#SayTheirNames: Where Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, And The Top Cases Of 2015 Stand In The New Year
In the year of 2015 we saw headline after headline of cases of police brutality. We hashtagged the numerous names stating #BlackLivesMatter and #WeWontForget but as time moved on, often so did we. As we begin 2016, we’re taking a look back at some of the cases that rocked us last year and giving you an update on where things stand today and what justice lies ahead in the new year.
We are remembering.
On December 21 a grand jury out of Texas announced the decision not to indict officers from the Texas sheriff’s office or jailers at the Waller County Jail for felony crimes in the death of Sandra Bland.
Bland is one name that hit many African American women harder than most we march and fight for. Not because her life mattered more than the others slain, but because in contrast to typically saying a victim could have been a brother, father, or uncle, 28-year-old Bland could have been us.
We recently spoke with Sandra Bland’s family lawyer, Cannon Lambert, and the talk was one full of frustration, emotion and a promise to keep fighting. At the time of the conversation, the jury had not yet disclosed its decision in investigating the Bland case, but Lambert had already revealed a lack of faith in the jury process.
“The grand jury process? That’s a joke,” he stated when asked how he felt about the prosecutor’s investigation.
“Remember this, it’s kind of a cliche that you can indict a ham sandwich. What that means is you can indict anybody for anything you want. It’s easy to get an indictment because you’re the prosecutor. You tell the grand jury what you want to tell them and you get to condition their mindsets, it’s super easy. So when they come back and say ‘…we couldn’t get an indictment that’s why nobody is being charged,’ that’s a farse.”
And here in lies the issue with many cases we’ll take a look at. The evidence prosecutors often deem relevant does not reveal the full nature of the case and is usually in favor of the police officer in question.
One special prosecutor, Darrell Jordan, spoke with the New York Times explaining that Bland’s case was still open and the decision not to indict only referred to Bland’s death. The grand jury will reconvene in January 2016 to discuss whether or not state troopr Brian Encinia, who arrested Bland, should face any charges.
And while this secretive case is ongoing, Lambert and Bland’s family are still fighting to know what really happened behind those jail bars from July 10 to July 13.
Lambert is representing the family in a wrongful-death lawsuit against the state and local authorities which is scheduled to go to trial January 23, 2017. However, Lambert has long had to endure an arduous battle to receive documents that should be readily available to any lawyer in such a case.
“Just as an example, the District Attorney Elton Mathis long ago announced that he was going to address this from the standpoint of it being a homicide. Well, we received communication from the lawyers representing Waller County saying that the instrument of death, the plastic bag, has never been tested for fingerprints. So, I don’t know how it is that the instrument of death would never be tested for fingerprints, but yet you claim to be investigating the situation from a homicide,” said a frustrated Lambert.
Asked how the family is coping with these road blocks, Lambert’s tone turned to one of somber understanding.
“The family has always taken the position that whatever the circumstances, they’re prepared to accept them. They just want to know in truth what happened, but how can you feel confidant about the grand jury or any other investigation when you are not looking at the things that are necessary to look at to make a determination.”
Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and sister Sharon Cooper are pushing forward in their demands for justice with many activists fighting alongside them. As distraught Lambert is over this ruling, he said there is still a way to make change in the system.
“It’s like taking a sledge hammer to a brick wall and slowly but surely you chip away,” he said as he broke down the many policies at the Waller County Jail he is working to destroy.
For instance, in the event of a death of an inmate, such as in Bland’s case, Waller County Jail has it written in its policy that the jailer involved must go home immediately and not write his/her report.
The other jailers and co-workers on the scene must make their reports that day before they leave their shift. Once the jailer involved returns the next day, he can make his report, only after reading through the jail’s deadly force policy. Therefore, the jailer has time to see what his “friends” wrote and make sure it aligns with their report and the deadly force guidelines.
“This is in writing. So how do you change things? Slowly but surely, that’s the type of policy that should never exist because all it does it make sure they cover their behinds. If you let the public know that’s the kind of policy they are paying for and they don’t stand for it anymore that’s the slow but sure method of creating change. It doesn’t happen over night unfortunately. But you do make progress.”
Lambert is also awaiting the release of Prairie View A&M University’s police reports from dispatchers that arrived on the scene the day Bland was taken into custody. It has been an upward battle for Lambert to receive the initial report made by Encinia, but a judge ordered the documents be released no later than January 4, 2016. Whether that court order has been upheld is yet to be seen.
“If we get information that shows that she (the Prairie View officer) was misrepresenting to her dispatcher or we get information that she was saying that Encinia did certain things at the scene, that would be important. We don’t know where this allegation that Sandy kicked the officer came from, if that’s not in their reports that’s interesting, right? Isn’t it?”
“It sounds like potentially they could be making stuff up. So, we’re looking to kind of determine what they claimed back when they first created their reports and what they actually said in the form of their communications over their dispatch,” explained Lambert.
“This should have never happened. Sandy should have never been in jail in the first place, she should have never been isolated they way she was isolated. We want them to be held accountable.”
To do our part in ensuring accountability, Lambert advised everyday citizens not let any form of mistreatment from cops go unreported.
“You’ve got to make a written report so that those things continue to mount up so that the departments start seeing, ‘listen this officer has 14 complaints in the past year, if for no other reason than the fact that he’s having all kinds of problems in interfacing with the people he supposed to be serving we have to either retrain him or get rid of him.’ That’s how you affect change structurally.”
Activists could be seen on the steps of the New York City Hall on December 8, 2015 urging Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton to fire Officer Daniel Pantaleo and take things into their own hands. However, the mayor has said he will let the Justice Department complete its civil rights investigation into the case before intervening. But like many of the families on this list, the Garner family is tired of waiting. The family filed a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request to have access to the New York’s Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) files for Pantaleo. After much fight, a judge finally declared the CCRB must release the documents on July 17, 2014; however more than 17 months later the family and lawyers have yet to receive the records requested.
“I hope they release it,” Eric Garner’s daughter, Erica, told the RollingStone.com. “If you look at what blew the lid off the LaQuan McDonald cover-up, it was the FOIL information.” Last week Erica announced she may be running for governor to go against Staten Island District Attorney Daniel M. Donovan Jr. who is known as the key culprit that led to no indictment of the officers that murdered her father.
A Baltimore judge has set a new date for the Freddie Gray trial slated for June 13, 2015. This announcement comes after the disappointing news of a mistrial on December 16, after jurors could not come to an unanimous decision regarding the first of many officers set to go to trial. The June date will bring William Porter, one of the six officers involved, to court on criminal charges once again. However, it is Officer Caesar Goodson who faces the most serious charge of second-degree murder. Goodson was driving the vehicle when Gray received spinal injuries that led to his death and will go to trial January 6, 2016. While the family was awarded a $6.4 million settlement with the city of Baltimore in September, the criminal case continues in hopes of actionable justice.
Akai Gurley’s case was a needed indictment after multiple officers from Baltimore to Cleveland got off a lot easier. What made Gurley’s case distinctively different from that of Garner who was murdered in the same state? The Brooklyn prosecutor handling Gurley’s case brought Officer Peter Liang before a regular grand jury and not that of a “special grand jury.” In Garner’s case the prosecutor used a “special” selected grand jury since an officer was on trial, but the prosecutor in Gurley’s case handled things completely different.
Gurley’s case reminds us of what many family lawyers express: it’s easy to get an indictment if the right and full evidence is shown to the right people – often it is not. An indictment was just the beginning for the Gurley family. Officer Liang has been charged with assault, criminally negligent homicide, manslaughter, official misconduct, and reckless endangerment. The trial against him is scheduled to begin on January 19.
November 22, 2015 marked the one-year anniversary since the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice. The family filed a federal lawsuit against the Cleveland Police Department in December 2014. After much pressure from the public, the county has finally brought the case to a grand jury. However, as of last week Rice’s family asked the Department of Justice (DOJ) to review the prosecutor’s handling of the case.
The family’s lawyers claim that Prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty has acted with prosecutorial misconduct from releasing reports saying Rice’s shooting was objectively reasonable to mishandling experts hired by the Rice family. The two key officers involved in the shooting were allowed to read prepared statements without being cross-examined, while it is said the family’s experts were ripped apart. The family would like McGinty removed from the case. Right now, Rice’s family is patiently hoping for a DOJ intervention and decision from the grand jury to see if any charges will be filed.
On November 12,2014 Cassandra Johnson, Tanisha Anderson’s mother, dialed 911 seeking help for her 37-year-old bipolar and schizophrenic daughter. The next day Anderson died from “sudden death associated with being physically restrained” by Cleveland police. While Anderson’s name is not as widely discussed, her face is often one of the multitudes seen in police brutality protests. Cleveland officers have said Anderson kicked while handcuffed and that they struggled to take her in for a medical examination, while the family states the officers slammed her to the ground. Anderson died while handcuffed in police custody.
A medical examiner ruled the death a homicide and Johnson and her lawyers brought a civil lawsuit against the police department. Much like Sandra Bland’s lawyer, Johnson told Cleveland’s Fox8 news she hopes to change policies and training on police interaction with the mentally ill. A criminal investigation is ongoing and the officers involved have been internally disciplined for not calling an ambulance sooner.
John Crawford III
Crawford was another black boy with a toy gun that turned deadly. On August 5, 2014 police were called because Crawford allegedly stood in aisles with a rifle in hand pointing it at customers. When Officer Sean Williams and Sgt. David Darkow arrived and commanded Crawford to put the rifle down with no response, Williams shot him. The gun was a BB gun off of a Wal-mart shelf.
In September of 2014 a grand jury decided not to indict Williams and Darkow. However, a Department of Justice investigation is ongoing and the two officers who appeared on the scene could still possibly face charges if the DOJ finds federal laws were broken. As of last week, the Crawford family’s lawyers are fighting against the officers’ “stay request” which would delay the discovery proceedings. Lawyers worry that in this time key memories and testimony will be hampered.
Scott could be seen on video attempting to run away from South Carolina police officer Michael Slage on April 4, 2015. While it was clear Scott was trying to flee, Slage’s use of deadly force in the pursuit was unnecessary in the eyes of most viewers. Last week, Scott’s family asked a judge to approve its wrongful death settlement with North Charleston, S.C. The city officials agreed to a settlement of $6.5 million back in October and if approved it will be released to the family. The civil settlement does not change the criminal murder charges Slage, who is in a S.C. detention center, currently faces.
“Our family is pleased that we have resolved the civil portion of Walter’s death with the City of North Charleston,” Walter Scott’s brother, Anthony, told CBSNews.com. “While nothing can replace having Walter in our lives, the City of North Charleston historic actions ensure that he did not die in vain.”
Boyd is another name that often gets forgotten as years go by, but Chicago has not forgotten. In protesting for justice in the LaQuan McDonald murder, Boyd’s death has also been continuously brought before decision-makers. On December 9, Chicago activists attended the Chicago Police Department’s monthly board meeting requesting that the officers involved with the deaths of both McDonald and Boyd be fired.
Officer Dante Servin shot and killed Boyd in 2012 and just this April a judge dismissed involuntary manslaughter charges against him, saying Servin should have been charged with a more serious offense. The prosecutors aimed too low, so a not guilty charge was delivered. The Independent Police Review Authority advised the firing of Servin to no avail.
Clark is one of the more recent deaths by police in 2015. Clark, 24, was shot and killed by Minneapolis police on November 14, 2015. Officers say Clark was a suspect in a domestic assault call and after a struggle ensued with the officer he was fatally shot. However, many allege that Clark was handcuffed at the time. A federal investigation is underway to conclude whether or not police violated Clark’s civil rights.