201810.10
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What is the deal with the Mesa Police Department?

The latest victim of use of force by the Mesa PD is not who—or what—you might think. It seems that not even animals are safe from the growing number of reports of excessive force against Mesa. On September 14, 2018, Mesa PD got a call regarding a neighbor’s barking dog—why police were called over a barking dog (or whales in the ocean), the dangers of the public’s over-reliance on law enforcement, and fear of talking to other humans is a subject for another day. When officers arrived, the situation quickly escalated with officers forcing their way inside the apartment.  Mio, the subject of the barking dog complaint, was shot. The bullet passed through the pit-bull’s neck and continued through, hitting another officer in the groin.  What?!

With police brutality front and center in the political mainstream nation-wide, police departments across the country have once again come under increased scrutiny over the often excessive use of force by their officers.  Police officers are granted an enormous amount of power—a power that when abused can be fatal.  Arizona is no stranger to police involved fatalities and, in fact, sits at number four in the nation for rate of police killings per capita according to Mapping Police Violence, a research collaborative collecting comprehensive data on police killings nationwide to quantify the impact of police violence in communities. A breakdown of major metropolitan police departments on Mapping Police Violence shows that Mesa PD ranks 3rd after Phoenix PD and Tucson PD for rate of police killings in Arizona. Interestingly, Phoenix PD actually ranks second only to the infamous Los Angeles PD overall, from 2013-2017.

While Phoenix may outrank Mesa in a competition no department wants to win, Mesa has been receiving a lot of attention since the highly publicized shooting death of 26-year-old Daniel Shaver on January 18, 2016, by Mesa Police officer Philip Brailsford. Body camera showed unarmed Shaver on his knees sobbing and pleading not to be shot after police responded to Shaver’s hotel room after hotel guests saw Shaver waving a pellet gun near his window. Brailsford shot Shaver five times with an AR-15 rifle, and Shaver died almost instantly. Brailsford was found not guilty by a Mesa jury after hearing Brailsford’s counter-narrative regarding why he fired his weapon; he believed Shaver was reaching for a gun.  Brailsford was fired from Mesa PD following the incident (due to a policy violation not directly related to the shooting itself). The question becomes how many “bad apples” must an agency remove before finding the inevitable source of the rot?

As protests continue to erupt over police violence and excessive force, much of the conversation has turned toward the culture of police departments and the much larger systemic problems they harbor—deeper than a few simple bad apples. Since the shooting of Daniel Shaver, the FBI has launched an investigation into the Mesa Police Department assessing possible civil rights violations committed by officers in regards to the excessive use of force.

On May 23, 2018, body camera and surveillance footage surfaced showing Mesa officers viciously beating Robert Johnson,who was talking on his phone and standing against a wall at an apartment complex. Mr. Johnson was ultimately cleared of the charges against him and Scottsdale PD conducted an “independent investigation” into the use of force by the three Mesa police officers who had been placed on leave following the release of the video. Scottsdale ultimately cleared the officers of any criminal wrongdoing, but the use of force is still under review.

The feds are also investigating the treatment of 15-year-old Gabriel Ramirez during an arrest for suspected armed robbery after body camera showed officers arriving with guns drawn and Ramirez screaming during the arrest. If you’re keeping track, so far that is a pit-bull, two unarmed men in vulnerable positions, a teenager, not to mention an 85-year-old woman. Virginia Archer alleges in her lawsuit filed in federal court that she was unlawfully arrested and subjected to “excessive, brutal and completely unnecessary force” by Mesa police officers who went to her home last February (2018) to  check on her grandson’s safety.

In incidents like those of Gabriel Ramirez and Robert Johnson, it is our job as criminal defense attorneys to scrutinize the actions of police and ensure the rights of our clients who may have been criminally charged.  With the number of excessive use of force cases being brought to the public’s attention in the age of body camera and social media, more departments are being investigated and more officers are being charged with criminal offenses in excessive force cases. So, at the same time, criminal defense attorneys are also being tasked with defending these same officers whose actions may have resulted in harmful and even fatal consequences.  As defense attorneys our job is to uphold the Constitution no matter who is accused, which leaves us—as usual—on both sides of history in this one.

We will be watching Mesa PD closely as these investigations unfold and as the conversation around the culture of policing continues.  Of course, policies that promote greater transparency, visibility, and accountability of law enforcement, such as the use of body camera video, will continue to be widely supported by the defense community as an extra check on the constitutional rights of our clients, no matter who they may be.