WCU students study recent shootings

Western Carolina University students not only studied numerous cases this summer in which young African-American men around the country were shot by white police officers, but they also compiled a report consisting of 11 recommendations that were sent to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates and other law enforcement officials and legislative bodies across the country.

J. Tom Morgan

J. Tom Morgan

The students were part of a special summer school criminal justice class taught by former DeKalb County, Georgia, district attorney and criminal defense attorney J. Tom Morgan. The course was the brainchild of Steve Brown, professor and head of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice. The idea stemmed from the shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri. police officer – a case that was debated nationally for weeks.

“We want our students to have the opportunity to examine those issues in a thoughtful sort of way as opposed to the highly-spirited public debate that injects a lot of other issues that are not necessarily focusing in on the actual workability of different approaches for reform in the justice system,” Brown said.

Morgan said he was initially skeptical as to whether the Ferguson case could provide enough material for an entire semester. That was until he discovered how many other similar cases there had been across the country.

“It seemed like every time we picked up a paper, or turned on the news, there was another fatal shooting,” Morgan said. “We ended up having plenty to talk about all summer, unfortunately.

“It did give a lot of different perspectives that students got to see because many of these were actually on video. It was very eerie seeing people get shot and killed. I’ve been to a lot of autopsies as a district attorney, but I’ve never actually seen anybody gunned down, and we saw it over and over again. And then the students were finding cases that I actually hadn’t even heard about,” he said.

In addition to the Brown shooting, the students reviewed evidence, videos and statements from the deaths of Eric Garner of Staten Island, New York; Tamir Rice of Cleveland, Ohio; Walter Scott of North Charleston, South Carolina; Freddie Gray of Baltimore, Maryland; Cedric Alexander of Chamblee, Georgia; and John Crawford III of Beavercreek, Ohio. The class also examined video from New Richmond, Ohio, where an officer did not fire his weapon, even though it appeared he had legal grounds to do so. They also heard from law enforcement officers from Charlotte.

The class was comprised of African-American and white males and females, all under 30 years of age and hailing from various backgrounds and academic majors, which is what Brown was hoping for.

After teaching the students the law on use of force by law enforcement officers and when lethal force is appropriate, they examined each case individually and then came up with recommendations on how to decrease the number of fatalities and expand the public’s perception.

The students’ recommendations, titled, “Lessons Learned From Ferguson and Other Fatal Encounters With Law Enforcement Officers,” include:

  • Having a national protocol that mandates fatalities caused by law enforcement officers be investigated by a special task force comprised of federal – and state – level law enforcement agents and not their fellow officers;
  • The jurisdiction for prosecution of these cases should solely be with the U.S. Attorney’s office, not the local district attorney;
  • Grand juries reviewing fatalities caused by law enforcement officers should consider both evidence of guilt and innocence, and if they decide not to indict, the transcripts should be made available to the public;
  • All replicas of real firearms should be required to have a bright orange, easily recognizable band on the end of the muzzle and it should be a crime to erase, remove or paint over the band;
  • There should be a national data base that keeps track of all fatalities caused by law enforcement officers.

“It was very interesting, from my standpoint, having been in law enforcement both as a prosecutor and a defense attorney, I was fully unaware of how many of these cases were happening,” Morgan said. I was learning with the students.”

While this particular class will not be offered again, Brown said there may be some variation of it in the future.

“I don’t think this is a flash-pan issue,” he said. “It’s one that will evolve and discussion will continue for a great while. I think we’re at a turning point in terms of decisions that are made to control police discretion.”