FEATURE: The Many Eric Garners of Georgia

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bou bou et al(APN) ATLANTA — The police murders of Mike Brown of Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner of New York may be dominating national headlines–having inspired a diverse national movement against police brutality–but here in Georgia, there has been a long history of the same that has been equally as deserving of concern.

 

A TIMELINE OF POLICE BRUTALITY AND MURDERS

 

Atlanta Progressive News has determined that Georgia police have killed at least 168 people, to date, over the past ten years, though the actual number is likely much higher.

 

There is no way to know the actual body count because no government agency is responsible for keeping track of it.

 

APN has arrived at the number 168 by cross-referencing three different citizen-led initiatives to compile data on police homicides: Wikipedia’s List of Law Enforcement Killings in the United States, Fatal Encounters (a database created by a professor at the University of Nevada), and crowd-sourced database started by the news website Deadspin.

 

Even more difficult to quantify are instances of police brutality.

 

There have been 208 allegations of excessive use of force levelled against APD officers since 2011, Atlanta Police Department spokesperson Gregory Lyon told APN.

 

The Davis Bozeman Law Firm is “at the point now, that if you’re not paralyzed or dead we can’t take your case because we can’t keep up.  It has to be so severe, because there are just so many incidents of people getting slammed on their face, getting their teeth knocked out.  I can’t even imagine how many times per hour that stuff happens,” attorney Mawuli “Mel” Davis, who represents many victims, told APN.

 

“The underlying issue is the disrespect for Black life, Brown life, and poor life.  So it doesn’t always manifest in a death.  Sometimes it manifests in a cussing out, an elbow, a pistol whip. The worst case is death,” Davis said.

 

Here is a list of some of the worst cases of police brutality and homicide committed by Georgia cops over the last ten years:

 

2005:

Lester Zachary, 45, was living in Columbus, Georgia, when he called a Veteran’s Administration (VA) hotline seeking help for his mental illness.  The VA alerted Columbus Police, who confronted Zachary at his home and shot him with bean bag rounds that caused fatal internal bleeding.

 

2006:
Georgia’s most notorious recent case of extreme police violence occurred when three narcotics officers raided the home of 92 year-old Kathryn Johnston.  With a no-knock warrant, they were authorized to enter the house unannounced, in plainclothes, leading Johnston to think they were intruders.

 

She fired a warning shot, and they fired back 39 rounds, killing her on the spot.  An officer then planted marijuana in the house to cover up their botched drug raid.  The cover-up was discovered, along with evidence that the officers had lied to obtain the warrant.

 

The City settled for 4.9 million dollars with the family, and the incident led to the creation of the Atlanta Citizens Review Board.

 

2007:

Ron Pettaway, 26, was fatally shot in the back of the head by Fulton County Police who were responding to a call about a fight at the club where Pettaway was with his brother. The brother was also shot, but recovered.  Neither man was armed or involved in the fight.

 

2008:

College Park Police were investigating a report of a man making threats outside of an apartment complex, when they pursued Antoine Cantrell.  He ran into some woods to get away, but an officer followed and fatally shot him.  The officer claimed his gun fired accidentally as he was trying to arrest Cantrell, but the autopsy report showed a gunshot wound at close range to the back of Cantrell’s neck, execution-style.

 

2009:

Atlanta police officers stormed the Atlanta Eagle, a gay leather bar in Atlanta’s Midtown neighborhood.  Atlanta Progressive News broke the news of the raid.  Without a warrant, they kicked in doors and forced patrons face-down on the floor, where police kept them for two hours while illegally searching them, harassing them with anti-gay slurs, threatening worse violence, and handcuffing them even though they were not under arrest.

 

Officers slammed one man, who was deaf, into a pool table, when he did not comply with their oral instructions.  Officers drew a gun upon bartender Chris Lopez when he had hands in his pockets.

 

Dozens of patrons have settled with the City, which also issued an apology to the named plaintiffs.  The City also enacted several procedural changes related to raids.

 

2010:

Melvin Williams was standing next to his parked vehicle in the yard of a home in East Dublin, Georgia, when a police officer confronted him for what he later called a “traffic stop,” even though Williams was not driving.

 

The officer attacked Williams, who tried to throw him off.

 

Then the officer fatally shot Williams and shouted, “I shot one.”

 

Williams was Black and the officer was White.

 

It was later revealed that over half of East Dublin’s police force, including this officer, lacked the power of arrest because they had not completed essential police training.

 

2011:

Ariston Waiters, 19, was confronted by a Union City Police Officer who was called to a residential area on a report of teenagers fighting.

Waiters tried to leave the area, but the officer overtook him and forced him facedown onto the ground.  As he attempted to handcuff Waiters, the officer shot the boy in the head at point blank range, saying later that Waiters had tried to grab his gun.

 

2012:

A Clayton County police officer shot Trevion Davis, 13, in the head while investigating a burglary.  Davis was holding a BB gun and standing in the yard of the house that a neighbor reported was being burglarized.

 

The officer did not face charges; instead three other boys accused of participating in the alleged burglary were charged with Davis’s murder.

 

2013:

Statesboro police accompanied a code enforcement agent to the home of George Pryor, 61.

 

Half an hour later, the officer shot Pryor dead.  Authorities still have not released the name of the officer who shot Pryor, nor any details of what could have possibly occurred to warrant his killing.

 

2014:

In May, Habersham County police with a no-knock warrant raided a home where 19 month-old “Bou Bou” Phonesavanh lay sleeping in a playpen.  Police launched a stun grenade into the pen and the explosion put the child in a coma and permanently disfigured his face.  No contraband was found in the home, nor were any arrests made.

 

WHO KILLS AND WHO GETS KILLED

 

These are just a few of the many cases of brutalization and murder committed by Georgia police contained in the databases that APN consulted for this report.

 

The scope of demographic information logged in these databases varies, so it is hard, without more extensive research, to derive concrete patterns from them.

However, there is one government source that, while limited, does show that getting killed by the police is not an equal-opportunity tragedy in Georgia.

 

The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) collects data on “justified homicides,” which it defines as “The killing of a felon by a peace officer in the line of duty… [or] The killing of a felon, during the commission of a felony, by a private citizen,” according to FBI spokesperson Stephen G Fischer, who corresponded with APN over email.

 

Reporting justified homicides is totally voluntary, subject to the decisions of individual law enforcement agencies.  The end result is, of course, a data set that is anything but complete.

 

Between 2005 and 2015, only 23 out of 628 Georgia law enforcement agencies reported police homicides to the FBI, and many of them only reported a few cases.  Altogether they reported 83 police homicides.

 

What agencies have reported over the past ten years shows a stark racial divide in terms of who’s killing and who’s being killed.

 

Victims of police homicide were Black in 64 percent of reported cases.  Only 34 percent were White, while Asians made up two percent of police homicide victims.

 

The demographics of police who committed homicide are the inverse: 69.5 percent were White, 23.5 percent were Black, two percent were Asian, and five percent were listed as “unknown.”

 

Whites who were killed ranged in age from 18 to 67, while Blacks were as young as 13 and as old as 88.

 

FEDERAL FAILURE

 

Even if every agency in Georgia complied with the FBI’s reporting program, the data collected still would not account for all police killings, because there are plenty of cases that fall outside of the definition of a “justified” homicide (however loosely interpreted that term may be).

 

That is why U.S. Congress passed the Death In Custody Reporting Act of 2000.  The law required the U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ) to collect data on deaths that occurred in the process of arrest, local jails, and state prisons.

 

But the new law didn’t spell out how USDOJ should do this.  It took the Department three years to even get a program in place and it ultimately resulted in data even less useful than the FBI’s data.

 

Part of the problem was that rather than establishing its own designated staff in each state, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS)––the bureau within the Department tasked with the project–– sought out law enforcement agencies willing to function as regional coordinators who would collect and submit the information.

 

That turned out okay in some states.  In Georgia, it went nowhere.

 

BJS initially reached out to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) to be the State Regional Coordinator for the program.

 

“They never said a hard and fast no, we just didn’t get anywhere,” Andrea Burch, a statistician for BJS, told APN.

 

“It was one of those things where we made several attempts and it circulated from one person to another, and after a while we just moved on.”

 

Burch joined BJS in 2010, after the GBI attempt dead-ended.  She resorted to retroactively identifying arrest-related-deaths in Georgia from media reports.

 

The result?  BJS’s official report says that, between 2003 and 2009, there were eight arrest-related deaths in Georgia.  A number, Burch admits, is totally meaningless.

 

Georgia was one of only three states that did not report to BJS at all.

 

The national uproar in the wake of the Mike Brown and Eric Garner cases prompted Congress to renew the Death In Custody Reporting Act this past December 2014.

 

So the Department of Justice is now required to revamp the program, and states can lose some federal funding if they do not comply.  What measures Department will take in order to do a better job is unclear at this point.

 

“Powers way above my head are going to decide how to implement it going forward,” Burch told APN.  “What I do know is that what we did in the past with the voluntary reporting, it doesn’t work.”

 

STATE SOLUTIONS

 

Given this history, Georgia Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) thinks many of the solutions have to happen on the state level.

 

As reported by APN, Sen. Fort introduced his legislative package for police policy reform last week.

 

He’s soon to introduce a bill that would require local law enforcement agencies to report all deaths involving a police officer to the GBI, while requiring the agency to make the information accessible to the public.

 

“We do not know in this country how many people are killed who come into contact with police,” Sen. Fort told APN.  “We need  this information in order to get a wider perspective of what’s going on in our communities and to hold law enforcement accountable.”

 

“My intent is to take the energy from what has happened over these last six months since Ferguson, to take that passion from the streets and transform it into legislative initiatives,” Sen. Fort recently told a group assembled in a hearing room in the Capitol.

 

Sen. Fort called the hearing to discuss his legislative proposals and to hear testimony from the family of Kevin Davis, a man who died in police custody at Grady Hospital in December 2014.

 

On Monday, January 26, 2014 Moral Monday Georgia will hold a Lobby Training Day that will focus on stopping police intimidation and abuse.  It will be followed by an action at the Capitol at 3pm.

 

Also on Monday January 26, the National Coalition to Combat Police Terrorism (NCCPT) will hold a Town Hall Meeting and Panel Discussion at 7 p.m. at Hagar’s Place at 19 Joseph E. Lowery Blvd.  NCCPT is co-chaired by former U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) and former Black Panther leader Dhoruba Bin Wahad.

 

(END/2015)

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