Police officers almost never get convicted for killing people.
by Mark Honey
When Zachary Bearheels was kicked off his charter bus last summer, he hadn’t taken his medication. He was bipolar and schizophrenic, and had no idea where he was. Omaha was certainly not Oklahoma, where his mother was waiting for him. Around midnight, hallucinating, he walked west. At the Bucky’s gas station on 60th and Center he started licking the windows. The clerks, unsure of what to do, called the police.
In Oklahoma, Bearheels’ mother Renita Chalepah worried that her son hadn’t arrived. She called the bus company. Afterwards, she called the Omaha Police Department to file a missing persons report and told them that her son was off his medication, but was not dangerous. She asked to speak to her son when they found him.
At the Bucky’s, officers Jennifer Strudl and James Mosby told Bearheels to move on. He didn’t respond to them. They handcuffed the mumbling man and put in him in the cruiser. Chalepah, on the phone with officers at the scene, hears her son crying « mama, mama. » She asked for her son to be taken to a crisis center, but police claimed they could not. The officers agreed to take him back to the bus station. As one cop opened the door to buckle Bearheels’ seat belt, he got out of the car.
The pair called for backup. Officers Ryan McClarty, Mackayla Mead, and Scotty Payne arrived. Over the next few minutes, Payne used a Taser on the man a dozen times, for a total of 68 seconds. Video evidence shows the four police dragged Bearheels by the hair as they tried to get him back into the squad car. He resisted, tried to run, and pulled one hand out of cuffs. McClarty pounced and repeatedly punched him in the back of the head. Soon after, Bearheels is dead.
After some public hand-wringing, Omaha Police Chief Todd Scmaderer fires McClarty and Payne. Strudl and Mead are put on administrative leave. Community members wanted all of the officers charged. Some found it unnerving that out of five officers involved in the incident, the only two charged were black. The other three are white.
The story becomes even more convoluted, with the coroner declaring the cause of death to be « excited delirium, » and the district attorney charging the officers with 2nd and 3rd degree assault instead of murder or manslaughter. Excited delirium has appeared often in coroner’s reports that include both police brutality and Tasers.
On Monday, in the only trial around Bearheels’ death, a grand jury acquitted former officer Scotty Payne of all charges.
How can this happen ? And does licking a window really justify beating a man to death?
The facts are simple to understand but difficult to accept. The court system is built to protect the rich and those they employ, like the police. Native Americans like Bearheels are actually the most disproportionately killed by police out of any demographic despite being less than one percent of the population, according to a report by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, which counts police killings.
Ferguson cop Darren Wilson was found not guilty in the shooting of Michael Brown. The officers who killed Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, and Eric Garner were never convicted, and some weren’t even tried.
Statistics on how many people die during arrest or by police are scarce and often contradictory. For instance, in 2015, the FBI reported around 350 homicides by police. The Guardian, on the other hand, counted 1,146.
One statistic is easy to count : in 2014 and 2015, no officers were convicted of murder or manslaughter for on-duty deaths. Not one.
Over the last three years, an average of 1,000 people were killed by police annually. Ninety-eight percent of these deaths were considered justified and never tried in court. In fact, between 2005 and 2017, only 28 officers were convicted of murder or manslaughter.
Payne’s defense lawyers brought in an “expert witness” from the Taser corporation to testify against the weapon’s involvement in Bearheels’ death and support the “excited delirium” cause of death. It’s an intersection of interests that perfectly illustrates the influence of money on the court system. If Payne is guilty, it sets a precedent that Tasers are deadly weapons, a claim the company has consistently denied. And if Tasers aren’t deadly, then Payne’s excessive use (nine more shocks than OPD policy) is not a reason to convict him. Taser and police officers therefore have incentive to work together to beat this charge and others like it.
Police departments are also some of Taser’s most frequent customers. And police must be allowed to kill in order to justify their departments’ constant weapons purchases. The boss protects the lackey.
So does it matter why police kill someone ? Does it matter what the community and family think if it goes against the police and the interest of profit ? If you ask the court system: No. To them, licking a window and being brown are crimes worthy of death.