Corey Jones case: Is increased scrutiny of police spurring changes?

More public scrutiny is producing a rise in charges against police – although the numbers remain relatively low. A grand jury in Florida indicted Officer Nouman Raja Wednesday on charges of manslaughter and attempted murder in the death of  Corey Jones, a black musician whose car had broken down.

Florida State University National Black Alumni/Handout via Reuters
Corey Jones, 31, a professional drummer, is shown in this photo released by Florida State University National Black Alumni, Inc. on October 20, 2015. A grand jury on Wednesday indicted the officer who fatally shot Jones on charges of manslaughter and attempted murder.

When musician Corey Jones' car broke down in the middle of the night last October, driving home from a gig in Florida near Palm Beach Gardens, he immediately called an AT&T roadside assistance number for help.

After nearly an hour, he finally reached an operator. But when Mr. Jones, who was black, was approached by a plainclothes police officer who stopped to investigate the parked SUV, his call became something else entirely – evidence in a police shooting.

On Wednesday, a grand jury indicted former Palm Beach Gardens police officer Nouman Raja on charges of negligent manslaughter and attempted murder, saying the officer's shooting of Jones, who was black, was "unjustified."

The recording of the call, which reveals that Officer Raja never identified himself as a police officer before quickly opening fire on Jones, was a key factor in what some say, even in the post-Ferguson era, is a still unusual legal outcome.

"What's different is you've got everybody watching now, so you get all kinds of questions that come up in regards to transparency," says Philip Stinson, an associate professor of criminology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. "You get all kinds of questions about whether a local prosecutor should actually try the case… or whether you should bring in a special prosecutor."

The national conversation about police using excessive force, particularly directed at young black men, has also led to a significant shift. In the past, cases that didn't lead to charges against police – the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., or the shooting of Jamar Clark in Minneapolis, Minn., for example, might have gained only local or regional attention.

Now, Professor Stinson says, cases of police misconduct can potentially become "show cases" – trials that are closely watched around the country, a class of criminal cases that was previously dominated by high-profile celebrity trials, such as the O.J. Simpson trial in the mid-1990s. That scrutiny has the potential to spur more changes in policing practices.

But Stinson, who became a criminologist after stints as both a cop and a lawyer, is cautious about interpreting an increase in prosecutions of police as a trend. The numbers are up but remain low. He found that the number of officers charged with murder and manslaughter in fatal shootings increased to 18 this past year, up from an average of about five a year between 2005 and 2014. So far, this year, including the Jones case, there have been six, he says.

A recording of Jones' call reveals that Officer Raja, who was dressed casually and not wearing police identification, opened fire after only a brief exchange with Jones.

Prosecutors said his decision to approach Jones without identifying himself after he drove up in an unmarked van was "grossly negligent." His tone, the State's Attorney said in a report released Wednesday, was "confrontational," including repeatedly telling Jones, "Get your hands up!" using an expletive.

"Raja chose to approach Corey Jones' vehicle in a tactically unsound, unsafe and grossly negligent manner," the State's Attorney's office said. "A reasonable person can only assume the thoughts and concerns Corey Jones was experiencing as he saw the van approaching him at that hour of the morning."

The shooting last fall quickly drew an outcry, sparking protests and rallies, as Jones' family said they would push for more accountability over the officer's actions.

"While we understand that nothing can bring back our son, brother and friend, this arrest sends a message that this conduct will not be tolerated from members of law enforcement," the family said in a statement Wednesday.

Prosecutors said the recording shows that Raja fired three shots, waited 10 seconds, and then fired three more times, with at least one of those shots coming as Jones ran away. Three of the six shots struck Jones.

Police say that Jones, a housing inspector and church drummer from Delray Beach, Fla., had a gun that he was licensed to carry. But the State Attorney determined that Raja kept shooting even after Jones no longer held his weapon. It was found 72 feet from Jones' car and had not been fired.

Raja, who been with the Palm Beach Gardens police for less than a year, was fired in November. He had been a police officer for seven and a half years and worked as a firearms and law enforcement instructor, according to prosecutors.

Professor Stinson says the officer's decision to approach Jones in an unmarked van struck him as unusual. "Many years ago I can remember as a police officer being in plainclothes in an unmarked car making a traffic stop, but in retrospect that seems like an unwise situation," he says, noting that some states have policies to limit that practice. "It's not safe for officers and it's confusing to the public."

Thomas Masters, the mayor of nearby Riviera Beach and a friend of Jones' family, has been working with community leaders to draft Corey's Law, which would discourage departments from allowing plainclothes officers to make traffic stops. Regardless of the outcome of the case, he told the Sun-Sentinel, he wants to honor Jones' memory by pushing for a change in police procedure.

"This is not just a Palm Beach County problem. This is not just a Florida problem," he told the paper. "We don't want this to happen ever again anywhere else in America."

As the case moves forward, the grand jury's decision to charge Raja also side-stepped many questions about whether local prosecutors can be impartial, says Stinson. Video or audio evidence can often help clarify what occurred, but prosecutors are sometimes reluctant to release it to the public if they decide to charge an officer, he says.

"[As a prosecutor], if I were actually going to be charging somebody I would be less likely to release the transcripts or physical evidence," he says. "I would want to try my case in court and the court of public opinion and the media," he says.

In their statement, Jones' family says they hope to honor his memory by pushing for further changes. "We will stay vigilant as this process moves forward," they say, "and peacefully demand greater accountability and transparency from law enforcement."

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