I-TEAM: In wake of nationwide protests, we take a look at use of force in the CSRA

Published: Aug. 31, 2020 at 6:25 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Jacob Blake -- the list of names protestors call go on and on. The calls for police reform are just as loud. Georgia state lawmakers heard them.

Georgia now has an appointed committee reviewing use of force policies and cases across police agencies. We began investigating, too. How often are officers using force and who does it impact the most?

“I cried,” Michael Ponder said. “Yes, ma’am. I was ashamed.”

The shame doesn’t begin to hold nearly as much weight as the confusion for Ponder on the night of Sept. 3, 2019.

“I don’t know why that was happening to me. I was trying to figure out why that was happening.” Ponder said. “I hadn’t did nothing but came outside my house. I wasn’t armed or nothing.”

He describes the night as one of his most vulnerable mental health moments -- a nervous breakdown. That breakdown was met with police use of force.

In Use of Force report, a Richmond County deputy wrote, in part:

“I observed a black male standing in the middle of the road with a crazy look on his face, making crazy motions” … “I asked if he was ok and I would not get a response”…”Ponder ran into the middle of the street and began taking his clothes off"...”My back up arrived with blue lights on…Ponder jumped and ran off in full sprint from me.”

“I deployed my taser.”

It’s this night Ponder says changed his outlook on police.

“I’m afraid of the law,” Ponder said. “I don’t know what they might try to do to me. It just got me really traumatized.”

The use of tasing force to Ponder’s back and behind, causing a struggle on the ground, was noted as “necessary” by the deputy and upon a review from the supervisor.

It’s worth noting, according to the report, at no point was the father accused or charged with anything. This was no Richmond County crime call, instead it became a mental health one.

“We’ve been called to handle a lot of things that we’re probably not suited for, it’s not our job,” Chief Deputy Patrick Clayton said.

“Unfortunately for us, we’re the ones that get tasked with that because we’re the ones that wind up dealing with them.”

Clayton recalled previous reform calls for mental health and social work within police agencies. He says cries for change have contributed to Richmond County Sheriff’s Office’s new plan which involves dispatching social workers and de-escalation for situations like Ponder’s.

De-escalation is an idea that is not new to advocates who’ve been pushing it for years across the country.

We reviewed how, when, and who local police force was used on. Our investigation studied cases from a 12-month period from June 2019 through June 2020.

Force was documented 110 times on people in Augusta in the time frame.

Based on our data crunch, communities of color made up about 83 percent of that total.

The term “force” can include anything from a deputy using their body like hitting, to using their weapon like a stun gun, deploying pepper spray, or even displaying or firing a gun.

We found, in most closed Richmond County use of force cases, the force was concluded as justified after a supervisor’s review.

However, we did find, that was not the case in more escalated situations.

A June 2019 police pursuit led to a use of force case being called “reckless” and “against policy.”

Deputies chased a stolen car that showed no signs of slowing down. The suspect was a black female behind the wheel. Ultimately, deputies ended the pursuit with an arrest, but not before a deputy fired at the car. The suspect was going the opposite way, never shot a police, and the chase was on a highway.

The supervisor said the deputy’s decision to fire was reckless and not within Richmond County Sheriff’s Office policy.

But again, we found in most Augusta cases, police conduct involving force was documented “reasonable,” “necessary,” or “appropriate.”

The records, however, do reveal protestors’ claims to be true: force was used at higher rates among Black people.

“The fact is, we’re going to tend to put our deputies where the high crime is at,” Chief Deputy Clayton said. “And where the high crime areas are at, are going to be African-American.”

The data breakdown shows Black people made up almost 80 percent of stun gun-related force and seven out of the nine times guns were involved in police use of force reports.

Clayton argues the disparities can be attributed to the demographics of Augusta. He notes crime is often prevalent in poorer communities. Adding, those areas are predominantly Black because the city of Augusta is also predominantly black.

Data from the latest census estimates the city’s population is 57 percent Black.

“I’m going to put my resources where they’re going to do the greatest good, where they are going to be able reduce the greatest amount of crime,” Clayton said.

RCSO is among many Georgia law enforcement agencies to increase routine patrol in areas alleged to have increased gang activity and higher 911 call volume. But many neighbors there say it also increases racial profiling.

We asked Clayton if deputies patrolling Black neighborhoods more often has an effect on officers’ perceptions of who a criminal is.

“As far as the deputies, I don’t think they differentiate who the criminals are, they differentiate most based on behavior,” Clayton said.

It’s something Clayton adamantly emphasized.

Over in Burke and Columbia counties, law enforcement feels the same. Both counties are majority White according to the census.

We crunched the numbers for the other two big local Georgia departments. The numbers tell a different narrative from Augusta.

Burke County deputies used force on people 31 times from June last to June this year. In five cases, race was not documented, but when it was, White males made up the majority.

Deputies used force on 15 White males and 11 Black males.

When it came to use of a taser, gun, or body force, we did not find a large racial disparity.

Of the 15 times a taser was deployed, it was used five times on Black people, eight times on White people, and two times the race was unknown.

BCSO deputies used a gun three times — twice on White people, once on a Black person.

When body force was applied, it was applied five times on a Black person and three times on a White person. One time, the race was not listed.

Columbia County sheriff’s deputies applied force fewer times altogether in just 29 instances.

The case breakdown by race is nearly identical. The sheriff’s office used force on 16 Black suspects and 13 White suspects.

But in that same 12-month period as the other agencies, we found Columbia County never used force involving guns and stun guns on people.

Our data reveals deputies relied mostly on body force—the racial numbers mirroring each other here too with 11 White suspects and 11 Black suspects.

Regardless of the type of force, advocates call for less of it.

For Ponder, the wounds healed but the scars will not.

“I couldn’t understand it,” Ponder said.

“They need to start trying to talk to people. Start trying to know how to talk to people before they approach them.”

Clayton, meanwhile, believes law enforcement systems can improve.

“Oh, absolutely,” Clayton said. “There’s all kinds of things we can do and we are doing.”

Part of what RCSO is planning to do is have social workers alongside deputies at certain calls to improve community relations. Additionally, we’re also told more than 200 local deputies were just sent to more de-escalation and mental health training.

Meanwhile, at the state level, the newly appointed Use of Force Committee will help determine if and when police guidelines should change across Georgia. Sen. Harold Jones told us the deadline for the report is December.

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