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9 Aug, 2017 13:24

Blood, money & justice: Michael Brown settlement follows trend in officer-involved shootings

Blood, money & justice: Michael Brown settlement follows trend in officer-involved shootings

On August 9, 2014, unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The killing sparked nationwide protests against police brutality, but justice has only come in the form of a monetary settlement.

It’s been three years since Brown, a recent high school graduate, was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson from the Ferguson Police Department. Wilson was placed on paid administrative leave as hundreds of residents of the predominantly black suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, took to the streets. The following day, protests and vigils turned violent overnight with reports of riots and looting.

Within days, the FBI opened a civil rights investigation into the Brown shooting. On November 24, 2014, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch waited until 8pm local time to announce that a grand jury declined to indict Wilson on any charges relating to the shooting death of Brown. Then-Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the US Department of Justice would continue its investigation into Brown’s death, despite the lack of an indictment on the local level.

Ferguson again erupted into a night of fierce riots.

By the end of the month, Wilson resigned from the Ferguson PD. In early March, the DOJ announced it would not prosecute Wilson for civil rights violations in the Brown shooting case. In mid-April, Brown’s family filed a lawsuit against Wilson, the city of Ferguson, and chief of the Ferguson PD at the time of the shooting.

It’s not unusual for officers involved in shooting civilians to avoid charges. A 2016 study found that law enforcement avoided federal civil rights charges in 96 percent of cases in which they were accused of violating someone’s civil rights over the course of 20 years. Many police killings are ruled as justified without public knowledge.

Instead, victims’ families find justice through the civil side of the judicial branch, by accepting payouts in settlements with local jurisdictions. In June, Brown’s parents settled their wrongful death suit against the city, though the terms were not made public because it could jeopardize the safety of those involved in the matter “whether as witnesses, parties or investigators,” US District Judge E. Richard Webber wrote.

While the amount that Brown’s parents received has been sealed, Ferguson is one of many jurisdictions around the country forced to shell out millions in taxpayer money to atone for police brutality. In the last year, big cities and small towns have settled lawsuits for officer-involved shootings. In most cases, those payments are the only closure the victims and their families have received.

READ MORE: 2nd anniversary of Michael Brown's death: What's changed?

In June, the family of Philando Castile, a school cafeteria worker fatally shot by Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez, reached a $3 million settlement with the city of St. Anthony.

Castile was shot and killed during a traffic stop last July while his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds and her four-year-old daughter were in the car. Yanez was acquitted of manslaughter and intentional discharge of a firearm that endangers safety earlier in the month.

In mid-July, Yanez was awarded a $48,500 payout to leave the St. Anthony Police Department, in addition to “up to 600 hours” of accrued personal leave.

Although a settlement was already reached last April in the fatal Tamir Rice shooting ‒ to the tune of $6 million dollars for the 12-year-old’s family ‒ one of the two officers responsible for the preteen’s death was fired at the end of May, but not because of Rice’s death on a Cleveland, Ohio, playground.

Instead, Timothy Loehmann was dismissed from the department because he omitted from his employment application that he was allowed to resign from the nearby Independence Police Department, where officials found him to be emotionally unstable and unfit to be an officer. He also concealed that he had failed a written exam for another Ohio law enforcement agency. A grand jury declined to indict Loehmann in December 2015.

Earlier in May, only one officer-involved shooting that made national headlines found justice through the judicial system ‒ but only after a mistrial. In December, jurors in Charleston, South Carolina, could not reach a unanimous verdict as to whether former officer Michael Slager, who is white, should be convicted of murder or voluntary manslaughter for fatally shooting African-American Walter Scott in the back.

On May 2, Slager pleaded guilty to violating Scott’s federal civil rights in the incident, which was caught on video. As part of the agreement, South Carolina prosecutors agreed not to retry the former cop. He faces up to life in prison and a $250,000 fine at sentencing.

David Joseph was a black teen shot and killed by a police officer in early February 2016, albeit a African-American one. Officer Geoffrey Freeman fired twice at a nude, unarmed Joseph, 17, in response to calls that a man was harassing residents in a North Austin, Texas neighborhood.

The Austin Police Department found Freeman’s use of force unjustified and fired him. This February, the city council approved a $3.25 million settlement with Joseph’s family ‒ the largest such payout in Austin’s history.

A month before the Joseph settlement, the city of Los Angeles, California, agreed to pay $1.5 million to the family of Ezell Ford, an unarmed black man who was gunned down by police in August 2014, just days before Brown’s death made national headlines.

Ford's family filed a wrongful death and civil rights lawsuit in March 2015, claiming that Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Officers Sharlton Wampler and Antonio Villegas "intentionally and/or negligently fatally shot unarmed decedent Ezell Ford multiple times with their firearm" after he had followed their directions to lie on the ground during an encounter in South Los Angeles. Prosecutors concluded the officers "acted lawfully in self-defense and in defense of others," and declined to indict them.

In January, the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, reached a $4.4 million settlement with Philippe Holland, a black delivery man whom two police officers mistakenly shot 14 times in 2014, leaving him with permanent injuries and a seizure disorder.

It was the city’s second largest payment for an officer-involved shooting. Philadelphia prosecutors never filed charges against the two officers, who were placed on desk duty after the shooting.

A week after the second anniversary of Brown’s death, New York City agreed to pay $4.1 million to settle a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of Akai Gurley, an unarmed African-American fatally shot in 2014 by a police officer in a Brooklyn housing complex.

Former officer Peter Liang was convicted by a jury of second-degree manslaughter in February 2016, but the judge reduced his conviction to criminally negligent homicide, sentencing him to five years of probation and 800 hours of community service.

The settlement also includes an additional $400,000 from the New York City Housing Authority, and $25,000 from Liang. The money will be placed in a trust fund for Gurley’s young daughter, which cannot be accessed without court approval until she turns 18.