Portland police cordon off an area from protesters during a Black Lives Matter protest. Tito Texidor via Unsplash
Is police brutality really an issue in this country?
Absolutely— with a most emphatic yes. Accountability for excessive and deadly force must be addressed by the society at large. Now.
Magnum (left) and his stepson, Zaine, on his first day back at school 2015. Martha Phillips/Lariat
Nov. 25 is an anniversary date for me and I will not be celebrating. In 2015, my son, Magnum Edgar-Neal Phillips, was only 23 years old, when Kolby Helms, a rookie of the Springfield Police Department in Missouri, allegedly shot and killed him in his home.
The testimonies of his fiance, Amanda Yocum, and five-year-old son, Zaine who witnessed the shooting, were deemed questionable. Officer Helm’s statement changed from the night of the shooting to his statement eight months later when he claimed that Magnum shot himself. There were no other police officers on the scene and no body camera video available.
“That cop had no business in my house,” Yocum said. “I told him Magnum and I were just fine.”
The police department and prosecuting attorney conducted an internal investigation. Alyssa Wagner is an activist who assists families in obtaining legal documents detailing the investigations through a process called the Sunshine Law request. She forwarded the papers to my attorney and myself.
The wrongful death suit was dropped because my son allegedly committed suicide according to Helms and the prosecutor deemed the matter closed even though the coroner had ruled Magnum’s death a homicide.
An external investigation concluded differently. Based on the findings, photos and documents, Wagner concluded that Helm’s firearm went off accidentally during a struggle. But, in the grand scheme of things, does it really matter and is police brutality really an issue in this country?
And, I’ll say it again … absolutely— with a most emphatic yes. Accountability for excessive and deadly force must be addressed by society at large. Now.
Wagner started Southwest Mo Cop Watchers in 2013 and began researching police brutality and misconduct. Her first external investigation was conducted after Michael Ireland was shot and killed by police officers in Springfield, Missouri. The Springfield Police Department settled out of court for $250,000, but no charges were brought against the officers.
“I’ve never liked bullies and I’ve never liked weak people being picked on and mistreated,” Wagner said. “I had heard stories from friends and acquaintances growing up of them being mistreated by the police. That lit the fire and in 2013, it only grew when I started my research. Once I went down that rabbit hole, I couldn’t just sit back anymore.”
Hannah Fizer at her job at Casey’s General Store in Sedalia, Missouri. Amy Fizer/Courtesy
In another incident, Hannah Fizer, 25, was shot and killed on June 13 in Pettis county, Missouri on her way to work during a traffic stop after allegedly telling an officer she had a gun and would shoot him— however no gun was found in the vehicle.
Special Prosecutor Stephen Sokoloff for the case released a report in August which determined that “the shooting, albeit possibly avoidable, was justifiable under current Missouri criminal law.”
A single surveillance video recorded Hannah’s last moments before she was shot and killed by a Pettis County sheriff’s deputy in June of this year.
John Fizer, Hannah’s father, has not been able to bring himself to watch the video.
“I don’t feel like I can watch my daughter be murdered,” Fizer told KSHB news in Missouri.
Thomas Purdy lays in a hospital bed in Nevada fighting for his life after an altercation with Washoe county police officers. Annemarie Grant/Courtesy
On Oct. 8, 2015, Thomas Purdy of Reno, Nevada died of injuries sustained in an altercation with four Reno police officers at the Washoe County jail. The video footage shows in graphic details the hours before his death.
“My brother was a victim of homicide. He needed medical attention and all he got was hog tied in that condition for 40+ minutes by Reno PD and smothered to death by Washoe deputies! When all he asked for was help at the Peppermill Resort Spa Casino as a guest. The heartache never goes away. These officers and deputies should be held accountable” posted Annemarie Grant, sister of Thomas Purdy #JUSTICEFORTHOMASPURDY.
Purdy’s father received a $25,000 settlement from the city of Reno, a $50,000 settlement from the Peppermill and a $100,000 settlement from Washoe County over wrongful death lawsuits.
No criminal charges were filed against the officers involved.
Annemarie Grant has now become an activist in the cause against police brutality following her brother’s death. She began investigating similar cases and found out that two other men had previously died at the jail under similar circumstances.
“I don’t want anybody ever to forget what happened to my brother and the two other men up at the jail, as well as the families who have lost people in officer involved shootings,” Grant said. “They experienced the same exact type of lack of accountability and transparency. When their loved one is killed, you get a wall of silence from the police.”
The reactions to police violence
Protestors demanding justice for the murder of George Floyd descend upon the streets of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Chris Henry via Unsplash
This past year approximately 50,000 to 80,000 people have taken to the streets across the nation creating the largest protest movement in United States history. Protestors have crossed political, socioeconomic and ethnic lines to unite in their cause against police brutality. According to a Gallup Poll from June 23 through July 6, 94% of Americans feel that some sort of reform is necessary to improve policing policies.
Americans have crossed party lines to demand police accountability. Now it’s up to lawmakers to do the same. It’s time to set aside their partisan differences and deliver reform.
On Oct. 22, known as the #nationaldayagainstpoliceterror, tens of thousands of loved ones lost to law enforcement are honored.
There have been nearly 30,000 officer-involved deaths from January 2000 to the present based on statistics from Fatal Encounters, a comprehensive database that tracks police-involved deaths.
There are now approximately 1,700 deaths caused by encounters with the police each year.
Brian Burghart is a career journalist and has been compiling this information since 2000. Burghardt is the data analyst for Fatal Encounters.
“I think the government does not collect the number of people killed by them in a meaningful way,” Burghart said. “I did an analysis of what was the main method for collecting the data at the time which was the Supplementary Homicide Report, which was part of the Uniform Crime Report done by the FBI and Bureau of Justice. I realized that they were misrepresenting the number of people killed by police by nearly 60%.”
When the Ferguson protests happened in 2014 after 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer, Burghart was the only one who had compiled such a comprehensive database. The Washington Post since used the first five months of Fatal Encounters data to start their own database. The Washington Post, however, only reported on gunshot victims which is 60% of deaths by police officers.
“Tasers, chokeholds, car chases account for many more of these deaths,” Burghart said. “It is misleading to assume that this is Hollywood-like violence.”
Citizens are demanding justice. Families of victims of police violence and civil society groups are calling on the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to ensure effective implementation of UN Human Rights Council resolution on police violence and structural racism. In an open letter to the Commissioner on Aug. 3, following the protests and riots this summer across the United States and around the world, the families of the victims signed a petition demanding action.
Does their opinion matter? Does my opinion matter? Does your opinion matter? Is police brutality really an issue in this country?
I’ll say it again and again. Absolutely — with a most emphatic yes. Accountability for excessive and deadly force must be addressed by society at large. Now.