Police tactics and use-of-force practices are a topic of massive controversy and have been highlighted on and off in the media, especially in the last few years. Prior to the police killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, the 2013 Stop and Frisk trials resulted in US district judge Shira Scheindlin declaring NYPD's practice of stopping, questioning and frisking civilians as a form of racial profiling and unconstitutional. In the same year, the critically-acclaimed film, “Fruitvale Station” premiered, shining a light on the story of Oscar Grant, who was shot to death while face down and handcuffed by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle. In Spring of 2014 the community of Albuquerque, NM, erupted in a series of weekly protests after the fatal shooting of James Boyd on March 16th, followed by the release of the Department of Justice's investigation on the Albuquerque Police Department which found its use-of-force practices excessive and unconstitutional, causing a number of unnecessary civilian casualties. Beyond the intrigue of the topic, imperative questions follow: How do they effect the victim's family members and the surrounding community? What role does the media play in the narrative construction of these incidents? How often are the police held accountable when they abuse their authority? Lastly, what are the solutions for this systemic problem and how should communities approach it?
The Forced Trajectory Project (FTP) began in 2009 as a photography project when I met Jennifer Gonzalez, a young mother whose son's father, Kenny Lazo, lost his life after an encounter with the Suffolk County Police. At the time I was photographing for a community paper that had responded to Jennifer's plea for support around her partner's death. Consequently, I decided to launch a long-term documentary project that follows the paths of family members who have lost their loved ones during police encounters. Sound producer Oja Vincent joined my effort in 2010 and FTP developed into a multimedia exhibit: still images with sound, then incorporating moving images, and eventually illustration in a graphic novel format. We have since documented numerous stories in various parts of the country, illuminating family members' “forced trajectories.”
Working on FTP prompted us to look deeper into the issue of police-related deaths. A report by Massachusetts Cop Block utilizing “justifiable homicide” statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the FBI's Uniform Crime Report found at least 14,012 people have been killed by police between 1976 and 2011, an average of 400 people per year. However, the report does not reflect homicides where officers used excessive use-of-force and despite Congress' 1994 mandate on the Attorney General to report excessive use-of-force statistics annually, there is no governing body that collects this data. Former FBI agent and law professor Robert Fisher documented 607 fatal police shootings utilizing media sources, while the FBI reported only 393 “justifiable homicides” in 2011. More recently, KilledByPolice.net has been keeping track of police-related deaths through media sources and have found that the average is 1,100-1,400 per year. Thus, the number of police-related deaths is not only unknown, but finding information on these incidents largely depends on media reporting which is problematic.
In her book, The Politics of Force, Professor Regina Lawrence, expounds on media's role in the construction of police brutality stories, stating that because “journalists rely heavily on institutionally positioned officials for raw materials of the news,” the police by default are the primary definers of incidents involving themselves. Therefore, the narratives of victims' family members and witnesses are considered “unofficial” and “are usually marginalized from the news, in that they are rarely drawn upon as primary news sources, and marginalized in the news, in that such groups, even when they do become primary news sources, are usually treated differently than official sources.”
What We've Learned
Our experience working on FTP confirms Lawrence's statements. The path of Nicholas Heyward, Sr., father of 13-year old Nicholas Heyward, Jr., who was shot and killed by New York police officer Brian George in September of 1994, is a prime example of how the media repeatedly influences the trajectory of Nicholas Jr.'s case. According to an interview with one of the boys who was with Nicholas the day he died, Nicholas was playing a game of “cops and robbers” in the 14th floor stairwell of the Gowanus Houses with 3 other friends when they were abruptly interrupted by Officer George who opened the door to the stairwell with his gun out of the holster. Nicholas, who was carrying a plastic 12” toy shot gun with a bright orange tip, dropped the toy immediately and remarked, “We're only playing, we're only playing!” Officer George pulled the trigger and shot Nicholas in the abdomen. His 3 friends who were on the staircase did not see the officer because they were already facing the opposite direction when the officer opened the door. They heard Nicholas' remark followed by the gunshot and immediately ran scared to the next floor, exited the stairwell, returning back to one of the boys' apartments. It was then they realized Nicholas was not behind them and that something had happened to him. While the case brought on a lot of media attention, the journalists turned to the police to define the event and labeled the incident as an accident, placing the blame on the toy gun. The story was repeatedly manipulated and embellished, which gravely influenced the community's reaction to Nicholas Jr.'s death. The children's testimonies were ignored. Despite the inconsistencies between District Attorney Charles Hynes' narrative and Officer George's deposition, the case was never heard by a grand jury and to this day, Nicholas Sr. fights to reopen his son's case. Over the years he has been repeatedly ignored by politicians, the District Attorney's office, and the media. Nicholas Sr.'s experience is not isolated – virtually every family member we have interviewed have experienced similar marginalization from the news and authorities. Therefore, FTP serves as a unique and critical portal for family members' narratives to be heard and potentially implement dialogue and change within affected communities and raise awareness in unaffected communities.
The popularity of the Oscar Grant case which resulted in the conviction of Officer Mehserle for the killing of Oscar Grant is somewhat of an anomaly in American history, as only a handful of excessive-use-of-force cases have been tried in criminal court with even a smaller handful resulting in the conviction of a police officer. While Grant's case is special in this sense, the details of the case are not much different from the thousands of cases that have received no media attention, no community support, and no justice. What we have learned is that Grant's case had an unusual amount of citizen participation: community members took initiative to submit media evidence, a powerful grassroots movement formed and pushed the courts to indict the officer, which led to the eventual conviction, and afterwards persisted in on-ground efforts to raise awareness about his story, subsequently leading to a Hollywood feature-length film production, honoring his life and uncovering the details of his tragic and unnecessary death. Thus, community participation in organizing around police-related deaths and creating media is a crucial variable in the pursuit of justice for excessive-use-of-force cases.
There are 5 interconnected objectives of FTP: 1) to supply primary source content for audiences to expand on and add depth to the “official versions” of these events that dominate mass media, 2) to foster dialogue between community groups and to engage groups that are unaware of the issue, 3) to support the victim's family members by amplifying their collective voice, provide them with a community platform, and aid their networking efforts where they can benefit from sharing resources (e.g., public relations, legal, health, mental health), 4) to provide comprehensive documentation of a moving nationwide struggle of family and community members, and lastly, 5) to provide content for and aid the discussion of social reform and change in our society.