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Police Departments Rely On A System Unequipped to Handle Racial Bias

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The ability to quickly pull out a phone and record instances of police violence has revealed patterns of racial bias across many of America's police departments in the last decade. But what could the internal records of police departments reveal?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK, and was he saying anything at this time?

ROBERT JOHNSON III: Yeah. At one point, I don't remember if he was yelling, go get my mama, somebody get my mama. I kind of thought, well, that's a little bit odd because I thought he was an adult.

CHANG: In the state of California, records and tapes like these of internal affairs investigations within police departments used to be secret. Then in 2018, a police transparency law in the state unsealed hundreds of these recordings. KQED's Sukey Lewis and Sandhya Dirks have been investigating these records for the new podcast from KQED and NPR called "On Our Watch." The fourth episode is about something that happened to Joseph Green when he was 16 years old in Stockton, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSEPH GREEN: I never even touched officer Johnson, not once.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: So you never pushed him?

GREEN: Never pushed him. I couldn't push him 'cause I'm walking out the door like this, and he comes up and grabs me by my hair.

CHANG: Sandhya Dirks reported this episode. And just a word of warning - this story contains explicit descriptions of violence and may not be appropriate for all audiences. Hey, Sandhya.

SANDHYA DIRKS, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So Joseph Green's case is unfortunately one that has become all too familiar to us. I mean, it involves violence by a white police officer towards a Black teenager. But this case isn't all that well-known. It happened in Stockton, which is in California's Central Valley. Can you just start us off by telling us what happened?

DIRKS: So 16-year-old Joseph Green goes into a gas station to pay for gas and he's got a dollar left over, and he wants to buy some gummy worms for his little sister. Now, the dollar bill that he's using is damaged and the cashier doesn't want to take it. Behind him in line is a plainclothes Stockton police officer, officer Robert Johnson III. And he gets involved in this discussion between Green and the clerk. Now, Green turns to leave the store and begins to walk away, but Johnson pulls him back into the store. And both Green and Johnson have these very different versions of what happened next.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

GREEN: Officer Johnson ran up behind me...

JOHNSON: So I grab him by his sweatshirt...

GREEN: ...Grabbed me by my hair...

JOHNSON: ...Pull him back through the door.

GREEN: ...And swung me around and slammed me on the ground. And that's attempted murder. He could have killed me.

DIRKS: In the end, Johnson arrests Green for trespassing and resisting arrest.

CHANG: OK, and this police transparency law that allowed you to access some of these previously secret records - this law doesn't actually require the release of records that solely have to do with racial bias, right? Like, this is a use-of-force case, so why did you focus specifically on racial bias here?

DIRKS: So yeah, racial bias just wasn't a category of misconduct that ended up being unsealed by SB 1421 or The Right To Know Act. But we do, of course, know that in California, Black people are more likely to be killed, arrested or have force used on them than white people. And while this was technically a use-of-force case, to us, it was clearly also about race. There was sort of barely coded language that the police officer used to talk about Joe Green - that he looked like an adult, that he was dangerous and a violent drug dealer. It all felt very clearly like racial profiling. And I mean, you know, sort of think about it. This kid is trying to pay for candy with a ripped dollar bill and this police officer thinks, oh, he must be a drug dealer.

CHANG: Right. And Green's mother, Sheronica Champion - I mean, she was pumping gas when all of this happened. She runs into the store, witnesses part of it, and then she later goes into the police department to file a complaint. And it is that complaint that prompts an internal investigation into Johnson.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHERONICA CHAMPION: You saying all this investigation, but it's all on tape. So I'll leave it at that. It's all on the tape. So...

DIRKS: One of the things that she mentions when she's talking to IA investigators is this surveillance video at the store that basically captured the incident between Johnson and her son, Joe Green. And this video is important because it doesn't actually match up with what Johnson wrote in his police report or what he tells the IA investigator. For example, he says that Green pushed him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: I pulled him by the shirt. He immediately turned to me, grabbed me and pushed me into a shelf. And that's when the pushing match went back-and-forth.

DIRKS: On the video, Green's hands are up. There is no pushing match. Johnson also tells the IA that he thinks Green is a drug dealer because he saw a small digital scale fall on the ground out of Green's sleeve.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: I saw a little black digital scale fell out from either somewhere on his left side, his hand, his pocket or something.

DIRKS: But no digital scale is ever found. It's not booked into evidence. It's never seen on the videotape. Johnson's also undercover, so he needs to show his badge to arrest Green. Johnson says he pulled out his badge to let Green know he was a cop.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSHUA DOBERNECK: OK. And you had shown your badge and identified yourself...

JOHNSON: Correct.

DOBERNECK: ...As a police officer...

JOHNSON: Right.

DOBERNECK: ...And said you're now under arrest. Do you think there's any doubt in Mr. Green's mind that your intention was to arrest him?

JOHNSON: Oh, no. There was no doubt.

DIRKS: But on the video, he only pulls out his badge after Green has already turned to leave. And when he's asked why he didn't just let Green leave, why he didn't let Green walk away, this is what Johnson says.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: Well, yeah. There was all these other people outside. I didn't know what might take place if he gets out there. If he tells these people, who knows what could happen to me? I know that the neighborhood around that market is not very pro-police.

CHANG: So it sounds like the video just explicitly disproves many parts of Johnson's testimony.

DIRKS: The video directly contradicts Johnson's testimony, but it's never used in the internal affairs interrogation of Johnson. He's never asked about how it doesn't match his story. But the IA does use the video to help it make the finding that when Johnson punched Green in the face, that that was an unnecessary use of force. And Johnson is given a five-day unpaid suspension. But he appeals, and the case goes to an arbitrator. Now, arbitrators are often picked by police unions, and they aren't required to have any police or use-of-force training, but their decisions are binding. They override the chief and the city. They have the final word on police discipline. And the arbitrator overturns Johnson's suspension. She finds he had a reason to be afraid of the neighborhood because it was, and I'm quoting her, "a high-drug, high-gang neighborhood that included a crime-ridden HUD housing development."

CHANG: Well, all of this was 10 years ago. What's happened since?

DIRKS: Officer Johnson went on to be involved in two police shootings. And in one of those, he killed a Black man who was accused of domestic violence. He is still a police officer with the Stockton Police Department. As for Joseph Green, he did receive $710,000 as an award from a civil jury, but he had to wait nine years for that to happen. I talked to him at that trial, and he says he's still really haunted by all of this. He says he still sees a police officer and gets scared.

CHANG: I mean, Sandhya, what you have laid out in this episode is a lot of evidence that seems to suggest racial bias was involved in this case - the coded language, the perceptions of the community. Why do you think the Stockton Police Department never even looked into the possibility of racial bias here?

DIRKS: This gets to the heart of the story, and it's not just the Stockton Police Department. In use-of-force cases, justification is based on what's in an officer's mind, right? If an officer says they fear for their life and that fear is found to be objectively reasonable, then they are allowed to use force. But what if that fear is rooted in bias? From the cases we've looked at, the internal affairs system in California just does not have a mechanism to investigate or interrogate that bias.

CHANG: Sandhya Dirks is the race and equity reporter at KQED and a reporter with "On Our Watch," a podcast from NPR and KQED. You can find it wherever you get your podcast. Thank you so much, Sandhya.

DIRKS: Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.