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Tonya Plank Headshot

In Wake of Sean Bell Verdict, Hearing Addresses Novel Ways to Increase Police Accountability

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On Monday, U.S. House Representative John Conyers, from Michigan, flew to lower Manhattan to hold a public hearing on police accountability. The hearing came in the wake of the Sean Bell verdict, acquitting officers of manslaughter and lesser charges when they open-fired on Mr. Bell's car because they thought his passenger had a gun, killing Bell and permanently wounding others in the car. Conyers chairs the House Judiciary Committee and promised to take federal action to stop police use of excessive force and abuse of their powers, racial profiling, and racially disparate treatment in stops, searches and seizures. Representatives Jerrold Nadler, Charles Rangel, Gregory Meeks, and Anthony Weiner attended, along with state representatives, and over ten witnesses were heard, including members of the Bell family, renowned professors of law and race history, Hazel Dukes, president of the NAACP, Al Sharpton, and Kamau Karl Franklin, a race justice fellow at the prestigious Center For Constitutional Rights, who presented the most specific and compelling suggestions for change.

The hearing began with Meeks pointing out that the vast majority -- over 70% -- of current police stops are not in response to reported crime but are done spontaneously. Rangel made clear the urgent need for a community's confidence in its police force lest that force operate ineffectively and asked the Police Benevolent Association (the police union) to treat tragedies like that of Sean Bell as if it had happened to their own families. Weiner said we need new standards of selecting, recruiting and training police officers. Others echoed him, saying we need to ensure that people selected as police officers have no preconceived notions of or fears about the community they're policing.

Indeed, as the Bell case evinces, those preconceived notions -- that a large black man walking with a swagger was a threat -- and fears -- undercover Detective Isnora's continuous Grand Jury statements about how scared he was that evening, how dangerous undercover work is, how he'd been robbed before and couldn't go into the club without another detective first scoping it out, and Detective Oliver's testimony about becoming nervous after learning the case had been elevated from a prostitution bust into a gun recovery -- are precisely what led to the excessive use of force here that resulted in death. Something bad was bound to happen with armed officers new to this community (the team had been transferred from Manhattan to South Queens one month prior to the shooting) and this spooked by it.

Witnesses spoke of the difficulty of winning federal civil rights suits in police brutality cases (it must be proved that the police were not only reckless but that they set out intentionally to use excessive force, that they intentionally violated rights), of the need to change the culture of the police force by creating greater racial and ethnic diversity and implementing better training under tense conditions, and to compel police departments to maintain and provide to the public statistics on the race of suspects stopped and the reasons for stopping them. Witnesses also called for mandatory drug and alcohol testing of officers immediately after they'd fired their weapons, and independent oversight of whether officers are mentally and emotionally prepared for the job. Sharpton recommended cutting off all federal funding to police departments who use excessive force. Some suggested letting members of the community patrol that community rather than police.

Some of the most compelling and intriguing policy suggestions were made by Mr. Franklin, who argued that police are virtually acting as occupied forces in black and Latino communities. There needs, he passionately argued, to be federal regulation of the day-to-day operations of police departments. This can be done in part by passing federal laws mandating police video- and audio-taping of their interrogations with suspects and equipping police cars with surveillance tapes to record their stops of individuals.

Indeed, there is strong authority for Mr. Franklin's suggestion requiring all interrogations to be videotaped. Many states already require videotaping of interrogations, and have implemented such laws because of the numbers of defendants claiming officers coerced them into falsely confessing, even feeding them the details of their confessions. And, several cases where later obtained DNA evidence has exonerated defendants involved such confessions, evincing that suspects do indeed falsely confess to crimes out of coercion, intimidation, and fear.

Though the Bell case didn't involve any coerced confessions, it proved time and again, on so many different levels, the need for complete oversight of police action. Several eyewitnesses from Bell's community were very resistant to speak with police for fear of how they would be treated, that they may be turned into suspects themselves. This happened with one witness, Marseilles Payne, an exotic dancer at the club who saw the shooting. Ms. Payne said after a person at the scene told officers she had information about the shooting, they took her, against her will, to the precinct and kept her for there for 18 hours for questioning, not allowing her to speak with her two young daughters on the phone or arranging for their care. She was, in effect, treated not as a witness but as a suspect. Others said they were fearful of speaking with police as well, evading police when they came to their homes, some even fleeing the jurisdiction in order to be left alone. Such resistance to speak with police, even when a friend was killed by officers, speaks volumes about this community's deep distrust and fear of them. All such interactions with witnesses or suspects, whoever is held in custody for questioning, needs to be recorded, and one easy way to do this, and one for which there is significant legal and policy precedence, is making mandatory recording of all police interactions with people in custody.

While there may be less precedence for mandating the installation of surveillance tapes in marked and unmarked police cars, Mr. Franklin's suggestion was an excellent one. What better way to preserve objective evidence of how the police acted during a stop, what reasons they had to stop an individual -- whether they had reasonable suspicion or probable cause -- and whether they used excessive force.

Other recommendations made by Mr. Franklin were the establishment of Civilian Complaint Review Boards, to consist not of police officers but community members and City Council appointees, a disciplinary body independent of the police department to whom the NYPD must turn over all investigatory work on police abuse cases, and a Committee Precinct Board, comprised of members elected by the community, which allows community members to decide who heads their local precinct and determines when police officers within that precinct have abused their power and must be fired, disciplined, or transferred.

Finally, Mr. Franklin urged the establishment of a special, independent prosecutor to prosecute police abuse cases, a suggestion echoed by many. As numerous observers of the trial repeatedly noted, Assistant District Attorney Charles Testagrossa and his colleagues often looked uncomfortable prosecuting this case. The D.A.'s office has to work closely with the local police force, many of their cases depend on officer testimony and they of necessity have a close relationship with the precincts within their jurisdiction. Here, A.D.A. Testagrossa took several questionable actions: he failed to object strenuously when prosecution witnesses on cross examination were being repeatedly questioned -- badgered nearly -- for their prior convictions and acts that were unrelated to the case, he failed to prepare his witnesses for trial, failing to go over with them their Grand Jury or other prior testimony, and, as seasoned defense attorneys have noted, he inexplicably had all the defendants' Grand Jury testimony read into the record. This enabled defense attorneys to refrain from putting their clients on the stand and subjecting them to cross-examination, leaving, as I wrote earlier, many fundamental questions unanswered. Nor did Testagrossa present any expert testimony that the officers acted in a way that was at odds with their training, that they were reckless in their failure to find available cover, or pause and reassess before emptying their weapons. Many believe, as do I, that an independent prosecutor would have prosecuted this case much more aggressively.

The hearing lasted about four hours, with many Representatives asking questions of the witnesses about the legality and implementation of suggested policies. Representative Conyers seemed very serious and genuine about doing everything in his power to draft some of these suggestions into workable bills, and hopefully eventually into federal law.