A federal jury on Thursday cleared District authorities of liability in the fatal police shooting of a black teenager after his family filed a civil rights lawsuit challenging the tactics of a specialized police unit active in mostly minority neighborhoods.
The panel of five white jurors and three black jurors rejected claims that police used excessive force and were negligent in the death of 18-year-old Ralphael L. Briscoe, who was shot in the back and left buttock by Officer Chad Leo, 35, on April 26, 2011.
The case hinged on a video recorded by a pole-mounted D.C. police camera, which appears to show Briscoe running away from officers when he was hit. It also appears to show an object in his right hand; police recovered an inoperable BB gun, designed to replicate a Walther PPK .380 handgun, near Briscoe’s body.
On the stand, Leo testified that he saw Briscoe clutching at the waistband of his pants and turning toward the unmarked SUV Leo was driving.
“The video doesn’t show what I saw. It doesn’t have the same perspective that I had,” said Leo, an 11-year police department veteran who graduated from Virginia Military Academy. “I was in fear for my life. . . . I thought he was going to shoot.”
After embracing his parents and attorneys, he left the courtroom without commenting.
Briscoe’s mother, Bridzette Lane, 46, a U.S. Agriculture Department worker, wept without speaking as she left. Her attorneys, over seven days of anguished testimony before U.S. District Judge Christopher R. Cooper, had maintained that Briscoe — a high school dropout with bipolar disorder — was the victim of overaggressive police tactics aimed primarily at poor, black neighborhoods.
“I have never in my entire career over 31 years as an attorney ever questioned the verdict of a jury. I question this one,” said one of Lane’s attorneys, Billy L. Ponds, who argued that police shot the teen because he was escaping and then planted the gun. “We hoped this case would be a symbol that police cannot continue to kill young black men. It has to stop.”
Lane’s family said the teen did not own a BB gun. They also said that the video appeared to show police tossing an object toward Briscoe’s body where part of a gun was recovered. Police were gloved, and there were no fingerprints on the gun.
Briscoe’s supporters said that he was talking on his cellphone outside the Forest Ridge/Vistas apartment complex in Anacostia when he was singled out by members of the Narcotics Special Investigations Division’s Gun Recovery Unit, whose 18 officers are tasked with investigating illegal guns, drugs and other crimes.
Such tactical units are known among some residents in high-crime city neighborhoods as “jump-outs,” initiating confrontational encounters similar to such practices as New York’s scaled-back “stop-and-frisk” policy.
The four members of Leo’s team testified that in a typical encounter, they were in plainclothes and patrolling in a roving, unmarked car when they pulled up to Briscoe and asked him whether he was armed, because he was “walking quick” and “looking around.” When he did not answer and walked, then ran, away, they chased him.
Critics say such encounters — so intrusive that Leo and other officers acknowledged that residents, when they see officers approaching, lift up their shirts to show that they are unarmed— are unlawful because officers lack reasonable suspicion to stop a citizen and are a form of racial profiling that disproportionately incarcerates minorities for low-level offenses.
“Targeting young black men for aggressive police encounters without any individualized suspicion is exactly the type of policing that escalates into tragedies like the death of Ralphael Briscoe,” said Seema Sadanandan, policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital Area.
The ACLU has urged the D.C. Council to require police to report more data on jump-outs, or police encounters that do not end in an arrest, which Sadanandan called “the opposite of community policing.”
D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, generally an advocate of building bridges between police and those policed, has called the Gun Recovery Unit’s mission “important and dangerous.” But she has said police have no “jump-out” units, per se, while providing no hard numbers.
Leo testified that the Gun Recovery Unit has taken in about 2,500 guns since November 2007, and others have said that the unit makes about 300 arrests per year.
Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report