Who Tells Your Story?

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I have an unusual job, leading a team of five designers, all dedicated to helping attorneys make a stronger case. We use video analysis and 3d modeling to develop compelling visual stories that clarify the narrative. We map car crashes, diagram defective buildings, and yes, we visualize crime scenes. I’ve worked on hundreds of cases in the past ten years, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about just 15 of them— the cases that involved a police shooting or death-in-custody. 15 cases is a tiny fraction of the police violence that has occurred in our country during this time, but I feel like I’ve seen enough to draw some general conclusions.

First, I must acknowledge that I am privileged. I am writing this article in a professional capacity, and have never lost a friend or family member to police violence. I’ve never been arrested. I’ve never felt threatened by a police officer. I’ll never truly understand the fear and hate that is directed toward minorities in this country because it’s not directed at me. What I do recognize is the need for immediate changes to address two specific problems with our criminal justice system.

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13th & Everett: This case of a mentally-ill man who died in custody was the first of 15 police violence cases that I’ve worked on.

Police violence overwhelmingly affects marginalized groups.

In most of the cases I mentioned above, the victim was either a person color (5 of 15) or experiencing a mental health crisis (8 of 15). Of course every community is different, and it’s hard to compare my personal anecdotes with national averages because there is no federal agency that keeps detailed records on this sort of thing. In the absence of an authoritative source, advocacy groups on the right and left have published their own numbers, to support a particular agenda.

I like to look for the story behind the statistics, and found a web site called Mapping Police Violence helpful. It’s the work of community organizers allied with the Black Lives Matter movement, so the lead infographics are understandably focused on how police violence is more likely to affect black people. But down at the bottom of the page is a tool for filtering six years of nationwide data down to state, and even local police bureaus to see the names, faces, and read the stories of those killed during encounters with the police.


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Screen shot: Mapping Police Violence


These stories match what I know to be true about my community (Portland, Oregon): In addition to problems with racial bias, we struggle to respond appropriately to people suffering from untreated mental illness, who are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than other civilians.

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SWAT Team: In this case, military weapons and tactics were used to serve a warrant. In the process, police shot one of the neighbors.

Local prosecutors don’t charge police with crimes.

For most criminal cases, the local police investigate and identify suspects, while the county prosecutor issues charges, and advocates for victim(s) of the crime. On the opposing side, a team of private investigators and defense attorneys (often paid for by the state) represent the accused. There is certainly room for improvement, but the criminal justice system is a cornerstone of our democracy, designed to give both crime victims and the accused a fair shot at having their story heard by a judge or jury.

Unfortunately, this system breaks down in cases of police violence because the role of advocating for the victim puts local police and prosecutors in conflict with the interests of their own colleagues who inflicted the harm. Even if a grand jury is convened to make a decision about charges, they only get to hear one side of the story, as told by the prosecutor. In most jurisdictions the transcripts of grand jury proceedings are secret, making it impossible for the public to learn what and how evidence was presented. This system will never be perceived as fair, regardless of whether charges are warranted.

None of the 15 cases I worked on saw criminal charges filed against the police officers. In some cases, the victim’s family received compensation through a civil lawsuit. The Mapping Police Violence database includes 7500+ police killings in the USA between 2013-2019. Only 1% of these resulted in criminal charges being filed. I’m not trying to imply that every decision not to charge a police officer is wrong. I’ve seen a lot of police investigation work in my career, much of it quite good, some mediocre, and a few examples that were shockingly dishonest. But the quality of the police work isn’t really the point. For a family that loses a loved one to police violence, there’s no comfort in any investigation that is conducted by an agency that is inherently biased.

If it were possible to eliminate police violence entirely, there wouldn’t be a need for independent investigation. But I’m a realist, and am therefore interested in exploring potential solutions. Should a special prosecutor be appointed? (Example: San Francisco County IIB) Should a private consultant be hired? (Example OIR Group) Should a judge decide on charges instead of a grand jury?

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Resisting Arrest: After a violent encounter with police, a suspect was charged with assaulting an officer, but video footage compiled by defense attorneys convinced the prosecutor to drop all charges. This is an example of why independent investigation is so important.

What Happens Next?

In the words of Lin Manuel Miranda:

Right now, millions of demonstrators are telling the story of our black community members that have for so long endured pain and suffering imposed by structural racism in our country. Leaders all over the country are responding with talk of reforms and rethinking the work we ask our police officers to perform. How much of this talk will turn in to action? Once the protests die down, and media coverage moves on to the next shiny object, any lasting change will depend on local politicians. These are the people that will decide if & how resources currently spent on law enforcement and incarceration can be redirected to supporting people that have suffered from racism and mental illness. These are the people that will design any new system for unbiased investigation of police shootings and deaths-in-custody.

We are likely to hear many promises about policing from presidential candidates this summer, but the real power to make changes rests with local officials. In my community, Multnomah County just elected a new district attorney, and three out of five seats on the Portland City Commission are up for grabs in November, including the seat for Mayor who appoints the police chief. Who oversees the police and prosecutor in your community? If you are inspired to take action, please read President Obama’s article on making this moment a turning point for real change. We’re all in this together!

Postscript

This is article is not intended to be a company statement on racial bias or police violence. Rather it’s my personal attempt to reflect on what I have learned after ten years of deep involvement with police violence cases. Fat Pencil Studio has worked on behalf of the police in some cases, opposed to police in others, and we will continue to do both. We have a conflict of interest policy that prevents us from working for opposing sides in the same case, or working on a case that involves a staff member or their immediate family.

For further reading

How to Make This Moment the Turning Point for Real Change: Barack Obama’s call for looking beyond the protests to achieve lasting change.

A Practical Guide to Defunding the Police: Activists are demanding cities ‘defund the police.’ Here’s what they mean

Road Runners: The Role and Impact of Law Enforcement in Transporting Individuals with Severe Mental Illness

Reforming the Grand Jury Indictment Process: Recent Efforts to Improve Public Confidence in Cases Involving Police Use of Lethal Force

Out of Crisis Comes Opportunity: Dartmouth Alumni Magazine profiles Michael Gennaco of OIR Group.

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Joshua Cohen is a Principal at Fat Pencil Studio