Killed by Cops: Police Shootings Run Rampant
The Phoenix metropolitan area is the most dangerous in the nation for Latinos.
By Jessica Hoffmann
It was hot and quiet in Mesa, Arizona, as a crowd gathered outside the headquarters of the police department on Aug. 25, 2007. On this day in 2003, the parents of 15-year-old Mario Madrigal Jr. called the police in a panic because their oldest son was threatening to kill himself with a kitchen knife. Within hours, they found themselves watching helplessly as Mario Jr. was shot and killed by police officers, who say he had threatened them with the knife.
Four years later, about 100 people, most of them wearing black T-shirts, joined the family in insisting that Mario was a threat to no one but himself that night and that he was killed by a police force ill-equipped to engage with mental-health crises and Mesa’s growing Latino community. “We need changes in how officers approach us Hispanics,” Mario Madrigal Sr. said. “They should be much more educated [in] knowing our culture…and understand that we are human beings.”
No one from the Mesa Police Department emerged to face the crowd. The crowd was literally speaking to a brick wall as they chanted “justice for Mario” and cheered Mario Sr.’s insistent statement, “The case is not closed.” Although the Mesa PD’s internal investigation cleared the officers who shot Mario Jr. of any wrongdoing, the family is involved in an independent investigation, and a federal district court judge has set a date in September 2008 for the Madrigals’ civil case to be brought before a jury. The family hopes they will be more responsive than local authorities have been.
The Madrigals are hardly the only family in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area that feels like they’re talking to a brick wall as they seek justice in the police killing of a loved one.
In March 2006, Malissia Clinton’s younger brother, James Deon Lennox, 35, was shot by a police officer outside his apartment in Mesa. According to the story Clinton and her mother have pieced together from witnesses’ accounts, Lennox and his girlfriend had returned home late after a night out and began arguing about where to park the car. Within minutes, a police officer arrived. Then two more officers appeared. For reasons none of the witnesses can be sure of, Lennox and one of the officers got into a physical fight. Then, Officer David Kohler shot Lennox twice — once in the shoulder, once in the chest — and James Deon Lennox died.
Mesa police spokesmen say Kohler felt his life was threatened — that Lennox had already hit him with a lawn chair and that he fired his gun when Lennox picked up another one. Neighbors say the chairs in question were cheap, flimsy ones-not life-threatening — and the autopsy report by the county medical examiner says that both shots came from a distance. The city of Mesa denied a claim of wrongdoing filed by Lennox’s family, and the county attorney’s office has not filed criminal charges against Kohler. An internal police investigation into the shooting is still under way.
According to Lennox’s family, two witnesses have said that one of the officers called him a “nigger” the night he was killed. Malissia Clinton, an attorney in California, thinks her brother was “just tired of playing by rules that are unfair.” He’d been arguing with his girlfriend, he’d had a little bit to drink, it was late and suddenly there were police officers on the scene.
“As a Black man,” Clinton said, “you know what you are supposed to do and what you’re not supposed to do with the police. There are rules that are kinda unspoken, but everybody understands that you could lose your life, so you need to really be careful. That’s a given — my husband knows it, Barack Obama knows it…everybody knows that.” So what happened that night? “I just think that he was tired, he decided that this guy was not gonna put his hands on him — if he wanted to talk to him like a man, that was fine, but if he wanted to play physical at all, he was just not gonna stand for it. And so, he decided to take a stand, and I think that that’s why he lost his life.”
Lennox and Madrigal were just two of the many civilians who have been shot to death by police from various departments throughout the multi-city Phoenix metropolitan area — in the city of Phoenix alone, an average of more than one per month since 2000, making it among the worst cities in the nation for police shootings.
Phoenix had the highest rate of fatal police shootings from 2000 to 2005 among the 10 U.S. cities with more than one million people, according to federal data. In fact, Phoenix ranked second in total number of fatal police shootings, just behind New York City and ahead of much larger cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles. During those years, more Latinos were killed by police in Phoenix than in any other large city that tracked victims’ ethnic identities. (In federal reporting, Hispanic/Latino is considered an ethnic rather than a racial category.) Neighboring police departments in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area — notably Mesa, Scottsdale and Chandler — have also attracted attention for a series of fatal shootings of civilians. In Mesa (which has a population of approximately 460,000), 45 civilians were shot by police between January 2000 and August 2007, according to the Mesa Police Department. (The department was unable to indicate how many of those shootings were fatal.)
Maricopa County’s largest urban area is one of the most dangerous places in the nation to be a Latino person interacting with law enforcement. Among the 27 cities with more than 250,000 people that tracked victims’ ethnicities during this time, 23 out of 137, or one in six, Hispanic victims of police shootings were killed in Phoenix, although Phoenix had just 6 percent of the total population. As the region’s Latino population grows, local police departments remain majority white, and community organizers feel shut out of civilian review processes ostensibly created to include them. Further, despite programs touted for reducing the shooting rate or improving police-community relations — the introduction of Tasers to many local departments’ arsenals, Spanish-language initiatives, and increased training in dealing with people who live with mental illness — shootings of civilians by police persist throughout the Phoenix metropolitan area. And, across cities and departments, police officers rarely suffer any consequences for choosing to fire.
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Phoenix is one of the fastest-growing, and fastest-changing, metropolitan areas in the United States. The urban center of Maricopa County (which has experienced the largest numerical increase in population of any U.S. county since the 2000 Census) encompasses the city of Phoenix as well as numerous adjacent cities such as Mesa, Scottsdale and Chandler. Since the 1990s, the Hispanic/Latino population in particular has grown rapidly, with Phoenix proper going from 20 percent Latino in 1990, to 34 percent in 2000, to 41.8 percent in 2005.
Yet police department demographics have been much slower to change. A Department of Justice report on police personnel showed a Phoenix Police Department that was 81 percent white in June 2003. (12.7 percent of officers identified as ethnically Hispanic.) Four years later, despite the department’s stated efforts to diversify, the Phoenix PD is 77.9 percent white, with only 14.8 percent of officers identifying as ethnically Hispanic. In fast-growing Mesa, where, according to the city, the “ethnic/minority” population grew by 20 percent between 1990 and 2000 and Hispanics today represent 25 percent of the total population, only 14.2 percent of police officers in the field identify as Hispanic. “Whenever you have bilingual, bicultural police, usually you have better police-community relations,” said Salvador Reza, an organizer with the indigenous community-development organization Tonatierra who works with immigrant day laborers in Phoenix. “When you don’t have that, then there’s the language barrier, then on top of that, there’s a cultural barrier. [Among Latinos in Phoenix] the police are not seen as to protect and to serve, they’re seen as to harass and make sure that you get to jail so you can get deported.”
Indeed, said Reza and other local activists, any consideration of Phoenix Latinos’ relationship to the police must be looked at in the context of the broader climate of anti-immigrant/anti-Latino xenophobia in the area. In July 2007, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio (aka “America’s Toughest Sheriff”) created a hotline for people to call in information about undocumented immigrants.
The Phoenix Police Department does have several community advisory boards meant to connect police to specific local communities. But Reza noted that the members of these boards are “more like yes men, instead of asking the hard questions. They do have a review board, but they don’t have any power.”
That may partially explain why, in a Department of Justice report about citizen complaints of police use of force in 2002, only 17 were recorded for Phoenix. Cities with similar populations and police-department sizes had about eight times as many — 133 in San Antonio and 132 in San Diego. It may also explain why Phoenix attorney Augustine Jimenez gets calls about police brutality “about twice a week” — “but there are very few cases we can take on,” he said. “[I get] calls all the time from poor Mexican people who get beaten up by police, but the sad reality is, unless you have some videotape or witnesses who are white…The cases we’ve taken and been successful on, we’ve had strong physical evidence to support our claim.”
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In spring 2001, Gerardo Ramirez-Diaz got into a fight with Phoenix police after his roommate called the cops because he’d attacked him. The roommate, aware that Ramirez-Diaz was living with schizoaffective disorder, wanted the police to help get Ramirez-Diaz into treatment. But when police arrived, Ramirez-Diaz wouldn’t comply with their orders-he threw things at them and repeatedly shouted “stay away from me.” In the ensuing struggle, a Phoenix police officer shot and wounded Ramirez-Diaz, whose family was eventually paid $699,000 in damages by the city. Despite a jury’s decision to award damages for excessive force, the police department’s internal review found the use of force “in policy.”
Ramirez-Diaz’s attorney, Augustine Jimenez, sees his client’s case as one example of a larger problem: “Officers deal almost on a daily basis with individuals who suffer with mental illnesses. Officers demand that you comply with their orders, but these people who are mentally ill don’t always understand the officers or are in some kind of psychotic event or episode.” Another local attorney, Richard Treon, anecdotally connects this dynamic to the “excessive number of shootings going on in the Phoenix area” in recent years, saying, “It seems like it most frequently happens when police are on a 911 call to deal with someone who is mentally ill.”
Although every police officer in Arizona receives training on dealing with people who are mentally ill, and Phoenix has a unique 40-hour training block on mental illness, the stories of Ramirez-Diaz and Mario Madrigal Jr. suggest this may not be enough. “It’s a tough situation for the cops because they’re not trained to be social workers; they’re trained to be almost automatons who react almost like a military force,” Treon said.
Martha Madrigal, the mother of Mario Jr., urges people not to call the police when loved ones are in crisis. In the wake of her son’s death, she created a postcard that reads, “If your son, daughter, or loved one is suicidal, [or] under the influence of drugs or alcohol, do not call police for help.” On the back, she has listed national hotlines that address suicide, drugs and alcohol, domestic violence and depression.
The Phoenix PD’s Sgt. Joel Tranter rejects the notion that officers are trained as “automatons,” emphasizing that each officer goes through simulation training to practice responding to a range of different situations. “As far as being one canned response, that’s not true, each response from officers is tailored to that situation.”
Yet communication breakdowns between police and civilians are not uncommon.
They happen across differences of mental states — as well as across language barriers.
Although the state’s basic training includes some modules on interacting with people who do not speak English, there is no Spanish-language requirement in officers’ basic training, despite the fact that 28.5 percent of the state’s reported population is ethnically Hispanic.
In summer 2007, all first responders on the Phoenix PD received 10 hours of Spanish lessons. But, Lt. Dave Kelly noted, while most of the participants appreciated it, there was “very vocal” protest from “about 25 percent” of them who did not. And so, from now on, Spanish-language education will be available only as an option to Phoenix police officers.
The impact of lack of mandated Spanish-language education on police shooting incidents is difficult to measure. But it’s clear that any communication gap may be part of a deadly equation when a commonly cited reason for use of force is an individual’s failure to comply with an officer’s orders.
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Most officer-involved-shooting cases in the Phoenix area are handled entirely within police departments’ internal review processes, and the outcome of those internal investigations is murky. In Phoenix, the police department’s Use of Force Review Board, which includes officers’ commanders and peers as well as two citizens (selected by police and the city manager’s office), reviews every incident in which an officer intentionally shoots a gun-regardless of whether anyone is hurt. From 2000 to 2005, that board reviewed 110 shooting incidents and found 11 of them to be “out of policy.” Those findings were relayed to the police chief as “recommendations,” and the chair of the Use of Force Review Board isn’t sure what ultimately happened to the 11 “out of policy” cases. Assistant Chief Kevin Robinson, who chairs the Disciplinary Review Board, is similarly unsure about what happened to those cases. All he could say in a July 2007 interview was, “I’m not aware of any that resulted in termination.”
Although there were more than 100 incidents of officer-involved shootings in the city of Phoenix alone in the last five years, and numerous shootings in neighboring jurisdictions, only one shooting in the county (involving the Chandler Police Department) has resulted in criminal charges being filed against the officer who fired — and that was for the fatal shooting of a white woman. Even in that case, the state standards and training board decided against revoking the officer’s status after a jury found him not guilty. (The city of Chandler did decide not to reinstate him as a police officer.) Of the many cases that did not go to criminal trial, the city of Phoenix paid on civil settlements related to only three fatal officer-involved-shooting cases from 2000 to 2005. The consequences to police officers involved in the other 65 fatal shootings of civilians in Phoenix in that period are unknown. In Mesa, only three city payouts for police shootings by gun were made between January 2000 and August 2007, although police shot 45 civilians during that time. (The Mesa city attorney’s office has not responded to queries about whether any of the payouts were for fatal shootings.)
James Deon Lennox’s family is still waiting to see whether the city of Mesa will pay damages to help support his four children. The city of Mesa denied their initial claim of wrongdoing, and the Maricopa county attorney’s office has no plans to take action on the case. The family’s lawsuit against the city is in the discovery stage. The family of Mario Madrigal Jr., dismayed by the Mesa Police Department’s finding that the officers who shot their son committed no wrongdoing, are waiting to see whether a federal jury might take a different view of the case.
Will fatal shootings by police continue to occur in and around Phoenix, averaging more than one a month as they have for years, with no clear cause or consequence? “You just get the sense that it’s more permissive in that area,” said Malissia Clinton. “You can’t look to, necessarily, the judicial system. You can’t look to the prosecutors…I’m not sure you can look to the citizens. And so if no one’s gonna do a sanity check, then that means the police are running around unchecked.”