Bridging the Gap Will Improve Police Accountability in Erie, Pennsylvania

Erie, PA (January 19, 2017) A sign that states “Pray For Erie” stands across the street of the Erie County Courthouse on West Sixth Street in Erie, PA. (Photo Credit:  Lauren Benzo )

Erie, PA (January 19, 2017) A sign that states “Pray For Erie” stands across the street of the Erie County Courthouse on West Sixth Street in Erie, PA. (Photo Credit: Lauren Benzo)

 

Tension between police officers and civilians has risen to an all time high in recent years. Increased instances of police brutality and police involved shootings has also risen exponentially. Social media, smart phones, photos, videos, live broadcasts and news reports have brought these instances to the forefront like never before. This increased exposure is putting pressure on city officials to hold law enforcement officers accountable for the abuses against citizens within their communities.

According to the website KilledbyPolice.com, over 1,100 men, women, and children lost their lives at the hands of police officers in 2016 alone. These statistics do not include acts of brutality and misconduct that were carried out over the past 12 months. What is most astounding about these numbers is the lack of accountability in most of these cases.

In many cases, officers are cleared of any wrong doing although evidence clearly shows they were acting outside of their authority. Those that are charged see hung juries and acquittals.

Trends for officers reported compared officers disciplined and officers convicted via          PoliceMisconduct.com

Trends for officers reported compared officers disciplined and officers convicted via         PoliceMisconduct.com

Those that are not affected by police brutality commonly will say, “Why should I care?”, “This doesn’t affect my life”, or “If they would have done what they were told, it wouldn’t have happened.” The truth is whether the person is the primary victim of police brutality, a friend or family member of the primary victim, a witness to the brutality firsthand, or heard about it on the news or so to say “through the grapevine”, they are a victim of police brutality.

In 2016, days after citizens of the United States celebrated Independence Day, police officers in Baton Rouge, LA and St. Anthony, MN were caught on tape fatally shooting Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Both were African American. Sterling was a son, brother, father of five, and locally known as the “CD Man.” Castile was a son, brother, stepfather, and a cafeteria supervisor at J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School, whom was loved by the staff and students he severed for over fifteen years.

In the age of technology and social media, news of their deaths spread like wild fire across the country and world. People filled with grief and outrage took to the streets in protest for weeks after. Some protests lead to fires, looting and destruction of property as well as multiple arrests. Sterling and Castile were not the first to have their lives abruptly taken by the police in 2016, nor would they be the last.

Instances of police brutality, police involved shootings, and lack of accountability has done irreparable damage to relationships between police officers and the citizens in which they have taken an oath to protect and serve. It has heightened racial tensions and created a culture of fear and distrust of law enforcement in cities such as New York, NY, Cleveland, OHSt. Louis, MOChicago, IL, and uncommonly Erie, PA.

 

Erie, PA (July 22, 2016) Take Back Out Street Movement-Erie, PA members speaking to Erie Police Officers during a peace rally on the corner of East 12th and Wayne Street in Erie, PA. (Photo Credit:  Lauren Benzo )

Erie, PA (July 22, 2016) Take Back Out Street Movement-Erie, PA members speaking to Erie Police Officers during a peace rally on the corner of East 12th and Wayne Street in Erie, PA. (Photo Credit: Lauren Benzo)

During the same week of the deaths of Alton and Castile, Cole “The Barber” Stewart, of Erie, Pennsylvania expressedhis feelings about the shootings on his Facebook page. His words were of anger yet were also outlined with hope that the United States would see an end in police brutality and police involved shootings.

His post resonated with many. However, he began to receive a considerable amount of backlash from others. He took the post down to calm tensions but still felt that something should be done to show support to those that have been abused or lost their lives during police encounters.

Stewart planned a peace rally for the date of July 15, 2016, which was the same week of Erie’s branded bike rally “Roar on the Shore.” After speaking to the local news stations about his plan, he began to receive death threats because people felt that his peace rally was actually a boycott of the bike rally. Stewart then received a phone call from the former police chief Randy Bowers stating that since “Roar on the Shore” was going on during that week, it would have not been a good idea to do the peace rally at that time. Stewart then decided to postpone the peace rally for another date.

   Timeline on the Lack of Police Accountability in Erie, PA

   Timeline on the Lack of Police Accountability in Erie, PA

On July 18th, 2016, Erie News Now released a tape of 41-year-old Montrice Bolden, of Erie, Pennsylvania being “detained” by five police officers on June 27th, 2016 in the parking lot of TJ’s Traffic Jam. The video shows the officers punching and kicking Bolden in the face and body while other officers restrained him. His face was also slammed into the hood and door jam of the police vehicle.

Erie, PA (January 28, 2016) Image of Montrice Bolden’s injuries that were sustained by Erie Police Department Officers DeLuca, Stadler, Sack, and Bush (two other officers can not be named at this time). This photograph was taken two weeks after the arrest. Bolden remains in the Erie County Prison. (Photo Credit:  Lauren Benzo )

Erie, PA (January 28, 2016) Image of Montrice Bolden’s injuries that were sustained by Erie Police Department Officers DeLuca, Stadler, Sack, and Bush (two other officers can not be named at this time). This photograph was taken two weeks after the arrest. Bolden remains in the Erie County Prison. (Photo Credit: Lauren Benzo)

He suffered from a broken eye socket, fractured skull, internal bleeding, and permanent nerve damage on the right side of his body. According to the affidavit of probable cause, Bolden was allegedly in possession of a controlled substance while sitting in his vehicle parked in the tavern’s parking lot. The affidavit went on to say that, he allegedly “flicked” a lit cigar at the officer and attempted to flee.

Video Credit: Youtube/ENews Reference

Although the cameras recorded the excessive force against Bolden, the alleged actions that were stated in the affidavit were not in the camera’s view. Bolden’s family and other community members began to question whether the officers went too far with their use of force.

During the same month, Erie News Now announced that the United States Department of Justice System was investing the arrest of Bolden. Days after, the Mayor of Erie, Joe Sinnott and the former police chief Randy Bowers held a press conference stating that they will conduct an independent review on the force of the arresting officers. Bowers also stated that when he learned of Bolden’s arrest on June 28, he immediately assigned an internal affairs investigator to the case.

Although Bowers said there was an internal investigation launched into the conduct of the arresting officers, during Bolden’s preliminary hearing on August 10, 2016, Bolden’s defense lawyer asked the prosecutions’ only witness, Detective Christopher Janus, if there was an internal investigation being conducted on the arresting officers. Janus response was “No.” The defense then asked, “Was an internal investigation ever conducted on the arresting officers?” Janus response was “No.”

Family Member and fellow “blue brother” to one of the police officers that were involved yet never charged in the death of David Johnson in 1991 misled the public to believe that the police department conducted any type of internal investigation.

Bowers announced his retirement twelve days after Bolden’s preliminary hearing. Bolden remains in jail suffering from the injuries he sustained during his police encounter. According to Bolden’s family, the Erie County Prison has repeatedly denied him access to see his neurologist. Yet, not one of the officers responsible for his injuries has been suspended or charged. Despite being investigated by the Department of Justice for civil rights violations, all of the officers are currently still on the street.

Video Credit: YourErie.com/OneNewsPage

The Citizens of Erie, Pennsylvania are now seeking solutions on how to bring an end to police brutality, bring more accountability to officers that use excessive force, and how to bridge the gap between the community and the officers that took a vow to serve and protect them.

Erie, PA (November 30, 2016) Erie Police Department cruisers parked outside of the Erie Police Department on the corner of West 7th and Peach Street in Erie, PA. (Photo Credit:  Lauren Benzo )

Erie, PA (November 30, 2016) Erie Police Department cruisers parked outside of the Erie Police Department on the corner of West 7th and Peach Street in Erie, PA. (Photo Credit: Lauren Benzo)

Let us begin with admitting that there is a lack of police accountability in the city of Erie. It has been over seven months since the arrest of Montrice Bolden and six months since the Civil Rights investigation was filed. Yet, all officers that are viewable in the video are still able to work on streets of Erie. Citizens that were able to see the footage and follow the case feel that if these officers were even suspended, they would have more trust in the justice system and the police department.

In the spring of 2016, the International Journal of Police Science & Management presented an article called “Six Dimensions of Police Accountability.” It states, “Police accountability, arguably the most important component of democratic policing, needs to be assessed in a consistent and rational manner if deployment of resources and effort on the part of donors are to result in more convincing outcomes.”

LaurenBenzo.com reached out to the former police chief Randy Bowers, the new police chief Donald Dacus, the current Mayor of Erie Joe Sinnott, and various police officers from the Erie Police Department to seek solutions on how the city of Erie as a whole can bring more unity to the citizens and the police department. They have all declined to comment.

Although Bowers, Dacus, Sinnott, and various police officers from the Erie Police Department declined to comment, five experts in various fields accepted the invitation to speak on these matters. These experts include an Erie City Council Member, a lawyer/Social Justice Activist, a Civil Rights Activist, an Associate Professor in the History Department of a renowned university, and a former mayor of the city of Erie. Here are a few suggestions for solutions and how they may help Erie, Pennsylvania as a whole.

Erie, PA (July 22, 2016) Take Back Out Street Movement-Erie, PA members and peace rally goers demand justice for Montrice Bolden, while Erie Police Officers watch on the corner of East 12th and Wayne Street in Erie, PA. (Photo Credit:  Lauren Benzo )  

Erie, PA (July 22, 2016) Take Back Out Street Movement-Erie, PA members and peace rally goers demand justice for Montrice Bolden, while Erie Police Officers watch on the corner of East 12th and Wayne Street in Erie, PA. (Photo Credit: Lauren Benzo)  

Citizens Review Board:

Erie City Council Member Sonya Arrington is very vocal about creating a Citizens Review Board. She stated that with a citizen review board, it would bring more trust between the citizens, community leaders, elected officials, and police officers. An officer named Randy Rider wrote on Officer.com, “I have resisted CRBs for many years. However, I believe we must be held accountable to the public and to ourselves. The less we resist the easier it will be to transition to the system. I place emphasis on transition—we are not caving in here, we are transitioning. It is another way to do community oriented policing.”

Community Policing: 

While speaking with Attorney and Social Justice Activist Bryan Stevenson during his trip to Mercyhurst University, he stated, “This type of policing will bring the citizens and the police department together. This will help with preventing crime and solving neighborhood problems. This will not stop all crime and handle all the problems that the citizens are facing. Yet, it gives the community hope. If the community and the police department will come together in some type of partnership, they can achieve a common goal of a safer place to live and there will be more trust on all sides of the equation.“

In the winter of 2014, the International Journal of Police Science & Management wrote the article “Perceptions of Policing: Improving Communication in Local Communities.” It states, “Public perceptions of policing have provided a good deal of concern in recent years. However, there is also a growing body of evidence that suggests that part of the issue for policing local communities may stem from an ability to communicate effectively with the local populace.”

As a whole, the city can do this by newsletters, social media posts, foot patrol, neighborhood watch programs, and having active police officers living in the neighborhoods that they took an oath to serve and protect.

Body Cameras: 

Body cameras have been a major suggestion from every expert that spoken to LaurenBenzo.com. Body cameras will not only protect the citizens but also the police officers in certain cases. An article named “Body-worn Camera for Police Accountability: Opportunities and Risks” states, “The resulting mobile and ubiquitous surveillance is often marketed as an instrument for accountability and an effective way of reducing violence, discrimination or corruption. It also involves remarkable potential for intrusion into the privacy of both individuals and police agents.”

The Harvard Law Review also stated in April of 2015 that The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also repeatedly voiced its support for widespread adoption of this new technology, heralding body cameras as “a win-win” as long as civilian privacy remained properly protected.

This has worked in similar cities, however, there seems to be a dispute about the use of body cameras for the Erie Police Department. There has been a discussion of the Erie Police Department wearing body cameras, yet there were some complaints on how the department would get funding for a building to store all the footage. Sonya Arrington stated that since she is a city council member, she would express the fact that these cameras are in need and she will find ways to fund a building that will store the footage.

Erie, PA (July 22, 2016) Men standing outside of their truck with a “Black Lives Matter” sign during a peace rally on the corner of East 12th and Wayne Street in Erie, PA. (Photo Credit:  Lauren Benzo )         

Erie, PA (July 22, 2016) Men standing outside of their truck with a “Black Lives Matter” sign during a peace rally on the corner of East 12th and Wayne Street in Erie, PA. (Photo Credit: Lauren Benzo)         

New Police Training Tactics: 

During the 2016 President-Elect Trump’s presidential campaign, he was very vocal of bringing “Law and Order” back to the United States of America. He was also very vocal on revisiting the “Stop and Frisk” tactic, even though it was ruled to be unconstitutional. There were even findings that certain states, including Pennsylvania, are still practicing this tactic which seems very unethical. When every expert was asked if the “Stop and Frisk” tactic would help with stopping violence and bridging the gap between the citizens and the police department. Every one stated the same answer, and the words were “No, it will only make it worse!”

In December of 2016, The Fraternal Order of Police reached out to President Elect Trump and issued an advisory to their fellow members, stating what they are expecting from the Trump Administration once Donald Trump will be sworn in as the President of the United States of America.

The Fraternal Order of Police expects the dismantling of some of President Barack Obama’s 2015 reforms. This includes his call for an increase usage of body cameras nationwide and creating a national database on police use of force. They are also requesting to remove some or all of federal aid to sanctuary cities and to lift the 2003 federal ban on racial profiling.

Most police departments work off policies that contain a series of “Use-of Force.” These include Officer Presence, Verbalization, Empty-Hand Control, Less-Lethal Methods, and lastly Lethal Force. While many police departments state that these are the best ways to take out an arrest, John Olszowka, Ph.D. feels differently.

He stated, “The original use of force policies should contain new standard elements. This is why I feel police departments should provide some type of new training tactic. I would suggest at all times, weapons and ammunition being approved by the police chief before leaving the station. Maybe the use of authorized less-lethal weapons would help.”

He went on to say, “There should be some type of medical testing going on to make sure the officers are capable enough to do his or her job. If there is a situation such as the arrest of Montrice Bolden, there should be some written reports, investigations, and reviews required as soon as possible. Last, but not least, there should be a removal of any type of line-duty assignments while the review is in pending.”

The St. Louis University Public Law Review released an article called “Police Training as an Instrument of Accountability” and it states, “There may be a possibility of using training as a mechanism for how to enhance police accountability regarding the use of force may help more police departments in the future.” It seems as if new training will be worth a try. Yet, it is up to the Erie Police Department to decide if this will help not only their officers but to also gain trust between both parties.

 

Breaking Down the Blue Wall of Silence:

Infographic Credit:  http://copcrisis.com

Infographic Credit: http://copcrisis.com

CopCrisis.com has an infographic presented on their site called “In Their Own Words.” The source comes from an article called, “Police Attitudes toward Abuse of Authority: Findings from a National Study”. The infographic states:

  • 43% of police officers say, “Always following the rules is not compatible with getting the job done.”
  • 52% of officers say, “It is not unusual for a police officer to turn a blind eye to improper conduct to other officers.”
  • 61% of officers “Do not always report serious abuse by fellow officers.”
  • 84% of officers “Witnessed fellow officers using more force than necessary.”

Heather Garczynski from the Take Back Our Streets Movement stated, “We have to start by getting these five officers (the arresting officers in the Bolden case) off the streets. The Erie Police Department should break up these bad crews. Every time you hear about some type of police brutality going on in Erie, it seems to be same officers every time.”

There are “good” police officers of all types of all races. Yet, they are the officers that personally know the extent of corruption and the type of “protection” that is offered to the other officers that are breaking the law. They are aware of the repercussions that they will receive from their fellow “blue brothers/sisters,” if they came forward stating the heinous actions that they witnessed.

Everyone knows the saying, “One bad apple spoils the whole bunch.” This saying goes perfect with the fact that one corrupt officer can turn a whole squad bad. How can this stop in the city of Erie? The Erie Police Department can begin breaking down the wall by making sure the “bad apples” are extracted, not tolerated nor protected. The “bad apples” should be penalized for taking part in repercussions on officers that breaks the code of silence. Yet, in order for this to happen, the police department has to be willing to conduct these procedures.

Erie, PA (July 28, 2016) Woman sitting with signs stating “We Demand Justice” and “Where’s Our Mayor” during a peace rally conducted by members of the Citizens and Clergy, Take Back Our Streets Movement, and citizens in Downtown Erie. (Photo Credit:  Lauren Benzo )   

Erie, PA (July 28, 2016) Woman sitting with signs stating “We Demand Justice” and “Where’s Our Mayor” during a peace rally conducted by members of the Citizens and Clergy, Take Back Our Streets Movement, and citizens in Downtown Erie. (Photo Credit: Lauren Benzo)

 

Strong Leadership:

Attorney and former Mayor of Erie Rick Filippi was 36 years old when he took office. He took the oath of being the 50th mayor of Erie in 2002 and was voted PA’s Best Mayor in 2003 by PoliticsPA.com. One of his concerns while being the mayor was to help the community with the number of growing violence. He began community policing and was active at neighborhood watch meetings. He was the type of leader that showed the community that he cared. It seems this type of leadership has left after 2006 when Mayor Joe Sinnott took office. Not to mention, the violence in the city of Erie has been on a rise since.

NeighborhoodScout.com states, “The crime rate in Erie is considerably higher than the national average across all communities in America from the largest to the smallest, although at 30 crimes per one thousand residents, it is not among the communities with the very highest crime rate. The chance of becoming a victim of either violent or property crime in Erie is 1 in 33. Based on FBI crime data, Erie is not one of the safest communities in America. Relative to Pennsylvania, Erie has a crime rate that is higher than 89% of the state’s cities and towns of all sizes.”

There is no doubt that the violence in Erie is a subject to put on the forefront. Yet, when the violence is happening, the mayor is silent. There are absolutely no comments on the violence in the city. There are no vigil appearances. There is hardly any public remorse for the families that have lost a love one to gun violence. Citizens of Erie feel if the leader does not care about the violence that is going on in the urban community, he does not care about the police brutality that is going on there also.

In July of 2016, for the first time in years, Mayor Joe Sinnott held a press conference. This was not because of the gun violence in Erie, but this was due to the United States Department of Justice System investigating the arrest of Bolden. Along with former Police Chief Bowers, Sinnott stated that the Erie Police Department started an internal investigation long before the Department of Justice opened civil rights probe.

As stated earlier, during the Bolden preliminary hearing, the prosecutions’ only witnessed stated that no internal investigation was ever conducted. So the community not only feels that he does not care about people of color, but he will also go on the record and give a deceptive statement to the public about conducting an internal investigation.

Attorney and former Mayor of Erie Rick Filippi stated, “The mayor (Joe Sinnott) needs to be out there, in the community. When I was in office, I went to a neighborhood watch meeting at least once a week. I met with the neighbors. I would bring the police brass with me and answer questions.”

He also stated, “I heard the current mayor say one time that there is no sense in participating in these “marches”. They (citizens of Erie) were marching against the violence because someone was shot. The point is, you are the mayor. You are the leader of the people. Yes, maybe a “march” to you will not make substantive change, but the idea is to be out there with your people. Tell them you care. That you have not just sympathy but empathy, for the suffering and the pain that occurs to the people.”

He went on to say, “When we have been going through this gun violence that started at least three years ago, the mayor should have been having press conferences once a week or once every couple of weeks. To make the people understand at a minimum that at least you understand that there is a problem and you are doing everything you can to solve the problem. We had total lack of leadership on that front.”

The citizens of Erie will not have to think about what will be the future with Sinnott as mayor for long since the 2017 Mayoral Elections are approaching. Due to the city’s three-term limit, he will not be able to run again and a new mayor will be in office. Yet, before the citizens of Erie go to their designated voting locations, there has to be a deep analysis done on every candidate that plans to run for mayor.

A great way for the city of Erie to have change would start with a new leader that is truly for the citizens he or she oversees. If there is a way that the citizens of Erie and the police department can bridge the gap, it has to start with a strong leader that is willing to put everything on the line to make sure the city is not only ran honorably but also truthfully.

Lauren Benzo