Metro-East News

How often do metro-east police use force? It may be less often than you think.

How often are police really using force?

Belleville police and other cop forces in the area near St. Louis use force less often than US national average.
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Belleville police and other cop forces in the area near St. Louis use force less often than US national average.

Venice Officer Matt Garrett still struggles with his decision to fire 10 shots at a car fleeing from a traffic stop in May 2016. The woman inside the car, Deonyia Johnson, was paralyzed when a bullet struck her spine.

"If I wouldn’t have moved, she would have ran me clear over," he said to the BND as he reflected on the night that led to his termination and a recently-filed lawsuit.

While police data shows police use of force doesn't happen often, Johnson is not the first nor last person to be shot at by metro-east police.

A year later, on the Fourth of July, Belleville officers shot a gun-wielding man about 90 minutes after police say he first fired at them from inside his home. Donald Martin, 39, was taken to a local hospital and pronounced dead from multiple gunshot wounds.

An Illinois State Police investigation found the shooting was justified.

High-profile occurrences like these may make it seem like officers use force all the time, but in reality, instances of force are few and far between, said Madison County Sheriff's Department Capt. Mike Dixon.

But how often do officers actually use force?

Out of hundreds of thousands of calls to police in St. Clair and Madison counties, officers at 24 departments used force about 1,800 times from 2014 to 2017. Granite City officers used force most often, with 531 instances since June 2015.

Although many departments differ in how they define the use of force, it generally encompasses anytime an officer has to struggle with an unwilling subject to get them to comply. It can range from holding someone's arms behind their back to cuff them to a fatal shooting, according to data collected from local departments.

The Fairview Heights Police Department bought a simulator to help train police officers and to further training in de-escalation and when to use deadly force.

Dixon said social media, in part, has played a role in the public's perception of how often force is used.

"I see videos (of officers using force) all the time, but the problem is, that's getting videos from the entire country," Dixon said. "Everyone wants to say police are doing this all the time, but there are millions of officers with millions of contacts every day, and you’ve got 25 videos in a year. It's not put into perspective.

"It's not as rampant as people think."

Not everyone thinks that way, however. Robyne O'Mara, social justice leader for Action Metro East, said the law enforcement culture makes it acceptable for officers to lie and cover up when force is used.

She added that officers also choose to go to the extreme and use deadly force instead of thinking through how to deescalate the situation.

"I think the courts have upheld their right to violence," O'Mara said. "I do understand they do that because it's hard to judge what happens in the moment, but this whole 'I feared for my life’ thing, I see that used when they shoot people in the back, when they're unarmed. It’s insanity.'"

'Force is rarely used'

Out of the 46 police departments in St. Clair and Madison counties, 24 told the BND they keep track of force used. Three departments did not respond.

Collectively in the 23 departments that provided full data, officers used force about 1,800 times from 2014-2017. The departments with the highest usage of force were Granite City, with 531, O’Fallon, with 304, Belleville, with 155, Cahokia, with 131, and Fairview Heights, with 131. Those were the only five departments with more than 100 uses of force.

Each department varied in how the statistics were kept; some broke it down by type of force, and some kept total numbers.

Granite City officers, in contrast with the other departments, un-holstered their firearm almost as often as they used physical force. Officers drew their weapon 213 times, and used physical force 288 times. Stun guns were used 30 times, but officers never fired their weapon, and did not use pepper spray.

Police training stresses deescalation, something that's now mandatory for officers to learn, Dixon said.

"It’s not near what I hear and what I perceive the public is hearing — that we're out here fighting people every minute of every day," Dixon said. "Law enforcement in this day and age does the best they can to avoid physical confrontation."

Some Southern Illinois agencies, like the Madison County Sheriff's Department and Fairview Heights Police Department, have a team of investigators review each incident where any use of force by an officer was reported.

Dixon said he reviews every police report Madison County deputies submit. Force is rarely used, he said, and if it is, the officer's supervisor, Dixon and the chief of detectives will review it to ensure the encounter was appropriate.

He said he can’t recall the last time a citizen made a complaint about an excessive use of force. Although the department doesn’t keep track of instances where force is used, he said it’s rare that officers will get into physical confrontations with someone that leaves them with serious injuries.

In Cahokia, officers have to fill out a "response to resistance" form each time force is used. It asks officers to detail each action taken, and describe any injuries. Most of the situations where force was used involved drugs, alcohol or an uncooperative subject.

A "highly intoxicated" man had a stun gun used on him after he would not get into the squad car, according to a April 2015 Cahokia police report. He tried to head-butt an officer, and officers stunned him to subdue him.

When a man refused to drop a shovel and lunged at officers with it, a Cahokia officer deployed his stun gun at the man in August 2015.

A Cahokia officer used physical force to escort a subject to the police station as he was kicking and screaming during the drive in June 2016. Once in the station, the man spit on the officer and he used his palm to shove the man back.

A subject took an "aggressive stance" toward a Cahokia officer and refused to get in the squad car in November 2016. He started to kick at officers, and they sprayed pepper spray in his eyes to subdue him and get him in the car.

When force is used, data shows that physical force and stun guns are the most common tools.

The amount of force used in the metro-east is significantly less than the amount a national study that looked at three mid-sized police agencies came up with.

Over a two-year period, three mid-sized police agencies used force 893 times out of one million calls for service, according to a study by doctors published in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery. This means force was used in one out of 1,167 calls — or 0.086 percent of calls. In the study, 98 percent of people were not injured or suffered minor injuries. One person died, and 16 had significant injuries.

The Venice shooting

As she fled from a traffic stop in Venice, Deonyia Johnson was struck by one of 10 bullets Venice Officer Matt Garrett fired at her.

She survived, but was paralyzed, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court in May 2018. She was charged with aggravated battery of a peace officer, aggravated assault while operating a vehicle, DUI, fleeing an officer and driving with an expired registration in Madison County, all of which were still pending as of June 22.

"Regardless of the outcome of any of the pending criminal charges, Officer Garrett's shooting 10 bullets into the driver's side and rear windows of (Johnson's) car, was an excessive use of force," the lawsuit stated. "There was no justification for shooting into the driver's side and rear windows of (Johnson's) car."

When Garrett flipped on the emergency lights on in his squad car May 5, 2016, Johnson pulled over right away. Garrett said he suspected Johnson was either intoxicated or on her phone, as she was weaving across the road on South Fourth Street in Venice.

Garrett radioed dispatch to get more information on Johnson, he said. As he spoke, she fled from the stop, reaching speeds of 45 mph. Garrett passed her and stopped in front of her car at the start of the McKinley Bridge, stopping her from going further.

He stepped out of his car with his gun drawn. As he walked toward the driver-side door, Johnson drove between Garrett and his squad car, veering over a curb and running over Garrett's foot.

Garrett said he needed to stop her before she ran him over or drove head-on into oncoming traffic, so that's when he began firing shots.

He maintains that those 10 shots he fired were justified.

Illinois State Police and Madison County State's Attorney Tom Gibbons ruled the shooting was justified.

Garrett told investigators he fired the shots because he feared for his life and for the lives of other motorists on the road.

"No charges were filed against him because the shooting was lawful in response to her attempt to run him over with her vehicle," Gibbons said. "There were two independent witnesses to the incident."

The pending lawsuit disagrees with the outcome of the investigation, arguing that the 10 shots fired demonstrated excessive force. In addition, the lawsuit lists eight Venice departmental policies that Garrett allegedly violated by shooting at Johnson.

"Any threat of imminent danger of death or serious injury had already passed," the lawsuit states. "There was no justification for shooting into the driver's side and rear windows of (Johnson's) car."

Johnson's attorney, Richard Klein, declined to comment. The suit is set for a jury trial in August 2019.

Garrett was fired from the Venice Police Department, because he was still in an initial probationary period and could be let go for any reason, he said. Garrett said he was depressed, and sought out counseling so he could talk through what had happened.

"At first, it was very hard for me dealing with having to use my firearm, knowing I just changed someone's life severely," Garrett said. "Her life has changed drastically. I don't ever like to see that."

He said he hated knowing that Johnson and her young children will struggle financially as they deal with mounting medical bills and her paralysis.

Venice Police Chief Theo Adams confirmed Garrett was no longer on the force, but said firing the officer was not his decision. He declined to comment further, citing the pending lawsuit.

Belleville fatal shooting

As Donald Martin approached Belleville officers outside his home July 4, 2017, he fired what appeared to be a shotgun in their direction and made suicidal comments. As he fled back into his house, he continued shooting in their direction.

About an hour-and-a-half later, the officers shot and killed Martin. He was found unresponsive, then was pronounced dead at a local hospital 45 minutes later.

Investigators with ISP and St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly found the shooting to be justified.

Neighbor Paula Daley called Martin "troubled," and said he had been throwing bottle rockets shortly before the shooting. Then the shots came, and police lights and sirens followed.

She heard Martin yelling at the officers during the standoff.

"Donny has been troubled for a long time," Daley said. "He's been walking up and down the alleys at night."

The three Belleville officers who shot Martin were back at work after one week of paid administrative leave.

A Belleville police officer walks on S. 20th St. with his assault rifle July 4, 2017. Steve Nagy

A changing field

With a number of high-profile shootings of black men like Philando Castille, Anthony Lamar Smith, Michael Brown and 12-year-old Tamir Rice, public debate surrounding police officer’s use of force has taken a national stage.

As all of these men are black, race is often a focal point in these discussions.

A 2017 Pew Research Center study found that about 90 percent of officers said police have an excellent or good relationship with white people in their communities. In contrast, however, only 56 percent of officers cited a positive relationship with black people in their communities.

About a third of black officers said their relationship with black people was positive and 68 percent rated their relations with black people as fair or poor, according to the Pew study.

O'Mara, the Action Metro East leader, said she observed a noticeable difference in how police treated black people and white people. O'Mara, a 62-year-old white woman, said she was able to crawl beneath an officer's legs at a St. Louis protest to take photos of those arrested. When the officer noticed, he asked her to get up, and offered to help her up off the ground. She refused until she got her photos. She was not arrested.

"It's so frequently an eye opening experience to watch the way people of color are treated versus how I am treated doing the same thing," O'Mara said. "I think there is a long and very deep strain of racism in most police officers."

Stephanie Bush, CEO and founder of Community Development Sustainable Solutions in East St. Louis, said outdated laws and policies make it difficult for any real change to be made in departments.

Officers talk about deescalation techniques and reducing the use of force, but any policy changes that have been made don't seem to be reflected in their actions, for the most part, she said.

She has, however, noticed positive change in East St. Louis with the city's new police chief, Jerry Simon. The streets are cleaner, and crime seems to be down, Bush said.

"They're definitely not out here beating up nobody," Bush said. "He's bringing crime down, and addressing it, and is not increasing any violence reports either. There's a way you can get it done, and East St. Louis wants to be that example and platform for those type of discussions."

Regaining trust

To help regain the community's trust and to adjust with the times, law enforcement officials in Illinois and across the nation have adjusted training regulations, said David Hayes, director of one of SILEC's mobile training units. They've also implemented more measures to monitor force.

Five years ago, few local departments kept track of force used. Now, in 2018, about half do, at least in St. Clair and Madison counties.

Capt. Dixon, with Madison County Sheriff's Department, said he wished the department was able to release the number of times force was used so people could see how little it happened. But because of the way the department's system is set up, it's not possible to come up with that number without going through each individual report, he said.

In January 2016, new training mandates for state officers became law, requiring officers to have in-service trainings on:

Constitutional and proper use of law enforcement authority

Procedural justice

Civil rights, human rights and cultural competency

Use of force

The Southwestern Illinois Law Enforcement Commission provides training to 98 agencies in the metro-east. Officers train on verbal and physical de-escalation, mental health awareness and crisis intervention techniques.

"These courses and others are directly impacting the reduction in the use of force by officers in our region," Hayes said.

Bush would like to see officers go even further than that, she said. She pointed to California State Sen. Steven Bradford, (D-Gardena), who helped propose a bill that would limit the amount of force police are allowed to use. Law enforcement in California have fiercely protested the bill.

In Fairview Heights, officers can train on a video game-like simulator to sharpen their instincts and get practice in how to deescalate a situation. It's the only individual department to have one in the metro-east area.

Fairview Heights is the only department in St. Clair and Madison counties to publish their force statistics online for the public to view. The department puts out a yearly report, which includes those statistics.

Fairview Heights Police Chief Nick Gailius

Every time force is used to arrest someone in Fairview Heights — whether officers have to force someone to the ground, use a stun gun on them or physically fight with them — the interaction is analyzed by four people, including Fairview Heights Police Chief Nick Gailius, to ensure officers acted appropriately, or how a reasonable officer would behave.

Gailius said the review makes sure the officer’s action was within policy. If it is, and a reasonable officer would have reacted in a similar way, the force is considered justified, he said.

"We do the minimum we have to, but we have to control the situation," Gailius said. "Officers are expected to handle things in the least intrusive way possible, using officer presence and verbal commands."

Kara Berg: 618-239-2626, @karaberg95