Sunday, August 16, 2015

'Morality and Humanity' & The Myth of Police Hesitancy in America

Nsaa Dance Company members perform-[Photo Mary Iuvone/Times]
It was a pretty warm but pleasant Saturday in Trenton, New Jersey for yesterday's 5th annual Trenton African-American Cultural Festival.

The event drew thousands of people out to Cadwalader Park to celebrate a sense of community with live musical performances, dancing and of course, food.

As the successful festival's executive director Latarsha Burke told's Rich Cuccagna:

"Every year, we want the festival to focus on our rich history, our culture, and our contributions to America," said Burke. "We want the festival to not only entertain our children, but to also build their character and instill within them a sense of pride. It's about education, empowerment, and entertainment. It's our responsibility to deliver that."

The smiles, celebratory atmosphere and sense of cultural pride that reflect some of the positive parts of this state capital are just the kind of thing this small city that sits almost equidistant between New York and Philadelphia needs more of.

Especially in the aftermath of the shooting of a 14-year old Trenton student named Radazz Hearns by two police officers near Monument Elementary School at about 10:20pm on Friday August 7th.

14-year old Radazz Hearns
The shooting of Hearns (pictured left) has made national media headlines not only because of his age, but because as-yet unconfirmed eyewitness reports that claim that the teen was unarmed and running away from police at the time he was shot a total of seven times in the legs and buttocks. 

An updated article originally posted on the Website of The Trentonian three days ago by Penny Ray reports that two members of the NJ State Police and a Mercer County Sheriff's officer originally responded to a call of gunshots fired at about 10:15pm.

When officers arrived at the scene, they saw three males (including Hearns) walking and when they stopped to question two of them, Hearns took off running simply "Because he sensed trouble" according to his attorney Samuel A. Anyan, Jr.

One of the NJ state troopers and the Mercer County Sheriff's officer took off after him and both of them fired shots, hitting the teen seven times; leaving him in the hospital in stable condition.

While the investigation is still underway, as Ray's Trentonian article reports, Hearn's attorney claims, “Several witnesses have come forward, and the consensus seems to be that he was not armed when he was shot while running from police,” Anyan said. “It appears there’s no justification for this shooting.”

Part of what's unfortunate about this case in particular (besides an apparently unarmed 14-year old boy being shot while running away from police), is that if the Trenton Police Department were adequately funded and not operating at a third of it's capacity, officers more familiar with the specific area might have known some of the individual residents of the immediate neighborhood and known who could be relied upon to help them gather information at the scene.
With effective community policing in place, Hearns might have been more familiar with the officers who responded and been less inclined to just take off running; adequate funding for a more beefed-up Trenton PD presence on the street might have prevented or deterred the multiple gunshots that brought them to the scene at 10:15pm at night in the first place.

But these kinds of incidents can't simply be laid at the feet of the police department or the Trenton municipal government; the reasons a 14-year old is lying in a hospital bed with seven gunshot wounds from the police run deeper and are fare more complex.

Trenton's challenges stem in no small part from the decades of reverse migration from a city once heavily populated by thousands of well-paid white and blue collar working professionals, small business owners and ranks of college-educated residents who've moved away in response to the steady drain of manufacturing and small industry that once supported a much more vast municipal tax base; back when the city was one of the nation's leading supplier of ceramics, steel, linoleum, rubber and cable among other products.

The Lower Trenton Bridge spanning the Delaware River, 1st built in 1806
Like many other American cities that were once manufacturing hubs with vast labor forces, Trenton has struggled to redefine itself in the wake of the explosive post-World War II economic boom that began to steadily decline in the 1950's and early 1960's.

Trenton's story is America's story.

Competition from foreign companies with access to cheaper raw materials, low-cost pools of non-unionized labor and lower wage standards resulted in U.S. manufacturing and industry becoming an increasingly smaller part of overall American GDP.

The rapidly shrinking municipal tax base and mass exodus to the suburbs of huge percentages of the talent pool and "human capital" that are the backbone of strong communities, left cities like Trenton with under-served populations with high unemployment rates struggling to pay for basic city services like schools, street repairs, fire protection and of course - police.

Perhaps more than any other factor, the elimination of police services in the city of Trenton over the past three decades has drastically impacted the quality of life. Between shrinking city budgets and the incompetent and corrupt administration of former Mayor Tony Mack, the Trenton Police Department has been forced to lay off a staggering two thirds of it's workforce.

Leaving the city dependent upon federal subsidies to help fill gaps in the police budgets and also pay for NJ State Police to help patrol the city - like the the two State Police officers who responded to the scene on the night of Friday August 7th when Hearns was shot. 

But the reality is that the incident with Hearns is also magnified through the lens of the current state of community-police relations in America, which as we know is not good; particularly where the use of excessive force against African-American and Hispanic men is concerned.

So even though there were thousands and thousands of members of law enforcement around the nation on Friday August 7th doing their jobs within the law and with respect and integrity for the citizens they encounter, the heightened state of affairs resulting from the numerous high-profile incidents of innocent and unarmed African-Americans being killed by police has left people across the nation on edge - on both sides of the law.

This is illustrated by another incident which occurred hundreds of miles to the south only hours before Hearns was shot in Trenton.

Janard Cunningham charged with attempted murder
Like the overwhelming majority of Americans, regardless of race, religion or ethnic background, I was deeply troubled by the recent news of a white Birmingham, Alabama detective who was viciously beaten unconscious with his own handgun by an irate 34-year old African-American driver named Janard Cunningham (pictured left) after a supposedly routine traffic stop in Roebuck, Alabama back on Friday August 7th. 

According to a story by CNN's Nick Valencia, the as-yet unnamed detective was on his way to interview the witness to a robbery when he pulled over a vehicle with two occupants that was driving in an unsafe manner.

At some point while trying to call for backup, Cunningham defied the detective's orders to stay inside his car, exited the vehicle and began assaulting the detective without warning after demanding to know why he'd been pulled over. 

Birmingham detective lying unconscious after assault
Remarkably, as you may have heard or seen, some witnesses at the scene actually took photos (pictured left) of the injured and bloodied detective lying unconscious on the ground and posted them to social media sites with demented comments like "Pistol whipped his ass to sleep" making light of his brutal assault.

Thankfully the detective was treated for injuries to his face and head and released from the hospital the same day, and the driver Cunningham, who fled the scene, was quickly arrested and charged with attempted murder.

It's of interest to note that Cunningham has a record that includes robbery, assault and unlawful breaking and entering; so it's not like he was just some motorist who was pulled over for something like failure to use a turn signal to change lanes like Sandra Bland.

And let me be perfectly frank, as a black guy who knows all too well how cautious, calm and respectful one must be in this country when stopped by a member of law enforcement for a traffic violation, the overwhelming vast majority of black men in America are smart enough to never even THINK about getting out of a fucking vehicle during a traffic stop unless an officer specifically tells you to.  

If Cunningham is found guilty, which he obviously will be considering his record and the heinous nature of his assault, then they need to lock him up.

As my friend JB an ex-NYPD cop once told me, you would NEVER want your grandmother, sister, nephew, niece, child or any other member of your family to have the misfortune of running into someone like Cunningham - because any person who will intentionally assault a police officer has no boundaries that civilized society recognizes. Think about that for a second.

So Cunningham wants to be a tough guy and pistol whip a police detective? He's about to get a rude awakening in the Alabama state pen.

If you read this blog with any regularity, or watch news more than once a week (or can count to three), you know we've got some serious issues with institutionalized bias within the ranks of law enforcement and in the criminal justice system in America.

The absolute last thing we need are these deranged nut-bags (and I don't care what color or ethnicity they are) who think they're making some kind of personal statement by taking a swing at a police officer, or worse, shooting at an officer like that deranged wack-a-mole Ismaaiyl Abdullah Brinsley who drove up from Baltimore and shot two innocent NYPD officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, who were just sitting in their cruiser in Brooklyn; which he considered some kind of "payback" for the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island.

Eric Frein being taken into custody
Or Eric Frein (pictured left), that anti-government "Patriot" gomer who shot at two Pennsylvania State Troopers, Corporal Bryon Dickson who was killed, and Alex Douglass who was seriously injured, at the Blooming Grove barracks in northeastern Pennsylvania in order to "ignite a fire in the hearts of men" as he told his parents in a letter.

Idiots like those men only make it more difficult for average law-abiding citizens to try and stem the tide of excessive use of police force in this nation.

They also complicate the already complex task of trying to get police to understand that just because people demand justice for those wrongly assaulted or killed by police, doesn't mean they don't support or respect police - we can hold police accountable to a higher standard and still respect them.

In the wake of the incident in Birmingham, the injured detective made global headlines by telling CNN that he was reluctant to use his weapon against Cunningham during the traffic stop because he feared backlash from the media his actions might cause, saying:

"A lot of officers are being too cautious because of what's going on in the media," said the officer, who asked to remain anonymous for the safety of his family. "I hesitated because I didn't want to be in the media like I am right now."

As I said, I sympathize with the detective; but doesn't he understand many of these cases in the media are in the media in the first place because of officers who allow ingrained personal bias to trump police procedure and professionalism?

I mean, there's a hundred other things I'd like to blog about, but when I hear about a 17-year old kid from Michigan like Deven Guilford who drops his brother off at church then ends up tasered, shot and killed minutes after he flashes his brights at an officer's vehicle; I have to blog about it.

Birmingham, Alabama Police Chief AC Roper
As CNN also reported, the Birmingham Police Chief AC Roper (pictured left) said of the bystanders who stood by and took cell phone pictures of the detective assaulted by Cunningham:

"It really speaks to the lack of their morality and humanity," the chief said. "People commented on the pictures in a celebratory fashion ... disregarding that this public servant has a family and is committed to serve in some of our most challenging communities."

Now I agree 100% with Chief Roper's comments that the unprovoked assault on the detective and the subsequent witnesses who took photos of the poor guy rather than try and help him reflected a lack of both morality and humanity.

But my concern is that both his and the injured detective's comments did not directly address, or factor in some of the many egregious violations of the legal and human rights of innocent individuals, who are disproportionately people of color, that have taken place in cities and towns across the United States at the hands of police officers.

As the injured detective himself said, many of these incidents have made global headlines recently, like African-American driver Sandra Bland in Texas, who ended up asphyxiated with a garbage bag in a jail cell after being pulled over for a failure to use a turn signal.

Or African-American driver Samuel Dubose on July 19th in Cincinnati who was pulled over by former University of Cincinnati PD officer Ray Tensing for not displaying a license plate on the front of his car properly and was fatally shot in the head at point blank range with his hands up moments later.

Or white 17-year old teenager Deven Guilford back in February of this year when he flashed his brights at Eton County Sheriff's Sgt. Jonathan Frost on a road near Grand Ledge, Michigan and ended up fatally shot minutes later after a verbal disagreement resulted in Frost tasing the boy while he was face-down on the road next to his car before shooting and killing him.

When that Birmingham detective tells CNN that he thinks he and other members of law enforcement are hesitant to use force against a suspect because they are apprehensive about how the media will treat them, I honestly have to wonder - do police officers have any idea how terrifying it is for law abiding civilians when they encounter overly aggressive members of law enforcement who are clearly abusing the reach of their authority in order to intimidate, or provoke so that they CAN use their authority? 

I would love to be able to ask Chief Roper or his detective (or New York PBA President Patrick Lynch) about a troubling encounter that an Episcopal priest and his ordained wife recently had with two police officers on an interstate after leaving their home in Washington, D.C. for a trip down to Florida to visit relatives.

To the best of my knowledge, this story first appeared on the DailyKos Website back on Monday August 3rd after a first-person account of the encounter was published on a Facebook page; Shaun King of the Daily Kos was given permission to re-post it so the story could reach a wider audience.

Rev Peter Schell & his wife
Reverend Peter Schell, his African-American wife Rondesia (pictured left), their 2-year old son, and Rondesia's African-American brother were driving in what I presume is the state of Maryland, Virginia or North Carolina; he does not say specifically as he obviously does not want to invite retribution by police officers.

Two police officers in an unmarked white Dodge Charger used the same tactic used by Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia back on Friday July 10th to pull over Sandra Bland near Hempstead, Texas.

According to a detailed account of the story posted on Facebook, Reverend Schell says the white Charger suddenly sped up behind them and began tailgating their vehicle extremely closely, like Bland, Schell moved into the left lane to allow the vehicle to pass by them; not knowing that it was a police vehicle.

Just like Trooper Encinia, the two officers in the unmarked Charger moved into the lane behind Reverend Schell's vehicle and flashed their lights to pull them over.

I strongly suggest you go to Daily Kos and take a couple minutes to read Reverend Schell's personal account of the bizarre interrogation one of the two officers subjected him to after asking him to exit his car and get into the police cruiser.

What's clearly disturbing is not just the bizarre accusatory tone used by the officer when questioning Reverend Schell, it's the fact that the when the officer's first pulled them over they didn't ask for Reverend Schell's license (the white driver of the vehicle responsible for the "failure to signal a lane change"), the officer approached the passenger side of the vehicle and knocked on the window where Schell's African-American brother-in-law was sitting and asked to see HIS license first.

That's before the officer advised Reverend Schell that he was going to be issued a warning for the failure to use a turn signal and instructed him to exit the vehicle so he could be questioned inside the police vehicle; and before he then questioned Schell's wife at length.

Read the account for yourself, but I think it's clear it wasn't about the failure to signal a lane change at all.

After all, it was the officer's using the bogus tactic of using speed and driving up in an aggressive manner directly behind a driver at a dangerously close distance to the rear bumper as a means to entrap a driver into doing exactly what the law actually requires when an emergency vehicle approaches from behind - pull aside and allow it to pass.

Just like Texas State Trooper Encinia with Sandra Bland, the officer that pulled over Reverend Schell and his family actually attempted to accuse them of a traffic violation for doing what the law requires them to do in most states.

Check it out for yourself on the triple A site.

I looked through the "Move Over" laws for most states, they're all basically similar, here's the text of the move over law for the state of Georgia which is typical:

"State law requires drivers approaching stationary emergency vehicles displaying flashing lights, including towing and recovery vehicles, traveling in the same direction, to vacate the lane closest if safe and possible to do so, or slow below the posted speed limit to a speed reasonable for road and traffic conditions."

That's the law. That's what Sandra Bland did. That's what Reverend Schell did.

So why would any policeman pull over a driver who complies with that law?

Perhaps that's a question best answered by that unnamed Birmingham detective who worries that he and thousands of other police officers around the nation are "hesitant" to do their jobs because of the unfair way the media treats police officers.

Like those unknown police officers who pulled over Reverend Schell and his family and interrogated them because they were a mixed race couple.

Or Texas State Trooper Encinia, Eton County Sheriff's Sgt. Jonathan Frost, former University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing, or Cleveland Police Officer Timothy Loehmann who jumped out of a squad car seconds after pulling up to a park and shot and killed 12-year old Tamir Rice who was playing with a toy plastic gun in broad daylight.

I'd say the actions of each of those men were severely lacking in the same 'Morality and Humanity' the chief of the Birmingham Police Department criticized bystanders taking pictures of an unconscious detective for not having.

Perhaps, like many things in life, relations between the community and the police are two sides of the same street; a street on which both sides of the law must take care to tread carefully. 

But as for this sense of "hesitancy" that the unfortunate injured detective spoke of to CNN, which conservative media pundits will surely use to bemoan our lawless society and call for loosening our already lax gun laws, according to the latest data from, as of this morning, August 16, 2015 - a total of approximately 733 different people have been killed by members of law enforcement in the United States.

There doesn't seem to be anything hesitant about that at all.

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