News Tag: Criminal Justice Reform

Why did Mississippi police release two versions of fatal shooting report?

February 09, 2016

By  in Oxford, Mississippi

Since 26-year-old Ricky Ball was shot and killed by police in October, the black community in Columbus, Mississippi, has grappled with questions that don’t have clear answers.

Why did police shoot Ball that night? Why did a string of police officials resign in the months that followed? And why did police claim Ball stole a gun from a police officer’s home only after his death?

Attempts to obtain police documents about the case have raised a new question: why did police release two different versions of events from the shooting?

Documents obtained by the Guardian show police altered a document labeled “uniform incident report” in Ball’s death. An initial version published by the Commercial Dispatch said an officer “tased” Ball before he fled. A new version of the incident report released to the Guardian does not include any mention of Taser use.

“One of these two reports is not true,” said Philip Broadhead, director of the criminal appeals clinic at the University of Mississippi law school. Broadhead said he’s never seen an incident report altered the way the document was in this case. “For police officers to offer up this type of information in the form of an incident report as sworn law officers … It’s a violation of their oath.”

City attorney Jeff Turnage said in an email the “documents created after the incident clearly were not incident reports, though that was the caption at the top”. He said “the city was not going to produce those because they were investigative in nature and exempt from production.”

An incident report is an official piece of evidence in the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation’s ongoing inquiry. It could also be used in a grand jury proceeding for officer Canyon Boykin.

Community members have held marches, vigils and launched a website seeking justice in Ball’s name in a case they have flagged as suspicious since it happened on 16 October. Ball was shot by Boykin after he and two other officers stopped a Mercury Grand Marquis in which Ball was the passenger. Ball jumped out of the car and fled. A coroner at the Baptist Memorial hospital declared Ball dead from a loss of blood at 11.12 pm.

But the details are hotly disputed.

Photograph: Courtesy of the Ball family
 
The Columbus police department contends that Ball fled the scene of the crime and evaded police officials for 20 minutes. When the K-9 unit found Ball, the police say he possessed narcotics and a stolen handgun. He was stabilized at the scene and then died at the hospital.

According to Kamal Karriem, former city councilman and community leader, many members of the black community believe police fired shots without justifiable cause and planted the gun on Ball’s body.

That alternative theory is the basis for a website, Justice For Ricky Ball, which has been meticulously documenting the twists and turns of the case over the past four months. It has also served as a sounding board for members of the community who feel ignored by the city government and local media.

“Ricky didn’t deal with guns,” said Ernesto Ball, uncle of Ricky and organizer of the vigil and march. “That’s one thing he never dealt with. He never owned a gun. He never dealt with people that owned guns.”

Suspicion in Columbus grew as police did not release any information about the incident until five days after Ball’s death, and then only in small increments.

At a city council meeting on 20 October, former police chief Tony Carleton said the car was pulled over for a faulty tag light and a “lack of insurance”. He then said body camera footage existed, but that he had not reviewed it. This drew derisive heckling from citizens in attendance.

The next day Carleton said he viewed the footage on former councilman Karriem’s radio show, but would not elaborate.

On 28 October 2015 – almost two weeks after the shooting – the police department issued an incident report, its first official account of events, as well as a press release that stated that a handgun, marijuana, narcotics and a scale were found within arm’s reach of Ball’s body. The press release said the three officers failed to activate body cameras during the incident, and only one officer activated a camera after the shooting.

Police also said the handgun was stolen from the house of Columbus police officer Garrett Mittan, one of the first officers to arrive at the scene.

The very same day, police issued two reports for alleged burglaries at officer Mittan’s house. Although one alleged burglary occurred more than a year earlier, in September 2014, and the other occurred several months earlier in August 2015, police did not report them until after Ball’s death.

The September 2014 report claims that the robbery occurred while Mittan was at work. But a police schedule obtained by the Guardian says he was not at work that day.

In the days that followed, there were a string of departures in the police department. First, the city fired Boykin, the officer who shot Ball, for unrelated reasons. The department said Boykin violated department policies by using derogatory language on Instagram, and allowing his girlfriend to ride in his patrol car.

The day after that, the chief of police, Carleton, resigned. He took a position as a training officer with the the police department in Oxford, Mississippi. The voluntary demotion raised eyebrows.

The assistant police chief Tony McCoy and narcotics officer Joseph Strevel also resigned before the end of 2015.

In January, the Guardian requested a copy of the incident report and received one that looked different from the earlier version published in the Commercial Dispatch, omitting a report that police “tased” the suspect.

Turnage claims that the second version of the incident report was given to the Guardian erroneously. He said in a follow-up email: “You can very well take my word as the City Attorney for Columbus that the incident report that says Boykin tased Mr Ball is the ONLY official incident report.”

The Columbus district attorney chose not to comment on a pending investigation.

Columbus police use the Taser X26, which stores data on an electronic control device). So if police did use a stun gun, it should be impossible to alter or delete this information.

Broadhead was alarmed by the two copies of the incident report, and said the altered incident report further discredits the police department’s account. Typically, he said, if police receive new information, they would indicate that the report had been changed. They would not, however, simply replace an old report with a new one.

“The series of events are not the same,” he said. “For this incident report to bear the same serial number … I’ve seen police reports supplemented. But I’ve never seen one that’s completely substituted.”

Blake Feldman, advocacy coordinator at the ACLU of Mississippi, says that the credibility of the document has been compromised.

An incident report is considered to be archival evidence and most police departments do not allow them to be altered, but the Columbus department has no standard operating procedure for them.

According to Broadhead: “For a city not to have a written policy concerning incident reports, that’s very unusual. But unfortunately it’s very common. Because if you don’t have a stated policy then you can’t be called for not following your stated policy.”

“When police make up rules as they go along,” former councilman Karriem said, “it creates blatant mistrust between the police and the communities that they are policing.”

The ACLU believes the state’s body camera policy is to blame.

“The circumstances of this incident, based on the information available, understandably invite suspicion of the officer’s version of events,” Feldman said. “Had audio and video been recorded from the time Boykin initiated the traffic stop, we wouldn’t be wondering if evidence was planted or whether a Taser was used. We wouldn’t be wondering why another young black man was fatally shot by a law enforcement officer.”

Click here to see copies of the Incident Report.

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ACLU of Mississippi Responds to Attorney General’s Legislative Agenda

January 27, 2016

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Jackson, MS -The ACLU of Mississippi applauds Attorney General Hood's restorative justice efforts via creation of the re-entry pilot program, which would promote principles of restorative justice and rehabilitation. Mississippi must continue to evaluate its prison system to ensure that former offenders have a fair chance at living a crime-free life beyond bars. This will in turn reduce recidivism rates and decrease our prison population.

However, we strongly oppose his intent to exempt from the Public Records Act the identities of the state execution team as well as the lethal injection drug supplier.  Citizens have a right to this public information.  Too often, states have been allowed to conduct executions cloaked in secrecy and free of public and judicial scrutiny, to rely on drugs from unknown and untested sources, and to employ personnel of unknown and unverifiable qualifications—with disastrous results. This pattern should be unacceptable in a civilized society dedicated to transparency and the rule of law. 

We vehemently oppose the articulated alternative barbaric means Attorney General Hood proposes.  The American Civil Liberties Union believes the death penalty inherently violates the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment and the guarantees of due process of law and of equal protection under the law. Furthermore, we believe that the state should not give itself the right to kill human beings – especially when it kills with premeditation and ceremony, in the name of the law or in the name of its people, and when it does so in an arbitrary and discriminatory fashion.

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2016 ACLU of MS Legislative Agenda

January 05, 2016

By Erik R. Fleming, Legislative Strategist 

 

The 2016 Mississippi Legislative Session promises to be intriguing.  There will be a host of new faces roaming the Capitol in both houses and a number of issues will dominate the session, primarily education funding, changing of the State Flag and the allocation of the $1.5 billion BP settlement. However, the ACLU of Mississippi will push a set of legislation that we believe will be topics of substantive debate as well.

MISSISSIPPI CIVIL RIGHTS ACT

This legislation protects all Mississippians from discrimination and is the major focus of our “We Are ALL Mississippi” Campaign, which will affect a culture change in our state. With the support of a coalition of organizations, the Campaign holds our state accountable and stands on our bedrock values: respect, equality, and acting with decency towards our fellow man. We are asking the state legislature to protect everyone and prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, national origin, immigrant status, disability, gender identity, and sexual orientation. WE ARE ALL MISSISSIPPI!

DEBTORS’ PRISONS

Imprisoning citizens because of debt is unconstitutional in the United States. However, we have seen a resurgence of “debtors’ prisons” that has put thousands in jail for being too poor to pay fines for traffic tickets or other minor misdemeanors, under the cover of contempt of court. A clear definition of an indigent defendant has never been established in Mississippi, therefore, adequate representation has been arbitrary and incarceration as a result of an inability to pay  fines, fees and court costs has been almost certain. The ACLU of Mississippi is introducing legislation that clearly defines indigency, establishes a substantial right for poor people to be represented by counsel in court, and limits the courts’ ability to incarcerate citizens for failure to pay fines in a timely manner. No one should be forced to face jail time because of their inability to pay fines.

SCHOOL RESOURCE OFFICER TRAINING

We will resubmit legislation to amend Section § 37-7-321, of the Mississippi Code of 1972 that requires all School Resource Officers (SROs) complete a uniform statewide training program prior to being permitted to serve in a school. That curricula should include, at a minimum, training on child and adolescent development; cultural competence; violence de-escalation; identifying a student’s social, emotional and mental needs; alternatives to use of force; and due process protections for students. Currently, school districts that qualify for MSCOPS grants for SROs send their officers to a comprehensive training program. This legislation will provide a safety net for all school districts, in that they would have competent officers to compensate for the 20% attrition rate of potential SROs that do not complete the MSCOPS training.

WRITTEN CONSENT TO SEARCH VEHICLES

Police search thousands of cars each year at Mississippi traffic stops, usually looking for guns or drugs, through a simple request for a driver to consent. Drivers often don’t know that they can say no, or may feel coerced and isolated by the side of the road. However, law enforcement does not need permission to search a car if there is evidence of reasonable suspicion of a crime.  The ACLU of Mississippi is introducing legislation to ensure that drivers understand their constitutional right to say no to a request to search by requiring written consent with a simple disclosure. This will cover instances when an officer doesn’t have a warrant, is not making an arrest, or does not have probable cause. Written consent improves policing as well as protects public safety and civil liberties. 

POLICIES FOR BODY CAMERAS USED BY LAW ENFORCEMENT

Body cameras have the potential to serve as a check against the abuse of power by police officers. They are a win-win, helping to protect the public against police misconduct, and at the same time guarding against false accusations of abuse. The challenge body cameras present is the potential for invasion of privacy, while also balancing the strong benefit in promoting police accountability. We will introduce legislation that ensures that body cameras will serve to protect the public, without becoming another system for routine surveillance. While our legislation will not mandate that all Mississippi law enforcement officers be equipped with body cameras, it will, for the sake of public confidence in the integrity of valued privacy protections, make sure that those that are equipped will do so within a framework of strong policies.

The ACLU of Mississippi looks forward to working with the 174 members of the Mississippi State Legislature to obtain the successful passage of these measures, while at the same time remaining vigilant to defeat any legislation that goes against our core principles of reformation, justice, equality, and freedom.

 

 

Our Work Just Became More Important

November 04, 2015

A Letter from ACLU of Mississippi Executive Director Jennifer Riley-Collins:

At the Jazz Brunch, I told our guest that I was fortunate to lead a team of warriors who stand daily in defense of freedom.  I likened this team to Soldiers who have sworn to protect and defend.  I shared the fact that Soldiers are trained and equipped to be combat ready.  I then distinguished this amazing team from Soldiers - you did not sign up for battle.  And yet here you are on the fighting fields of freedom daily.  I simply want to send this email to say thank you, to commend you and to encourage you. 

I woke this morning, hot spotted myself eager to find out the election results - my heart sank.  I know that on yesterday you heeded the call and all hands were on deck protecting the right to vote and so even more the results of elections may sting a bit.  As a non-profit nonpartisan organization, we are committed to working both sides of the aisle, but there are some whose efforts align more closely with ours and so we are saddened by this outcome. 

As Executive Director of the ACLU of MS, I recognize that our work just became more important.  The work we do may have just become harder, but it is the right work to do.  We must stand in the gap for vulnerable children, especially in schools that are ill equipped to provide education and therefore funnel them into prison.  We must push the envelope on equal protections for all people.  We must ensure criminal justice reforms make social and just sense, not just economic sense, which is the only reason mass incarceration reduction is now the mantra of conservatives.  We must not stand by and feel defeated - there is work yet to be done. 

So this morning, I ask that you breathe deeply, have a cup of coffee, and focus on what lies ahead.  You may not ever see your names in the annals of history (or maybe we will), but know that the work you have chosen to do changes history for others.  Don't feel defeated.  Look at this as an opportunity for determination and say to yourselves and each other, "They may have won this fight, but we will win the war."  You are warriors.  Soldiers fight in defense of freedom.  Warriors fight in defense of the exercise of freedom.  Freedom without the ability to exercise it is futility.  

I am encouraged knowing that each of you has committed himself/herself to making Mississippi better.  Thank you for your bravery.  I salute you.

Jennifer

Make a Donation TODAY to the ACLU and continue to stand on the front lines with us "Because Freedom Can't Protect Itself!"

Debtors' Prison: This System Tramples on Poor People

October 21, 2015

Today the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of  poor people who were jailed by Biloxi, Mississippi, because of their failure to pay traffic tickets. The lawsuit is the latest action in the pushback against the national problem of modern day debtors' prisons, where people are required to go to jail when they can’t afford to pay the tickets or fines. Two of our clients explain how being sent to prison for small fines and fees can dramatically alter people’s lives for the worse without any public benefit.  Read their accounts below.

Qumotria Kennedy

Qumotria Kennedy

I was a passenger in a car with a friend one day in July when a police officer pulled us over. The officer ran my name for warrants, made me step out of the car, and put handcuffs on me.

From there he took me to the Biloxi police station and then to jail. At the police station, they told me I would have had to pay $1,001 in cash to get out. That was what I owed in traffic fines and fees that I hadn’t been able to pay. They didn’t bring me to court, give me a lawyer, or even tell me that I had a right to one. 

I didn't have the money. I was sad, upset, and crying. I’m a single mom, so I knew I’d have to be in jail and leave my daughter with my friend. My daughter didn’t even know where I was or what happened for an entire night.

No one told me how long I’d be in jail. Each day, I was wondering when I would see my daughter or be brought to court. In the end, I was locked up five days.

When I was in jail, I lost my part-time job. Now I’m just on call as a cleaning person, so I only go to work once or twice a week. I’m struggling on so little.

Now they want me to pay hundreds of dollars a month for my fines and fees. But I just don’t have the money. I asked the probation officer if I could do community service instead, but she said there was nothing she could do.

I owe so much money that I can’t pay. Every day, I worry that I could get arrested and sent back to jail. 

I decided to bring a lawsuit against Biloxi because I don’t like what the city is doing to people. All it cares about is money. Biloxi locked me up for being poor. But it costs them money to keep me in jail. So this system doesn’t even make any sense.

I hope that everybody knows that the system is trampling on poor people, and it’s not fair.

Joseph Anderson

Joseph Anderson

When I got a $200 traffic ticket, I knew I wouldn’t be able to pay it. I made a payment or two from my disability checks, but I was living on so little, I couldn’t pay any more. The Biloxi police issued a warrant on me, but I didn’t know. The police knocked on my door, reached inside, and grabbed me.

My stepson was there, and it felt embarrassing. I felt ashamed because I was always preaching to him about staying out of trouble and here is this police officer who knocks on my door, handcuffs me, and arrests me.

When he put handcuffs on me, it really hurt. My health was really bad. Just a few years before, I had multiple heart attacks and a stroke in just a couple of months.

When Biloxi police arrested me for fines and fees, I wasn’t well. After the heart attacks and stroke, I became physically disabled. I can’t work because my mobility and strength are not what they used to be. Before, I was working at Best Western doing maintenance and mechanic work. Now I’m just living one day at a time. 

I get my Social Security check and pay my bills, and what I have left of that I try to buy gas. It’s hard making ends meet.

When the police took me to jail, they said I could pay $220 in cash for my release. I felt bad because I didn’t have anyone to call who could lend or give me the money. I had just gotten off walking on my crutch, and I really wasn’t functioning right. The food was disgusting. There was a blanket with holes in. They kept me in jail for seven nights.

Do I want to help other people by suing Biloxi? Heck yeah. It’s terrible here. I’m not afraid to go public with how the city is trying to get money from people who just don’t have it.

I hope this lawsuit will help make the system better. I hope people don’t get arrested and jailed for back fines like I did. 

ACLU Challenges Deep South Debtors' Prisons in Pushback Against National Scourge

October 21, 2015

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
October 21, 2015

CONTACT: Inga Sarda-Sorensen, 212-284-7347, isarda-sorensen@aclu.org

BILOXI, Miss. — In the latest pushback against the national scourge of debtors' prisons, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit challenging the illegal arrest and jailing of poor people in Biloxi, Mississippi, without a hearing or representation by counsel. Victims are told they can avoid jail only if they pay the entire amount of outstanding court fines and fees up front, in full, and in cash.

"It's essentially a jailhouse shakedown. Cities across the country, like Biloxi, are scrambling to generate revenue, and they're doing it off the backs of poor people," said Nusrat Choudhury, an attorney with the ACLU's Racial Justice Program. "Being poor is not a crime. Yet across America, people are being locked up because they can't afford to pay traffic fines and fees. This lawsuit seeks to dismantle a two-tiered system of justice that punishes the poorest, particularly people of color, more harshly than those with means in flagrant violation of the Constitution."

Today's filing follows a similar ACLU lawsuit brought earlier this month in Washington state, as well as a recent ACLU lawsuit in Georgia that led to systemic reform. Defendants are the city of Biloxi, Biloxi Police Chief John Miller, Judge James Steele, and for-profit Judicial Correction Services, Inc.

The percentage of people living in poverty in Biloxi has doubled since 2009. Yet during this period, the city, through the Biloxi Municipal Court, has aggressively pursued court fines and fee payments from indigent people by issuing warrants when payments are missed. The warrants charge debtors with failure to pay, order their arrest and jailing in the Harrison County Adult Detention Center, and explicitly state that debtors can avoid jail only if they pay the full amount of fines and fees in cash.

"It's like squeezing water from a stone," said Choudhury.