In the early years of the Cold War, anti-Communist filmmaker Albert Jekste produced a somewhat overwrought documentary entitled “My Latvia” depicting the Soviet conquest and occupation of that Baltic State. The most memorable sequence in the film presented, in deadpan, roll-call style, a roster of Soviet-appointed civic officials and their previous occupations.
Without exception, each had been a career criminal, generally in the same field as his new “legitimate” profession. For example, an eleven-time felon named Janis Asnis was appointed inspector of the national police.
While the United States isn’t Soviet Russia, the practice of “police accountability” in contemporary America bears more than a passing resemblance to Soviet-era bureaucratic practices. One suitable illustration was offered by the selection of Charles Ramsey, the incumbent Philadelphia Police Commissioner and former Chief of Police in Washington, D.C., to head of the Obama Administration’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Ramsey has followed a Soviet-style career path, earning promotions and plaudits while presiding over an unbroken succession of bloody failures as a police administrator.
Like their Soviet antecedents, American law enforcement agencies are notoriously opaque and accountability-aversive, and even in that company Ramsey has distinguished himself as an obstructionist. The most recent enhancement of that well-earned reputation occurred on March 18: Several people were arrested after they confronted Ramsey at a town hall meeting about the December 15 police shooting of unarmed motorist Brandon Tate-Brown.
Brown was stopped in the early morning hours after police noticed that he was driving without his headlights on. According to the police account, the officers noticed a handgun lodged between the console and driver’s seat and ordered Williams out of the vehicle. When he resisted being handcuffed, a fight broke out. Brown was supposedly shot in the back of the head while making what police are taught to describe as a “furtive motion” in the direction of the gun.
District Attorney Seth Williams quickly cleared the officers, insisting that “The law allows an officer to use deadly force if he believes deadly force will be used against himself or others.” According to Williams, the officers’ judgement was validated by three surveillance videos, ballistics results and four eyewitness accounts.
Williams has not made the videos public, insisting that his office is “not like the public library.” He did show excerpts to Tanya Brown-Dickerson, the victim’s mother, and twenty religious and community leaders. Their perception of the event, predictably, differed dramatically from that of the DA.
“How is it our six eyes can see my son fall down, face-down, not on the right side of the car, and not reaching into the car, and they can’t see that is beyond me,” the victim’s mother said after watching the video in the company of her husband and the family’s attorney. The family is demanding public release of the video, and disclosure of the names of the officers involved in the shooting.
“I want transparency,” Mrs. Dickerson explained at a press conference outside City Hall. “We don’t see transparency.”
The mandate of the White House Task Force over which Ramsey presides is to provide institutional transparency. Its advertised objective is “to strengthen community policing and fortify the trust that must exist between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.” The fatal shooting of Brandon Tate-Brown offered a splendid opportunity to put those ideals into practice: After the DA declined to file charges, Ramsey could have identified the officers involved in the fatal shooting, and released the video evidence to the public, explaining that he was doing so in the interest of transparency and building public trust.
Rather than doing so, Ramsey lived down to the worst “My Latvia”-style expectations. Following the disturbance at the March 18 town hall meeting, Ramsey mocked the demonstrators and insisted that the protest vindicated his decision to withhold the names of the officers who had killed Tate-Brown.
“They got their little moment on TV,” sneered President Obama’s Police Accountability Czar.
Department of Justice report
Five days after the town hall meeting, the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) released a detailed report into the use of lethal force by the Philadelphia PD. That document is a portrait of a deeply dysfunctional department in which police killings are routine – nearly 400 documented fatal shootings over a seven-year period, in which 55 of the victims were unarmed.
“We need to lower all the numbers,” Ramsey said at a press conference following release of the report, before laying all the blame at the feet of the public: “Folks need to stop killing each other.”
Actually, the report made it clear that “folks” – meaning the public at large – weren’t responsible for the increase in lethal violence. It is the police who need to stop killing people with heedless abandon.
“In 2013, amidst a drop in violent crimes and assaults against the police, the number of Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) officer-involved shootings (OIS) was on the rise, as was the number of fatal OISs,” points out the report’s executive summary. This development was not flagged by the Philadelphia PD or by the municipal government, but “uncovered and reported on” by the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper.
Seeking to palliate public outrage, Ramsey “requested technical assistance” from the Justice Department. The COPS office conducted a commendably thorough examination of the department—and delivered a candid indictment.
The study concluded that Philadelphia police officers “do not receive regular, consistent training on the department’s deadly force policy” and that de-escalation training for new recruits “has been little more than lecture and observations.”
While the Philadelphia PD, like nearly every other municipal police department, has a detailed, written use of force policy – PPD directive 10 — and a multi-layered protocol for reviewing lethal force incidents, nearly every such incident is deemed “justified” – despite the fact that most of them appear to violate both existing case law and the department’s own rules.
The most telling criticism of the department is found on page 40 of the COPS report:
“Officers we interviewed throughout the department believed that being in fear for their life was sufficient justification to use deadly force while mostly neglecting the objectively reasonable standard set forth in PPD policy and [the 1989 US Supreme Court ruling] Graham v. Connor. The dictum `in fear for my life’ was the most common theme throughout all of our conversations with PPD officers and sergeants regarding deadly force policy. Yet, notably, the word `fear’ does not appear in PPD directive 10 nor is it supported by current case law. As noted in Deorle v Rutherford, a simple statement that an officer is in fear for his life is not an objective factor.”
Under PPD directive 10, the standard for justifying lethal force “is far more restrictive than `fear for my life,’” notes the COPS review, but this is not addressed in annual legal and policy briefings for officers.
Philadelphia has the fourth-largest municipal police department in the country. It patrols a city one-fifth the size of New York, and has a proportionately smaller police force. Yet in many recent years, Philadelphia has witnessed more police shootings than New York City.
When he requested the Justice Department review, Ramsey insisted that his department follows “best practices” regarding the use of lethal force. This is certainly the case — if one assumes that the objective is to preserve impunity, rather than to protect the public.
This is not the first time Ramsey – in a grudging concession to public outrage – has asked for “technical assistance” from the Justice Department. Last time he did so, he was dealing with a mess left by his predecessor – and the feds weren’t terribly concerned about cleaning it up.
Problems Extend Back to Ramsey’s D.C. Years
When he became Chief of Police in Washington, D.C. in 1998, Ramsey inherited a force that had led the country in officer-involved shootings during most of that decade. A series of Washington Post exposes in 1998 found that it was an established practice by the D.C. Police to shoot unarmed drivers whose conduct was not life-threatening.
Between 1993 and 1998, D.C. Officers “fired their weapons at cars 54 times in response to alleged vehicular attacks, killing nine people and wounding 19,” reported the Post. “In the overwhelming majority of those cases – and in all of the fatal shootings – the driver was unarmed.” None of those cases involved a driver who was trying to run down a police officer. Several were the outgrowth of routine traffic stops involving unarmed motorists. One of the victims was a 16-year-old suspected of running a traffic light.
The lengthy and in-depth investigation by the Post documented “a pattern of reckless and indiscriminate gunplay by officers sent into the streets with inadequate training and little oversight.” Furthermore, the department had kept the facts about officer-involved shootings “obscured from public view” through secret investigations and official reports “that become public only when a judge intercedes.”
“In a small hearing room closed to the public, nine of every 10 shootings are ruled justified by department officials who read the reports filed by investigating officers but generally hear no witnesses,” the Post recounted.
In this fashion, the department blithely ratified lethal acts that would have been prosecuted as criminal homicides if carried out by people other than the government’s privileged enforcement caste: “An off-duty police officer out walking his dog in August 1995 fired 11 times while trying to stop an unarmed motorist who had hit a utility pole and left the scene of the accident. An off-duty police officer fishing in May 1995 shot an unarmed man three times after arguing with him on the banks of Rock Creek. In August, an officer ended a police chase of an irrational truck driver who had rammed several cars by firing 38 times into the truck’s cab, killing the unarmed driver.”
According to investigative journalist James Bovard, federal oversight of the D.C. police was intended to contain the PR damage, rather than reduce the bloodshed. Between 1994 and 1997, Bovard observes, “Washington police failed to count almost a third of the people killed by their own officers…. Even when police review boards ruled that shootings were unjustified or found contradictions in officers’ testimony, police were not prosecuted. In one case, a police officer shot a suspect four times in the back when he was unarmed and lying on the ground.” The Justice Department’s investigators “never bothered interviewing the shooter.”
When asked by the Washington Post about the ongoing rampage, the US Attorney for the District of Columbia insisted that he found no “pattern of problematic police shootings and could not recall the specifics of cases he personally reviewed.”
“I can’t honestly say I saw anything that was excessive,” insisted US Attorney Eric Holder, the future US Attorney General and Ramsey’s comrade in the quest for “police accountability.”
Ramsey’s appointment to head the White House task force on police reform was greeted with incredulity by civil liberties activists who remember the DC police crackdown on protesters during anti-IMF demonstrations in the early 2000s. The most notorious episode of overkill involved the summary arrest of more than 400 people – demonstrators, journalists, legal observers, unwitting bystanders – at Pershing Park.
The District eventually paid $8.25 million to settle multiple lawsuits arising from that incident. This followed an even larger settlement paid to victims of an even more draconian crackdown in 2000.
Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) describes what happened when police arrived to deal with peaceful protesters who had staged a sit-in at the intersection of 20th and K streets:
“A bus pulls up. A platoon of MPD officers get off. They have their badges obscured either by removal, taping over or punching out numbers (all common practices under Ramsey). The leader of the platoon shouts something to the effect of `let’s do this’ and they charge the protesters who are immobilized and cannot flee, with their batons out and beating them. The officers smash in their faces with their batons, breaking noses and teeth. Blood is pouring out.”
Since this happened before the availability of cell phone video recorders, Ramsey stolidly denied what had happened for several years. Eventually, the PCJF obtained the video, “which, it turned out, had been turned over to the MPD’s General Counsel’s office directly after the incident.”
After lying, concealing evidence, and obstructing the investigation for years, Ramsey refused to conduct an official inquiry or discipline any of the officers involved in the police riot. Instead, the taxpayers assumed the burden of paying a $13.7 million civil settlement.
“If the president’s idea of reforming police practices includes mass false arrests, brutality, and the eviscerating of civil rights, then Ramsey’s his man,” concludes Verheyden-Hilliard.
Actually, this makes a perverted kind of sense — in precisely the same way it made sense for the ruling junta in Soviet-dominated Latvia to appoint an eleven-time felon to be chief inspector of the national police.