in drug possession cases, noting that California is now the first state in the nation to downgrade those cases from felonies to misdemeanors. Thousands of felons are now eligible for immediate release from prisons and jails.

City attorneys accustomed to handling traffic tickets and zoning violations are now responsible for prosecuting crimes that used to be felonies, including forgeries, theft and shoplifting. District attorneys who used to threaten drug offenders with felony convictions to force them into rehabilitation programs no longer have that as an option. Social workers said they worried that offenders who voluntarily seek treatment will have trouble finding services.

“It’s going to take a little while to figure out,” said Molly Rysman, the Los Angeles director for Community Support Housing, which provides assistance to housing programs citywide. She is glad that drug users now face only brief stays in jail, if any time at all, but said options for someplace else to go in L.A. are “dismal.” Rysman said caseworkers now spend weeks trying to find an opening for clients who need a detox bed or room in a treatment program.

Nov. 6, 3:06 p.m.: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Molly Rysman as the operator of a housing program for homeless people on skid row. She is the Los Angeles director for Community Support Housing, which provides assistance to housing programs citywide.

Proposition 47 sets aside funding for such programs, but the money may not materialize for another year, advocates said.

“I can’t say I agree with Proposition 47. It should have mandated treatment,” said Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey. “Most of the money from the initiative will go to mental health and substance abuse treatment, but how we will get people to accept that treatment is the question.”

Lacey said her office would reevaluate the more serious cases downgraded by Proposition 47 to determine whether there were other felony charges that could be filed. Under the measure, thefts, bad check writing and forgery charges are downgraded to misdemeanors if the stolen value is $950 or less. Lacey said she was particularly concerned about cases involving the theft of guns. Prosecutors, she said, “will be looking at alternative charges for some of those cases, because we should all be a little nervous when a firearm is involved.”

Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer on Wednesday asked the City Council for $510,000 to hire 15 lawyers and assistants to handle the anticipated influx of misdemeanor prosecutions, which previously would have been prosecuted as felonies by the district attorney’s office. He said his office expected to handle 13,500 new cases a year, most involving drug offenses.

Meanwhile, jailers in Los Angeles County made preparations to deal with an unknown number of inmates charged with felonies that are now misdemeanors.

Because of severe overcrowding and court-ordered population caps, the Los Angeles County jails do not typically hold those charged with misdemeanors.

“It is going to take time to evaluate that, but we’re not conducting a mass release, today or tomorrow,” said Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Nicole Nishida.

Legislative analysts predict that about 40,000 California offenders each year will now draw misdemeanor convictions instead of felonies. Prison officials said they have identified 4,770 felons in custody who are eligible to seek resentencing. And L.A. prosecutors have identified almost 4,000 offenders in the pipeline between arrest and sentencing who might qualify for more lenient treatment under the new law.

To get released, current inmates must prove that they are not a threat to the public.

Proposition 47 will also give a fresh chance to some three-strikes prisoners serving life terms who have recently failed to obtain reduced sentences.

Under a 2012 ballot measure, Proposition 36, most inmates serving three-strikes sentences for relatively minor crimes can receive shorter sentences unless a judge decides that they pose an “unreasonable risk of danger to public safety.” Michael Romano, an attorney who helped write the measure, said the initiative did not define that risk for judges, many of whom used their own criteria to decide whether someone was too risky to release. The vast majority of three-strikers who have asked for reduced sentences have been successful, but about 118 inmates have been declared a risk to public safety, said Romano, who directs the Stanford Law School Three Strikes Project.

Proposition 47 gives inmates in that small group another opportunity to ask for shorter sentences if their third strikes were for one of the minor felonies downgraded under Proposition 47, Romano said.

Inmates whose strikes don’t fall into that category, he said, can also return to court and cite Proposition 47’s new definition of an “unreasonable risk of danger,” which Tuesday’s ballot measure defined as likely to commit serious or violent crimes that include homicide, sexual assault and child molestation.

“It’s a clear message from voters that our law enforcement resources should not be spent on three-strikes sentences or long felony sentences for these types of crimes,” Romano said.

The new law also derails drug court, where felony charges were set aside for offenders who completed treatment regimens. Those who succeed have a high success in staying sober, but without the threat of jail, there is little incentive to participate, said Mark Delgado, executive director of the Countywide Criminal Justice Coordination Committee, which runs those programs. Delgado said county officials are seeking a substitute.

“Regardless of what the laws are on the books, we’re asking, ‘How do we best engage the individuals who need treatment?'” he said.

Brown, L.A. County’s chief public defender, acknowledged that the proposition will change the “carrot and stick” approach used to entice people into rehabilitation with the promise of a lighter sentence. But he thinks that can be managed.

“We’re going to have to work a lot harder to convince people it’s the best thing for you,” Brown said.

Paige St. John & Marisa Gerber, “Prop. 47 Jolts Landscape of California justice system”, Los Angeles Times, November 6, 2014,

The Police are still Out of Control. I should know.

Frank Serpico

October 23, 2014

In the opening scene of the 1973 movie “Serpico,” I am shot in the face—or to be more accurate, the character of Frank Serpico, played by Al Pacino, is shot in the face. Even today it’s very difficult for me to watch those scenes, which depict in a very realistic and terrifying way what actually happened to me on Feb. 3, 1971. I had recently been transferred to the Narcotics division of the New York City Police Department, and we were moving in on a drug dealer on the fourth floor of a walk-up tenement in a Hispanic section of Brooklyn. The police officer backing me up instructed me (since I spoke Spanish) to just get the apartment door open “and leave the rest to us.”

One officer was standing to my left on the landing no more than eight feet away, with his gun drawn; the other officer was to my right rear on the stairwell, also with his gun drawn. When the door opened, I pushed my way in and snapped the chain. The suspect slammed the door closed on me, wedging in my head and right shoulder and arm. I couldn’t move, but I aimed my snub-nose Smith & Wesson revolver at the perp (the movie version unfortunately goes a little Hollywood here, and has Pacino struggling and failing to raise a much-larger 9-millimeter automatic). From behind me no help came. At that moment my anger got the better of me. I made the almost fatal mistake of taking my eye off the perp and screaming to the officer on my left: “What the hell you waiting for? Give me a hand!” I turned back to face a gun blast in my face. I had cocked my weapon and fired back at him almost in the same instant, probably as reflex action, striking him. (He was later captured.)

When I regained consciousness, I was on my back in a pool of blood trying to assess the damage from the gunshot wound in my cheek. Was this a case of small entry, big exit, as often happens with bullets? Was the back of my head missing? I heard a voice saying, “Don’ worry, you be all right, you be all right,” and when I opened my eyes I saw an old Hispanic man looking down at me like Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan. My “backup” was nowhere in sight. They hadn’t even called for assistance—I never heard the famed “Code 1013,” meaning “Officer Down.” They didn’t call an ambulance either, I later learned; the old man did. One patrol car responded to investigate, and realizing I was a narcotics officer rushed me to a nearby hospital (one of the officers who drove me that night said, “If I knew it was him, I would have left him there to bleed to death,” I learned later).

The next time I saw my “back-up” officers was when one of them came to the hospital to bring me my watch. I said, “What the hell am I going to do with a watch? What I needed was a back-up. Where were you?” He said, “Fuck you,” and left. Both my “back-ups” were later awarded medals for saving my life.

I still don’t know exactly what happened on that day. There was never any real investigation. But years later, Patrick Murphy, who was police commissioner at the time, was giving a speech at one of my alma maters, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and I confronted him. I said, “My name is Frank Serpico, and I’ve been carrying a bullet in my head for over 35 years, and you, Mr. Murphy, are the man I hold responsible. You were the man who was brought as commissioner to take up the cause that I began — rooting out corruption. You could have protected me; instead you put me in harm’s way. What have you got to say?” He hung his head, and had no answer.

Even now, I do not know for certain why I was left trapped in that door by my fellow police officers. But the Narcotics division was rotten to the core, with many guys taking money from the very drug dealers they were supposed to bust. I had refused to take bribes and had testified against my fellow officers. Police make up a peculiar subculture in society. More often than not they have their own moral code of behavior, an “us against them” attitude, enforced by a Blue Wall of Silence. It’s their version of the Mafia’s omerta. Speak out, and you’re no longer “one of us.” You’re one of “them.” And as James Fyfe,  a nationally recognized expert on the use of force, wrote in his 1993 book about this issue, Above The Law, officers who break the code sometimes won’t be helped in emergency situations, as I wasn’t.

Forty-odd years on, my story probably seems like ancient history to most people, layered over with Hollywood legend. For me it’s not, since at the age of 78 I’m still deaf in one ear and I walk with a limp and I carry fragments of the bullet near my brain. I am also, all these years later, still persona non grata in the NYPD. Never mind that, thanks to Sidney Lumet’s direction and Al Pacino’s brilliant acting, “Serpico” ranks No. 40 on the American Film Institute’s list of all-time movie heroes, or that as I travel around the country and the world, police officers often tell me they were inspired to join the force after seeing the movie at an early age.

In the NYPD that means little next to my 40-year-old heresy, as they see it. I still get hate mail from active and retired police officers. A couple of years ago after the death of David Durk — the police officer who was one of my few allies inside the department in my efforts to expose graft —  the Internet message board “NYPD Rant” featured some choice messages directed at me. “Join your mentor, Rat scum!” said one. An ex-con recently related to me that a precinct captain had once said to him, “If it wasn’t for that fuckin’ Serpico, I coulda been a millionaire today.” My informer went on to say, “Frank, you don’t seem to understand, they had a well-oiled money making machine going and you came along and threw a handful of sand in the gears.”

In 1971 I was awarded the Medal of Honor, the NYPD’s highest award for bravery in action, but it wasn’t for taking on an army of corrupt cops. It was most likely due to the insistence of Police Chief Sid Cooper, a rare good guy who was well aware of the murky side of the NYPD that I’d try to expose. But they handed the medal to me like an afterthought, like tossing me a pack of cigarettes. After all this time, I’ve never been given a proper certificate with my medal. And although living Medal of Honor winners are typically invited to yearly award ceremonies, I’ve only been invited once — and it was by Bernard Kerick, who ironically was the only NYPD commissioner to later serve time in prison. A few years ago, after the New York Police Museum refused my guns and other memorabilia, I loaned them to the Italian-American museum right down street from police headquarters, and they invited me to their annual dinner. I didn’t know it was planned, but the chief of police from Rome, Italy, was there, and he gave me a plaque. The New York City police officers who were there wouldn’t even look at me.

So my personal story didn’t end with the movie, or with my retirement from the force in 1972. It continues right up to this day. And the reason I’m speaking out now is that, tragically, too little has really changed since the Knapp Commission, the outside investigative panel formed by then-Mayor John Lindsay after I failed at repeated internal efforts to get the police and district attorney to investigate rampant corruption in the force. Lindsay had acted only because finally, in desperation, I went to the New York Times, which put my story on the front page. Led by Whitman Knapp, a tenacious federal judge, the commission for at least a brief moment in time supplied what has always been needed in policing: outside accountability. As a result many officers were prosecuted and many more lost their jobs. But the commission disbanded in 1972 even though I had hoped (and had so testified) that it would be made permanent.

And today the Blue Wall of Silence endures in towns and cities across America. Whistleblowers in police departments — or as I like to call them, “lamp lighters,” after Paul Revere — are still turned into permanent pariahs. The complaint I continue to hear is that when they try to bring injustice to light they are told by government officials: “We can’t afford a scandal; it would undermine public confidence in our police.” That confidence, I dare say, is already seriously undermined.

Things might have improved in some areas. The days when I served and you could get away with anything, when cops were better at accounting than at law enforcement — keeping meticulous records of the people they were shaking down, stealing drugs and money from dealers on a regular basis — all that no longer exists as systematically as it once did, though it certainly does in some places. Times have changed. It’s harder to be a venal cop these days.

But an even more serious problem — police violence — has probably grown worse, and it’s out of control for the same reason that graft once was: a lack of accountability.

I tried to be an honest cop in a force full of bribe-takers. But as I found out the hard way, police departments are useless at investigating themselves—and that’s exactly the problem facing ordinary people across the country —including perhaps, Ferguson, Missouri, which has been a lightning rod for discontent even though the circumstances under which an African-American youth, Michael Brown, was shot remain unclear.

Today the combination of an excess of deadly force and near-total lack of accountability is more dangerous than ever: Most cops today can pull out their weapons and fire without fear that anything will happen to them, even if they shoot someone wrongfully. All a police officer has to say is that he believes his life was in danger, and he’s typically absolved. What do you think that does to their psychology as they patrol the streets—this sense of invulnerability? The famous old saying still applies: Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. (And we still don’t know how many of these incidents occur each year; even though Congress enacted the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act 20 years ago, requiring the Justice Department to produce an annual report on “the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers,” the reports were never issued.)

It wasn’t any surprise to me that, after Michael Brown was shot dead in Ferguson, officers instinctively lined up behind Darren Wilson, the cop who allegedly killed Brown. Officer Wilson may well have had cause to fire if Brown was attacking him, as some reports suggest, but it is also possible we will never know the full truth—whether, for example, it was really necessary for Wilson to shoot Brown at least six times, killing rather than just wounding him. As they always do, the police unions closed ranks also behind the officer in question. And the district attorney (who is often totally in bed with the police and needs their votes) and city power structure can almost always be counted on to stand behind the unions.

In some ways, matters have gotten even worse. The gulf between the police and the communities they serve has grown wider. Mind you, I don’t want to say that police shouldn’t protect themselves and have access to the best equipment. Police officers have the right to defend themselves with maximum force, in cases where, say, they are taking on a barricaded felon armed with an assault weapon. But when you are dealing every day with civilians walking the streets, and you bring in armored vehicles and automatic weapons, it’s all out of proportion. It makes you feel like you’re dealing with some kind of subversive enemy. The automatic weapons and bulletproof vest may protect the officer, but they also insulate him from the very society he’s sworn to protect. All that firepower and armor puts an even greater wall between the police and society, and solidifies that “us-versus-them” feeling.

And with all due respect to today’s police officers doing their jobs, they don’t need all that stuff anyway. When I was cop I disarmed a man with three guns who had just killed someone. I was off duty and all I had was my snub-nose Smith & Wesson. I fired a warning shot, the guy ran off and I chased him down. Some police forces still maintain a high threshold for violence: I remember talking with a member of the Italian carabinieri, who are known for being very heavily armed. He took out his Beretta and showed me that it didn’t even have a magazine inside. “You know, I got to be careful,” he said. “Before I shoot somebody unjustifiably, I’m better off shooting myself.” They have standards.

In the NYPD, it used to be you’d fire two shots and then you would assess the situation. You didn’t go off like a madman and empty your magazine and reload. Today it seems these police officers just empty their guns and automatic weapons without thinking, in acts of callousness or racism. They act like they’re in shooting galleries. Today’s uncontrolled firepower, combined with a lack of good training and adequate screening of police academy candidates,  has led to a devastating drop in standards. The infamous case of Amadou Diallo in New York—who was shot 41 times in 1999 for no obvious reason—is more typical than you might think. The shooters, of course, were absolved of any wrongdoing, as they almost always are. All a policeman has to say is that “the suspect turned toward me menacingly,” and he does not have to worry about prosecution. In a 2010 case recorded on a police camera in Seattle, John Williams, a 50-year-old traditional carver of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations (tribes), was shot four times by police as he walked across the street with a pocketknife and a piece of cedar in his hands. He died at the scene. It’s like the Keystone Kops, but without being funny at all.

Many white Americans, indoctrinated by the ridiculous number of buddy-cop films and police-themed TV shows that Hollywood has cranked out over the decades—almost all of them portraying police as heroes—may be surprised by the continuing outbursts of anger, the protests in the street against the police that they see in inner-city environments like Ferguson. But they often don’t understand that these minority communities, in many cases, view the police as the enemy. We want to believe that cops are good guys, but let’s face it, any kid in the ghetto knows different. The poor and the disenfranchised in society don’t believe those movies; they see themselves as the victims, and they often are.

Law enforcement agencies need to eliminate those who use and abuse the power of the law as they see fit. As I said to the Knapp Commission 43 years ago, we must create an atmosphere where the crooked cop fears the honest cop, and not the other way around. An honest cop should be able to speak out against unjust or illegal behavior by fellow officers without fear of ridicule or reprisals. Those that speak out should be rewarded and respected by their superiors, not punished.

We’re not there yet.


It still strikes me as odd that I’m seen as a renegade cop and unwelcome by police in the city I grew up in. Because as far back as I can remember, all I wanted to be was a member of the NYPD. Even today, I love the police life. I love the work.

I grew up in Brooklyn, and shined shoes in my father’s shop when I was a kid. My uncle was a member of the carabinieri in Italy, and when I was 13 my mother took me to see my only surviving grandparent, her father. So I met her brother the carabinieri, who was in civilian clothes but carried a Beretta sidearm. I just marveled at the respect and dignity with which he did his work, and how people respected him. My father, a World War I POW, also in his early years contemplated being a carabinieri, but he had his shoe-repair trade and became a craftsman. As a young boy I had no idea. All I knew was that I was impressed by my uncle’s behavior. This guy could open doors.

It wasn’t that I was completely naïve about what bad cops could be. As a boy of 8 or 9, returning home one evening after shining shoes on the parkway, I saw a white police officer savagely beating a frail black woman with his night stick as she lay prostrate on a parkway bench. She didn’t utter a sound. All I could hear was the thud as the wood struck her skin and bones. (I was reminded of that 70-year-old incident recently when an Internet video showed a white police officer pummeling a black woman with his gloved fist in broad daylight — have police tactics really changed?)

But I also saw the good side of cops. I saw them standing on the running board of a car they had commandeered to chase a thief. When I was a few years older, and I wounded myself with a self-made zip gun, my mother took me to the hospital and two cops showed up, demanding, “Where’s the gun?” I said I had no gun, that I’d just found a shell and when I tried to take the casing off, it exploded. They looked at me skeptically and asked me where I went to school. I said, “St. Francis Prep, and I want to be a cop just like you.” They said, “If you don’t smarten up you’ll never make it that far.” But they didn’t give me a juvenile citation, as they could have. So I knew there were good cops out there.

I wasn’t naive when I entered the force as a rookie patrolman on Sept. 11, 1959, either. I knew that some cops took traffic money, but I had no idea of the institutionalized graft, corruption and nepotism that existed and was condoned until one evening I was handed an envelope by another officer. I had no idea what was in it until I went to my car and found that it contained my share of the “nut,” as it was called (a reference to squirrels hiding their nuts; some officers buried the money in jars buried in their backyards). Still, back then I was naive enough to believe that within the system there was someone who was not aware of what was going on and, once informed, would take immediate action to correct it.

I was wrong. The first place I went was to the mayor’s department of investigation, where I was told outright I had a choice: 1) Force their hand, meaning I would be found face down in the East River; or 2) Forget about it. The rest you know, especially if you’ve seen the movie. After refusing to take money myself, but coming under relentless pressure to do so, I went successively to the inspector’s office, the mayor’s office and the district attorney. They each promised me action and didn’t deliver. The lobbying power of the police was too strong. I discovered that I was all but alone in a world of institutionalized graft, where keeping the “pad” – all the money they skimmed – meant that officers spent more time tabulating their piece of the cake more than as guardians of the peace.

Over the years, politicians who wanted to make a difference didn’t. They were too beholden to the police unions and the police vote. I wrote a letter to President Bill Clinton in 1994 addressing this very issue, saying that honest cops have never been rewarded, and maybe there ought to be a medal for them. He wrote back, but nothing changed. In New York City, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg professed that things were going to change, but in the end he went right along with his commissioner, Ray Kelly, who was allowed to do whatever he wanted. Kelly had been a sergeant when I was on the force, and he’d known about the corruption, as did Murphy.

As for Barack Obama and his attorney general, Eric Holder, they’re giving speeches now, after Ferguson. But it’s 20 years too late. It’s the same old problem of political power talking, and it doesn’t matter that both the president and his attorney general are African-American. Corruption is color blind. Money and power corrupt, and they are color blind too.

Only a few years ago, a cop who was in the same 81st Precinct I started in, Adrian Schoolcraft, was actually taken to a psych ward and handcuffed to a gurney for six days after he tried to complain about corruption – they wanted him to keep to a quota of summonses, and he wasn’t complying. No one would have believed him except he hid a tape recorder in his room, and recorded them making their demands. Now he’s like me, an outcast.

Every time I speak out on topics of police corruption and brutality, there are inevitably critics who say that I am out of touch and that I am old enough to be the grandfather of many of the cops who are currently on the force. But I’ve kept up the struggle, working with lamp lighters to provide them with encouragement and guidance; serving as an expert witness to describe the tactics that police bureaucracies use to wear them down psychologically; testifying in support of independent boards; developing educational guidance to young minority citizens on how to respond to police officers; working with the American Civil Liberties Union to expose the abuses of stun-gun technology in prisons; and lecturing in more high schools, colleges and reform schools than I can remember. A little over a decade ago, when I was a presenter at the Top Cops Award event hosted by TV host John Walsh, several police officers came up to me, hugged me and then whispered in my ear, “I gotta talk to you.”

The sum total of all that experience can be encapsulated in a few simple rules for the future:

1. Strengthen the selection process and psychological screening process for police recruits. Police departments are simply a microcosm of the greater society. If your screening standards encourage corrupt and forceful tendencies, you will end up with a larger concentration of these types of individuals;

2. Provide ongoing, examples-based training and simulations. Not only telling but showing police officers how they are expected to behave and react is critical;

3. Require community involvement from police officers so they know the districts and the individuals they are policing. This will encourage empathy and understanding;

4. Enforce the laws against everyone, including police officers. When police officers do wrong, use those individuals as examples of what not to do – so that others know that this behavior will not be tolerated. And tell the police unions and detective endowment associations they need to keep their noses out of the justice system;

5. Support the good guys. Honest cops who tell the truth and behave in exemplary fashion should be honored, promoted and held up as strong positive examples of what it means to be a cop;

6. Last but not least, police cannot police themselves. Develop permanent, independent boards to review incidents of police corruption and brutality—and then fund them well and support them publicly. Only this can change a culture that has existed since the beginnings of the modern police department.

There are glimmers of hope that some of this is starting to happen, even in New York under its new mayor, Bill DeBlasio. Earlier this month DeBlasio’s commissioner, Bill Bratton—who’d previously served a term as commissioner in New York as well as police chief in Los Angeles—made a crowd of police brass squirm in discomfort when he showed a hideous video montage of police officers mistreating members of the public and said he would “aggressively seek to get those out of the department who should not be here — the brutal, the corrupt, the racist, the incompetent.” I found that very impressive. Let’s see if he follows through.

And legislators are starting to act—and perhaps to free themselves of the political power of police. In Wisconsin, after being contacted by Mike Bell — a retired Air Force officer who flew in three wars and whose son was shot to death by police after being pulled over for a DUI – I’d like to believe I helped in a successful campaign to push through the nation’s first law setting up outside review panels in cases of deaths in police custody. A New Jersey legislator has now expressed interest in pushing through a similar law.

Like the Knapp Commission in its time, they are just a start. But they are something.

(Photo Still of Frank Serpico from Antonino D’Ambrosio’s feature documentary film Frank Serpico: Only Actions Count. Courtesy of Antonino D’Ambrosio / Gigantic Pictures.)

Frank Serpico, “The Police are still Out of Control. And I should Know”., October 23, 2014,

Police in America have No Obligation to Protect the Public.


WASHINGTON, June 27, 2005 – The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that the police did not have a constitutional duty to protect a person from harm, even a woman who had obtained a court-issued protective order against a violent husband making an arrest mandatory for a violation.

The decision, with an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia and dissents from Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, overturned a ruling by a federal appeals court in Colorado. The appeals court had permitted a lawsuit to proceed against a Colorado town, Castle Rock, for the failure of the police to respond to a woman’s pleas for help after her estranged husband violated a protective order by kidnapping their three young daughters, whom he eventually killed.

For hours on the night of June 22, 1999, Jessica Gonzales tried to get the Castle Rock police to find and arrest her estranged husband, Simon Gonzales, who was under a court order to stay 100 yards away from the house. He had taken the children, ages 7, 9 and 10, as they played outside, and he later called his wife to tell her that he had the girls at an amusement park in Denver.

Ms. Gonzales conveyed the information to the police, but they failed to act before Mr. Gonzales arrived at the police station hours later, firing a gun, with the bodies of the girls in the back of his truck. The police killed him at the scene.

The theory of the lawsuit Ms. Gonzales filed in federal district court in Denver was that Colorado law had given her an enforceable right to protection by instructing the police, on the court order, that “you shall arrest” or issue a warrant for the arrest of a violator. She argued that the order gave her a “property interest” within the meaning of the 14th Amendment’s due process guarantee, which prohibits the deprivation of property without due process.

The district court and a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit dismissed the suit, but the full appeals court reinstated it and the town appealed. The Supreme Court’s precedents made the appellate ruling a challenging one for Ms. Gonzales and her lawyers to sustain.

A 1989 decision, DeShaney v. Winnebago County, held that the failure by county social service workers to protect a young boy from a beating by his father did not breach any substantive constitutional duty. By framing her case as one of process rather than substance, Ms. Gonzales and her lawyers hoped to find a way around that precedent.

But the majority on Monday saw little difference between the earlier case and this one, Castle Rock v. Gonzales, No. 04-278. Ms. Gonzales did not have a “property interest” in enforcing the restraining order, Justice Scalia said, adding that “such a right would not, of course, resemble any traditional conception of property.”

Although the protective order did mandate an arrest, or an arrest warrant, in so many words, Justice Scalia said, “a well-established tradition of police discretion has long coexisted with apparently mandatory arrest statutes.”

But Justices Stevens and Ginsburg, in their dissenting opinion, said “it is clear that the elimination of police discretion was integral to Colorado and its fellow states’ solution to the problem of underenforcement in domestic violence cases.” Colorado was one of two dozen states that, in response to increased attention to the problem of domestic violence during the 1990’s, made arrest mandatory for violating protective orders.

“The court fails to come to terms with the wave of domestic violence statutes that provides the crucial context for understanding Colorado’s law,” the dissenting justices said.

Organizations concerned with domestic violence had watched the case closely and expressed disappointment at the outcome. Fernando LaGuarda, counsel for the National Network to End Domestic Violence, said in a statement that Congress and the states should now act to give greater protection.

In another ruling on Monday, the court rebuked the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in Cincinnati, for having reopened a death penalty appeal, on the basis of newly discovered evidence, after the ruling had become final.

The 5-to-4 decision, Bell v. Thompson, No. 04-514, came in response to an appeal by the State of Tennessee after the Sixth Circuit removed a convicted murderer, Gregory Thompson, from the state’s death row.

After his conviction and the failure of his appeals in state court, Mr. Thompson, with new lawyers, had gone to federal district court seeking a writ of habeas corpus on the ground that his initial lawyers had been constitutionally inadequate. The new lawyers obtained a consultation with a psychologist, who diagnosed Mr. Thompson as schizophrenic.

But the psychologist’s report was not included in the file of the habeas corpus petition in district court, which denied the petition. It was not until the Sixth Circuit and then the Supreme Court had also denied his petition, making the case final, that the Sixth Circuit reopened the case, finding that the report was crucial evidence that should have been considered.

In overturning that ruling in an opinion by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the majority said the appeals court had abused its discretion in an “extraordinary departure from standard appellate procedures.” Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Sandra Day O’Connor joined the opinion.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Stephen G. Breyer said the majority had relied on rules to the exclusion of justice. Judges need a “degree of discretion, thereby providing oil for the rule-based gears,” he said. Justices Stevens, Ginsburg and David H. Souter joined the dissent.

Linda Greenhouse, “Justices Rule Police do not have a Constitutional Duty to Protect Someone”, The New York Times, June 28, 2005,