When police put use-of-force decisions under a microscope
FORT COLLINS, Colorado – An elderly woman with dementia walks off with about $14 merchandise from a big-box store. Confused, she’s confronted by police officers, who can’t get her to halt and wrestle her to the ground, snapping her arm.
A teenager wielding a knife is shot four times by an officer in his grandmother’s backyard after she called police to help him through a mental health crisis. He ends up dying.
As in the case of Cedric “C.J.” Lofton, who died in Sedgwick County’s juvenile intake center in 2021, an independent law enforcement agency investigated the above incidents. A local prosecutor similarly made the decision on whether to file charges, producing a lengthy report in the process.
But because the above actions took place in Larimer County, Colorado, a detailed, formalized process exists to help determine whether police acted lawfully in using force, an approach that doesn’t exist in Sedgwick County.
In the case of the elderly woman, it led to charges against the officers. Such a review kicks in anytime an officer inflicts bodily harm or a fatal injury.
These efforts involve investigators and forensic specialists from law enforcement agencies across two northern Colorado counties. As many as 30 people from a variety of local agencies can be involved in a case.
To help maintain the integrity of the investigation, the law enforcement unit involved in the incident cannot lead the probe.
Nearly two decades since the 8th Judicial District’s Critical Incident Response Team (CIRT) was launched, proponents such as District Attorney Gordon McLaughlin say the systematic approach has bolstered community confidence and made law enforcement agencies more transparent and accountable, leading to less aggressive policing and greater community trust.
While his rationale may be valid, there is no supporting data to prove it.
Critics, however, see an effort that doesn’t go far enough to ensure that community concerns about rogue policing are being addressed. Even if other jurisdictions are involved, they say, police are still investigating their own.
Nevertheless, the CIRT — which grew out of an effort to look at best practices around the country — represents an approach that appears to be relatively rare. Law enforcement agencies, and the officers who work for them, do not usually subject themselves to additional levels of scrutiny in hopes of reassuring the public.
And it’s scrutiny that law enforcement there enthusiastically supports. There’s now a state law that requires all Colorado jurisdictions to have some form of this review.
But questions remain about whether the public in other places, such as Wichita, will ever ask for increased scrutiny of uses of force by law enforcement or be content with a status quo that treats most incidents as internal police matters.
Concerns about accountability linger
The Wichita Journalism Collaborative examined the 8th District’s approach in light of the community’s ongoing reckoning with Lofton’s in-custody death.
Lofton died after his foster father called 911 seeking help for the teen’s mental health crisis. Wichita police responded to the call on their own because there wasn’t staffing for mental health professionals to join them, The Wichita Eagle reported last year. Police took Lofton to juvenile lockup after the situation escalated. The unarmed teen was fatally restrained by five county corrections workers in September 2021.
The incident led to a task force to address public dissatisfaction with a lack of accountability for officers. The group recommended 61 changes as a result. About half of them have been implemented by local and state agencies.
But some task force members remain concerned about a lack of accountability.
“It’s all fine and dandy to have policies and procedures in place, but when they hold nobody accountable, I don’t know what we got them for,” Tracey Mason says. “To me, accountability looks like the officers being really, truly held to a higher standard. If they’re held to a higher standard, then they have no business taking lives.”
Jazmine Rogers, another member of the Sedgwick County task force adds: “We’re in a place where we’re just fighting for the tiny bits of transparency and accountability we can get.”
Yet how accountability is defined varies depending on whom you ask. For victims and their families, it means criminal penalties, civil settlements or officers losing their jobs. For those inside law enforcement agencies, reviews of incidents by peers and internal discipline may be enough.
The use of force by police is common, but formal efforts to examine it and provide information to the public are often not, save when prosecutors charge officers or voluntarily share their reasoning for not doing it.
Approximately a quarter of a million civilians are injured by law enforcement officers each year in the U.S., some 85,000 of them require hospitalization. In the last 12 months, there have been more than 1,000 people shot and killed by police, according to a Washington Post analysis. On average, a quarter of victims are experiencing a mental health crisis.
The numbers are only increasing – 2022 brought more fatal police shootings than any year to date.
Officers are rarely charged by prosecutors for wrongdoing in these incidents. (There have been notable exceptions, such as the Minneapolis officers charged and convicted in the killing of George Floyd. And more recently, the response of Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy who criminally charged five Memphis police officers whose beating of Tyre Nichols led to his death.)
In Sedgwick County, District Attorney Marc Bennett hasn’t charged an officer for wrongful and deadly use of force since taking office a decade ago. He often cites the Kansas “Stand Your Ground” law, which he says courts have used to affirm the right of officers to defend themselves against suspects.
Could scrutinizing use-of-force incidents using the Larimer County template offer a path for building accountability and public trust in policing here?
Like his counterparts in Colorado, Bennett first reviews investigations by local law enforcement and then decides whether a crime might have been committed in officer-involved shooting incidents. There is no formal protocol or agreement between agencies as to how these investigations happen, however.
Bennett does say that it’s normal practice for investigators from an outside agency to aid in these reviews, including officers from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. But since the Wichita Police Department dwarfs other agencies in the area, both in terms of staffing and resources, requiring that a separate agency investigate could overburden smaller, nearby departments, Bennett says, and may not always be possible.
“But that’s not to suggest that we can’t at least incorporate some of these approaches so that it is more of a formalized process,” Bennett says.
This story is shared through the Wichita Journalism Collaborative, a coalition of 11 newsrooms and community groups, including KMUW, formed to support and enhance quality local journalism.
Copyright 2023 KMUW | NPR for Wichita. To see more, visit KMUW | NPR for Wichita.