As fatal police encounters rise, reformers demand change
Cecille Hepburn”s grandson Kashad Ashford was shot and killed by Lyndhurst police in 2014.
In Newark, Damian Dymka was walking on a roadside last month when authorities say an off-duty cop veered off the highway and mowed him down. Instead of calling 911, prosecutors say the cop loaded the body into his car and drove home to ask his mother what to do.
In Newton, a military veteran who served three tours in Iraq became distraught and suicidal last summer. His wife called police for help. Instead, officers gunned Gulia Dale down, 12 seconds after approaching him. Officers say Dale had a gun.
In Trenton, officers pinned Stephen Dolceamore face down in the dirt after a foot chase, kneeling on his back as he shouted, “Help! Can’t breathe!” After he went limp, a cop slapped his neck and asked: “He got a pulse?” He did —but not for much longer.
The three victims were among more than 500 people who died during encounters with New Jersey law enforcement officers in the past two decades. And even as calls for reform have grown louder, fatal police encounters have crept up in recent years in New Jersey, with at least 27 so far this year.
Several bills have been introduced in the Legislature to hold police accountable for missteps they make on the job, bills activists say are critical to reducing fatalities and misconduct that results in injustice and feeds community distrust in police.
The police reform bills now stalled in the New Jersey Legislature would, among other things:
- Give subpoena power to civilian police oversight boards
- End qualified immunity, a defense public officials use that shields them from lawsuits for civil rights violations
- Establish requirements for use of deadly force
- Ban and criminalize police chokeholds
But legislators have just five weeks left to vote on them before a new legislative session starts. Supporters rallied at the Statehouse in Trenton last week to demand action, but no police reform bills moved during voting sessions that day or since.
Reformers say lawmakers and the state Attorney General’s Office, which oversees law enforcement statewide, must do more to create policies to prevent police violence and fatal encounters.
“How many more lives do police have to take before something changes?” Dale’s sister Valerie Cobbertt said at the rally.
No official tally
Fatal police encounters are alarmingly common, with at least 31,000 people dying during them nationally since 2000. That’s enough people to pack the Prudential Center in Newark almost twice.
In New Jersey, at least 540 people have died during encounters with police since 2000, according to Fatal Encounters, an online database of police-involved fatalities in the United States.
The “at least” caveat is key, because no government agency tracks and publicly reports police-involved fatalities nationally.
No one did in New Jersey either until Jan. 30, 2019, when a state law took effect requiring the state Attorney General’s office to investigate all in-custody and on-duty fatalities and disclose the identities of officers involved. Before then, county prosecutors typically handled such investigations.
Now, the Attorney General’s Office publicly reports the basics of each case in announcements that typically are just a few paragraphs.
But there’s no official, public, searchable database of fatal police encounters. That’s why reformers like D. Brian Burghart began tracking them themselves.
A former journalist from Nevada, Burghart created Fatal Encounters in 2012 and maintains it using Google alerts and data-scraping programs to find fatal police encounters.
With such unscientific data collection methods, he knows he doesn’t capture all the deaths that happen.
Academics and advocates alike agree a persistent undercount hides the severity of what many call a public health crisis. A recent study found more than half of police homicides since 1980 were attributed to other causes in the U.S. National Vital Statistics System, which tracks information from death certificates. In George Floyd’s case, police and a medical examiner initially said he died because of drug use and underlying conditions.
The dearth of reliable data on fatal police encounters hurts all communities, Burghart said.
“I think it’s horribly irresponsible for the government not to collect this information,” he said. “It’s not just journalists or academics or the public who want to know how to prevent police violence. It’s police. Because better data will create better policies, and that benefits everyone.”
Among those desperate for data is Richard Rivera, director of the Penns Grove Police Department in Salem County. He says all police departments should study fatal police encounters to uncover trends and problems that could help them tweak training and improve interactions with the public.
“We all have the same reporting forms and the same definitions, so we would have the ability to analyze these scenarios and learn from them. But because there’s such limited information, there’s nothing we can go to for a robust dataset or a body of research,” Rivera said. “The investigations aren’t made public, and that secrecy all culminates in our inability to come up with remedies for incidents that are preventable.”
It’s horribly irresponsible for the government not to collect this information. It’s not just journalists or academics or the public who want to know how to prevent police violence. It’s police. Because better data will create better policies, and that benefits everyone.
– D. Brian Burghart, founder of Fatal Encounters
Fatal police encounter trends in New Jersey
People have died during encounters with police in New Jersey in all sorts of ways in the past two decades, according to the Fatal Encounters database. About 500 deaths involved officers who were on duty, while officers in about 40 cases were off duty.
Most victims were shot to death. Others were beaten, asphyxiated, or experienced medical emergencies during arrest and didn’t survive. More than 130 died after crashing during police pursuits or getting hit by officers’ cars while walking or bicycling. More than 60 killed themselves while interacting with officers. At least five drowned.
The dead were disproportionately Black and Brown, male, and young adults, compelling evidence of systemic racism and profiling that plagues communities not only here, but nationally.
Plenty were children and senior citizens. Police have killed at least 30 juveniles in New Jersey since 2000, according to Fatal Encounters. Another 28 people who died during police encounters were age 60 or older, data shows.
City police forces and state police are New Jersey’s deadliest departments. Newark Police Department racked up the highest death toll since 2000, with 59 fatalities, followed by the New Jersey State Police, with 48 fatalities; the Jersey City Police Department, with 20 fatalities; and Trenton and Camden police departments, with 17 each.
Such staggering death tolls show why accountability and transparency are so important, said Lawrence Hamm, a longtime police reform activist with the People’s Organization for Progress. Officers whose actions end or shatter someone’s life should face the same criminal and financial liability civilians face, Hamm said
“Police brutality is only going to stop when police understand there is a price that they will have to personally pay when they engage in that kind of behavior,” Hamm said.
Targeting police behavior to prevent fatalities
Seven years after Kashad Ashford’s death, his grandmother, Cecille Hepburn, remains tormented by how unnecessary it was.
Ashford, 23, was driving a stolen car in 2014 when police began chasing him. He died when the pursuit ended in a crash in Rutherford and then four officers unloaded their guns on him, even though he was unconscious in the driver’s seat.
“If Kash hadn’t been shot to death, he might be getting out of prison right about now,” Hepburn said. “He would have deserved jail time, with no ifs, ands, or buts. But a stolen car does not warrant death.”
While she welcomes reforms to increase accountability and transparency, Hepburn and other mourning families say reforms should also be preventative, targeting police behavior before it results in trauma and death.
In Ashford’s case, Hepburn said, officers shouldn’t have resorted to gunfire.
“Police officers today are taught to stop the threat, but I don’t know why stopping the threat means kill the person,” Hepburn said.
None of the officers were charged.
Shelia Reid believes policymakers should do more to ensure police conduct at car stops doesn’t turn deadly.
Her son Jerome Reid, 36, died in 2014 when two Bridgeton police officers pulled a car over for rolling through a stop sign. A minute later, they opened fire on passenger Reid, even though he was unarmed, had his hands in the air, and said, “I ain’t doing nothing. I’m not reaching for nothing, bro. I ain’t got no reason to reach for nothing,” according to his mother and dash cam video. Neither officer was charged.
“Everyone does roll and stop, especially on a back road, where no one really rides and that’s the shortcut to go home,” Shelia Reid said. “That’s no reason for them to shoot my son in a car that he was a passenger in, no reason to shoot my son when he followed protocol. He was unarmed, and the vehicle wasn’t his. My son is dead.”
A recent New York Times investigation found hundreds of unarmed drivers or passengers in cars stopped for common, minor infractions died when police reacted with outsized aggression.
Police officers today are taught to stop the threat, but I don’t know why stopping the threat means kill the person.
– Cecille Hepburn, grandmother of Kashad Ashford
Shelia Reid thinks police forces should bolster psychological screening to ferret out officers who hide their fears and biases. One of the officers who killed her son had a history of civilian complaints against him and also knew and possibly feared Jerome, who had served time in prison for shooting at state troopers when he was a teenager, she said.
“These officers keep getting away with murder,” Shelia Reid said. “They need to get locked up.”
Tawanna Graham believes the broken relationship between many police departments and their communities also adds to the body count.
She was talking with son Jahqui Graham, 21, on an East Orange sidewalk in 2009 when Jahqui cussed at officers passing by in a cruiser, his mother said. The officers stopped — then arrested him for resisting arrest and aggravated assault on an officer. Three days later, Jahqui was found naked and dead in a police holding cell. His mother believes officers beat him to death. No one was charged.
“When I saw his body, I couldn’t recognize my son. I had to identify him from a scar on his shoulder,” she said. “He was as black as the color black because there were so many bruises all over him.”
She added: “The cops need to be trained more. They need to be out here knowing the kids, talking to them. Don’t beat them to death. Don’t always lock them up because they yell at you or you see they got some weed on them. Don’t kill them. Act like you got some sense.”
Pat Colligan, who heads the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association, and Robert W. Fox, who heads the New Jersey Fraternal Order of Police, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
On Dec. 31, a new statewide Use of Force Policy is set to take effect that the Attorney General’s Office, which issued the policy, calls “transformational.”
It’s intended to shift New Jersey’s law enforcement from a warrior to a guardian mindset, spokesman Peter Aseltine said.
The policy bans all forms of physical force except as a last resort, forbids officers from firing weapons at a moving vehicle or engaging in a high-speed car chase except under limited circumstances, and establishes a “duty to intervene” requiring officers to stop colleagues they see using illegal or excessive force.
Other changes are in the works.
Last month, acting Attorney General Andrew Bruck announced a new pilot program in Cumberland County intended to reduce the use of force against people struggling with mental health issues by pairing troopers with mental health screeners when responding to some scenes.
Last year, the Police Training Commission advanced two other reforms that activists have urged for years. One would create a statewide police licensing program that could prevent officers with extensive disciplinary problems from finding jobs with another law enforcement agency.
The second, now under way, is a review of all statewide trainings, with revisions planned to improve de-escalation techniques and expand training in self-defense techniques without weapons, among others, Aseltine said.
Rivera, the Penns Grove police director, welcomes the changes and expects they’ll lead to fewer fatal police encounters.
He also has been testing additional reforms in his own 16-officer police department, like testing a Taser-like device intended to subdue suspects without using lethal force.
“We can’t wait for an academic to dissect the cadaver. We need to be experimenting with things as much as we can now,” he said.
He thinks police departments need more real-world scenario training to better prepare them for situations that might arise in policing. Simulators are great, but expensive — and there are cheaper ways to mimic real-world situations, he said.
“Now the trend is online training. So you’re talking about pursuits and deadly force on a computer screen. And target practice right now is you standing there shooting at a paper target,” Rivera said. “Instead, climb three flights of stairs before you shoot a target, or run while you’re shooting at it. That will be more realistic.”
To Natacha Pannell, reforms are decades overdue.
“I don’t understand how these people can be in office for years and years and years, and the same issues from decades ago are still going on today,” Pannell said of lawmakers who have failed to pass reforms.
Pannell was 13 when an officer fatally shot her 16-year-old brother in 1990. Phillip Pannell had his hands in the air when Officer Gary Spath cornered him in a Teaneck backyard and shot him in the back. Spath was charged and acquitted of manslaughter in a case that caused widespread protests.
Her brother’s death drove her to become an activist for police reform. And this year, it inspired her to run for public office. She ran as a third-party candidate for an Assembly seat in Bergen County’s 37th Legislative District.
She lost, but she plans to run again, because she thinks her perspective is needed. Lawmakers typically are not personally affected by police violence, so it’s not on their radar as a priority, she said.
“That was my motivation,” she said. “I wanted to prevent it from happening to another family.”
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