Hands Up, Don’t Shoot – A Modern History of Police Shooting Tragedies

Hands Up, Don’t Shoot – A Modern History of Police Shooting Tragedies

This story begins in Birmingham, Alabama. The governor ordered hundreds of National Guard troops and state troopers to assist city police who were struggling to maintain order after four young black girls were killed at a local church. Police arrested nineteen people on the night of September 15th, all black. Most were charged with disorderly conduct or refusing to obey the lawful commands of police.

As police and protesters struggled all over the city, a young black teen, Johnny Robinson, got into a verbal confrontation with a group of white teens. The group of white teens were in a car and looking for trouble. Robinson and his friends were on foot.

The boys in the car waived a Confederate flag and threw soda bottles at Johnny and his friends. Johnny responded by throwing a rock. He missed and instead hit an innocent motorist.

Cops were already deployed throughout the city. Almost immediately after throwing the rock, a police car pulled into the alley where Johnny was standing. Johnny began running away when Officer Jack Parker allegedly shot him in the back with a shotgun. Johnny died in the street.

We say Parker allegedly shot Robinson in the back because a Grand Jury cleared Officer Parker. He was never charged.

This story didn’t take place in 2017 although it easily could have. Instead it took place over 50 years ago in 1963.  The four black girls killed in the church received national attention. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. attended the funeral services of three of the girls. But little attention was paid to the shooting of Johnny Robinson.

The focus at the time was why the government wasn’t doing enough to protect black children at church from senseless violence. We think the government should have been as interested in why police were in shooting unarmed black kids.

Times haven’t changed much but at least the public is finally paying attention to people killed by police officers. Especially people who were killed while unarmed or running away. Criminal juries still give wide deference to police officers but cell phone and body camera footage is beginning to level the playing field.

The public desperately wants to believe that the police are keeping us safe. All too often, video footage shows the opposite.

Video Evidence and Police Misconduct

The tide really began to turn in 1991 when video footage surfaced of four Los Angeles police officers beating Rodney King. The community was outraged although largely protested without violence. When the officers involved were acquitted of criminal charges, a week long riot began in Los Angeles. That riot would take the lives of 63 people, injure over 2000 and left entire neighborhoods burned and looted.

By 1999, even without video, the public was beginning to scrutinize police shootings. That year, a young 23-year-old immigrant from Guinea, Amadou Diallo, was shot 41 times by four New York City Police officers as he reached for his wallet. Diallo died at the scene on the steps to his own apartment. No gun was ever found.

Diallo wasn’t committing a crime at the time of his arrest. He wasn’t resisting arrested. He wasn’t running from police. And he wasn’t armed. Diallo was shot because they thought his wallet was a gun.

An internal police investigation determined that the officers had acted appropriately. A Bronx Grand Jury, however, disagreed and indicted the four officers for 2nd degree murder and reckless endangerment.

The prosecutor who tried the case against the officers summed up the facts nicely,

“In the 1990's in Bronx County, in Albany County, or anywhere else a human being should have been able to stand in the vestibule of his own home and not be shot to death, especially when those doing the shooting are police officers sworn to protect innocent people.

When these four defendants, Kenneth Boss, Sean Carroll, Edward McMellon, and Richard Murphy killed Ahmed Diallo in a hail of 41 bullets in the early morning hours of February 4, 1999, at his home at 1157 Wheeler Avenue in the Bronx, Amadou -he was also called Amadou -- was just 22 years old. He was five feet six inches tall and he weighed 150 pounds. Physically, he was not an imposing man.

And he lived a very simple life. Amadou lived with two roommates in apartment 1R, on the first floor of a two-story building at 1157 Wheeler. He worked 10 to 12-hour days, six days a week, sold videotapes and things like that from a table directly in front of a convenience store in lower Manhattan. He had the consent of the owner to do that.

On February 3, 1999, at about 10:30 p.m., just hours before he was killed, Amadou left the store. He took the subway and he arrived in the Bronx shortly before midnight. Shortly after that he arrived at his apartment, where he spoke with his roommate, one of his roommates, about their utility bill.

Less than an hour later, Amadou Diallo would be dead. Less than an hour later, he would be standing in the cold, clear night air in the vestibule of his home, unarmed, minding his own business and doing nothing wrong. These four defendants, Boss, Carroll, McMellon and Murphy, in plainclothes and driving an unmarked car, would pull up outside of his building. They would get out of the car. They would not call out any commands, like, "Stop! Police" or "Don't move!" They would then fire a total of 41 shots at Amadou Diallo, and Amadou Diallo would die.”

Because of the outrage and pretrial publicity in the Bronx, the court ordered the case be transferred to Albany, New York, a city over 150 miles away and with much less ethnic diversity. 

The officers were acquitted but the city paid $3,000,000 to Amadou Diallo’s next of kin. His family brought him back to Guinea for burial. (The family has helped start a charitable foundation called the Amadou Diallo Foundation which promotes racial healing and offers scholarships to African immigrants to the United States.)

Diallo wasn’t an isolated incident. Horror stories continue to pour in throughout the country.

In the early morning hours of January 1st, 2009, Oscar Grant was coming home from a New Year’s Eve celebration with his friends. They had celebrated in San Francisco and returned to Oakland around 2:00 am on BART commuter train. Because of the New Year’s Eve holiday, BART was offering extra trains to get revelers home safely.

Police say they received a call of 20 people fighting on the train platform of a BART station in the Fruitvale section of Oakland. One of the responding transit officers was Johannes Mehserle. Although not first to arrive, the scene was still chaotic when he arrived.

Everyone has different versions of events. The version of the cops is certainly different than that of the people they were arresting and detaining. Grant was arrested and taken to the ground. Police say he was resisting.

At some point, as two officers struggled with Grant, Mehserle stood up, unholstered his .40 caliber SIG Sauer police duty weapon and shot Grant in the back. As he lay dying on the station platform, Grant uttered, “You shot me! I got a four-year-old daughter!”

Oscar Grant died 7 hours later at the Highland Hospital in Oakland. He was unarmed.

Many believe that the shooting was a cold-blooded assignation. Mehserle and BART have a different version. They said it was an accident. They seized on witnesses that claimed Officer Mehserle was shocked and “stunned” after the incident. One said Mehserle said, “Oh my God!”

The police version is that Mehserle was frightened by the chaos and in the heat of the moment went for his Taser but instead drew and fired his handgun.

The event received worldwide attention, mostly because of the cell phone videos of the shooting and chaos that night. The subsequent rioting in Oakland also received significant attention.

The video evidence was crucial at trial. Did Mehserle execute Oscar grant in cold blood? That is murder. Or was Mehserle so frightened that he became criminally negligent (manslaughter) and fire his gun instead of a Taser. Was a Taser even warranted?

Mehserle was charged with murder. He was arrested in Nevada on January 13th where he says he was hiding because of death threats. Alameda County District Attorney Tom Orloff justified the homicide charge saying, “What I feel the evidence indicates is an unlawful killing done by an intentional act and from the evidence we have there's nothing that would mitigate that to something lower than a murder.”

Because of the pretrial publicity and rioting, an Alameda County Superior Court judge ruled that Mehserle could not get a fair trial in Oakland. His trial was moved almost 400 miles away. Much to the chagrin of Grant’s family, that resulted in a jury with no blacks.

Mehserle’s trial was highly charged and emotional. A cell phone video recorded one of the officers at the scene prior to the shooting saying, “Bitch ass nigger, right?” Another video showed an officer punching a detained suspect two minutes before the shooting. 

Yet another witness testified that Mehserle said, “Oh shit, I shot him” immediately after the shooting. That is what the law calls an “excited utterance” and may be considered as evidence that the shooting was accidental.

Accidental, even if true, doesn’t make the shooting legal, moral or justified.

At the trial Mehserle took the stand and said the shooting was accidental.

The trial judge offered two interpretations of Mehserle’s “Oh my God” or “Oh shit” statements to the jury. They could determine that Mehserle’s shocked reaction was evidence that he truly did accidently shoot Grant with his pistol instead of his Taser. Or it could be evidence that Grant was shocked when he realized there were many witnessed to the incident, several with camera phones.

After two days of deliberation, the jury found Officer Johannes Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter. Although a felony, the crime for which he was convicted only carried a maximum 4 year sentence. Community outrage again spilled over 370 miles away in Oakland.

Mehserle was sentenced to 2 years in prison. With two for one good time credit in California, he served about one year.

Like many convicted of crimes, Mehserle exercised his right to an appeal. What is shocking, however, is that he claimed that he wanted the felony off his record so that he could return to police work! On appeal, his conviction was upheld. A unanimous California Supreme Court declined to even hear his final appeal.

An independent investigation of the BART Police Department handling of the January 1st incident found officers failed to follow recommended procedures, failed to work as a team, and had lapses in both tactical communication and leadership.

A civil suit against BART resulted in a payment of $1.5 million for Grant’s daughter and $1.3 million for his mother. A claim filed by his father went to trial and the father received nothing. BART elected not to settle that case. At trial, jurors evidently believed that the father had been serving a long prison sentence that he effectively had no relationship with his son.

These are but a few of the stories of senseless acts of violence at the hands of police officers. There are still the stories of Freddie Gray who died in the back of a police van in Baltimore, Michael Brown who was killed by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, 12-year-old Tamir Rice killed by police in Cleveland and Walter Scott who was shot in the back while running from police in Charleston, South Carolina.

While most of the victims of police shootings are people of color, sometimes the victims are white and the officers black. Many in the nation were shocked when on July 15th, 2017 Officer Mohamed Noor shot and killed Justine Diamond, a white woman from Australia. Almost everyone agrees that Diamond was not acting aggressively and was simply standing outside her home.

Prosecutors have not yet determined whether to charge Noor, although Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman says of the shooting, “it didn't have to happen. It shouldn't have happened.”

Few believe that Officer Noor wanted to execute Diamond. But plenty of experts are now weighing in on an expedited training process that put Noor on the street so quickly and partnered him with another inexperienced officer.

Holding Police Accountable for Wrongful Police Shooting Incidents

The cases above show the difficulty in criminally prosecuting police officers for misconduct. Whether or not prosecutors are biased, American juries are still reluctant to put cops in jail for wrongful shootings. The tide is slowly changing but for most victims of police shootings, the change is too little, too late.

If there is any silver lining, it is the rise of civil lawsuits against police departments and jails. From a civil context, it doesn’t matter as much if the officer was scared, over-reacted, was poorly trained or acted with true malice. Proving actual malice, however, can help with punitive damage awards.

Police departments have a legal duty to properly train their officers, properly screen candidates, and supervise them. Although we can’t control whether a criminal jury will find an officer guilty of murder, we can help hold all those accountable for the emotional and physical pain and suffering their actions cause.

After a shooting, many families seek a local community activist lawyer. Others will find a personal injury lawyer. While well intentioned, neither of those moves is normally the correct one.

Civil rights lawyers are useful in insuring the community learns of what is happening and in bringing much needed changes to policies, procedures and oversight. They are also useful in making sure that prosecutors so their jobs. Even if a jury ultimately acquits, the stories of these senseless shootings must be told.

The local personal injury lawyer who brags about million verdicts is similarly ill-equipped to handle a police shooting case. These cases require years of experience and often cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to prosecute. 

Instead, when they learn how difficult the case has become, many personal injury lawyers pressure families and victims to quickly settle. Often these cases are settled for far less than they are worth.

And what are these cases worth? It is impossible to bring someone back to life. Valuing that life is also a difficult. Oscar Grant will never see his daughter graduate from grade school. He won’t be able to see her dress up for her high school prom. To walk her down the aisle should she get married. Sean Bell, shot by police in 2006 the day before his wedding, never got to see his bride in her wedding gown. And Justine Diamond, the Australian woman shot in Minneapolis, was getting ready for her wedding and new life in the United States.

Insurance companies know that most lawyers don’t have the financial resources to take these cases to trial. They also know that they can outspend most lawyers meaning they can get better scientists, better expert witnesses.

That is where we can help. The lawyers we use for in custody death, serious injury and police shooting cases are all experienced. Most lawyers will never see an in custody death case. Don’t let your case be their first.

We also take cases throughout the United States. We aren’t beholden to local courts or prosecutors and are not afraid of taking on the establishment.

Our civil rights / wrongful death team of lawyers is dedicated to the tireless pursuit of justice on behalf of the many victims of police misconduct. Of course, not every police shooting is wrongful but many are. If you or a loved one was shot or seriously injured by a police or corrections officer, call us.

All inquiries are confidential and without obligation.  For more information, contact us online or call 866.836.4684.

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