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Fear of Ferguson: PPD Chief Garcia's New Stance on Officer Shootings Rings Hollow

PPD Chief Garcia, speaking of Michelle Cusseaux's mother: "I could see the hurt in her face, and her words...touched my heart."
PPD Chief Garcia, speaking of Michelle Cusseaux's mother: "I could see the hurt in her face, and her words...touched my heart."

Phoenix Police Chief Daniel Garcia waxed eloquent during an unusual Saturday press conference, where he announced that the Arizona Department of Public Safety would be tasked with the criminal investigation of the shooting death of Michelle Cusseaux.

Four police officers responded to Cusseaux's West Phoenix apartment on August 14, ostensibly to pick her up and take her to get mental-health care. At one point, according to the Phoenix Police Department, Cusseaux, 50, emerged from her residence brandishing a hammer.

Subsequently, Sergeant Percy Dupra, a 19-year veteran of the force, shot Cusseaux, who was taken to a hospital, where she died.

At the press conference, Garcia spoke of his face-to-face meeting with Cusseaux's mom, Frances Garrett, a couple of days earlier.

The chief said "the hurt in her face" and Garrett's words "touched my heart."

Based on the conversation, Garcia said, he asked the DPS to take over the criminal investigation of the shooting.

Normally, in all such officer-involved shootings, the Phoenix Police Department performs both internal and criminal investigations.

A review of the criminal investigation by the Maricopa County Attorney's Office for possible charges is standard.

But on the Wednesday before the presser, Garcia issued a statement making it sound as if he was doing something different by asking County Attorney Bill Montgomery to "conduct a second -- and independent -- review of the [PPD's] criminal investigation."

In the same press release, Garcia stated that his department's "heartfelt thoughts" were with Cusseaux's family.

Still, the family wanted the criminal investigation done by an outside agency, and Garcia dutifully complied, one day after Cusseaux's family and its supporters marched her coffin through the streets of Phoenix to City Hall.

Garcia did not mention whether this unusual display influenced his decision.

But he did invoke the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, where the shooting of unarmed Michael Brown by Ferguson cop Darren Wilson sparked protests, rioting, and an overreaction by police involving the use of weaponry and tactics more akin to the situation in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk than what we expect in the land of the free.

Garcia cited the "emotion, anger, and, yes, mistrust" toward law enforcement exhibited in Ferguson and nationally. He said the Phoenix Police Department needed to overcome such misgivings.

"I want our department to stand for those issues of democracy and justice," he said. "But I also want the Phoenix Police Department to be known for compassion and trust."

Admirable sentiments, to be sure. Garcia also said he wants body cameras on all his cops, um, eventually. Among other promises, he's decreed that all employees should receive a couple hours of training in dealing with the mentally ill.

Sounds good, right?

 

The late Zach Pithan, with his mom, Cleo Daily, in a photo from their last Christmas together
The late Zach Pithan, with his mom, Cleo Daily, in a photo from their last Christmas together
Courtesy of Cleo Daily

So why am I skeptical? It has to do with a different Phoenix police shooting and the phrase "in policy."

Earlier this year, the department's Use of Force Review Board applied the phrase, like the proverbial rubber stamp, to the death of 22-year-old Zachariah Pithan, shot twice in the chest by Officer Clint Brookins in Pithan's west-side apartment on April 20, 2013.

In a May column, I reviewed the circumstances of Pithan's killing in detail. Three police officers initially responded to calls from Pithan's apartment complex complaining about a "fight" and a man kicking doors.

Pithan, whose family says he suffered, like Cusseaux, from mental illness, had been witnessed shouting at people, acting erratically, and verbally threatening others, according to the police report.

The three cops, including Brookins, found Pithan in his apartment with the door ajar. After Pithan supposedly flipped them off, a struggle ensued, with these officers (and later a fourth) attempting to subdue Pithan.

Brookins fired his handgun because he said Pithan had a stick in his hand and was preparing to injure either him or another officer.

Earlier, Pithan had another stick (actually a table leg, one of several in the apartment), but he dropped it when, according to the police report, Brookins kneed him in the face.

Interestingly, the other officers involved did not say they saw anything in Pithan's hands, and their description of events varied from Brookins' in other respects.

When the fourth officer, Emanuel Codreanu, arrived, "all three" of his fellow officers "were on top of [Pithan], trying to hold him down," as Pithan was trying to stand up, he told investigators.

An officer was on Pithan's thigh area, while another was trying to grab his hand so he could cuff him.

One officer yelled to Codreanu to help hold Pithan's legs. As he moved to do so, he heard the gunshots.

"I thought it was a Taser," Codreanu said.

Officer Christopher Joja, the cop attempting to hold down Pithan's legs, also thought a Taser had been deployed.

Investigators, according to recordings of interviews completed during the internal review, asked Joja why he thought Brookins fired his handgun.

"I have no idea," Joja told them.

Officer Andrew Williams told investigators that he yelled, "Oh, fuck!" when Brookins fired his gun. Brookins was opposite Williams, struggling with Pithan, who was between them.

In a transcript of his internal affairs interview, Brookins acknowledged the possibility that bullets could have ricocheted off one of Pithan's bones, wounding Williams.

During Brookins' interview, he repeatedly was asked why he didn't continue to use his hands, inflict another knee strike, or deploy his Taser or his pepper spray, both of which he had on his belt.

Brookins said he thought Pithan "was going to stab one of us in the face with the stick" and that "there was nothing else I could do."

At least one of his interrogators was skeptical of the answer, asking him for "more articulation," but Brookins insisted there were no alternatives.

The County Attorney's Office reviewed the criminal investigation and declined to bring charges.

After the Professional Standards Bureau completed the internal investigation, it was sent to the PPD's Use of Force Review Board, which dutifully stamped it "in policy," meaning there would be no disciplinary action, no retraining for Brookins.

Brookins remains on patrol. Meanwhile, Pithan's death is the subject of a federal lawsuit by Pithan's family.

It's the second wrongful death lawsuit involving Brookins. Another alleges that Jorge Sanchez died in custody April 2012, after he was Tased by another officer, then placed in a chokehold by Brookins.

This death, too, was ruled "in policy."

Brookins also was alleged to have dragged a woman through a puddle of her own urine after she was brought into the Sunnyslope substation on outstanding warrants and was denied use of the bathroom.

This happened in 2012. Brookins said he was trying to "escort" the woman out "when she slipped in her own urine and fell to the floor, landing in the puddle."

That incident was ruled "unresolved" by the UFB.

In my previous column about the Pithan slaying, I reviewed several Facebook posts by Brookins in which the Iraq War vet spoke of his time as a sniper in the military, joked about killing people, and described horrific flashbacks.

Were these "in policy," too, I wonder? There's no mention of them in his personnel file.

For the family of Pithan, there have been no apologies, no promises of reform. But then, Pithan's death was pre-Ferguson.

Post-Ferguson, Garcia's promises seem inspired by fear of a Ferguson-like situation erupting in Phoenix.

However, I predict that as long as incidents of alleged abuse routinely are labeled "in policy" by the PPD, Garcia's fear will remain well-founded.

E-mail stephen.lemons@newtimes.com.


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