POLITICS

Raid Of The Day: Isaac Singletary

02/19/2013 08:49 am ET | Updated Apr 21, 2013

Known around the neighborhood as "Pops," 80-year-old Isaac Singletary moved into his high-crime Jacksonville, Florida neighborhood in 1987 to care for and protect his sister and mother, both of whom were sick at the time. The retired repairman was known to sit in front of his house in a lawn chair and shoo and shame the drug dealers away from his property.

But in January 2007, two undercover narcotics cops posed as drug dealers set up shop on Singletary's lawn. Singletary first came out of his house and yelled at them to leave. They didn't. He went back inside. Minutes later, he came out again and told them to leave, this time while waving a handgun. One of the cops opened fire. Wounded, Singletary tried to escape into his backyard. The cops followed chased him down and shot him again, this time in the back. Singletary died at the scene. His killers never told him they were police officers.

The police initially claimed Singletary had tried to rob them. They then claimed that Singletary fired first. Five witnesses said that wasn't true. Who fired first wasn't really relevant, except as an indication that the police weren't telling the truth about the whole mess.

Here, Jacksonville police officers had committed crimes on an elderly man's property without his permission, refused to leave when he asked them to, then--perhaps inadvertently--baited him into a violent confrontation. They then killed him for taking the bait.

Three months later, investigating State Attorney Harry Shorstein initially expressed some frustration with the operation. "If we're just selling drugs to addicts, I don't know what we're accomplishing," he told the Florida Times-Union. But three months after that, Shorstein cleared the officers of any criminal wrongdoing. That may or may not have been correct under the law, but his report also included a couple of inconsistencies. First, while attorneys for Singletary's family found four witnesses who said the police fired first, Shorestein could find only one--a convicted drug dealer Shorstein deemed untrustworthy.

Second, while Shorstein did at least criticize the police officers for not identifying themselves before they started shooting at Singletary, he still put the bulk of the blame on Singletary himself, concluding the old man "was an armed civilian who refused orders to drop his gun." But those orders came from two cops dressed as drug dealers, who never disclosed that they were police. The implication from Shorstein's report is that Florida citizens are obligated to drop their defenses and submit any time a criminal orders them to do so.

Ironically, Singletary's death came a little less than two years after Florida passed a highly-publicized law expanding the right to self-defense. The "Stand Your Ground" law--which would (mistakenly) be the target of national criticism after the death of Trayvon Martin--removed the traditional legal requirement that when faced with a threat, you must first attempt to escape before using lethal force. But that seems to be exactly what Shorstein thought Singletary should have done.

An internal report from the sheriff's office also cleared the two undercover officers, Darrin Green and James Narcisse, of violating any department policies. The report, written by a shooting board of five members of the sheriff's department, concluded that they had followed department procedures, and that "no further action" was necessary. Narcisse, the first officer to fire at Singletary, was later fired for disciplinary reasons that the sheriff's department said were unrelated to the Singletary case.

Sheriff John Rutherford eventually conceded that Singletary was "a good citizen" and that his death was "a tragic incident." But he also rebuffed calls to end undercover drug stings like the one police were conducting on Singletary's property. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist visited Jacksonville later that month. When asked about Singletary's death, Crist called it one of the "challenges" to keeping a community safe.

In 2010, the city of Jacksonville agreed to pay Singletary's family a $200,000 settlement, though the city admitted no wrongdoing.

In sum, a "good citizen" defended his property from what he thought were criminals in a manner consistent with Florida law. He did nothing illegal. And the police officers who trespassed on his property, then attempted to sell drugs on his property, then killed him for attempting to defend his property, not only broke no laws, but their actions were also consistent with sheriff's department policy. Finally, those policies, the ones that caused all of this to happen . . . were not going to change.

All of which can only mean that Florida officials believe the death of an innocent 80-year-old man is an acceptable outcome of undercover drug policing. In Florida's war to keep people from getting high, Isaac Singletary was collateral damage, similar to the civilians killed by bombs during a just war. Regrettable, perhaps. But inevitable.

(The "Raid of the Day" features accounts of police raids I've found, researched, and reported while writing my forthcoming book Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces. It's due out in July, but you can pre-order it here.)

Sources: David Hunt, "In the wake of 2 fatal shootings, some question police tactics," Florida Times-Union, January 27, 2007; Mary Kelli Palka, "A neighborhood wonders: Why isn't the sheriff here?; Rutherford says a federal review isn't needed, defends not going to the scene," Florida Times-Union, January 30, 2007; Bridget Murphy, "Man's family wants cops to face charges," Florida Times-Union, July 28, 2007; Jessie-Lynne Kerr, "Board clears officers in shooting; 'No further action' is needed by police in the case of the January death of an 80-year-old man," Florida Times-Union, August 2, 2008; Matt Galnor, "City to pay $200,000 in shooting; Officers killed man in 2007," Florida Times-Union, June 22, 2010; Bridget Murphy and Jim Schoettler, "Drug stings to continue, sheriff says," Florida Times-Union, January 30, 2007.

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