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Kangarooed

Police shoot now, duck later

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Eleven years ago, several hundred people shouted down Deputy Police Chief Glen Mowrey at a Charlotte-Mecklenburg NAACP meeting at First Baptist Church-West.

The people in attendance at the meeting were enraged over a string of shootings of unarmed African-Americans by police. This time the victim was motorist James Willie Cooper, 19, who was shot during a traffic stop after he reached into his waistband, a move an officer construed as Cooper reaching for a gun.

Over and over again in these cases, the department dug its heels in. Unlike the rest of North Carolina's big cities, which almost universally invite the state bureau of investigation in to investigate police shootings to avoid the appearance of a conflict on interest, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department insisted on investigating itself. The result was always the predictable one -- that the officer did nothing wrong.

So civil rights leaders marched and sang and eventually the Charlotte City Council created the police civilian review they demanded. They thought they'd won a great civil rights victory, but they were wrong.

The review board was supposed to rip the veil of secrecy off of the police shootings that for two decades had torn the community apart. Unfortunately, no one looked too closely at the rules governing the board, so no one noticed that the review process was rigged to produce a predetermined outcome. What the city council actually created was a bizarre kangaroo court, a useful public relations tool primed to clear police of wrongdoing and to give them an added layer of legal protection.

Izabella Skorska didn't know any of this when she took her case before the board. In 2005, a SWAT team killed her husband, Alex Ehrenburg, a double amputee in a wheelchair, after he repeatedly refused the medical help they were trying to give him. They say he pointed a gun at them, but the story was murky. What Skorska didn't know was that the board would only hear what the police wanted them to hear.

According to its bylaws, the 11-member review board makes its decisions based on a "summary" of events provided by the police chief. There are no rules governing what facts and evidence the chief must include, so the review board sees whatever he wants them to see.

It's the equivalent of a defendant in a homicide case having sole discretion over what a jury will see. The burden of challenging the police version of the story falls to victims like Skorska, but here's the catch -- they have no access to police files. So the truth is whatever the police say it is.

Review board members can ask questions and request additional information, but without a full look at the case, knowing what to ask can be difficult.

In the Ehrenburg case, the review board got a multi-page summary from police that painted a picture of a man who wouldn't put down a gun despite gentle cajoling from SWAT officers who were forced to shoot him. Police radio tapes of the incident paint a somewhat different picture of what happened that contradicts parts of the department's story. (See our Feb. 21 cover story "Blown Away," archived at www.charlotte.creativeloafing.com)

But the review board never heard the tapes and voted not to go to a full hearing, where board members and the complainant would have been entitled to more information.

When the board votes not to hold a full hearing, the department then announces to the public that the review board supported the way police handled the case. It's also one more piece of ammo the police department can use in court if complainants like Skorska file civil suits against them. If a board of citizens found the police did nothing wrong, why should a jury?

Sources involved with the review board process at the time the Ehrenburg case was heard were angered by what the board wasn't told.

"You could tell they got together and got their stories straight," says one source about the police.

Review board members say they are routinely warned by police that if they vote to go to a full-blown hearing to learn more about cases, it could encourage complainants or their families to file costly civil suits against the department and against officers who aren't paid much to begin with. The pressure to vote against complainants is enormous, they say.

And in the absence of information giving them a reason to vote to go to a full hearing, the board rarely does.

Over the last three years, the review board had heard 10 cases, but voted to go to a full-blown hearing only once.

Even when the board does go to a full hearing, their findings, which are sent to the city manager, are not public information.

I'm convinced that officers probably aren't at fault in most of these shooting cases, but it's difficult to believe that's the case in virtually every case over two decades, as the department has claimed.

The review board process needs a major overhaul, as do the department's protocols on outside review by other agencies. If none of these officers are ever at fault, how dangerous could the truth really be?

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