Civil Rights Attorney Says Cops Have Been Shooting Unarmed People in the Back for Years

Story Transcript

STEPHEN JANIS, PRODUCER, TRNN: Hello. My name is Stephen Janis and I’m an investigative reporter for the Real News Network.

It’s another video showing a police officer using unnecessary force that has stunned the nation and raised questions about the state of policing in America. North Charleston police officer Michael Slager caught on video firing eight shots into the back of 50-year-old Walter Scott. Scott was pronounced dead on the scene, and now Slager has been charged with murder. The entire incident all the result of a routine traffic stop for a broken taillight, it is a consistent theme in these cases: minor encounters with police ending with inexplicable violence.

Our next guest knows this story all too well. A. Dwight Pettit is one of the most revered civil rights attorneys in Maryland. He has successfully sued the Baltimore City Police Department over dozens of cases of police brutality, among them multiple cases where his clients were shot in the back. He joins us now to discuss the video, and his efforts to hold the police department accountable in Maryland and across the country.

Mr. Pettit, thank you for joining us.

A. DWIGHT PETTIT, CIVIL RIGHTS ATTORNEY: Thanks for having me, Stephen.

JANIS: So just off the top, you’ve seen the video. What is your reaction to it?

PETTIT: Well, it’s, it’s a reaction of horror. You know, that it’s actually, in my opinion, murder in the first degree. And I say murder in the first degree, because the police officer has the opportunity to premeditate and to formulate the intent to take this young man’s life. And so that’s the elements of murder.

There is no issue here in terms of, he’s going to probably argue, I think he might argue about laying the Taser down beside the deceased, that in some kind of way he was in apprehension of the Taser. But that doesn’t make any sense.

Normally the defense is, I thought I saw him going for a weapon. I thought I saw something that looked like a weapon. I saw a cell phone, I saw this or that. In this instance, he’s running away, he’s shot in the back. Officer sees no weapon, makes no allegation of a weapon. There’s no abrupt turn or reaching or what have you. So it is clearly, clearly a murder in the first degree.

JANIS: So you have prosecuted, or sued the city, multiple times on these kind of cases where people are shot in the back. Tell us a little bit about your experience with dealing with these kind of cases, and some of the evidence that you had.

PETTIT: Well, they’re very difficult to deal with because what’s happening in this new technological age is that we have video. And that’s becoming more and more relevant in each case.

Most of the cases that I have tried, except for the … most of them have not had video. I’m trying to think of the one that did. It was the shooting down at Lexington Market. That wasn’t a back shooting, but there was national video, it went national, as a young man was shot — a quarrel — was shot while the video was running. The tape was running.

But most of the time, we don’t have that. And all, it’s the same defense. We know what the defense is going to be. The police officer’s going to say that I thought he was reaching, or I saw something that looked like a weapon. And so therefore, I was in apprehension of bodily injury or death. And so I reacted instantly, and therefore – that is the defense, and a lot of the courts have said that that’s something that’s very difficult to go behind. That spontaneous action of the police officers.

So those are defense — and unfortunately in many cases, they … those defenses work.

JANIS: Well, just talk about a few — you had one, for example, a young man who was in a parking lot, Edward Lamont Hunt, who was frisked for 20 minutes, and then a man who was climbing in through a window who was also shot in the back. Can you talk a little bit about the details, just so people understand the challenges you face?

PETTIT: Well, in the case of the, Mr. Edward Hunt, he had been searched not once, but twice. Walked away from the officer. Was not running, walked away. Saying, you know, man, enough is enough. Officer runs up behind him, shoots him in the back twice. And that particular case, the case settled before we went to the jury because — only because — in Maryland we’re dealing with caps. And a $200,000 cap in that instance caused the case to be settled. Although I think it’s widely known the case settled for $375,000.

But the case should have been a multi-million dollar case, if we weren’t limited by caps. There was absolutely no excuse for the shooting of Mr. Hunt, because the officer knew he didn’t have a weapon. Because that was the reason that Hunt had walked away, is because he’d been searched twice.

JANIS: And yet the officer did claim that he feared for his life in that case, right?

PETTIT: He claimed that he saw him go into his back pocket, which he thought was a weapon. And how that can survive as a defense after you’ve searched him twice made no sense. And so I was very, very — I was very excited to go, and waiting to go before the jury, and deal with that so-called defense by the shooting officer.

With the one we had in Cherry Hill, the young man was on a motorcycle. Got off the motorcycle, he’s shot in the back, and running. It’s about, the police officer chases him for about, oh I guess two or three blocks before he shoots him. The defense, again, was that he saw the man stop and reach back, and therefore he knew, he felt that there was a weapon. Well, I think the case was that in warm weather there was no jacket or anything like that. It was a T-shirt and jeans, so obviously —

But that is the standard defense line. I thought I saw a weapon. The one, the man in East Baltimore that was climbing in a window after running from a police — obviously climbing in the window, no reaching for the weapon. But the officer said, as he climbed in the window, I thought he was reaching for something inside of the window, and therefore I was in apprehension of my life.

And those defenses work.

JANIS: So in these cases, in terms of criminal, none of them were successfully prosecuted criminally, right? None of them resulted in charges sustained against the officer.

PETTIT: Only one. In the Hunt case, the officer was prosecuted. But he was acquitted by the jury.

Juries want to find, citizens want to find that the police acted correct. So the police have a lot of emotional … passes going with them. Because people don’t want to think that the police are going to intentionally kill somebody. We know it’s a tough job, we know — and the other thing that’s a factor is the crime rate. People are almost willing to trade off, because of the horrendous crime in the urban community, they’re almost willing to trade off their constitutional rights because of the desire to be protected, and the fear of criminal activity.

And so you have a situation in which citizens are looking for anything, whether it’s a criminal trial or whether it’s a civil trial, to in fact exonerate the police. I had one with Johnnie Cochran and Billy Murphy here, where the young man was on the ground. They were handcuffing him. Back in the early 2000s. Shot hi in the back of the head. I’ll never forget it. One of the witnesses on the stand, when I took her deposition, she said, “Mr. Pettit,” she said, “I saw it. I was standing in my porch, on my porch in my doorway. I saw them shoot him in the back of the head.” She said, “I turned to run for the telephone to call the police, and all of a sudden it dawned on me, it was the police.” I mean, horrific.

JANIS: So how do you see this perception changing? I mean, do you think it’s finally occurring to people that these things really aren’t what they seem? I mean, is this — do we have to look back in history at some of these cases and say, well, is this really what was happening?

PETTIT: I think, as I indicated earlier, the technological advances that we now have, and potential of having body cameras — but the fact that now everybody has a camera, everybody has a cell phone. What we’re seeing are the things that I have argued, and other lawyers, civil rights lawyers, have argued for years and people just looked at us in disbelief. That it could not be happening the way that you’re presenting it.

And now, through the ability of these things to be taped and to see them on television the next day, people are being shocked across the nation. Whether it’s New York, or whether it’s in the Midwest. Whether it’s California, whether it’s — they’re being shocked. And Baltimore City, I’ve always said Baltimore City would be the capital of the world if they ever broke it down in terms of, the population of Baltimore City in terms of the murders and the police homicides and police brutality cases that just I have been familiar with, not even counting all the other lawyers who practice in this area.

JANIS: That raises a really interesting question, because we know in Annapolis that none of, almost none of the legislation aimed at reforming policing passed, and that the state has been sort of very regressive on this.

In light of this new evidence in some of the cases that have occurred, even the case of Officer Cosom — on North Avenue we have video of an officer — why do you think they can’t reform policing in Maryland? What’s the obstacle?

PETTIT: Well, you’ve got to remember that the legislative body that reviewed these pieces of legislation is state representatives, and some of them from very conservative areas. Even those in Baltimore City might tend to be somewhat conservative for reasons that I’ve already stated. But when you’re talking about a legislative body in Annapolis, you’re talking about people from all walks of the state, who actually — and if you listen sometimes on talk radio you hear — these citizens espousing views of why the police are correct.

I heard coming down here today, before I’m doing this interview with you, a lady came on one of the conservative stations, because I tune to all the station — and she said, the young man should have just done what the police told him to do. He should never run from the police, he should never walk away from the police. That has nothing to do with, these people have certain rights, and are unarmed.

But the mindset of the public is, it doesn’t matter. And because of what’s developing in America, I tell young people, I tell my children, I tell everyone that I talk to, do what the police say. Your day might come in court, but your day cannot come out there in the community. They have the gun, they have the badge, they have the Taser, they have the stick. They have the authority, they’re acting under color of law. You can’t win.

But the public doesn’t see it at that — the public, in terms of confrontation with the police, they believe that … obviously people shouldn’t do anything to excite or create or promote the violence that they’re going to be a recipient of. But they believe that still, the officer’s in the right, and the citizen’s in the wrong, no matter what, in fact, the citizen does. And no matter what, in fact, the officer does. The officer’s already right. Officer Friendly is always right.

JANIS: One of the things that I mentioned in my introduction was that a lot of these cases, almost all of them if you look at Ferguson with Michael Brown, or you look at this recent case, was the result of very minor infraction or interaction with police. A broken taillight, not standing on the sidewalk. In Eric Garner’s case in Staten Island, where he just was selling loose cigarettes.

What does it say about the criminal justice system in general, that all these cases are really relatively minor in their disposition?

PETTIT: Well, that is the mindset of America in terms of probable cause. That anything that you basically can articulate — it’s called articulable suspicion or probable cause. You’ve got to remember, in Baltimore we had a thing called zero tolerance that came under Mayor O’Malley, who’s now running for President of the United States. Where you didn’t have to have any probable cause.

And what did that do? It creates confrontation with the police because citizens believe, in fact, they have rights. And so in many cases they may not jump when the police officer says jump, or get on the ground on your stomach in sub-zero weather when the police officer tells them to do something. So this probable cause, this general standard that the Supreme Court has created and the law has allowed to stand in terms of being able to be approached for any reason has created this confrontational type of situation.

And when you come into play something like zero-tolerance, that just opens the door for all types of confrontation in which citizens don’t have to be doing anything wrong. And so anything. Marijuana, that’s just one of the things that has really intrigued me on a negative [posture]. Marijuana, every police officer in the country, now, can swear that they can smell marijuana even when marijuana’s not burning. They can smell — I’ve had cases where the marijuana is in the trunk of the car in a suitcase, in plastic bags, and they swear under oath that they smelled the marijuana. Because what has this done, what does it do? It gives them subjective probable cause.

There’s no objective standard. It becomes a subjective determination of probable cause that the police officers use to stop cars for minor things like … while they’re approaching for a taillight they say, okay, I smelled marijuana, therefore I can search the car. And so this, this probable cause situation has lead to a very, very deadly confrontational situation. Which, unfortunately, most of the times minorities are the ones in receipt of that deadly force.

JANIS: Mr. Pettit, thank you for joining us in part one of our conversation.

PETTIT: Thank you for having me, Steve. Glad to be here.

JANIS: My name is Stephen Janis, I’m an investigative reporter for the Real News Network, reporting from Baltimore.

End

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