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Opinion

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What the Devil won't tell you

Magnus: We screwed up but did it exactly right

Tucson chief's double-talk shows danger of police reverting to business as usual as they talk reform

Which is it, Chief Magnus? Was it wrong to withhold information about the death of a citizen while in the hands of police? Or was the incident handled the way it should have been?

Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus seemed to say both during a press conference Wednesday, meant to address the death of Carlos Adrian Ingram-Lopez in his garage with officers on top of him. The department sat on the incident for nearly two months, keeping it from elected leaders and the public.

The good news is Chris was, at times, contrite. The city and the Police Department released an investigation into the officers involved and played the body camera video for reporters, and released the name of the dead man so that the county could provide Ingram-Lopez's autopsy report to those asking for it. It just took 'em two months and nagging from a TucsonSentinel.com reporter to get it done.

Related: TPD chief offers to resign as details revealed about Ingram-Lopez death in police custody

The previous silence from Tucson's cops and elected leaders about this is astonishing, considering it came during a month-long national conversation about police violence against people of color. Investigators determined the officer in charge of the scene "failed at every level," so the fact that the incident was kept under wraps is exactly what the community doesn't need.

Magnus mixed his messages about that. First, he said the public should have been informed about the April 21 death sooner than June 23. Then he said, “We moved as expeditiously as possible.”

See, they had to talk to the family and that had to wait until after the investigation. And they didn’t tell the City Council or Mayor Regina Romero until the investigation was about to wrap up and the elected officials weren’t allowed to see the body camera footage until after the department’s internal review was complete.

“We addressed their conduct very appropriately,” Magnus said. “And I don’t think it reflects on the larger department.”

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The statement doesn't jibe with this one he made moments before:

“Any mistakes are viewed with great suspicion and contribute to the lack of trust in the police,” Magnus said of withholding the information for nearly two months during the George Floyd-sparked protests of police-custody deaths.

So basically, what Magnus is saying is: It would have been much better to tell the public but that was secondary to us doing things the way we always do them. And we’d do them that way in the future, maybe.

Magnus offered his resignation during the press conference but following standing operating procedures won't fix the problem. SOP is the problem on any number of fronts.

People and activists, I've found, often conflate firing the honcho in charge with fixing the problem that prompted the dismissal. It just doesn't work that way.

With Magnus gone, the police would still have this cockamamie idea in their head that if a case is under investigation, all the material related to it isn’t covered by public records laws that require them to fork over documents. It’s not.

And Mayor Romero, when you and Council members were informed last week, you were all free to say “We want to see the video now.”

You all were certainly free to say “Hey, Tucson, something tragic happened during a TPD call.”

Or even just “Pssst, hey Mr./Ms. Reporter. Something is up here.”

You chose not to, because sometimes I think the Council believes they work for the cops.

The public needs to be able to see the video so they can keep watch over how laws are enforced. That doesn't mean the investigation can't continue.

I think the public understands transcripts of real-time interviews – raw and uncorroborated – aren't helpful to public understanding. There’s a reason journalists write stories and don’t just post interview notes as we get them.

On the other hand, something like a videotape from body cameras at least gives us a starting point. We can see what it is that is being investigated and why.

Body of evidence

Magnus played body-camera video that captured Ingram-Lopez's death, after police cornered him in his garage and jumped on him. I’m not in a position to judge the video too much because I don't entirely know what's what in police tactics.

So I'll let the investigator who reviewed the actions of (now former) Officers Jonathan Jackson, Samuel Routledge and Ryan Starbuck provide the insight:

"There were no attempts to develop a plan, which rushed the situation and eliminated opportunities for de-escalation. Cussing at and threatening a subject should not be done. Even after Mr. Ingram-Lopez complied with commands, they could have stopped and slowed things down, but they did not. Rather than de-escalate, they focused on the arrest and missed the significance of the situation. There is no way to determine from the video how much force was used to hold Mr. Ingram-Lopez down, but based on interviews pressure was applied and at times more than one officer applied pressure. Proportionality was not considered by the office in this case. There were two very large officers detaining a restrained man in medical crisis, and they did not use the tactics taught to retain the male properly.

All three officers resigned before the department could fire them.

The line from the internal review that best sums up this event and the whole shooting match involving the trouble with police and certain communities.

"When officers arrived, (Officer Jonathan Jackson, who was in charge of the other officers) focused on getting the subject detained and booked into jail instead of focusing on a plan to deal with the situation.
"

Bingo. Not every police call is about cuffing and booking bad guys. In fact, anyone who's ever read a day's worth of police reports knows that most are not opportunities to beat up and bust.

In fact, this is what people are talking about when they say "Defund the police."

A crisis call is a situation to be dealt with that requires a plan of action. Are big, tough cops always the best responders? And this is especially relevant if the police default action plan is to arrest the problem away.

Individual crises require individual responses and society has one answer for most: "Someone's going to jail."

So this is what I mean by business as usual, and Magnus and police leadership have been dangling their feet in that mire.

Irrelevant sainthood

They pushed an irrelevant, incomplete and false narratives about the victim.

After the TucsonSentinel.com broke this story Tuesday morning, police began pushing an irrelevant and incomplete bits of information. They said Ingram-Lopez had cocaine in his system and had an enlarged heart, as if that’s what killed him. They left out that the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office also determined that he was under restraint at the time of his death. They conveniently left out of their statements about the case Tuesday, even though the FBI has known for years that restraint can lead to “positional asyphixia.”

They also omitted that the manner of death was “unknown.” These are lies of omission at a moment when the whole truth should be the only medium. The ME didn't definitively determine if Ingram-Lopez died of a homicide — meaning it was the result of human action, not necessarily a crime — or natural causes, an accident or suicide.

Our police are pushing double-talk. They tell us that the death was a tragedy, that the officers who screwed up would have been fired if they hadn’t resigned and that withholding information damages community trust.

The investigation noted that the officer in charge at the scene was trained in both recognizing and avoiding killing subjects who were coked out and experiencing "frantic delirium." He just ignored that training.

They try to also tell us, by clearly omitting relevant facts, that this wasn't an issue of violence or use of force.

Except it was. The coroner's report says so. TPD's own internal affairs report says the three should be fired because they broke regulations about, and I'll quote it here, "Use of Force (Other)."

Instead, they tried to point to just the coke and his bad heart.

Imagine for a second if the police said "the deceased cheated on their taxes" or "the victim let his grass grow too long." 

I'm not interested in whether Ingram-Lopez was a saint. Sainthood isn't the price we pay to secure our right to life.

Losing one's temper around cops can't become a capital offense, because that short-circuits the due process of a trial. When police are called, it's generally a stressful situation and tempers are bound to be short. How many times have you lost your temper? During how many of those instances did you say "Boy I'd like to kill a cop." If you are like me the answers are 1) plenty and 2) none.

Good cops know this so they practice de-escalation.

They also know, let's face it, that tarring the deceased killed by police has been an effective strategy to convince the broader public the death was the victim's fault. After all, wasn't society really the victim of the dead person? They'd be alive if they'd just followed the law, right?

At this very moment, that sentiment may be changing.

Gotta start at the top

My other problem concerns leadership and the people in charge. Some days I think the Tucson City Council would be shocked to find out that the City Charter says they are the ones calling the shots. For years and through many iterations, the Council has spent too much time staying in its lane and letting the staff run the show.

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From incorporation battles gone by, to Rio Nu-freaking-evo, through business complaints about multiple answers to a single issue, during the Sun Tran strike and while debating Charter changes, the City Council has played it cautious. It’s as if the lines on the flowchart that shows them above the inner workings of the city means they can’t influence how it works.

I’m a big believer in the professional civil service and even the Deep State, insomuch as it prevents the catastrophically stupid from becoming law and policy. The Council doesn’t have to lay a hand on city workers to remind them who is in charge. Empowerment may flow up and that can be a good thing. Power flows from the people down and that’s a necessary thing.

Romero proposed some policy changes during the press conference. They are all worth looking at. She wants to require immediate notification of the mayor and Council when a person dies in police custody. Check. I’m on board. She would expand the powers and authority of independent auditors and a citizens review board. Finally, she proposed a pilot program to treat certain calls as if maybe it doesn’t require the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment to treat minor offenders as if they were advanced scouts of ISIS.

That’s all good.

I just don’t get a lot of confidence when she explained away how the she and Council members could know about the incident for nearly a week without telling the people.

“We were told that there was an admin investigation that needed to be complete. Once the internal investigation was complete, mayor and Council were shown the video this past Monday,” she said, then paused before concluding. “And umm. That’s the sequence of events.”

I don’t include that kicker to embarrass Romero but to highlight the apparent humility the Council felt toward the police standard operating procedure. I would tell Regina as someone who’s known her for 20 years to ignore whatever instinct she feels to not rock the boat.

This boat needs rocking. However, I do have one question: Why did they feel the need to tackle him in the first place. Did anyone try talking to the guy?

Put down the popcorn and get to work

Standard reminder: The Police Department’s job isn’t to commission officers to exercise the hard power of the state. The public’s job is to do that with certain terms and conditions. It’s the public’s job to police the police. This isn’t a radical concept. It’s just forgotten too often and that keeps police forces everywhere acting as a self-contained, self-perpetuating and rough-and-tumble alliance of officers operating as they see fit.

The arrangement makes for good popcorn flicks, but it’s not how a free society is supposed to function.

Police are no different than the rest of us. Big systems exerting a lot of energy develop inertia that is hard to make turn. It’s true of government and big business everywhere. The difference being, police have the authority to kill.

Magnus did say a lot the proper post-Floyd things but his feet are still rooted in an institution that glorifies Dirty Harry culture. We learn from action flicks that a good cop is the one who's not so squeamish to do the things that need to be done to keep us safe.

It’s frustrating that Magnus himself has done a good job up until now making Tucson's police decidedly un-Clint Eastwood-esque. He knows he screwed up and he can’t just say it and take his butt-whooping for a 24 hours. If an enlightened guy like Magnus can’t do that, then the knuckledraggers are still running the show.

So that's why I say, let Chris Magnus get back to work and finish the job he started. Hopefully the Council and the community will hold his feet to the fire. If they don't, does it really matter who the police chief is?

Blake Morlock is a journalist who has spent 20 years covering government in Arizona and also worked in Democratic political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.


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1 comment on this story

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1 comments
Jun 25, 2020, 4:40 am
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So tragic what happened to Carlos Adrian Ingram-Lopez and so very sad for his family. 

Very sad for Tucson too.  The quality of policing was of course awful.  And the cover-up and lies afterwards were awful in a different way.  Just insulting to the citizens of Tucson.  Magnus lost a huge amount of good-will.  Romero looks weak and ineffective and clueless.  And no one is taking any responsibility.  Police Dept and city government just hoping this will blow over so things can get back to the way they were. 

This has been in the national news including the New York Times which should be a wake-up call.  Doubt it ....

BTW - Magnus absolutely SHOULD quit.  He’s just another phony hack.

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Dylan Smith/TucsonSentinel.com

Chris Magnus being sworn in as police chief in 2016. He may now be on his way out after offering his resignation on the heels of delays in releasing information about an officer-involved death.

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