A hot-button issue heats up again

The use of force by police is inarguably one of the most sensitive and highly scrutinized aspects of law enforcement. Since the 1991 videotaped beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers, both the police and the public have become even more sensitive to what has long been a hot-button issue.

As the King beating showed, decisions by officers to use force in a given situation  whether justified or not  can have seismic repercussions for a police agency, including an erosion of public trust, huge payments for damages in liability claims brought by victims of excessive force, disciplinary actions against officers, and the establishment of external review and oversight boards, to name just a few.

In the worst-case scenario, the use of force, particularly when it results in death, can spark civil unrest, as it did in St. Petersburg, Fla., this year. Two riots broke out following the fatal shooting of a black teen-ager by a white officer during a traffic stop Oct. 24. Officer James Knight and his partner stopped a car for speeding and, according to police, the driver, 18-year-old Tyrone Lewis refused Knight’s request to roll down his window and failed to comply with other commands.

Knight fired several rounds at the vehicle after Lewis allegedly tried to run the officer down. However, witnesses claimed that Knight, an eight-year veteran, was standing with his hands on the hood when the car inched forward and his partner yelled for him to shoot.

The incident erupted into violence, as hundreds of black residents took to the streets to protest the shooting. Rioting left a dozen people injured, including two police officers, and resulted in at least a score of arrests. Fires were set in a 25-block area in the city’s predominantly black south side, destroying nearly 30 properties, including a police substation. Police Chief Darrell Stephens ordered a 72-hour “state of emergency,” barring sales of guns and gasoline in containers. Hundreds of police officers from a number of jurisdictions were mobilized to patrol tense streets.

Violence flared anew Nov. 13, when a Pinellas County grand jury ruled that Lewis’s death was a justifiable homicide that was not racially motivated. Scattered gunfire left two officers wounded, including one who was hit when a bullet struck a police helicopter, forcing it to make an emergency landing.

At this writing, the situation remains tense in St. Petersburg, where racial animosity has flared since the early 1990s, as police and the U.S. Justice Department further investigate the incident and officials and residents attempt to mend racial divisions.

Racial tensions also ran high in Pittsburgh after an all-white jury acquitted a white police officer of involuntary manslaughter in the death of a black motorist. Just weeks earlier, a judge declared a mistrial in a related case against two other white police officers. The jury verdict in Allegheny County Court on Nov. 13 cleared Officer John Vojtas of the suburban Brentwood Police Department in the death of Jonny Gammage, who died of positional asphyxia when officers subdued him during a traffic stop.

Vojtas was tried separately because he claimed self-defense in the incident. His lawyers said Gammage’s death was an accident that could have resulted from exhaustion or an adrenaline rush rather than force used by police. By the time Gammage died, they added, Vojtas had already left the scene to get treatment for his thumb, which the suspect had bitten during the struggle.

On Oct. 18, Allegheny County Court Judge David Cashman declared a mistrial in criminal proceedings against two other officers charged in the death because county coroner Dr. Cyril Wecht made inappropriate statements during his testimony as he was being cross-examined by defense lawyers. Brentwood police Lieut. Milton Mulholland and Baldwin police Officer Michael Albert, whose lawyers claimed they were unaware their tactics could result in death, now face a second trial, which will probably be held in early 1997. 

Gammage’s death fueled calls by Pittsburgh residents for a citizen review board to oversee the investigation of complaints against police. The City Council voted in October against setting up such a body. Instead, a public hearing was scheduled to determine whether to place the issue before voters.

In California, in an incident that drew comparisons to the King beating, two Riverside County sheriff’s deputies were disciplined in September for their roles in the videotaped beating of an illegal immigrant couple after the victims were prone on the ground. Deputy Tracy Watson was fired  and is appealing the action  while his partner, Deputy Kurtis Franklin, was suspended for 20 days.

The incident stemmed from a high-speed chase of a pickup truck loaded with Mexican illegal immigrants that was taped by a TV helicopter crew. The tape showed that when the truck stopped, the immigrants scattered, but Watson and Franklin caught up with the couple and beat them.

California Highway Patrol Officer Marco A. DeGennaro, who had joined in the chase, also was fired after he admitted to lying about a tape recording he made during the incident. The patrolman, who said he made the tape for his girlfriend, is heard on it telling a CHP supervisor that deputies had “whaled” on the suspects while another CHP officer is heard calling the immigrants “wetbacks.” DeGennaro said he lied about the tape’s existence to the FBI and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department because he feared CHP officials would be angry if he disclosed its existence.

The beating of a black man by off-duty white Indianapolis police officers in August led to the resignation of Police Chief Donald Christ and strained already poor relations between police and the city’s black community. The incident occurred when a group of officers, most of them members of an elite police unit, emerged from a downtown bar, taunted women, then beat up and arrested a black man as well as a white man who had come to his aid.

Christ resigned after it was disclosed that he had attended a baseball game earlier in the evening with some of the officers. The incident led to departmental disciplinary action ranging from termination to suspension and demotion, and criminal charges against four of the officers implicated in the attack.

City officials also recruited outside help  in the form of the Police Executive Research Forum and Charleston, S.C., Police Chief Reuben Greenberg  to review how the IPD handles complaints and disciplines officers.

And in New York City, hundreds of demonstrators picketed a Bronx courthouse and a police precinct to protest the acquittal of Officer Francis X. Livoti on a charge of criminally negligent homicide for killing a man with an illegal chokehold in 1994. While a judge cleared Livoti of criminal charges, saying the prosecution had failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, the Police Department is still pursuing formal disciplinary charges against Livoti that could result in his firing.

The charges allege that Livoti, who was the subject of several citizen complaints alleging brutality and excessive force, “wrongfully used a chokehold” that contributed to the death of Anthony Baez.

Baez died in December 1994 after a struggle with Livoti and others cops that began when a football hit a patrol car parked outside the Baez family home.

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Published in Law Enforcement News
Dec. 31, 1996.
© 1996, LEN Inc.  [ Subscribe.]