I-Team: Data points to disparities in how police use force against juveniles

Stun guns more likely for black teens than whites
Are black teens more vulnerable to police force?
Posted at 5:00 AM, Dec 06, 2018
and last updated 2018-12-13 13:55:57-05

CINCINNATI - He was wrong and then he was wronged: That’s how the parents of a 14-year-old jolted by a Taser view the 2017 incident that left their son with a broken clavicle and a delinquency finding in juvenile court.

After reviewing the case, a Cincinnati Police Sergeant concluded the use of force complied with department policies. The teen “actively resisted” and “fled on foot,” injuring his clavicle by falling down a hill before being hit with the stun gun, according to the department’s incident report.

Diondre Lee agreed his son should not have run. But he was also sickened by an officer’s casual description of his son’s tumble five minutes after it happened.

“Yeah, he bounced,” Officer Kevin Kroger said on police body camera. “He hit real hard.”

Antionette Lee fought back tears as she watched video of her son’s arrest.

“He was treated like he just didn’t matter,” she said “They told us something totally different than what we saw. And I’m pissed.”

Antionette and Diondre Lee

The incident is one of 233 examples of how Cincinnati area police departments have used force on juveniles since January 2016. Kids ranging in age from 6 to 17 were identified in police reports, obtained by WCPO in public records requests.

WCPO’s I-Team spent seven months analyzing reports and video from 32 local departments, compiling data on 2,500 use of force incidents since 2015. Our analysis showed the use of force is rare: It happened in less than 1 percent of all police runs in 2017. But there is a wide variance in how local departments measure and regulate the use of force, a disparity that has allowed questionable police behavior to go unchecked.

RELATED: See the rest of the I-Team's six-part series "Forcing the Peace"

The I-Team also found differences in how force is used against juveniles. For one thing, it happens less frequently for teens than it does for adults. Since 2016, WCPO’s data shows 1,556 use of force incidents involving people over 18. That’s more than six times the total for juveniles.

In addition, black juveniles (younger than 18) were more likely than adults to have stun guns deployed against them. Black juveniles were also more likely than whites under 18 to be injured in use of force incidents.

Civil rights attorney Al Gerhardstein alleged “a pattern of excessive force against nonviolent young people” in Cincinnati when he announced a $240,000 settlement with the family of Donesha Gowdy. She’s the 11-year-old who was stunned with a Taser while being arrested for shoplifting at a Kroger store in August.

In an Oct. 30 press release, Gerhardstein said his law firm investigated the Cincinnati department, finding 110 incidents of Taser use on minors from Jan. 1, 2013 to Aug. 14 of this year. All but six of the incidents involved black minors, Gerhardstein said.

“I think that we have work to do to make sure that our use of force on children is racially fair and balanced,” he told WCPO when the settlement was announced.

Cincinnati Police have not responded to WCPO’s questions on this story. After the story published, the department provided a statement, which reads in part:

The Cincinnati Police Department is a recognized local and national leader in progressive law enforcement strategies and takes pride in providing fair and impartial police services.  At times our officers use force in order to subdue suspects that fail to submit to lawful arrests, or in an effort to defend ourselves or citizens from harm.  The Cincinnati Police Department thoroughly investigates these incidents and when our officers fall short of our standards we take corrective action to address deficiencies through training and progressive discipline.  It should also be noted that the use of force to gain compliance or in defense of harm against our officers or citizens is extremely low and the expectation that all use of force incidents are documented and investigated is a Department requirement.

How local departments compare to those in other regions

The I-Team reviewed studies published since 2016 that demonstrate officers are far more likely to use force against blacks and Latinos than whites -- and that includes children. But the studies did not analyze incidents in the Cincinnati area and the author of one study told WCPO that every use of force incident is unique. So, it is still difficult to pin down the underlying factors that prompt an officer to use force in one case, but not another.

The use of force specifically on juveniles has not been widely studied, but research published in June by the Justice Policy Journal estimates force is used or threatened in more than 30 percent of juvenile arrests and race is not a big factor in determining whether suspects are likely to have force used against them.

The study examined data from interviews of 324 juveniles arrested in Maricopa County, Arizona between 2011 and 2013. It found “resistance, non-compliant demeanor, and disrespect are the three most robust predictors of police use of force among juvenile arrestees.”

It also recommended improvements in police training as a strategy to reduce the use of force.

“Police training on how to approach and interact with adolescents will undoubtedly shape youths’ perceptions of whether they were shown respect, fairness, and dignity,” said the study. “The benefits of these procedurally just encounters may be greater cooperation with law enforcement and amplified policy legitimacy.”

'Procedurally just' or 'sickening?'

Procedurally just is not how Diondre Lee would describe the encounter between his son and Officer Kevin Kroger on March 2, 2017. In fact, he used a one-word description: "Sickening."

Police reports and body-cam video show Kroger was in a Price Hill apartment complex at about 6:30 p.m. that day when he spotted “a previously stolen vehicle” that was “wanted in connection with a felonious assault.” He also spotted “five black male teenagers walking together, one of which matched the description of the suspects from the felonious assault.”

Kroger later told his supervisor the car was used in an attempted shooting that morning, just a few blocks from where he found it in the 1800 block of Sunset Avenue.

Lee’s son did not fit the description of the suspect wanted from the shooting, but he was the first of the five teenagers to be detained. When Officer Kroger attempted to “pat him down for possible weapons,” the teen pulled away and started running. Kroger caught up to the teen when he tumbled down a hill, twice firing his Taser before making an arrest.

The teenager told police afterward that he had nothing to do with the shooting or stolen car, but ran because he had marijuana in his pocket. He was ordered in May 2017 to complete 20 hours of community service after a Hamilton County Juvenile Court judge found him delinquent based on two misdemeanor charges of obstructing official business and attempted trafficking in marijuana.

Kroger said he didn’t give a verbal warning of the Taser because he thought the teen might have a weapon and didn’t want to give him “time to react.” It also appears from his body camera recording that Kroger didn’t know Lee’s son had an injured shoulder for about 15 minutes following the arrest.

But it was a painful 15 minutes for Diondre and Antionette Lee, who watched the video for the first time when WCPO visited their home on Nov. 29.

The Lees were upset that their son was detained even though he didn’t match the description of the felonious assault suspect. Mrs. Lee was surprised when Kroger fired his Taser a second time.

“Oh, again?” she said.

The Lees also wondered why their son sat handcuffed in a squad car for nine minutes before being seen by medics. After that, officers spent another three minutes discussing whether the boy should ride in the back of a police car or be transported by ambulance. A fireman told officers a squad car was “not ideal,” adding “it’s probably better if he gets out of the ’cuffs.”

Diondre Lee was visibly shaken by the exchange, which he took as a sign of indifference about an injured child.

“Yeah, he bounced pretty hard, didn’t he?” he said. “You followed him the whole way. You seen how he fell and everything. You didn’t care.”

Lee said he has family members who serve as police officers in other cities and he appreciates the difficult circumstances they face. But he also questions how much of a threat his 130-pound son really posed to Cincinnati Police on the day he was arrested. And he’s bothered that they didn’t seem care about his injury.

“Suspect or not, he’s still a human being,” Lee said. “The professionalism is out the door. And it’s evident. It’s on tape. How do they justify that? They got body cams on and they’re still carrying on like this. They don’t care. How do we tell our children not to be afraid of these people behind the badges, acting the way they’re acting?”