Why Do American Police Keep Shooting People In The Back?

June 19, 2020

Despite promises of reform, police are still killing. PAR examines the case of Rayshard Brooks, shot in the back twice as he fled police, and speaks with James McLynas, who says his lack of law enforcement experience makes him the perfect candidate for sheriff.

Despite promises of reform, police are still killing. PAR examines the case of Rayshard Brooks, shot in the back twice as he fled police, and speaks with James McLynas, who says his lack of law enforcement experience makes him the perfect candidate for sheriff.


Story Transcript

This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Taya Graham: Hello. My name is Taya Graham, and welcome to the Police Accountability Report. As I always say, and will continue to say, the point of this show is to hold police accountable. To do so, we go beyond the actions of individual officers and dissect the system that makes bad behavior not just acceptable, but encouraged.

Today, we’re going to take a look at a critical moment from the police killing of Rayshard Brooks, the 27-year-old man shot in the back by Atlanta police over the weekend. We’re going to examine a critical juncture at which police made a fateful decision and what it says about the state of American policing.

Then we will speak to an intriguing candidate for sheriff who’s trying to turn law enforcement upside down. His name is James McLynas, and he will talk to us about why he is trying to change American law enforcement from the inside and the unique perspective he brings to the idea of reform.

But, before we get started, I want you to know that if you have evidence of police misconduct, please email it to us privately at [email protected] Please like, share, and comment on our videos. You know I read your comments and appreciate them. And of course, you can message me directly at TayaSBaltimore on Twitter or Facebook.

Okay, that’s out of the way. Now, it’s hard to believe, but we have had yet another police killing to report on. After weeks of protests and calls for reform, Atlanta police did this. Shot a man in the back and killed him. His name was Rayshard Brooks. The 27-year-old father of three had fallen asleep in his car at a Wendy’s drive-thru. Police arrived and administered a field sobriety test, but apparently, after he offered to park his car and walk to his sister’s home, officers felt compelled to arrest him. And it is this decision that we want to unpack. Let’s remember that Rayshard was not pulled over driving while intoxicated. He was, in fact, parked. And as you can see by this video, he clearly was cooperative. Let’s watch.

Rayshard Brooks: [inaudible 00:02:00]

Officer: Where’s that? What’s the address?

Rayshard Brooks: I’m not sure. [inaudible 00:02:04]

Officer: All right. How did she drop you off here?

Taya Graham: But 30 minutes later, when police could have perhaps offered to let him walk home or even give him a ride, they default to the most consequential solution, an arrest. Which led to this struggle and then two shots in his back. We’re going to watch, but just a warning, this video is disturbing.

On Wednesday Fulton County prosecutors announced felony murder charges against Officer Garrett Rolfe who fired the fatal shots. But the arrest raises a question, why did police feel compelled to arrest him? Why couldn’t they simply let him walk home? Why did another police encounter that began with a man committing the heinous, and I’m being sarcastic, crime of sleeping at a drive-thru, end up with another controversial police killing. Well, to help me unpack what happened and why I’m joined by my reporting partner, Stephen Janis. Stephen, thanks for joining me.

Stephen Janis: Taya, thanks for having me. Appreciate it. So first I want to play a clip from Jay Stewart, the lawyer for the family of

Rayshard Brooks. He makes an important point which I think is worth noting here. Why did the officer not show compassion? Let’s listen.

Jay Stewart: And people ask, “How could this have ended? Why did he resist? It could have ended there.” Well, it also could have ended here. I can walk. My sister’s house is right here. That’s how this could have ended. It didn’t have to go to that level. And that’s what we’re saying in America with policing, is this type of empathy is gone.

Taya Graham: Stephen, we have talked about this issue repeatedly. Why does it continue?

Stephen Janis: You don’t construct the largest prison complex in the world and not have something to put in it, meaning bodies. And in this country that’s why so many encounters with police end with arrest, because we’ve created the largest incarceral state in the history of civilization. So everyone they come in contact with, they feel like they have to arrest. It’s part of the concept of blanket criminality, which we’ve talked to. Instead of letting this man walk home and be done with it, they had to handcuff him and put them in a cage. And that’s the problem with American policing and that’s problem with American law enforcement.

Taya Graham: So now we have discussed this case before, but I think it’s relevant now. It involves a police chief who made the decision to show compassion and not arrest someone under similar circumstances. But Maryland state prosecutor, Emmet Davitt, decided to indict him for not charging the driver. What happened in this case?

Stephen Janis: Kelvin Sewell was the first black police chief of Pocomoke City, a small city on the lower eastern shore. They were dealing with a constant siege from a drug unit called the Worcester County Drug Task Force. Kelvin pushed back and pushed for community policing. He had a case that was extremely similar to what we saw here in Atlanta. He had a man who had driven home, run into two parked cars, drove to his house about two blocks away and had one drink beforehand. He chose not to arrest him and actually deescalate the situation. But then the Maryland state prosecutor has prosecuted him twice for making that decision. It just shows you how law enforcement in this country is unrelenting about arresting people. And in this case, they prosecuted Chief, twice, for resolving something and deescalating it and not resulting in charges. So it just shows you how American law enforcement works as an industry.

Taya Graham: So there’s another facet of police involved shootings which you have covered that we can see in this case. We’re watching the officers just stand over Brooks as he lay dying. How could the officers not provide aid?

Stephen Janis: Well, the case I was thinking about is the case of Edward Lamont Hunt in 2008, who was shot three times in the back. I interviewed a nurse who said she wanted to render aid to this man, but the police officer told him not to touch him. This is a common refrain I’ve heard from cases that I’ve covered in police involved shootings. They treat the body like evidence or property that doesn’t deserve or warrant any sort of compassionate treatment. And I think it says a lot about American enforcement, how officers can stand over someone they shot and feel no compassion for this person. It shows a lack of compassion in policing in general.

Taya Graham: And that’s the point. And that’s the question that needs to be answered. How did American policing evolve, where cops think they can justifiably shoot a man who fell asleep in his car? How does an institution that purports to protect and serve become empowered to be judge, jury and executioner? And more importantly, how do we change it? Can we really reform American policing?

Well, my next guest thinks he may have the answer and it might seem odd. His name is James McLynas and he’s running for sheriff and Pinellas, Florida. But what’s notable about him is what he isn’t. He’s not a cop, nor does he have any law enforcement experience. Instead he’s been working in the field of consumer protection. But it’s his theory that his lack of ties to policing is exactly what makes him the perfect candidate. And so he joins us today to explain why. James, thank you so much for joining us.

James McLynas: Well, thank you very much for having me.

Taya Graham: So first, tell us about your campaign. What made you decide to run for sheriff, given your background?

James McLynas: For a number of different reasons. I’ve been investigating the corruption of the sheriff’s department now for over 10 years and it’s really way worse than anyone could possibly imagine. The second reason is I actually feel like I could go in there and fix it and change it and make things better for the County of Pinellas. And the third reason is, I have a daughter who is 17 years old and I don’t want her growing up in a community where the police are as corrupt as they are here in Pinellas County. I want to change it, not only for her, but for everybody else that are having these problems all across the country that people are currently protesting against. I sincerely believe that I can put these reforms in place and that’s not going to happen from somebody who’s a lifelong career police officer.

Taya Graham: So what would be your philosophy? How would you change law enforcement in Florida if you were elected?

James McLynas: First off, we obviously have to have use of force reforms. And there are a number of fantastic use of force performance reforms out there online already. Campaign Zero has one which I adopted, and they’re actually an offshoot of Black Lives Matter. And they’ve gone out and they’ve researched all of the reforms that are currently working around the world, even IN other police agencies here in America, and they’ve put it all into one concisive form and I’ve adopted that form. And not only have I adopted that form, I’ve actually added to it. Like as an example, I’ve taken off attack dogs. I don’t think that police agencies should have attack dogs like the ’60s race riots we saw. And instead of attack dogs and drug dogs, I’m going to be bringing in bloodhounds. And so that way, if the subject is cornered and captured, all they’ll do is get licked to death instead of chewed to death.

Taya Graham: We keep witnessing horrifying misuse of police force across the country. Why do you think this keeps happening?

James McLynas: It keeps happening because of something that I call chain of command inbreeding. And that’s something that I hope to address. And that’s a phrase that I’ve made up so don’t look it up, you’re not going to find it. But chain of command inbreeding is something really simple. We, as a community, we keep thinking that we’re electing sheriffs all across the country, over 3,000 of them every year, and we haven’t actually elected a single one of them. Every single sheriff that is in operation and who are running a sheriff’s agency right now is somebody that was hand-selected, hand groomed and handpicked by the police industry and put in front of the voters and saying, “This is your only choice.” And because of that, they’ve never done anything. They’ve never had to do anything. They don’t have to worry about a political opponent coming along and making any real changes because they blocked the entire process so that people like me typically can’t run.

Taya Graham: What problems have you seen with law enforcement in your area? I notice you’ve talked about spending as an issue. What are your concerns about policing in your community? What do you want to change?

James McLynas: I think that police spending is actually a scam upon the taxpayers. They keep trying to scare us and tell us that we keep needing more officers, more officers, more officers. And I can’t drive down a one mile stretch of street here without passing three or four or five of them sitting in banks and behind churches. [inaudible 00:09:55] actually caught them on video cameras sleeping. We have too many of them. And just to give you an example of how bad it is, here in Pinellas County, Sheriff Gualtieri’s only been in office for nine years, but in that nine years his combined budget has been $2.3 billion that he has sucked out of the taxpayer’s pockets. And he is actually nothing more than a cancer that’s bleeding this county dry. And that $2.3 billion does not even include the half a billion dollars that they spent on what they call capital improvements, a $100 million dollar jail, an $85 million new police headquarters.

They have a $75,000 statues, two of them, $75,000 each, cast in bronze, of two Pinellas County Sheriff’s deputies, one handing a Bronx flag to the other. Why do we need $150,000 worth of bronze statues out in front of the police department? Why do we each one of these officers get to drive a car home? Why does school resource officers get a $70,000 police patrol car that they drive back and forth to the school, that’s actually just sitting in the parking lot? Do we give the teachers cars every day? Because I’d rather give them a car every day than give these police officers a car. So there is literally massive amounts of waste.

And another great example is he has three helicopters here. Each one of them has a $45,000 custom paint job on them that only the grounds crew will ever see. So if you give a police agency money, then they will keep spending and spending and spending. And I personally am going to go in there and I’m going to cut at least 25% across the board, starting with my own paycheck.

Taya Graham: One of the biggest issues that has defined American policing is accountability. Theoretically, could a sheriff investigate or hold a police department accountable for a crime they commit? Basically, where does a sheriff fit into the structure of law enforcement in your jurisdiction?

James McLynas: Well, a lot of people don’t understand the difference between a sheriff or a deputy and a police officer or a cop. And there’s a huge difference. In the police agency, typically those police chiefs are not really the people that are in charge of that police industry or agency. The mayor is in charge, the city council is in charge. And if the mayor doesn’t like it, he will be fired. Here in Pinellas County, the St. Pete police mayor, Rick Kriseman, was just on a newscast wearing a black polo shirt with the St. Pete police badge on it. And on the right hand side it said mayor.

He is literally the head of the police. So all these protesters are going down there and they’re picketing Anthony Holloway and they’re picketing the St. Pete Police Department. Those officers don’t give a damn about any of this. They just want their paycheck and they want their pension and that’s what they’re there for. Chief Holloway can’t do anything on his own unless Mayor Kreisman and the city council tell him to. And if he does not do what he wants them to do, they will fire him and put somebody else in there. So he’s just a figurehead. He’s just a puppet of the local administration.

Whereas a sheriff is actually an elected administrative position, much like a mayor. And what they keep trying to do is they keep trying to tell the public that you only have the right to vote for who they pick when we have the right to vote anybody into this office. I was out at a protest last Saturday and somebody said, “How can you possibly run the police agency if you’ve never been a law enforcement officer?” And I pointed across the street to the same St. Pete city hall and I said, “Rick Kreisman right now is the mayor of this city and he’s in charge of the police. Did he have to go to mayor academy? Did you make him be a mayor for 20 years before you elected him?” No. You elect your officials based on their ideas, their concepts, and what they’re telling you they will do. And what the police industry is telling you they’re going to do is to continue to beat you, rob you, take your money, abuse your rights and allow racist policies to continue to go on just like they have for a hundred years.

And the only way to change that is to bring in somebody new. And I like to say that me, I am the new face of police reform. A non LEO. The new face of police reform is non LEOs running for sheriff all across the country, starting with me.

Taya Graham: So how would you handle the power of police unions? I have seen them bring mayors to their knees. How would you handle it?

James McLynas: But the mayors that were on their knees did so voluntarily. The problem that we’re having here is that the police industry is the flee that’s wagging the dog, the city, the people. Less than 0.5% of the population here at Pinellas are police officers, but yet they’re telling the rest of the population what to do, including the unions. I’ve looked at the union contracts here and they have things in there that are absolutely asinine. Like as an example, if you fire a police officer, you can arbitrate. But Sheriff Gualtieri actually signed a union contract that says that the union gets to pick the arbitrator. That’s insane.

So the bottom line here is you have these police captains, and sergeants and sheriffs, that claim that they’re under the eight ball with these unions when actually they’re just part of the same system. And they’re agreeing to this stuff because they want to be covered under it too. Yet, as Sheriff, I will not negotiate with these unions, these things will be stripped out of there. What are they going to do? Quit? If they quit, go ahead. Because my position is I’m going to end cannabis enforcement, I’m going to need to get rid of the third of the dirty officers anyway. And if those are the ones that don’t like it, fine. There’s the front door.

Taya Graham: And finally, how have people responded to your candidacy? Do you think people are receptive to your ideas? And is it something that could be replicated across the country?

James McLynas: If you’re in the police industry, you hate my ideas because I’m bringing accountability. However, if you’re outside the police industry and you’ve been paying attention to anything that’s going on, people are very receptive to my ideas. Just to give you an example, I just put my McLynasforsheriff.com website up, not even a month ago, and already our website has been shared in over 37 countries, in 47 States, and over 3000 cities. And 80% of my donations are coming from outside Florida. And I’ve actually had to return numerous donations from foreign countries. So the message that I’m talking about is something that resonates. What I am offering is literally every single thing that the protesters are asking for, and it can be implemented literally with one vote for sheriff, by just voting for me.

And those are reforms are here. No more begging the police industry, no more begging the mayor, no more having them ignore you and put in little token reforms or changes that they’re going to just go back away from. The only way for us to take control of this problem is to elect non LEOs into the position of sheriff, where we will come in and we won’t give a damn about how it’s been done for a hundred years. We’re going to start doing it right.

Taya Graham: It’s clear, despite the protests, calls for reform on both the national and local level, there are forces that drive policing which insulate it from the normal processes of a functioning democracy. The death of Rayshard Brooks is case in point. Given the widespread outrage over the death of George Floyd, one has to wonder why the officers who confronted Brooks felt empowered to use deadly force, despite promises of reform, or, and I’m putting this in quotes, deescalation training.

Police continue to use violence to resolve situations that hardly even warrant their presence. Take a look at this video if you want to understand the depth of the problem, it depicts a gang unit, that’s right, a gang unit, arresting 13 and 15 year old boys for jaywalking. Let me repeat, a gang unit. One of the plain clothes units we exposed in a previous piece as often focused on seizing property and making arrest profitable, stopped children, threw one to the ground and put another in handcuffs for jaywalking.

Now we thought just to be clear, we put the actual definition of the law on the screen. Not all definitions are the same and I’m sure they vary by jurisdiction. But generally jaywalking is crossing the street when a crosswalk is ultimately available. It does not mean, as police alleged here, walking down a deserted street. So we have an intriguing case. A group of so-called elite officers, tasked with making high profile arrests, zeroing in on two teens walking down the street. Is that the best use of what’s supposed to be the most highly trained and best paid cops? The point here is not just to demonstrate the absurdity that over-policing can occasionally conjure, but to show how disproportionate American policing has become to the actual problems it’s supposed to solve.

Take a look at this graph. It’s two interesting trends. Since the 1990s, crime has consistently gone down. Not in every city, but in general across the country. But at the same time, spending on policing has increased. That’s right. As crime has dropped, police budgets have soaked up an even greater share of municipal spending. It doesn’t make sense, or does it? If you’ve been watching this show, you already know part of the answer. That’s because, as we’ve reported before, part of the explanation for why policing continues to grow as crime declines and protests multiply, is simply that law enforcement has evolved. The graph certainly makes the case in part that policing is not just about fighting crime. Instead, as we reported before, policing has evolved into an arbiter of inequality and a force for diminishing the political efficacy for communities of color and the impoverished. Both critical tools for enforcing wealth, disparities and racial inequities, that would most likely be unsustainable otherwise.

This is one of the reasons it’s so difficult to hold it police accountable, because while their actions often seem inexplicable, we have to consider that what they’re doing is exactly what the political economy demands. Case in point would be the career of a cop in my hometown of Baltimore. Baltimore is of course, best known for the nefarious exploits of the Gun Trace Task Force. The group of nine officers who pled guilty or were convicted of robbing residents, dealing drugs and stealing overtime. But before the GTTF, there was another unit that wreaked havoc on the city that has received less attention. It was called VCID, the Violent Crimes Impact Division. It was a group of roughly 80 officers who roamed the city, without supervision, in plain clothes, pulling people over, blanketing poor and black neighborhoods with military style cops wearing jeans and tee shirts. And, according to $5 million worth of lawsuit, meting out brutality at prodigious rates.

But the reason I’m telling this story is about how it reveals part of the underlying imperatives that insulates policing that we discussed at the beginning of the show. And we can tell through the story of a Baltimore police supervisor named Robert Quick, or as he’s known by his rank, Captain Quick. Quick was one of the supervisors of the VCID, and as such was responsible for much of the unethical strategies that led to the lawsuits and allegations that the unit was corrupt. But it’s what happened to him since that is so illustrative.

In 2010, the inspector-general’s investigation determined that Quick, along with another high ranking official, had violated department policy by awarding themselves overtime. The BPD does not allow officers with a rank above Lieutenant to earn it. But it gets worse, because the inspector-general determined that Quick and his associates had submitted multiple time sheets and received thousands of dollars in pay they were not legally entitled. An investigation into what happened was shut down so some of the details remain murky. But it’s what happened too Quick after the fact that’s the point of this story.

That’s because when I attended an internal administrative hearing for the officer who drove the van in which Freddie Gray died in 2015, his defense called an intriguing witness. His name? Quick. And his title? Chief of best practices. That’s right. He had been promoted to head the division through which the BPD seeks ethical and productive policies. The former cop, who once ran one of the most problematic units in the history of one of the arguably most corrupt departments in the country, is now its chief catalyst for reform. The same person tasked with making the department better and improving its ability to function by searching for the so-called best practices which have so far alluded it, had been caught red handed, violating policy.

This shows how deep the problem is and how hard it will be to fix and why American law enforcement appears to operate with its own sense of intrinsic logic, immune to any pushback or protest to the contrary. That’s why we will continue on this show to do our part, exposing these conflicts and contradictions for all to see. And if, and when, this will bring about change is the question even we can’t answer.

I want to thank my guest, James McLynas, for his time and wish him the best of luck in his campaign.

James McLynas: Thank you very much for having me. It’s been a real pleasure.

Taya Graham: And I also want to thank intrepid reporter, Stephen Janis, for his reporting, writing and editing on this piece. Thank you, Stephen.

Stephen Janis: Taya, thank you for having me.

Taya Graham: And of course I want to thank friend of the show, [Nollie D 00:22:28] for her support and help on this piece. Thank you know, Nollie D. And I want you watching to know that if you have evidence of police misconduct or brutality, please share it with us and we might be able to investigate. Please reach out to us. You can email us tips privately at [email protected] and share your evidence of police misconduct. You can also message us at Police Accountability Report on Facebook or Instagram, or @eyesonpolice on Twitter. And of course you can message me directly at TayasBaltimore on Twitter and Facebook. And please like, and comment. You know I read your comments, appreciate them and answer your questions whenever I can. My name is Taya Graham, I’m your host for the Police Accountability Report. Please be safe out there.