Seattle police clear protest zone after flares of violence

By Lindsey Wasson

SEATTLE (Reuters) – Seattle authorities moved on Wednesday to dismantle a protest zone that the city’s police chief derided as “lawless and brutal” and which had prompted U.S. President Donald Trump to call for action against demonstrators.

Officers, clad in helmets and extra protective gear, entered the “autonomous zone” early and by mid-morning had arrested 31 people for failure to disperse, assault and other alleged crimes, according to the police department’s Twitter feed.

Police moved to retake the zone after Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan declared the gathering around the police department’s East Precinct and Cal Anderson Park an “unlawful assembly,” the police chief, Carmen Best, said in a statement that highlighted a recent spate of shootings and the deaths of two teenagers.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr commended Best in a statement for distinguishing between the right to protest and violent crime in “restoring the rule of law.” Barr did not mention Durkan, a Democrat who has been a target of the Republican president’s ire.

Harry “Rick” Hearns, a protester who said he volunteered to provide armed security at CHOP for 24 straight days, told Reuters he supported the police crackdown “1,000 percent.” He blamed the violence on outsiders who he said had marred an otherwise successful month long occupation.

“We don’t represent violence. People brought that to us,” said Hearns, 59.

Police were walking in and out of the East Precinct on Wednesday, re-establishing control. Weeks earlier, they abandoned the building following clashes with protesters in the wake of the May 25 killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of that city’s police.

Floyd’s death triggered a nationwide wave of largely peaceful demonstrations against racial injustice and police brutality, giving rise in Seattle to the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP) zone east of downtown.

“The CHOP has become lawless and brutal. Four shootings — two fatal — robberies, assaults, violence and countless property crimes have occurred in this several-block area,” Best said.

Trump has been demanding that local authorities eject the protesters, whom he labeled “domestic terrorists.” Conservative pundits have pointed to the zone in Seattle to support an argument that protests across the country were less peaceful than they were being portrayed.

Black armored vehicles and baton-wielding officers patrolled the perimeter of the area that was barricaded with spray-painted plywood, some marked with phrases like “All Lives Don’t Matter Until Black Lives Matter” and “RIP E Precinct.”

Bicycle police employed three dozen bikes to create a barricade at East Pike and 12th Avenue, allowing city crews to take down protesters’ tents. Some officers sipped Starbucks’ coffee, evidence the operation had met no serious resistance.

The zone had become less crowded and active over the past several days. Crowds that came by the thousands to listen to speeches about police brutality and marvel at street art commemorating Black lives had disappeared, as had medic stations and multiple free food tents.

Businesses in the area, a trendy neighborhood of hipster bars and boutiques, have been pushing for a tougher stance by authorities. Attorneys have filed two class action lawsuits against the City of Seattle, including one aimed at preventing the establishment of “lawless autonomous zones” in the future.

Lencho Williams, who was roused by police from the CHOP encampment on Wednesday, said protesters would regroup. He said the movement had become disorganized when three original demands — defund the police, fund the Black community and amnesty for demonstrators — morphed into 12.

“We’re going to be back. If not tomorrow, the next day. You can’t stop a revolution. Black lives matter now and forever,” said Williams, 32.

(Reporting by Lindsey Wasson in Seattle, Barbara Goldberg in Maplewood, New Jersey and Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Editing by Steve Orlofsky, Bernadette Baum, David Gregorio and Jonathan Oatis)

Ex-Atlanta policeman charged in Brooks’ death freed from jail, official says

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) – The former Atlanta police officer charged in last month’s death of Rayshard Brooks, which touched off days of anti-racism protests, has been released from jail on bail, an official said on Wednesday.

A Georgia County judge on Tuesday set bond for Garrett Rolfe, 27, at $500,000, and added numerous conditions, including that he wears an ankle monitor and obeys a curfew.

Rolfe left Gwinnett County Jail at 12:27 a.m. EDT (0337 GMT) on Wednesday, according to county Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Shannon Volkodav.

Representatives for the jail, police, Rolfe and Brooks’ family were not immediately available for comment.

The white policeman is charged with felony murder and 10 other offenses in the shooting of Brooks, a 27-year-old Black man, at a Wendy’s parking lot in south Atlanta.

At a hearing on Tuesday, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jane Barwick said she would allow Rolfe to be freed from jail while awaiting trial because she did not believe the former officer was a danger to the community or a flight risk.

Brooks’ June 12 death exacerbated tensions in the United States over police brutality and racism stoked by the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25.

Surveillance and cellphone video of the Atlanta shooting was widely viewed on social media, triggering sometimes-violent demonstrations and the burning of the fast-food restaurant.

At Tuesday’s hearing, before the judge gave her decision, Brooks’ widow Tomika Miller asked the court to deny bond, saying she would not feel safe with the former officer free.

“I say ‘no’ because mentally, I’m not able to handle it. I don’t feel safe with him out there,” she said.

Rolfe’s attorneys have said they intend to present strong evidence asserting he was legally justified in using deadly force because he was acting in self-defense. Rolfe was fired from the police and had been held at the Gwinnett County jail.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Bernadette Baum)

New York City mayor says will cut $1 billion from police budget

By Maria Caspani and Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has agreed with the City Council to cut $1 billion from the New York Police Department’s funding in the municipal budget for the 2021 fiscal year, which is due to be passed later on Tuesday, even as some lawmakers described the cuts as insufficient.

The budget negotiations were shaped by two crises that have shaken the city.

The coronavirus pandemic created a $9 billion shortfall in revenue, leading to deep cuts across city agencies, including the possibility that some 22,000 municipal workers could be laid off by the mayor later this year if labor unions cannot help find savings elsewhere.

And a month of nationwide protests against police violence gave new political heft to calls to defund police departments, forcing de Blasio to shift from his original April proposal of cutting NYPD funding by less than 1% while slashing youth services. Thousands of protesters began camping outside City Hall last week in what they called an occupation, demanding deep cuts to police funding.

“It’s time to do the work of reform, to think deeply about where our police have to be in the future,” de Blasio told reporters on Tuesday.

The NYPD’s $6 billion operating budget will be cut through overtime reductions, the cancellation of the July class of more than 1,000 new recruits, and the transfer of some responsibilities out of the NYPD, de Blasio said.

He would also restore some summer youth programs he had originally canceled.

A minority of left-wing lawmakers have criticized the cuts as insufficient and said they would oppose the budget’s passage later on Tuesday at a vote convened by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

They complain the proposal does not reduce the current number of police officers in the city, and that a large portion of what the mayor has called a $1 billion cut consists of transferring responsibility of school safety officers from the NYPD to the Department of Education.

Communities United for Police Reform, a coalition of 200 community groups which originally called for a $1 billion cut to the NYPD’s budget, said their demands were still not being met.

“Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Johnson are using funny math and budget tricks to try to mislead New Yorkers,” Anthonine Pierre, a spokesperson for the coalition, said in a statement. “Moving police from the NYPD to other agencies does nothing to reduce police violence.”

New York Public Advocate Jumaane Williams also criticized the proposed budget, saying he would invoke an obscure provision in the City’s Charter and refuse to sign tax warrants in order to stop it being deployed in the absence of what he called “a commitment to true school safety reform.”

The total city budget comes to $88.1 billion, de Blasio said, down from $95.3 billion he had proposed earlier in the year.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Former Atlanta officer charged with killing Black man to face judge in bail hearing

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) – A former Atlanta police officer who shot a Black man twice in the back, touching off mass demonstrations and the burning of the fast-food restaurant where the killing occurred, is scheduled to face a judge on Tuesday for a bond hearing.

Garret Rolfe, 27, is charged with felony murder and 10 other offenses in the June 12 shooting of Rayshard Brooks at a Wendy’s parking lot in south Atlanta. The incident, caught on surveillance and cellphone video, was widely viewed on social media.

In a motion filed on Monday, attorneys for Rolfe argued he deserved to be released on bond because he was a “longstanding, law-abiding member of the community, who will stay here to fight this case.”

The motion said there was strong evidence in Rolfe’s defense, asserting the former officer was legally justified in using deadly force as he was acting in self-defense.

The death of Brooks, a 27-year-old Black man, heightened tensions over police brutality and racism stoked by the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25.

Before the deadly encounter, Brooks was found sleeping in his car in the Wendy’s drive-thru, and had failed a sobriety test. He tussled with Rolfe and another police officer, wrested away one of their taser stun guns and ran, officials said. He appeared to fire the taser toward the officers, and was then shot twice in the back with one bullet piercing his heart as he fled.

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard has pursued the case aggressively, arguing that Brooks was not a threat.

Rolfe was fired and has been held without bond at the Gwinnett County jail. A second officer, Devin Brosnan, 26, was placed on administrative duty and charged with aggravated assault. The city’s police chief resigned after the incident.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Woman arrested over torching of Wendy’s where Rayshard Brooks died

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) – A woman accused of setting fire to the Wendy’s fast-food restaurant in Atlanta where police shot and killed Rayshard Brooks in the parking lot was arrested on Tuesday on suspicion of arson, authorities said.

Natalie White, 29, was taken into custody by Fulton County sheriff’s deputies on the same day that Brooks, a Black man who was slain by a white officer, was buried following a funeral at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

White’s arrest was announced by the sheriff’s office on Twitter. The county jail telephone line said White had been booked on two counts of first-degree arson. The identity of her attorney could not immediately be ascertained.

Brooks, 27, repeatedly referred to a “Natalie White” as his girlfriend in discussions with police who were questioning him before he was killed, according to video footage from an officer’s body camera. But his relationship to the woman arrested has not been independently verified.

Brooks’ death on June 12 heightened tensions over police brutality and racial bias in U.S. law enforcement that have raged since the killing of George Floyd in police custody with a knee to his neck in Minneapolis in late May.

The chain of events leading to Brooks’ death began when Wendy’s employees called police to report he had fallen asleep in his car in the drive-through lane.

According to prosecutors’ account, what began as a cordial encounter with police deteriorated into a physical struggle, with Brooks grabbing one of the officers’ Tasers and running across the parking lot as he was shot from behind.

The Wendy’s outlet was burned to the ground during protests that ensued that night and into the next morning. The blaze is under investigation by Atlanta fire authorities.

The officer who shot Brooks was fired and has been charged with murder. A second officer was placed on administrative duty and charged with assault.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Leslie Adler and Jane Wardell)

Trump opposed to removing Theodore Roosevelt’s statue from outside Museum of Natural History

By Kanishka Singh

(Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Monday he opposed removing the towering statue of Theodore Roosevelt from outside New York City’s American Museum of Natural History.

The move was announced by the museum on Sunday and comes amid anti-racism protests across the United States and the world after the death of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, in police custody on May 25 in the United States.

The statue shows Roosevelt on a horse, with a Native American man and an African man by his side. It stands prominently on a plinth outside the museum’s main entrance, overlooking Central Park.

Roosevelt, a Republican like Trump, was U.S. president from 1901-1909. Known for his exuberant and daring manner, he carried out antitrust, conservationist and “Square Deal” reforms, and, critics said, took an interventionist approach to foreign policy, including projecting U.S. naval power around the world.

Many critics have said the Roosevelt statue symbolizes racial discrimination and colonial expansion.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Sunday that the city was in favor of the request from the museum to remove the statue because it “depicts black and indigenous people as subjugated and racially inferior.”

“Ridiculous, don’t do it,” Trump said in a tweet on Monday.

In the ongoing ant-racism demonstrations, protesters across the United States and around the world have demanded that authorities take down monuments honoring pro-slavery Confederate figures and the architects of Europe’s colonies.

“Simply put, the time has come to move it,” the museum’s president, Ellen Futter, told the New York Times.

She said the museum’s decision was based on the statue itself, along with its “hierarchical composition”, and not on Roosevelt. Futter said the museum continues to honor Roosevelt as “a pioneering conservationist”.

Roosevelt’s face is also one of the four presidents – along with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln – whose faces are cast in 60-foot-high granite sculptures at the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota.

Trump has blasted the anti-racism protests, saying demonstrators have behaved badly.

“The unhinged left-wing mob is trying to vandalize our history, desecrate our monuments – our beautiful monuments – tear down our statues and punish, cancel and persecute anyone who does not conform to their demands for absolute and total control. We’re not conforming”, the U.S. president told supporters at a rally last week.

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru Editing by Gerry Doyle, Toby Chopra and Mark Heinrich)

Atlanta officer says not ‘state’s witness’ in Rayshard Brooks case, contradicting prosecutor

By Nathan Layne

(Reuters) – Devin Brosnan, one of the two Atlanta police officers charged in the shooting death of Rayshard Brooks, has not agreed to be a witness for the prosecution, his lawyer said on Thursday, contradicting an assertion by the lead prosecutor on the case.

Brosnan turned himself into authorities on Thursday. His lawyer said he would soon be out of custody in an hour or so after processing paperwork.

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard had told a news conference on Wednesday that Brosnan had turned “state witness”, agreeing to help prosecute Garrett Rolfe, the other officer charged in the killing of Brooks on June 12.

Rolfe, who shot Brooks in the back with his gun, was charged with felony murder and 10 other charges. Brosnan, who did not discharge his weapon, faces a handful of lesser charges, including aggravated assault and violation of his oath.

The death of Brooks – the latest in a long line of African Americans whose fatal encounters with law enforcement have been documented on video – further heightened U.S. social tensions at a time of national soul searching over police brutality and racism in the criminal justice system.

Howard had highlighted Brosnan’s cooperation as “something remarkable”, adding that the officer had “now become a state’s witness. He has decided to testify on behalf of the state in this case.”

Don Samuel, Brosnan’s lawyer, said that was not true.

While his client had told Howard’s office “everything” during a lengthy interview and would cooperate with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s probe, he had not agreed to be “state’s witness,” the lawyer said.

“Officer Brosnan has not agreed to testify. He has not agreed to plead guilty,” Samuel said in an emailed statement, adding that he “has not agreed to be a ‘state’s witness'”.

Brooks’ killing came amid a storm of protests sparked by the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man who perished after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. That officer, Derek Chauvin, was charged with second-degree murder. Three other Minneapolis policemen were charged with aiding and abetting.

The police encounter with Brooks started out calmly after he was found sleeping in his car at a Wendy’s restaurant drive-through lane in Atlanta. Rolfe and Brosnan administered a sobriety test, after which the situation escalated.

Previously released video of the Brooks appeared to show Brooks grabbing one of the officer’s Taser stun guns and turning and pointing it at Rolfe before being shot. Howard said Thursday that investigators concluded Rolfe knew by then that the Taser had already been fired twice and thus was rendered harmless.

One of the bullets from Rolfe’s gun hit a white Chevy Trailblazer at the Wendy’s, threatening the life of the three passengers inside, according to Howard and the charging documents against the two officers.

One of the car’s passengers, Michael Perkins, told a media briefing on Thursday that he had taken cover in the back seat as the struggle between the officers and Brooks escalated. He said he “smelt gunsmoke” but was unaware the car had taken a bullet until later.

“I almost was killed myself. I feel troubled about it but I’m glad the family is getting the justice it deserves.”

Samuel described the decision to charge his client as “irrational” and politically-motivated. He said Brosnan’s conduct on the night of the shooting was “exemplary” and a “textbook example” of how an officer should approach a situation involving someone inebriated, as Brooks was that night.

While Brosnan did not fire his gun, Howard charged him with aggravated assault for allegedly standing on Brooks’ body after he was shot and for violating his oath of office by not rendering medical aid immediately after he went down.

Samuel said Brosnan, despite suffering a concussion during a tussle with Brooks, rushed to provide medical aid.

(reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Alistair Bell)

As Mexico focuses on coronavirus, drug gang violence rises

By Drazen Jorgic and Uriel Sanchez

MEXICO CITY/ACAPULCO, Mexico (Reuters) – The coronavirus is threatening to hamstring Mexico’s fight against some of its most vicious drug gangs, as police and officials fall sick, security forces are diverted to guard medical centers and military barracks are converted to COVID-19 clinics.

The powerful Jalisco cartel and its rivals are exploiting a security void to step up the fight for control of the drug trade in Mexico, security officials and analysts say.

The number of murders nationally has risen to record levels even as the amount of other crimes have tumbled due to most of the country staying at home to avoid the coronavirus.

In recent weeks, gunmen abducted and killed seven police officers, murdered 10 people in a drug rehab center and dumped 12 bullet-riddled bodies of a rival crime outfit, all in areas where the Jalisco New Generation (CJNG) cartel operates.

The military, a central part of Mexico’s anti-cartel fight, has been drafted to help stem the coronavirus, converting barracks into COVID-19 treatment clinics.

Police officers who are overweight or have underlying health conditions have been taken off the streets in some regions because they are regarded as being at high risk from COVID-19, Mexican officials say.

In Guerrero state, where about 40 armed groups including the CJNG operate, the police have been debilitated by outbreaks of coronavirus in its ranks, a senior Guerrero police official said.

When one officer gets sick, on average four more have to isolate for two weeks, he added, complaining that some officers were also turning up with dubious sick notes to avoid work.

In rural Guerrero, a mountainous state on the Pacific coast that governments have long struggled to control, armed vigilante groups that analysts say have links to cartels have imposed curfews and barred residents from leaving villages to try to contain the virus, residents told Reuters.

With an official tally of over 18,300 fatalities, Mexico has the seventh-highest coronavirus death toll in the world.

Coronavirus is straining the federal government’s bandwidth to deal with organized crime, another senior security official said.

“Coronavirus is the priority right now, no doubt,” the official said. “You can feel that.”

Nationally, 4,700 National Guard security personnel, out of a total of 90,000, have been tasked with guarding hospitals, medical equipment and health workers, the federal security ministry told Reuters.

The Mexican government did not directly answer a request from Reuters for comment about whether combating coronavirus is holding back the fight against cartels but a senior security ministry official said the government remains focused on its duties.

The official said only a small percentage of the National Guard militarized police force has been reassigned to coronavirus duties and that the majority maintain their crime prevention and combat functions.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said this month that Mexico is “not going to stop responding to and confronting organized crime.”

MURDER RATE GROWS

CJNG’s push for dominance helped drive homicides rates to an all-time high in the first four months of 2020, dealing a blow to Lopez Obrador. A record 34,582 people were murdered in 2019.

Lopez Obrador this month said about 70% of the homicides this year were cartel-linked.

Mexico has been in lockdown due to the coronavirus since March 23, when it ordered schools, business and government offices to shut.

But drug turf battles pushed murder rates higher in March, when 3,000 homicides were recorded. That was the second-highest monthly tally ever, and the biggest since Lopez Obrador assumed power in Dec. 2018.

The daily murder rate was near-identical in April, government data showed and on June 7, Mexico suffered its most violent day of the year with 117 murders.

“There are shootouts that you can’t miss almost daily,” said Jose, a student in Aguililla, one of many towns in the state of Michoacan where local cartels are fighting to keep the Jalisco gang out.

CJNG, led by former policeman Nemesio “El Mencho” Oseguera who has a $10-million U.S. bounty on his head, has faced stiff resistance from smaller gangs in its quest for control of smuggling routes for methaphetamine, heroin and fentanyl to the United States. Last month police in Michoacan found 12 bodies of suspected CJNG members in a truck.

A note draped over the bodies, purportedly signed by The Familia Michoacana cartel, taunted a CJNG regional chief.

Cartels have long fought for the control and drug trafficking routes across the large strip of land known as Tierra Caliente, or “Hot Land” region of western Mexico, encompassing the states of Michoacan, Guerrero and Mexico.

Even before the pandemic, federal and state authority was often absent from rural areas across the region.

“There are areas where the government doesn’t enter…and crime groups have total control,” said Gregorio Lopez Jeronimo, a Roman Catholic priest better known as “Father Goyo” in the Michoacan town of Apatzingan, part of the Tierra Caliente.

Adding insult to injury, gangs are trying to take over some of the role of government to ease social needs during the pandemic.

In several regions they are lending money to hard-up businesses in areas where people have taken an economic hit due to the shutdown, according to a government document detailed by local newspapers.

Videos of gun-toting fighters from several gangs doling out groceries to impoverished local populations during the lockdown have driven home the government’s loss of territorial control.

“The pandemic has completely exposed the gaps in the government’s control over certain territories,” said Mike Vigil, a former U.S. Drugs Enforcement Administration agent.

“Those voids are being filled, unfortunately, by the drug cartels.”

(Reporting by Drazen Jorgic and Uriel Guerrero; additional reporting by Diego Ore; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Trump signs order on police reform after weeks of protests about racial injustice

By Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump, facing criticism that his policies and inflammatory rhetoric have aggravated a racial divide in the United States, signed an order on Tuesday that he said would reform police practices even as he pressed for “law and order” nationwide.

After weeks of protests against racism and police brutality prompted by the death of George Floyd, a black man killed on May 25 in police custody in Minneapolis, Trump sought to offer a policy response to rising concerns about racial injustice going into the Nov. 3 election, in which he is seeking a second term.

Trump, a Republican, opened his remarks by expressing sympathy to the families of victims of police violence, pledging to fight for justice and promising them their loved ones will not have died in vain. But he quickly pivoted to a defense of law enforcement officers and a threat of penalties to looters.

“Americans want law and order, they demand law and order,” Trump said at a ceremony at the White House, reiterating a call that has angered protesters who have poured onto streets from New York to Los Angeles.

“Americans know the truth: Without police there is chaos, without law there is anarchy, and without safety there is catastrophe,” he said.

In his public comments and on Twitter, Trump has called for crackdowns on protesters and emphasized a forceful and militarized response to the social unrest sparked by the death of Floyd and others. Despite issuing a call for unity, he used his Rose Garden address on Tuesday to criticize former President Barack Obama, the first black U.S. president, for his record on police reforms. Opinion polls show widespread concerns among Americans about police brutality.

Tuesday’s order encourages police departments to employ the latest standards for use of force, improve information sharing so that officers with poor records are not hired without their backgrounds being known, and add social workers to law enforcement responses to non-violent cases involving drug addiction and homelessness, officials said.

Trump’s proposal would steer federal money toward police departments that get certification by outside bodies and would ban chokeholds unless an officer’s life was in danger. It also would encourage them to use less-lethal weapons such as stun guns.

Civil-rights groups and top Democrats, including former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said the order was insufficient.

Trump reiterated that he opposes calls to “defund the police” by reimagining or dismantling police departments. Leading Democrats, including Biden, have not embraced such calls, but Republicans have jumped on the issue.

The Democratic-led House of Representatives is expected to vote later this month on sweeping legislation put forward by the Congressional Black Caucus to rein in police misconduct.

Senate Republicans are expected to unveil their own legislation on Wednesday that concentrates more on data collection than on policy changes in areas involving lethal force. Trump urged Congress to act.

Democrats want to allow victims of misconduct and their families to sue police. Republicans are pushing to reduce job protections for members of law enforcement unions.

Trump’s decision to ban chokeholds appears similar to the ban included in the Democratic legislation.

Republican lawmakers are divided on that issue.

Inimai Chettiar of the Justice Action Network said the use of grant money to influence police department policies could be an effective way to get results, but she noted that Trump’s Justice Department has resisted other reform efforts.

“I have a lot of skepticism in terms of how rigorously this is going to be implemented,” she said. Other civil-rights groups said Trump’s order did not go far enough.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, David Morgan and Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Andy Sullivan, Sonya Hepinstall, Cynthia Osterman and Jonathan Oatis)

Black Americans disproportionately die in police Taser confrontations

By Linda So

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As police confront protesters across the United States, they’re turning to rubber bullets, pepper spray, tear gas and other weapons meant to minimize fatalities.

But some are using a weapon that has potential to kill: the Taser. When those encounters have turned fatal, black people make up a disproportionate share of those who die, according to a Reuters analysis.

Reuters documented 1,081 cases through the end of 2018 in which people died after being shocked by police with a Taser, the vast majority of them after 2000. At least 32% of those who died were black, and at least 29% were white. African-Americans make up 14% of the U.S. population, and non-Hispanic whites 60%.

To explore the Reuters database of deaths involving police and Tasers, click here:

“These racial disparities in Taser deaths are horrifying but unsurprising,” said Carl Takei, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union. “Police violence is a leading cause of death for black people in America, in large part because over-policing of black and brown communities results in unnecessary police contacts and unnecessary use of force.”

In 13% of the deaths identified in police reports, autopsies or other records as involving people of Hispanic ethnicity, Reuters was unable to document race. The race of the person who died was also unknown in the remaining 26% of the cases.

The deaths illustrate a challenge for U.S. law enforcement at a time when protests over police killings have thrown a spotlight on their tactics. Tasers, which deliver a pulsed electrical current meant to give police several seconds to restrain a subject, have been nearly universally embraced since the early 2000s as a less lethal alternative to firearms. About 94% of America’s roughly 18,000 police agencies now issue Tasers.

Tasers drew fresh attention over the weekend after the Friday night death of Rayshard Brooks. A police officer shot the 27-year-old with his handgun after Brooks ran away with an officer’s Taser and pointed it at police following a scuffle, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said. A lawyer for the Brooks family, L. Chris Stewart, said Brooks’ wielding of the Taser didn’t justify his shooting, noting that police routinely argue in court that the devices are non-lethal weapons.

In a series of reports in 2017, however, Reuters identified more than a thousand cases since 2000 in which people died after being shocked by police with the weapons, typically in combination with other forms of force.

Most independent researchers who have studied Tasers say deaths are rare when they are used properly. But the Reuters investigation found that many police officers are not trained properly on the risks, and the weapons are often misused. Tasers fire a pair of barbed darts that deliver a paralyzing electrical charge or can be pressed directly against the body – the “drive stun” mode – causing intense pain.

Some recent examples of Taser misuse highlight the risks and confusion surrounding the weapon.

On May 30, during nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, two college students, Taniyah Pilgrim, 20, and Messiah Young, 22, had gone out to get food and were stuck in traffic due to the demonstrations in Atlanta.

In a confrontation with police caught on bodycam video, one officer repeatedly struck the driver’s side window with a baton as a second officer stunned Pilgrim with a Taser. A third officer used a Taser on Young, as the police dragged the black students out of the car.

Video footage of the officers shocking them drew criticism around the country. Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields apologized at a news conference the next day. “How we behaved as an agency, as individuals was unacceptable,” she said. Young was treated in the hospital and required stitches. Shields resigned on Saturday after the Brooks killing.

After the May 30 incident, one officer wrote in a police report that he used his Taser because he was unsure whether the students were armed. The Taser’s manufacturer, Axon Enterprise Inc, warns in guidelines distributed to police departments that the weapon should not be used on people who are driving or restrained. And law enforcement experts say Tasers generally shouldn’t be used on anyone who is already immobilized, such as in a car.

Six police officers involved in the incident — five of them black, one white — were charged for using excessive force. Four have been fired. Two have sued the mayor and police chief seeking their jobs back. An attorney representing the two officers says he believes the firings were politically motivated.

“The question police should be asking is not: ‘Can I use the Taser?’ but ‘Should I?’” said Michael Leonesio, a retired police officer who ran the Oakland Police Department’s Taser program and has served as an expert witness in wrongful death lawsuits against Axon. “This is a dangerous weapon,” Leonesio said. “The more it’s used, the more people are going to die.”

Axon says its weapons are not risk-free but are safer than batons, fists, tackles and impact munitions. “Any loss of life is a tragedy regardless of the circumstance, which is why we remain committed to developing technology and training to protect both officers and the community,” the company said in an email to Reuters.

“TASE HIS ASS”

On a hot July day in 2017, Eurie Martin, 58, wanted a drink of water. After walking more than 12 miles to visit relatives for his birthday, he stopped to ask a homeowner for water in Deepstep, a town of about 130 people in central Georgia. The homeowner refused and called police to check out Martin, “a black man,” according to the district attorney.

Martin was walking on the side of the road when a Washington County Sheriff’s deputy arrived and tried to speak with him. Martin, who suffered from schizophrenia, ignored him and kept walking. The deputy called for backup.

The officers said Martin got “defensive” and “clinched his fists,” ignoring commands to place his hands behind his back, the district attorney said. One deputy told another to “Tase his ass,” according to the officers’ dashboard camera video.

When the deputy fired the Taser, Martin fell to the ground, removed the Taser prong from his arm, and walked away. A third deputy arrived and fired his stun gun at Martin’s back, causing him to fall.

The deputies surrounded Martin as he lay face down, applying the weight of their bodies and deployed their Tasers 15 times. Martin could be heard crying out in pain saying, “they killing me.” He died of cardiac arrhythmia during police restraint, according to an autopsy.

“He was a victim of walking while black,” said Mawuli Davis, an attorney representing Martin’s family. The deputies, who were fired after they were indicted, said they followed their training on use of the stun gun.

Last November, a judge granted the three deputies – all white – immunity from prosecution just weeks before they were to go trial on murder charges in Martin’s death.

In its guidelines distributed to police departments, Axon warns against using multiple Tasers at the same time. Law enforcement experts say repeated applications and continuous use of stun guns can increase the risk of death and should be avoided.

The sheriff’s office declined to respond to multiple requests for comment.

The judge ruled the deputies acted in self-defense and that their use of the Taser was “justified” and “reasonable under the circumstances.” Citing Georgia’s Stand Your Ground Law, the judge wrote all people have the right to use reasonable force to protect themselves against “death or great bodily injury.”

The district attorney appealed the ruling, and the case is scheduled to be heard before the state Supreme Court in August. If the high court overturns the lower court’s ruling, the murder charges against the deputies will be reinstated.

Martin died “for daring to ask for a drink of water in the Georgia sun,” said his sister Helen Gilbert. “Every person of common sense knows he did nothing to deserve his death. I will not rest until this long walk to justice is complete.”

SCRUTINY

Deaths involving Tasers typically draw little public scrutiny – no government agency tracks how often they’re used or how many of those deployments prove fatal. Coroners and medical examiners use varying standards to assess a Taser’s role in a death. And there are no uniform national standards governing police use of Tasers.

Late in 2009, as evidence of cardiac risks from Tasers mounted, the manufacturer made a crucial change: It warned police to avoid firing its stun gun’s electrified darts at a person’s chest.

But on March 3 in Tacoma, Washington, that warning wasn’t heeded.

Newly released video and audio recordings show Tacoma police officers using a Taser and beating a black man as he shouted, “I can’t breathe” — similar to George Floyd’s desperate cry when a white police officer in Minneapolis pressed a knee into his neck on May 25.

Police said they found Manuel Ellis, 33, trying to open doors of unoccupied cars and that he attacked a police vehicle and two officers. An attorney for his family said he was walking home from a convenience store when the confrontation with police took place.

Police handcuffed Ellis and bound his legs with a canvas strap after firing a Taser into his chest, according to an autopsy report. He lost consciousness, and efforts to resuscitate him were unsuccessful. The medical examiner ruled his death a homicide. An autopsy listed his cause of death as respiratory arrest due to hypoxia as a result of physical restraint.

His death sparked protests in Tacoma on June 5 after video of the incident surfaced. The governor called for a new investigation, and the city’s mayor demanded the four officers involved be fired and prosecuted. Two officers are white, one is black and the other is Asian. They have been placed on administrative leave, but have not been charged.

One of the officers, Christopher Burbank, declined to comment. Attempts by Reuters to reach the other three were unsuccessful. The Tacoma Police Department said it was cooperating with county and state investigators.

(Additional reporting by Grant Smith. Editing by Jason Szep)