When it happens in your neighborhood …

I live in Southwest Florida, not far from Immokalee, where about five months ago, a county officer killed an unarmed man. The victim’s name was Nicolas Morales Besanilla. He had a 12 year old son. Here are the facts, drawn from a powerful article by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers:

  • 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 article contains the video of the incident. It is deeply disturbing. It shows how quickly lethal force can be deployed to take a person’s life. Whether or not you watch the video (again, it is deeply disturbing), I encourage you to read the article.

I’ll be joining Nicolas’s family and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers on Sunday at 4 pm for a masked and socially distanced community vigil. We have three demands of the Collier County Sheriff’s Office:

  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.

If you live in Southwest Florida, I hope you’ll consider joining us for the vigil. Wherever you live, realize that we need deep reform in our policing system. A mental health crisis should not be a death sentence for anyone. Officers need better training. I thought that CIW captured the problem accurately and powerfully in a September 17 article:

… 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.

Here is information about the vigil: https://www.facebook.com/events/429123311753101/