HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States

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Michael Taylor: The recent police encounters have exacerbated tensions between the African-American community and the predominantly white police force stemming from earlier cases that were not resolved to the community's satisfaction. In one, sixteen-year-old Michael Taylor was shot in the head while he was handcuffed with his hands behind his back in a police patrol car in September 1987; the police and a coroner contended that it was a suicide.15 Nonetheless, in a civillawsuit a jury awarded Taylor's family approximately $3 million dollars; as of September 1997, the city was appealing the case.16 After the jury found against the city, the Justice Department said that it would reconsider the case. Because the explanation provided by the police seemed so absurd, many African-Americans were outraged and cited it as an example of impunity, even ten years later.

The case of Leonard R. Barnett: When a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed African-American robbery suspect in July 1990 and then was awarded the police department's medal of valor for his handling of the robbery suspect, some minority residents expressed outrage that the police department would display such insensitivity.17 On July 9, 1990, Officer Scott L. Haslar shot and killed Leonard R. Barnett after a long car chase that ended in a crash.18 Barnett's leg reportedly was broken during the crash, yet Officer Haslar claimed Barnett moved quickly from the crashed car and then returned to it, Haslar said he believed, to get a gun; Barnett was then shot, and no gun was found.19 Haslar was later promoted to sergeant A federal grand jury that examined the case declined to indict Haslar.20

The case of Edmund Powell: In an incident that led to one of the largest civil jury awards against the police department, Officer Wayne Sharp, white, shot andkilled Edmund Powell, black in June 1991.21 Powell had allegedly stolen something from a department store, and Sharp chased him into an alley with his gun drawn. Sharp, a veteran officer, claimed the shooting was accidental and that Powell had swung a nail-studded board at him, but according to at least one witness, Powell was lying on the pavement when Sharp shot him at close range.22

The Marion County prosecutor brought the case before a grand jury, which declined to indict Sharp.23 Community activists claimed the shooting was racially motivated, based on Sharp's personal history; Sharp had killed an African-American burglary suspect ten years earlier and was cleared by a grand jury.24 At that time, Sharp had been removed from street duty because of his alleged "flirtation" with the National Socialist White People's Party, a neo-Nazi group.25

Powell's grandmother, Gertrude Jackson, alleged Sharp intentionally shot

Powell, and filed a civil lawsuit in 1992; the jury found in favor of Jackson and awarded $465,000 to Powell's family.26 After the award, the chief litigator for the city, Mary Ann Oldham, stated, "Obviously, we are disappointed by the verdict....Officer Sharp did not do anything wrong;"27 the city was considering anappeal.28 Jackson's attorney asked that Sharp be ordered to pay $50 each week from his paycheck "to make him think about it."29 According to a public affairs officer with the police department, Sharp was neither disciplined nor retrained following the Powell shooting.30 In January 1998, in response to a written question posed about Officer Sharp, Police Chief Michael Zunk replied that Sharp had been thoroughly investigated and was subsequently returned to street duty as a detective. According to Chief Zunk, Sharp "has received high accolades and several awards for superior work."31

Fatal shooting: On March 24, 1992, a narcotics officer shot a drug suspect in the head, killing him.32 Working undercover, the officer had just completed a drug buy and started to arrest the suspect and his friend. The officer claims that the suspect reached for his waistband and a gun, so the officer shot him once in the head. According to an attorney for the victim's family in a civil lawsuit, the officer's gun went off accidentally (and the story about the suspect reaching for a gun was made up later to cover the error). Key evidence about the incident was lost when another officer allegedly erased part of an audiotape made during the encounter that, according to the victim's attorney, reportedly recorded the narcotics officer apologizing to the victim's friend for the accidental shooting.33 A Marion County grand jury declined to indict the officer on criminal charges in 1993. The officer who allegedly erased the tape was suspended for thirty days, but was not charged with obstruction of justice because he had limited immunity for testifyingbefore the grand jury in the shooting officer's case. As of late 1997, both officers were sergeants on the force.34

15 Editorial, "Michael Taylor legacy," Indianapolis Star, March 23, 1996.

16 Susan Schramm, "Officer says teen's death changed his life," Indianapolis Star, September 24, 1997.

17 "Chief apologizes, says award shouldn't have been given," UPI, March 20, 1991, [Wire Service]. A spokesman from the police department confirmed that the award was given for Sgt. Haslar's heroic handling of an armed robbery situation. Telephone inquiry, Lt. Horty, Media/Public Relations office, IPD, May 26, 1998.

18 Gillaspy and Edwards, "Silent protest against...," Indianapolis News.

19 Benjamin T. Moore, "Business as usual in latest police probe," Indianapolis Star, January 21, 1998; Editorial, "Michael Taylor legacy," Indianapolis Star, March 23, 1996; "Police confrontations," Indianapolis News, July 27, 1995.

20 Editorial, "Michael Taylor legacy...," Indianapolis Star.

21 Erica Franklin, "Witness saw suspect prone before officer shot him," Indianapolis Star, April 18, 1995; Erica Franklin, "Officer says he doesn't remember firing gun," Indianapolis Star, April 21, 1995.

22 Ibid.

23 Sherri Edwards and Erica Franklin, "Jury finds police officer guilty of intentionally killing suspect," Indianapolis Star, April 22, 1995.

24 Ibid.

25 Ibid.; "FBI probes police shooting," UPI, June 20, 1991, [Wire Service]; "Police confrontations," Indianapolis News, July 27, 1995.

26 Howard M. Smulevitz, "Jury award could bust IPD's bank," Indianapolis Star, April 25, 1995.

27 Edwards and Franklin, "Jury finds police officer guilty of intentionally killing suspect," Indianapolis Star, April 22, 1995.

28 Welton W. Harris II, "Officer loses fatal shooting suit," Indianapolis News, April 22, 1995; Sherri Edwards and Erica Franklin, "City may appeal verdict giving slain man's family $465,000," Indianapolis Star, April 23, 1995.

29 Harris, "Officer loses fatal...," Indianapolis News.

30 Telephone inquiry, Lt. Horty, Media/Public Relations office, IPD, May 26, 1998.

31 Letter to Human Rights Watch from Chief Michael H. Zunk, dated January 26, 1998.

32 Erica Franklin, "IPD fatal-shooting case dismissed in federal court," Indianapolis Star, April 27, 1995.

33 Ibid.

34 According to police department's personnel office, October 3, 1997.

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch