Misdemeanor Charges for Beating of Handcuffed 15-Year Old Lead to Community Outrage
By: Houston Criminal Attorney John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair
Four Houston police officers were indicted on June 23, 2010 on misdemeanor charges of “official oppression” in connection with the beating of a handcuffed 15-year-old black burglary suspect—an incident “caught on tape” by a private business surveillance camera. The officers were immediately terminated from duty by Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland after the complaints were announced. Three others involved in varying degrees in the beating and its aftermath were also fired. Five other officers were given two-day suspensions for “policy violations unrelated to the arrest” of the burglary suspect, although Chief McClelland did not disclose the roles of these five officers in the wake of the beating incident.
Community activists were not pleased by what they perceive a “slap on the wrist” treatment of the officers by the grand jury. Saying he was “absolutely disappointed” by the grand jury’s actions, community activist Quanell X said the officers should have been indicted for felony assault. “You’re watching a handcuffed young man being beaten by law enforcement officers and the only charge is official oppression,” he was quoted by the Houston Chronicle. “Where’s the assault charge?”
Quanell X was quite specific with his charges that the grand jury’s decision was “racially motivated.” He pointed out that the grand jury was comprised of mostly “white males” and that the grand jury’s “compromised” decision was indeed “racially motivated.” In effect, Quanell X charged that the “white” grand jury did not indict the “white” officers for an assault felony because the beating involved a “black” criminal suspect. Harris County District Attorney Pat Lycos described the grand jury make-up as diverse.
There is a legitimate and historical basis for Quanell X’s concern about the misdemeanor complaints.
Surprisingly, there are many studies available on the issue of police brutality. A U.S. Justice Department study in 2001 found that in 1999 “approximately 422,000 people 16 years or older were estimated to have had contact with the police in which force or the threat of force was used.”
A civil rights attorney in Denver, Andrew Reid, has studied the issue of police brutality. He told Judi Villa of the Rocky Mountain News in February 2009 that police brutality is the result of training failures and poor supervision; that police live in a “culture” that rewards officers with “medals of valor” when they are involved in shootings” but close ranks with a code of silence to protect rogue officers charged with criminal wrongdoing. “They have, in my opinion, a number of felons on the police force,” Reid said. “They know it, and they refuse to address it.”
Denver police chief Gerry Whitman, like most police supervisors, deflected the police brutality issue by telling the Rocky Mountain News: “You have to take into consideration that we handle hundreds of thousands of calls and last year (2008) we made 72,000 arrests. We get very few complaints about how much force we use and about the conduct of the officers. That doesn’t mean we don’t take seriously the complaints we do get, but by and large, the conduct of our officers is exemplary.”
But Denver’s independent police monitor, Richard Rosenthal, pointed out that police brutality allegations are “traditionally extraordinarily hard to prove” absent a video or a fellow officer’s complaint about a colleague’s conduct. “Officers are given an enormous amount of discretion in the amount of force that they use, which is really required,” Rosenthal said.
University of South Carolina criminology professor Geoff Alpert, considered a nationally recognized “expert” on use-of-force issues, said police abuse of handcuffed suspects is just “bad policing.” He added that “there’s no excuse for using force on a controlled suspect. That’s excessive when that happens.”
We agree. There can never be a legitimate excuse for beating a handcuffed suspect. Since Chief McClelland has not released the videotape of the four officers beating the burglary suspect, we cannot make an informed decision about whether the officers should have been indicted for felony assault. But we do share the concerns of the city’s African American community, who are too often the victims of physical abuse and shootings by the Houston Police Department, that the grand jury created the “appearance” of racial bias with its misdemeanor complaints.
Chief McClelland would have done a service to the community had he lobbied the District Attorney’s Office for the release of the video. Keeping it “secret” when it has been openly described by Quanell X, who has a copy and who has been threatened with sanctions if he releases it to the public, only fuels the “racial motivation” issue. If a video existed of a police officer being beaten by criminal suspects, Chief McClelland would do everything in his power to have it on every evening news broadcast urging the community to help identify the suspects.
“Seven officers lost their jobs today, and it’s our intent that they never work in law enforcement again,” Houston Mayor Annise Parker told the local media following the grand jury complaints. “When our officers behave in an inappropriate manner, they will be disciplined.”
While we laud the mayor’s commitment to accountability, we urge her to also encourage District Attorney Pat Lykos to make the videotape public. Lycos has said that “the first showing of the video will be in the courtroom …The defendants are entitled to a fair trial.”
While we certainly agree with the defendants’ right to a fair trial, we find Lykos’ decision troubling because the District Attorney’s Office has never been overly concerned about the impact the release of videotapes showing non-law enforcement criminal suspects involved in criminal activity would have on their right to a fair trial.
We understand there are competing political interests involved in this potentially high-profile case. Rev. James Nash, secretary of Houston Ministers against Crime, told the Chronicle that “You can’t let a police officer hide behind a badge and commit crimes. When we start indicting these guys and give them what they deserve, that will send a signal to the rest of them … Even though we got something, I’m disappointed because it’s like a slap on the wrist … it’s a step forward, but it’s not enough.”
But Houston Police Officers’ Union Guy Blankenship countered with: “In no way is this[complaint] a conviction, but another step in the process of our criminal justice system. I think it’s important to note a very fast, very thorough investigation was conducted and presented to a grand jury relatively quickly, given the magnitude of the investigation. We’ll just let the process run its course and see what the outcome is.”
Lykos and Blankenship’s concern about the “process” is commendable but our concern is this: the only time you hear law enforcement officials or prosecutors speak supportive of the “right to a fair trial” in the criminal justice process is when a law enforcement officer or a powerful political figure is indicted. So if we find their concern for the process less than sincere, we have good reasons. And that’s why we support the release of the videotape. Let the tape speak for itself.
By: Houston Criminal Lawyer John Floyd and Paralegal Billy Sinclair