Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Byoune Killing Raises The Question: Do Police Rush to Judgment When They Investigate Themselves
Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Inglewood, California Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks faces a dilemma that many big city police chiefs face when their officer’s gun down unarmed civilians under dubious circumstances, and those civilians in almost all cases are young African Americans or Latinos. In this case the victim was 19 year-old Michael Byoune. The deep suspicion is that police routinely bend, twist and massage testimony and evidence to whitewash and ultimately exonerate officers. The way to counter that is to conduct a thorough and honest investigation and if the officer(s) are found guilty of wrongdoing impose swift punishment. But that almost always draws loud protests from police unions and some city officials.

The Byoune killing by any standard was a bad shooting. In fact, it evoked instant comparisons to the killing of bride-groom-to-be Sean Bell by NYPD officers in 2007. Bell, as Byoune, was a young African-American male. Bell and Byoune were unarmed. There is no indication that he, as Bell, was involved in any gang or criminal involvement. From tapes and news clips, Inglewood police officers riddled the car that Byoune was in with bullet holes. The car Bell was in was also riddled with gunfire.

The police killings of young blacks such as Bell and Byoune spark momentary outrage and demands for federal or local investigations, and prosecutions of the officers. That presents two problems.

The first is getting police officials to conduct an investigation that’s not weighted heavily toward the police version of the events when there is considerable witness evidence and testimony that contradicts the officer’s version. The second is getting a prosecution and then a conviction of the officers involved. The acquittal of the three NYPD officers charged in the shooting death of Bell was stark proof of that.

The frequent media portrayal of young blacks as crime-prone, drug-dealing gangsters, the gang and murder violence that continues to wrack many black neighborhoods in Los Angeles and other cities and the glorification of the thug lifestyle by many young blacks reinforces negative racial perceptions. This makes many whites, non-blacks, and even many blacks guarded, suspicious and fearful of blacks. It's still virtually impossible to convince many jurors, that some police lie, beat, maim, and even kill unarmed suspects. That goes for judges too. A New York Supreme Court judge acquitted the officers charged in the Bell shooting.

Since there are no ironclad standards of what is or isn't acceptable use of force, or what degree of force is excessive, it often comes down to a judgment call by the officer. That creates just enough doubt that if the victim no matter how innocent he may appear to be was not the aggressor, than he at least put up enough resistance to the arrest to justify some use of force to restrain him, or worse the use of deadly force.

The near universal failure of police officials to take punitive action against officers that overuse deadly force almost always starts with the investigation. Eye witnesses are not sworn.
And invariably when evidence contradicts the officers' version of events, police officials reflexively rely on the testimony of the officers to sustain their version of what happened.

This insures that police officials will rule in nearly every case that the officers did not violate any department policies or procedures on the use of deadly force. Chicago is an immediate and tragic example of that. The past couple years, Chicago police have shot a civilian on average once every 10 days. More than 100 people have been killed in the last decade; 250 others have been injured. But only a tiny fraction of shootings are ruled unjustified -- less than 1 percent, police records and court testimony indicate. The secrecy in which the investigations are conducted and the perfunctory ruling that a shooting was in policy means that it is virtually impossible to determine how many are in fact legitimate. The Chicago police that killed were cleared almost in every case and that pattern is the same in dubious police shootings in other cities.

A fair and impartial investigation into the circumstances surrounding police killings, and that certainly includes the Byoune killing, must have one aim. That is to find out what went so horribly wrong that police had to resort to gunplay and then insure that there’s no repeat of the tragedy. These are the tough questions that then should be routinely asked in a truly impartial police investigation.

Did the officers give a warning before opening fire? Did they attempt to find out if the victim had a gun or weapon, or even in the case of Byoune was his car a deadly weapon, and was it an actual threat to the officer? Do eyewitnesses corroborate the officer’s version of the shooting?

The Byoune and Bell killings, as well as those of the other young blacks, demand answers, honest answers. Police officials should give them. When they don’t they simply reinforce the suspicion that police rush to judgment to exonerate wrongdoing by their own.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).

Monday, May 12, 2008

Byoune Killing Casts another Bad Glare on Inglewood
Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Inglewood police chief Jacqueline Seabrooks did the right and smart thing. She headed off an almost certain demand from outraged family members and community activists for a federal investigation into the killing of 19-year-old Michael Byoune. Seabrooks expressed condolences to Byoune’s family and promised a full and vigorous investigation into the killing of Byoune by Inglewood police officers. Seabrooks got ahead of any possible call for federal intervention for two good reasons. The killing for some observers evoked instant memories of the gunning down by NYPD officers of Sean Bell in 2007. The would-be bride groom, Bell, like Byoune, was a young African-American male. Bell and Byoune were unarmed. There is no indication that he, as Bell, was involved in any gang or criminal involvement. From tapes and news clips, Inglewood police officers riddled the car that Byoune was with bullet holes. The car Bell was in was also riddled with gunfire.

There is no indication whether the officers issued any warning to Byoune before opening fire. Byoune was killed when he attempted to flee for his safety after shots had been fired from unknown shooters in a block adjacent to the parking lot where he was killed.

Now that Seabrooks has promised a full probe into the killing, the questions that she and Inglewood city officials must answer are: did the officers follow standard procedure and give a warning before opening fire? Did they attempt to find out where the shots were coming from and if indeed Byoune was involved in the shooting? Was there any evidence that the car that Byoune was in was a car that fit the description of a car or cars that the shooters were driving? Did eyewitnesses corroborate the officers version of the shooting, namely that they thought Byoune might have been involved in the shooting? Did the vehicle that he was in actually endanger the officer’s lives as he attempted to exit the parking lot?
Were the officers involved in the shooting removed from their street assignments pending the outcome of the investigation? And if, any officer (s) involved in the shooting are found guilty of violating department policy and procedures on the use of force, what of any punishment will the chief impose on them?

This is an especially crucial and sensitive point for in nearly all officer involved shootings, even the most questionable ones, and even where officers are found to have used excessive force, the punishment has often been minimal or totally lacking. This reinforces the deep suspicion that police officials look for ways to exonerate officers rather than to hold them accountable for violating department policies and procedures. This in turn deepens the fear and distrust that many African-Americans and Latinos have toward the police.
There are many more questions that Inglewood officials must ask and answer about the Byoune killing. It’s even more important that accurate answers be given especially given that Inglewood police have been hammered in past years for incidents involving excessive force and charges of misconduct.

They include the videotape beating of Donovan Jackson in 2002, followed by a series of questionable shootings of unarmed suspects, and the allegation that of some Inglewood officers engaged in shakedowns and trading sexual favors. This is yet another prescription for a full blown crisis of confidence in the methods of policing and the professionalism of the department.

The shooting of Byoune by any standard was a bad shooting. And though there is yet no evidence that Inglewood police officers acted with reckless endangerment in killing Byoune, the Byoune family and others will be watching closely to see what if anything Inglewood police officials and city officials ultimately do about his death.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).

Monday, May 5, 2008

Gross Overkill on a Supervisor’s seat
Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Talk about gross overkill. What else could anyone call dumping a record $2.5 million dollars (with $1.5 million more on the way) by a special interest group in this case Los Angeles labor unions into the campaign kitty of State Senator Mark Ridley-Thomas. The unions get away with this naked effort to buy a supervisor’s board seat through a thinly veiled skirt of the campaign finance rule limits by funneling the cash through independent committees. It’s all perfectly legal, and it’s all perfectly a sham to nab a seat.
Local unions have always pumped lots of cash into the campaigns of candidates that they believe are the most labor friendly. But they generally stayed within some recognizable bounds of spending proprieties. The Ridley-Thomas spending plunge obliterates that fine line.
It’s no surprise why. The supervisors manage the biggest county government in the nation. The more than 100,000 employees on the county payroll are the largest in the country. But the county is also tens of millions in the budget hole. That means two things. There will be deep slashes in spending on health and social services. With a projected nearly $200 million budget deficit for the county health department, for instance, the board talks of closing nearly all of the dwindling number of county-run health clinics but one. Other strapped county service agencies will be hit hard to make up for the shortfall.
That in turn means employee freezes, cuts in employee benefits and wages, and in an even worse case scenario, layoffs of county employees. Labor unions want and need the most dependable labor friendly guy they can get to keep a hawk like watch over any and every effort to gut employee contracts and staunch the pain of employee cuts. The $4 million that the labor unions are shoving to Ridley-Thomas is added insurance that they’ll get a supervisor who will keep a sharp eye on the supervisors when they start welding their budget slashing machete. With millions at stake in labor benefits, and jobs, the cash the unions are shelling out to grab the election seems like a relatively small price to protect fully labor’s back.
Parks is the last one that unions want on the board. He is a business friendly, fiscal conservative and he would be much more likely to take a long look at union contracts, and pensions and to fight anything that’s construed as excessive giveaways to county unions. He loudly protested that this kind of heavy handed spending on one candidate in a local race decidedly un levels the election playing field. He screams that the hefty union pay-off to Ridley-Thomas is proof that he’s in the hip pocket of labor.
His complaint can’t be waved off. Parks is no slouch when it comes to fundraising. He nearly doubled Ridley-Thomas’s total in the first quarter of this year, but much of it came from business groups. And it still pales in comparison to the king’s ransom Ridley-Thomas got from labor. In hard campaign dollar terms it amounts to six dollars for every one dollar that Ridley-Thomas got from non-labor campaign donors.
Ridley-Thomas’s suddenly swollen campaign war chest means that Parks now will have to work that much harder to pump the spigots from business groups and other campaign donors. The prospect that Parks could get even more cash from business groups is another big reason that labor upped the dollar ante for Ridley-Thomas. This is important for yet another reason. Running for an L.A. city or county office has become virtually a millionaire’s derby, and politicians spend nearly as much of their time arm-twisting, cajoling, pleading with, and jawboning donors to pony up money. A massive check from a special interest group gives the recipient a huge leg up over his or her opponent. They can bankroll tons of crucial ads, TV spots, and churn out reams of literature touting bragging about their accomplishments, make inflated election promises, and most importantly, beat up on their opponent. Almost certainly, much of Ridley-Thomas’s media hit will be to depict Park’s as a business industry shill.
For his part, Ridley-Thomas scoffs at the charge that he’ll be a compliant yes man on the board for labor unions. He says that he has business support too. He does. But the endorsements of a handful of prominent business leaders and the relatively small amount of money they’ve contributed to his campaign hardly add up to any semblance of balance between business and labor interests.
When the supervisors get around to making the inevitable tough decisions on labor contracts, wages and benefits, and possible job cuts, the hard fact is that labor will expect Ridley-Thomas to toe its line on resisting any cuts or give backs, no matter how bad a shape the county’s finances are in, and how fiscally prudent the cuts are.
But there’s much more at stake for labor in getting Ridley-Thomas on the board than just insuring a reliable labor vote in the coming board battles over pay and benefit issues for county employees. Los Angeles labor unions have been in the forefront of the continuing fight nationally for a living wage for newly organized union employees from security guards to hotel workers. The battles have been hard fought and labor’s successes have been mixed. With the economic meltdown and cites and counties facing massive budget cuts, the fight for a living wage will intensify, and the success or failure that unions have in that fight in L.A. County will be closely watched by unions in other states.
Labor unions can’t be faulted for doing what they do best and that’s tossing their cash at a candidate that they think will do their loyal bidding once in office. Business groups do the same. The problem is that the far over the top kind of heavy cash that the unions shoved out to Ridley-Thomas reinforces the deep public suspicion and even public disgust that candidates and their votes are for sale to the highest bidder. That may not be the case with Ridley-Thomas. At least he says not anyway. Yet, with $4 million in his pocket the voter’s eyes should stay riveted on him to see if he really means it.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and frequent contributor to the Sunday Viewpoints. He can be reached at