WE CALL FOR: Justice for Nicolas; Transparency, accountability, and community partnership in Immokalee…

Golpear a uno es golpear a todos; An injury to one is an injury to all…

Imagine, just for a moment, a different world from this one — a world defined not by fear, distrust, and tribalism, but by respect, accountability, and a culture of shared humanity.  In this imagined world, all is not perfect, because humans are imperfect, but how we respond when bad things happen is different, because, with time and reasoned judgment, humanity prevails. 

In this imagined world, Corporal Pierre Jean responds to the call of a disturbance in Farmworker Village, gets out of his patrol car seemingly bent on imposing his will on a man who is clearly not well — though, equally clearly, not a real threat — and, within seconds of arriving, rushes him, boxes him in, and shoots him dead.  A bad thing — a horrible, preventable, violent death at the hands of the police — has happened.  That much doesn’t change. 

But how the Collier County Sheriff’s Office and the State Attorney’s office respond to Nicolas’s killing by one of their own is different, radically different.  Eager to understand the sequence of events that led to Nicolas’s death, the CCSO immediately reviews the dash cam videos.  After the first viewing it is clear that Nicolas didn’t have to die that night, that Cpl. Jean’s actions were not only wrong according to procedure and policy, but each mistake, each misstep, led Nicolas down a path closer and closer to his needless death.  The CCSO completes its analysis, shares its detailed conclusions with the State Attorney’s office, and within five days — not five months — a joint course of action is determined: the video will be shared with the community; the CCSO will speak to Nicolas’s family, first, and then to the public, to acknowledge the tragic loss and the egregious violations of CCSO policy and philosophy; Cpl. Jean will be taken off the streets, and the State Attorney will press charges.  Transparency, accountability, consequences.  In this imagined world, the sheriff’s statement is straightforward and heartfelt:

In the early hours of September 17th, a police officer with the Collier County Sheriff’s Office killed a man he was sworn to protect.  Corporal Pierre Jean’s killing of Nicolas Morales Besanilla was not justified; from the moment he engaged verbally with Mr. Morales to the moment he shot him, Corporal Jean’s actions violated his training, our procedures, and the sacred pact we have as officers of the peace with the community of Immokalee.  

Mr. Morales was, by all accounts, a good man and a loving father to his son, who was experiencing at the time that our deputies were called to investigate his actions, a mental health crisis.  The signs were there, from the call to 911 to Mr. Morales’s appearance and actions when the deputies arrived on the scene, but Corporal Jean and the rest of the CCSO personnel involved in this tragedy simply missed them.  As a result of that fundamental error, and of many more mistakes that followed in the brief encounter before Corporal Jean discharged his service weapon, Mr. Morales is dead today, and his son is orphaned.  We extend our sincerest condolences to Nicolas Jr., and the rest of Mr. Morales’s family, for their loss.  But that is not enough.  Had my deputies done their job according to their training and the philosophy of our department, Mr. Morales would have the care he needed and his son would have the father he will now forever miss.  We cannot bring Mr. Morales back, but we can do everything humanly possible to help his son survive this terrible trauma and to ensure that this kind of thing never happens again.  Police officers are human beings, and human beings make mistakes, to insist otherwise would be ridiculous.  And sometimes those mistakes are so bad that they end in death.  But I pledge to you today that I, and that we as a department, will  learn from this horrible loss and become a better police force, and a better community partner, in the future.

In this imagined world, the CCSO tightens its bonds with the Immokalee community in the wake of Nicolas’s death, and a new partnership based on respect, cultural awareness and a commitment to sustained improvement is born.

But that is not our world today — not yet, at least.  In our world, the CCSO and the State Attorney’s office have circled the wagons around Cpl. Jean and the CCSO itself, built a wall of denial and defense, and challenged  Nicolas’s family and the Immokalee community to scale that wall if justice is to be done for Nicolas’s death, and change is to come for Immokalee in the future.  And so that process of seeking justice, of conflict and of struggle, needlessly begins.

Where things stand today…

Speakers at Sunday’s press conference included, from left to right, Morales family attorney Brent Probinsky, Rev. Anthony Fisher of the The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples, James Buchanan (speaking), Second Vice President of the Lee County NAACP, and James Muwakkil, President of the Lee County NAACP. CIW speakers Lupe Gonzalo and Gerardo Reyes are not pictured.

Now more than five months after Nicolas Morales was shot to death on a quiet street in Farmworker Village, here, in summary, is what we know (of course, the video at the top of this post is the raw material that informs the changes we will seek, and though it is painful to watch, any discussion of what is to be done is unmoored without witnessing its disturbing truth):

  • Nicolas Morales was experiencing a mental health crisis the night he was shot;
  • Cpl. Jean killed Nicolas within 13 seconds of arriving at the scene;
  • The K-9 officer on the scene released his dog after Nicolas had been shot, and did not stop the dog from mauling a fallen, unarmed, and dying Nicolas for nearly a minute;
  • The State Attorney declared Cpl. Jean and his fellow officers innocent of any crime;
  • There has been no independent investigation of Cpl. Jean’s actions that evening;
  • Cpl. Jean was back at work one week after killing Nicolas;
  • The CCSO withheld the video from the public until the State Attorney announced its decision;
  • The CCSO released the violent and disturbing video to the press and public without reaching out to Nicolas’s family first, including his stepdaughter who is now caring for his 13-year-old orphaned son.

The first page of the State Attorney’s office memorandum states unequivocally, “An independent agency was not used for this investigation.”  While the Florida Department of Law Enforcement makes its independent experts available for investigations of police misconduct, they are tapped for fewer than one in three police shooting investigations statewide, and were not asked to investigate in this instance.  Meanwhile, the investigator who did conduct the State Attorney’s office investigation, Michael Torregrossa, was himself suspended for excessive force and ordered to enter training for a 2016 incident in which he threw a woman to the ground while serving as a Cape Coral police officer.  In his investigation of Nicolas’s death, Torregrossa spoke only to the family members of the 911 caller, who were all inside the house during the fatal seconds that led to Nicolas’ death, and beyond that merely reviewed evidence provided by CCSO itself. 

While there remain more levels of official review of Cpl. Jean’s actions on the night he killed Nicolas, it is unlikely that they will end in meaningful consequences for Cpl. Jean or his fellow officers.  With the State Attorney’s criminal investigation now concluded, the CCSO has indicated that its Professional Responsibility Bureau will conduct a review to determine whether the officers involved in Nicolas’s death were following Department policies and procedures.  However, law enforcement officers have their own specific bill of rights — the Florida Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights — when it comes to internal investigations, which provides significant procedural protections and perhaps is the reason why only a small fraction of officers are ever disciplined for using excessive force. Even those few who are disciplined mostly keep their jobs.  And while the CCSO has a Citizens’ Review Panel that reviews closed internal affairs investigations involving allegations of unreasonable force, it appears that the panel only makes non-binding recommendations for the sheriff to take under consideration and has limitations on its investigative reach.  In fact, the Florida Supreme Court has decreed that the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights prohibits citizen review panels from subpoenaing officers for interviews.

The bottom line is this: Law enforcement officers are highly protected from facing a fair and full investigation into the single most important decision they will ever make — whether to take the life of another human being.  With the State Attorney’s criminal investigation now complete, the chances that Cpl. Jean and his fellow officers will face any meaningful consequences for their decisions and actions in killing and mauling Nicolas Morales are vanishingly small.

What now must be done…

The outrageous facts and sheer brutality of Nicolas’s death demand a credible and thoroughgoing examination of every misstep and failure of police procedure that night in Farmworker Village.  From the moment Cpl. Jean stepped out of his patrol car, yelled instructions in English, pulled his gun, and aggressively closed in on a clearly disoriented Nicolas — all within mere seconds of arriving on the scene — to the agonizing 40 seconds after the K-9 officer attempted to pull his dog off of a fallen and dying Nicolas, and failed, the entire incident from beginning to end demands a serious and wide-ranging exploration of every key detail.  The question to be investigated simply cannot be reduced to whether Cpl. Jean’s decision to pull the trigger on his service revolver was justified or not, because that decision was the consequence of a series of other tragically flawed decisions by the officers that night, and because Cpl. Jean’s decision to shoot Nicolas was by no means the end of the horrific abuse visited upon him by the deputies. The State Attorney’s investigation was woefully inadequate for such a heartless and incompetent deployment of the state’s power to kill.

But a serious examination of the facts of Nicolas’s death is not enough.  Nicolas’s shooting and the merciless violation of the last minutes of his life are a symptom of a deeper, abiding problem — the antiquated and dysfunctional relationship between the CCSO and the Immokalee community.  With a few notable exceptions, the need to modernize, and humanize, policing in Immokalee is as urgent as it is overdue, and Nicolas’s killing — the cultural insensitivity, the leap to brutality, the casual dehumanization — is a reflection of a longstanding issue that can no longer be ignored.

To address both of those broad areas, several steps must be taken without further delay:

    1. Launch a federal investigation into Nicolas’s shooting by Corporal Pierre Jean and mauling by a police K-9.  The State Attorney’s failure to carry out a serious criminal investigation makes a federal investigation by the US Department of Justice an urgent priority to determine accountability, mete out consequences as appropriate, and establish a baseline of trust in law enforcement in the Immokalee community.  Accountability is the necessary first step toward justice for Nicolas and his family, and healing for the Immokalee community.
    2. Form and implement effective, accessible Crisis Response Teams, pairing police and mental health professionals, to respond to calls in Immokalee where mental health is a potential issue.   As we mentioned in an earlier post, the CCSO should be commended for training its road patrol personnel in crisis intervention and de-escalation as part of the Memphis Model, a state-of-the-art approach to recognizing mental health crises and de-escalating incidents in which mental health is an issue.  But training is clearly not sufficient.   In cities from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Baltimore, Maryland, modern police departments have implemented Crisis Response Teams involving mental health professionals on calls where a mental health crisis is suspected, and the results have been impressive, reducing the incidence of police violence, decreasing the use of jails for people who need treatment, not incarceration, and improving community relations.  In the wake of Nicolas’s brutal and needless killing, the time to pair police with mental health professionals in all of Collier County, including Immokalee, and to ensure they respond to calls like the one that ended in Nicolas’s death, is now.
    3. Break down the walls between the CCSO and the Immokalee community through aggressive transparency and genuine community participation by establishing an Immokalee-specific Citizens’ Review Panel with meaningful powers.  Even with the best of training and modern policing methods, mistakes will still happen.  When they do, it is imperative that the CCSO’s response not be defensive, but rather aggressively transparent, leaning on the community itself to help sort out the facts and point the way forward.  Given the unique nature of the Immokalee community — it’s extreme poverty and socio-cultural marginalization — within the broader context of Collier County, the current Citizens’ Review Panel is insufficient to adequately address the need for community participation in the investigation and correction of the use of force by CCSO personnel.  A separate Immokalee CRP must be established, with credible community participation and meaningful powers, both to help the community heal today in the wake of Nicolas’s killing, and to build trust and transparency — backed by real consequences — in the event of more police violence in the future.

These three actions taken together — a federal investigation of Nicolas’s death, the implementation of Crisis Response Teams, and the formation of an Immokalee-specific Citizens’ Review Board — form the beginning, not the end, of a process of transparency, accountability, and community participation that will allow us to clean and bind up the wounds ripped open when Nicolas Morales was shot to death last September 17th in Farmworker Village.  What we wrote shortly after Nicolas’s death remains true today, five months later: 

… As members of a society, we know and understand that we must cede some of our personal freedoms so that we can all live free, and safe from harm.  It is the social contract that holds us together as one community, living in peace.  We endow the police with awesome powers — the power to use force, and sometimes use lethal force — to protect us from those who would threaten the peace.  When it works, it works almost invisibly, operating largely in the background.  But more and more today it isn’t working as intended.  Our contract with the police is breaking down, the force we entrust them with used without justification, its victims disproportionately people of color.  And when the police kill people without justification, they become yet one more threat to our collective peace.

No system is perfect, mistakes happen.  But, more than that, centuries of our history leave no doubt that prejudice exists and insinuates itself into the structures upon which our society is constructed in ways both explicit and implicit.  We can no longer be surprised when a person of color is wrongly killed by the police, it has happened too many times, for too many years.  What matters now is how we respond, because it is one thing when one police officer abuses the trust we place in him and uses lethal force unjustifiably.  It is something else entirely when the police as a whole come together to defend the unjustifiable actions of one of their members, and when we as a society allow that to happen.

We know that, when we come together, we can make history.  We have done it, by joining with Florida’s agricultural industry leaders in a partnership to end longstanding labor abuses, from sexual assault to modern-day slavery.  And, in so doing, not only have we changed the lives of tens of thousands of Florida farmworkers, but Immokalee has become a beacon of hope and progress for countless farming communities across the country. 

Let us take these steps today and into the future, and build, together — the Immokalee community and the CCSO — a more modern, more humane model of policing.  Let us shine Immokalee’s light, once again, not only so that we might end police violence in our community, but so that others might follow our lead and find their own way out of the darkness.