WHO'S JIVIN' WHO?WHAT'S THE REAL STORY ON RACIAL VIOLENCE BY PHOENIX POLICE?
True or false? Reverend Oscar Tillman is a civil rights opportunist in the flamboyant tradition of New York's Al Sharpton.
Yes or no? Phoenix Police Chief Ruben Ortega looks the other way when his officers abuse Valley blacks.
A six-week investigation by Phoenix city manager Frank Fairbanks was supposed to clear the air.
Life should be so simple.
At a February 4 press conference, Reverend Tillman demanded that Chief Ortega resign because of "racial insensitivity," a charge arising out of the alleged brutalization of blacks by Phoenix police. One week later, on February 11, Tillman met with the mayor, the city manager, the police chief and a delegation of the concerned. Ortega was instructed by Fairbanks to look into the minister's charges and prepare a report.
Three weeks afterward, and before the final draft could be completed, the videotaped beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police on March 3 was televised nationally, and all discussions of excessive force took on a disturbing new perspective.
When the Phoenix City Hall report was completed, a March 29 meeting among politicians, bureaucrats and community activists was set with the not-unreasonable expectation that fireworks would follow. Instead, the parley was anticlimatic, at best.
Those anticipating a fiery outburst from Tillman were disappointed--or relieved, depending on your view of the Baptist minister.
Reverend Tillman announced to the press his satisfaction with the city manager's investigation, his hope for an ongoing dialogue, and the withdrawal of his request for Ortega's resignation.
Like a spring storm, the clouds had darkened, but the rain never came. Rather than a roll of thunderclaps on March 29, the skies opened up and sunlight poured forth.
"I guess I surprised them," said Reverend Tillman.
The report that so pleased Reverend Tillman, however, was as misleading as it was artful.
In his cover letter to the report, deputy city manager Pat Manion wrote: "From my review of the facts, I do not find evidence to suggest any consistent pattern of unfair treatment of minorities by the police department."
A detailed examination of the city's probe by New Times, however, uncovered an entirely different story.
Confidential police records pertinent to the city's report were never submitted for review. Obtained by New Times, the files contradict the glib assertions in the City Hall white paper. Furthermore, a second set of records--the original working documents released to New Times following a demand under the Arizona public records law--contains data that underscores the violence blacks suffer at the hands of Phoenix police. This information was dropped from the final report presented to Reverend Tillman.
Rather than putting to rest the tensions that have rocked Arizona nationally in the wake of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday uproar, the latest developments complete another chapter in the history of local racial division.
Closer scrutiny of the Tillman-Ortega confrontation reveals that:
Though instructed by city manager Frank Fairbanks to prepare a full response, Chief Ortega withheld damaging information from his own Internal Affairs Bureau files on a recent and controversial shooting.
Statistics on blacks shot by Phoenix officers were released by Ortega to City Hall. The charts show clearly that blacks are more likely to be victims of police gunfire than whites. Deputy city manager Pat Manion sidestepped that data, focusing instead on more benign figures.
While this six-week probe into excessive force was under way, blacks continued to complain of local police abuse to little avail and even less public notice.
Press reports that Reverend Tillman was placated were inaccurate. Though he felt progress was made, he said his principal agenda still consists of meaningful civilian review of the police department and that he will go to City Hall every month, if necessary, to achieve his goal. Moreover, Tillman revealed for the first time that city manager Fairbanks agreed to explore the idea of citizen oversight.
Behind the scenes, Reverend Tillman established a beachhead with police administrators before the sit-down on March 29. The startling rapprochement between Ortega and Tillman culminated with the police chief asking his harshest public critic to "stop by for coffee anytime." It is too soon to tell if this is progress or an attempt to co-opt this city's most visible civil rights spokesperson.
ONE OF THE FIRST CASES originally cited by Reverend Oscar Tillman was the publicized shooting of a black man in a nightclub parking lot.
"I reviewed at great length the incident of the off-duty officer who shot suspect Johnny Ray King on January 5, 1991, at Vinnie's, 2110 East Highland. From the detailed police reports available, I find no evidence to indicate improper conduct by the officer," wrote Pat Manion in the report.
The female passenger in the truck the night of the shooting, however, told Tillman that King never attempted to run over anyone. The minister speculated that the shooting might have been accidental, and that the charges of aggravated assault, endangerment and theft were an attempted cover-up of the inadvertent gunplay. Reverend Tillman's suspicions were heightened when he discovered that the weapon fired by Officer Arnie Stallman was a 9mm Glock, a semiautomatic weapon currently under investigation by 60 Minutes. The weapon has a dramatic hair-trigger response that has caused a number of accidental shootings by officers.
(Nine days after Reverend Tillman first voiced his concern over the shooting at Vinnie's, an officer with the Scottsdale Police Department accidentally shot himself in the leg with a Glock as he holstered the gun at the department's firing range.)
Manion's assurance that there is nothing questionable about the King shooting in the nightclub parking lot stems, in part, from Chief Ortega's refusal to release all the relevant data.
Yes, the initial reports filed by Officer Arnie Stallman and Sergeant Larry Lemons contend that the victim, King, tried to run them over.
But transcripts obtained by New Times from Ortega's own Internal Affairs Bureau investigation cast doubt over the official explanation of the shooting. These confidential records show that:
The Two Officers Gave Conflicting Testimony
Sergeant Lemons told investigators from the police department's Internal Affairs Bureau that he had been worried about being pinned against a wall. Investigator: "You said before that you were concerned about the wall and possibly crushing you or hitting you or something about the wall. What wall are you talking about?"
Lemons: "The garbage bin."
The night of the shooting, Officer Stallman gave a different version of what happened.
Stallman: " . . . that retaining wall . . . I thought he was gonna either crush Larry or both of us up against that wall . . . or both of us could get smashed against the retaining wall . . . "
The garbage bin and the retaining wall are two different structures located well apart from each other. The garbage bin is on the north side of the parking lot, while the retaining wall is on the east.
This testimony is one of several areas where the officers contradict each other.
Sergeant Lemons Changed His Story
The night of the shooting, Sergeant Lemons said he reached into the driver's window of King's vehicle to turn the ignition off.
"As I reached inside, something happened, my jacket caught on something. I had no idea what it caught on. It caught on my jacket . . . I have no--still don't know what it caught on . . . I was hooked on the steering wheel, ah, the horn or whether . . . I--I don't know what I was hooked on. Something got a hold of me."
Two days later, Sergeant Lemons was interviewed a second time by Detective Bill Butler and Sergeant Bruce Pitzer from the Internal Affairs Bureau.
After coaxing by Detective Butler, Sergeant Lemons changed his testimony from saying that his sleeve caught on the interior of the truck to claiming that the suspect King actually grabbed and held onto the officer's arm, lending credence to the theory that King was hostile and attempting to injure the cops.
Lemons: "You know, I just thought of something. I wonder if my arm caught on the, caught on the [inaudible]."
Lemons: "The door lock."
Butler: "The door-lock post?"
Lemons: "Or whether he was holding me, I don't know."
Butler: "That wouldn't have been strong enough to hold your jacket, not like that."
Lemons: "No, no, I don't think so. Whatever had a hold of me was pretty firm, it was firm."
Butler: "He probably had a hold of your sleeve this way."
Sergeant Lemons would subsequently claim that suspect King grabbed his hand and "very forcefully yanked" it.
When Detective Butler appeared in front of the grand jury, he did not indicate that Sergeant Lemons' sleeve caught on something inside the truck, as Lemons had stated the night of the shooting. Instead, Butler told the grand jury, "The driver of the vehicle, according to Sergeant Lemons, grabbed his hand with his right hand [and] pulled his hand off the ignition back onto his chest area."
The Physical Evidence Problem
The location of the trail of glass from the truck window shattered by Officer Stallman's bullet conflicts with the police officer's claim about where he fired his weapon.
The Maps Do Not Match
Investigators interviewed the two police officers separately. Following this, diagrams of the events that night were drawn based upon directions given by the two officers. The two diagrams contradict each other.
There Is an Errant Shell Casing
The spent shell casing wasn't anywhere near where it should have been located if the shooting had occurred where Officer Stallman said he fired his weapon. Though Phoenix police forensic chemist Ray Gieszl test-fired Stallman's weapon 34 times, he never was able to get the gun to respond in a manner that would explain the location of the spent shell casing found at the scene after the King shooting.
These details are not conclusive, but they do raise serious doubts. It is not the open-and-shut case portrayed in the city's report. Contradictions about the location of the shooting are important, because Stallman said he fired for fear he and his partner would be driven into a retaining wall. If they were nowhere near that barricade--in other words, in no apparent danger--then the possibility of an accidental discharge gains credibility.
Manion never saw the files from the department's own investigation.
"I discussed the case with Ortega and [Harold] Hurtt [assistant police chief] and looked at the DRs [departmental reports]. I have not seen the detailed reports from Internal Affairs . . . I did not get into that level of detail, partly because the matter is in court."
Chief Ortega declined to comment.
Moving from the specifics of a particular shooting to the bigger picture, deputy city manager Manion said in the report that Reverend Tillman had little cause for concern regarding the treatment of blacks by Ortega's officers.
"I asked the police department to prepare a summary for me of the citizens involved in shooting fatalities with the police over the last several years," wrote Manion. "These statistics show that the number of police fatal shootings are relatively few in number . . . . The statistics also document that minorities do not comprise a disproportionate number of the incidents compared to the demographics of the community, and the number of police responses involving minorities."
The self-serving statistics in this section of the report cannot be blamed on Chief Ortega. Comprehensive data from Major Gerd J. Kurtenbach, Internal Affairs Bureau commander, was passed on to Manion by Ortega, but the deputy city manager isolated only those numbers that made his point, ignoring obvious and damaging statistics.
In the final report, Manion stated that of the nineteen police-shooting fatalities since 1982, only one black was killed. So the total number of blacks shot to death was merely 5.3 percent in a city where blacks historically have constituted between 3 and 4 percent of the population.
A public records request by New Times, however, unearthed all working papers supplied to Manion by the police.
On the very page where Manion found the statistic--only one black shot and killed from 1982 to 1990--to advance his argument, there were numbers that told a different story.
Of all the instances of police officers firing their guns, 17 percent involved shootings at blacks. From 1978 to 1990, Phoenix officers have fired their weapons 192 times. The target on 33 of those occasions was black.
In Phoenix, Afro-Americans are shot at by police at a rate (17 percent) nearly five times their population base.
Manion went on to state in the report that of all complaints lodged against the police, only 7.4 percent came from blacks. This is an artificial number. It is true enough when you look at all complaints about police (i.e., delay in responding to a call, traffic tickets, et cetera).
But when you consider only excessive-force complaints, and after all, police brutality was the issue on the table, black complaints compose 22 percent of the total.
Manion was adamant that there was absolutely no effort on the city's part to manipulate the numbers.
"I looked at the stats and didn't see an unusual pattern," said Manion. "Part of the reason I focused on fatalities [instead of all shootings] was that the larger comparison we did with other cities also had to do with fatalities. That's how they did their numbers. I wasn't trying to hide anything. Clearly the information was available and we weren't trying to hide anything."
Throughout the entire report, there is not a single instance where the city manager concedes that police behavior might have been inappropriate. Sometimes the spin put on potentially embarrassing situations is ingenious in its cold-blooded efficiency.
Tillman's complaint that the police badly handled Ric Rankins' death is a case in point. A crack abuser and bad-check artist, Rankins ended up in a violent confrontation with supermarket employees when the store manager challenged the black man over his rash of bounced checks. When Officer Reynolds Nejo and his partner arrived on the scene, they discovered Rankins on the ground, semicomatose, his arms and legs tied to his body.
Reverend Tillman contends the officers should have promptly administered CPR and summoned paramedics. Instead, police interviewed witnesses, cut the ropes off Rankins, handcuffed the victim and, with one officer under each of Rankins' arms, dragged the limp Rankins across the parking lot, braced him against their squad car, and finally tumbled him into the back seat. Medical help failed to arrive, according to the city's own records, until fourteen minutes after the police pulled into the parking lot.
In response to the minister's complaint that medical attention should have been given Rankins at once, Chief Ortega stated sweetly in the report, "Due to the fact it was raining, the officers decided to place Rankins in the rear of their police vehicle."
This explanation ignores the statements given under oath at a preliminary hearing in which paramedics testified to the cavalier treatment of Rankins by the police and in which Officer Nejo admitted that he thought the dying black man was faking his injuries to avoid arrest.
To focus too intently upon the deception and misdirection in the report of Chief Ortega and city manager Fairbanks, however, would cause you to miss the point of the meeting on March 29.
The fact of the matter is that Reverend Tillman was not as obsessed with this trail of bureaucratic malfeasance as he was with getting his considerable foot in the door.
Oscar Tillman did not care about the particulars. Not really.
Yes, of course, there may be something terribly wrong with the Johnny Ray King shooting. But it is only one case.
And the report's statistics about police shootings may have been grossly misleading.
What of it?
After a lifetime as a black cop, civil rights leader and Baptist minister, Tillman does not need a statistical analysis to support his belief that blacks are more likely to be victims of police brutality than whites.
Throwing another fit over the report would have been counterproductive.
Tillman's first outburst--the press conference calling for Ortega's resignation--put everyone on notice. (He'd been trying for almost a year to deal quietly with the chief behind the scenes.) Now that he had City Hall's undivided attention, he could afford to be gracious.
In interviews before the March 29 sit-down, Reverend Tillman elaborated upon his two principal goals.
"There must be realistic police review. A citizens' oversight panel must be appointed by people representing the various segments of the community . . . Asian, black, Hispanic. Let people appoint this panel rather than the mayor and the council, who will always opt for people who won't rock the boat. Today, if a citizen has a complaint, it goes to the police department's Internal Affairs Bureau. The police investigate the police. They still work for the same boss. How many times are you going to tell your boss that people are screwing up and still keep your job?"
Tillman's other area of concern is moonlighting officers--over 780 officers in the 2,000-member force--who supplement their income by working off-duty as Officer Stallman and Sergeant Lemons did the night Johnny Ray King was shot.
(Though moonlighting officers must secure the permission of their supervisor and are required by the department to wear their full police uniforms, the city refuses to accept any liability in lawsuits that result from the conduct of off-duty police officers.)
"It goes back to who has control over off-duty employment," said Tillman. "I know it's a sore point for officers, but it's a manageable issue. Who in the upper echelon checks what is going on? Do any of them go out and do field checks? Who monitors the contracts? Any time an officer's `behavior' is brought to the attention of this department, that officer should not be working off-duty. Not that we want to tie the hands of officers, but if you believe conduct will be scrutinized, you behave better."
Tillman felt that after the March 29 meeting, he'd made some small progress on his two larger goals. He could afford to be magnanimous over the report's obvious shortcomings.
"I have some serious reservations about the report," commented Tillman in a lengthy interview following the City Hall meeting. "But I wanted to demonstrate that we were dealing with issues, not personalities. Picking apart that report won't get us anywhere."
According to Tillman, city manager Frank Fairbanks "vowed to go forward with a study to establish a citizens' review board in some form. And as I have said, I will be back here every month until we get something concrete."
Reverend Tillman may yet be compelled to make these monthly visits. According to Phoenix City Councilmember Calvin Goode, who presided over both the February 11 and March 29 meetings, the city manager has agreed to review the current system in Phoenix and analyze how other cities handle excessive-force complaints. This commitment is several long steps from meaningful reform.
"We are going to see if our approach works as well as it ought to," said Councilman Goode.
The study, which will be administered by Manion, will be conducted by Ortega as well as the city's Budget and Research Department.
"We were concerned that the police not examine the process by themselves," said Manion. "The city also committed to a joint workshop of the NAACP and the police department involving sensitivity training for the chiefs."
On Tillman's second front, the city and Chief Ortega turned over to the minister for review the thick packet of guidelines that the police department uses currently in the employment of off-duty officers. For the past year, Chief Ortega had refused even to discuss the matter with the minister.
But events had turned this stalemate into an embarrassment.
The week before the March 29 meeting with the representatives of City Hall, Reverend Tillman made another attempt to breach the barricades at the police department. In an impromptu meeting with assistant chief Bennie Click, the minister once again sought to establish a command-level outlet for grievances of the black community. To his surprise, Tillman found a receptive ear; to his shock, Tillman found Chief Ortega "popping into the meeting with Click, saying this was just the sort of dialogue we needed and I should stop by more often for coffee." While suited dignitaries on both sides of the issues staked out their positions, the streets and courtrooms of Phoenix continued to churn through incidents that pointed out the need for reform.
ON MARCH 14, Mayor Paul Johnson attacked the National Football League; a retired black man sat transfixed by the videotape of California cops beating a motorist half to death; Phoenix Police Chief Ruben Ortega's response to Tillman was being revised at City Hall; a black woman left her home for a night on the town; and Reverend Tillman was on the redeye flight to Washington, D.C.
NAACP leaders throughout America were descending upon the nation's capital to lobby on behalf of the Civil Rights Act of 1991. In addition, Tillman would attend a Congressional hearing on police brutality. In the wake of the Rodney King videotape, Representative John Conyers and the Black Caucus had pushed for a nationwide investigation into abuse of blacks by law enforcement officers, and now the United States Justice Department was prepared to do just that. Though Reverend Tillman's call for Ortega's resignation had preceded the King videotape by a month, Tillman felt that national events were adding resonance to his demands.
Which was the last thing that Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson needed.
Since former Governor Evan Mecham's cancellation of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and the defeat of the same holiday by Arizona voters last November, the moderate mayor of Phoenix had lobbied vigorously to convince the nation that the state was not a bastion of racism.
It was a hard sell.
Since the November vote, 63 conventions representing a loss of $38 million had canceled in protest of the King holiday vote. And that was on top of the 48 conventions and $30 million lost following former Governor Mecham's cancellation of the civil rights celebration. Tillman's February 4 press conference charging Chief Ortega with racial insensitivity could not have happened at a worse time; the NFL was already on record as threatening to yank the 1993 Super Bowl and its $200 million in projected revenues out of Phoenix over the Martin Luther King fiasco.
By March 14, when it was apparent that Phoenix would, in fact, lose the football extravaganza, the mayor could no longer restrain himself, and in an unusual burst of candor for an elected official, he lashed out.
Writing to the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, Norman Braman, who'd led the charge against Phoenix, Mayor Johnson attacked the hypocrisy of moving the Super Bowl to another city.
"Will you support Los Angeles, where police recently mutilated a black man with nightsticks? Or San Diego, whose citizens overwhelmingly voted to strip Dr. King's name from a public street? And will you vote to go back to Louisiana, where David Duke serves in the state legislature--and who received 600,000 votes to serve in the United States Senate? And will you continue to operate your own business on Martin Luther King Day while the cities of Tempe and Phoenix are observing the holiday?"
In a separate note to the rest of the owners in the league, Mayor Johnson concluded, "You don't have to guess whether or not we are a community of bigotry and hatred, because you've been to Phoenix. You've had meetings here. You play football here throughout the regular season. You know that Arizonans are warm, enthusiastic and decent."
It is against this backdrop, and at the very same time, that the city manager's office and the chief of police were crafting and recrafting an official report denying so much as a single instance of racial insensitivity by the department.
On March 14, the same day that the City Hall white paper was being massaged toward its final draft, a black woman in Phoenix was confronting the reality ignored in the report. On March 14, the same day that Mayor Johnson sent his letter to the NFL owners, a black retiree watched, watched again, and watched yet again the replays of the Rodney King videotape.
These two persons have stories to tell that don't appear in the City Hall's white paper.
Nor does the city's investigation tell the tale of the black mother who noticed a pack of squad cars on her way home from work.
Despite the efforts of Phoenix officials to make complaints of excessive force disappear, the incidents of police brutality toward Valley blacks continued.
The following pullquote must be used, per Bodney.
Sometimes the spin put on potentially embarrassing situations is ingenious in its cold-blooded efficiency.
The report that so pleased Reverend Tillman was as misleading as it was artful.
The deputy city manager isolated only those numbers that made his point, ignoring obvious and damaging statistics.
In Phoenix, Afro-Americans are shot at by police at a rate (17 percent) nearly six times their population base.
Reverend Tillman is not particularly obsessed with this trail of bureaucratic malfeasance.
"There must be realistic police review. The mayor and the council will always opt for people who won't rock the boat," says Tillman.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter