Local advocates call for DOJ to investigate dropped police shooting cases

This article was originally published in KGOU. Read it here.

In 2020, seven police officers in Oklahoma County were involved in the deaths of three individuals – 49-year-old Christopher Poor, 15-year-old Stavian Rodriguez, and 60-year-old Bennie Edwards. Former district attorney, David Prater, filed criminal charges against the officers before his retirement earlier this year.

Sara Bana, a member of the People’s Council for Justice Reform, said this was a rare instance of police officers facing criminal consequences for fatally shooting people while on the job.

“Once in a blue moon, we have a prosecutor that is willing to file charges and hold police officers accountable for their unlawful, excessive, unnecessary use of force. So in these three cases, we had that situation. We had the murders caught on tape. The videos went public. The district attorney did what he needed to do, which was to file charges and proceed,” Bana said.

But last month, the new DA, Vicki Behenna, announced she was dismissing the charges against all seven officers with prejudice, meaning the cases cannot be refiled. In a press conference, she also announced future fatal police shooting cases would be handled by a multi-county grand jury. Behenna’s office declined to be interviewed.

Reducing fatal police shootings

Since 2020, the Oklahoma City Police Department has taken steps to reduce the likelihood of fatal shootings, including increasing the number of less lethal 40 millimeter foam round guns available from ten to 142 and putting more emphasis on de-escalation training in a reality-based training unit. Captain Valerie Littlejohn, the department’s public information officer, said safety is a top priority for the department.

“Just our mere presence, sometimes being an officer in uniform can escalate a situation. So we want to be able to de-escalate that, whether it be just from talking to someone, explaining a situation and all the way to, when time is on our side, really trying to get that person to listen to what we’re trying to get them to do so we can end the situation as safely as possible,” Littlejohn said.

But Bana said Oklahoma County has a deeper problem that needs to be addressed. Four of the seven police officers — Chance Avery, Corey Adams, Bethany Sears, and Bradley Pemberton — have been involved in fatal shootings in the past. Pemberton, who was involved in the death of Stavian Rodriguez, was also involved in a different fatal shooting earlier in 2020.

“Just buying more equipment is not going to make a difference unless we change our mindsets, unless we change our mission statement that sends the message about the sanctity of life and that is my life is unjustifiably taken that there’s going to be a district attorney in this town that is willing to prosecute killer cops,” Bana said.

Asking the feds to get involved

That’s why earlier this month, a coalition of local civil and human rights organizations, including the People’s Council for Justice Reform, sent a letter to the United States Department of Justice’s Criminal and Civil Rights Divisions asking them to launch their own criminal and civil investigations into the three deaths.

Anjana Malhotra, a senior attorney for the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, said the DOJ has independent federal authority and has the ability to both initiate criminal investigations and file criminal charges regardless of a local DA’s decision to dismiss a case with prejudice. She also said the DOJ can do more than investigate specific officers or cases.

“What happens when there’s a failure of justice or an about face is that officers often feel like they have carte blanche to continue engaging in the behavior that led to these tragedies. So, in the case of, for example, Michael Brown, the DOJ didn’t find enough evidence to bring criminal charges against the officers involved in his death, but did launch one of the biggest civil rights investigations into a police department in recent history by investigating Ferguson,” Malhotra said.

And Bana said the coalition believes that kind of wide scale investigation is just what Oklahoma County needs.

“This conversation is bigger than just the three victims whose names we now know. This conversation is about public safety for all of our residents and accountability for our government institutions that are funded by taxpayers in hopes of a better future with healthier statistics for all of us,” Bana said.

The DOJ has not yet responded to the coalition’s letter. However, the department already has an open investigation into the state of Oklahoma, the city of Oklahoma City, and the Oklahoma City Police Department meant to examine police responses to mental health crises.

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