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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Where police killings often meet with silence: rural America

As police shootings have become a flashpoint in US cities, The Marshall Project and the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting spent a year examining those urban killings’ little-publicized counterparts in rural America.

By: New York Times | Kentucky |
Updated: August 15, 2021 11:25:18 am
The truck of Christopher Jacobs, who was killed in a police involved shooting on Nov. 1, 2017, is parked at his mother’s house in Pippas Pass, Ky. on Aug. 2, 2021. As fatal police shootings have become a flashpoint in U.S. cities, they have also occurred at high rates in rural areas — largely without national attention. (Morgan Hornsby/The New York Times)

Written by Alysia Santo and R.G. Dunlop

The man known all his life as Doughboy had been running from the state police for months: scrambling down a creek bed, flooring it out of a gas station, visiting his children at 2 a.m. when he thought troopers would not be lurking.

Christopher Jacobs, 28, had been charged with manufacturing methamphetamine. He could not bear to go back to jail, he told his family, but he also feared the police would shoot him — even though he had been childhood friends with officers now patrolling this remote stretch of eastern Kentucky.

So when a state trooper and a sheriff’s deputy — brothers — pulled into the Jacobs family driveway on Hemp Patch Road on Nov. 1, 2017, Jacobs’ first move was to crawl under a mobile home and hide, police records show.

His second was to start yelling, “Don’t kill me!” He jumped into his Chevrolet Impala and tried to flee. There was a scuffle, and the officers fired Tasers as he struggled to start the car. Then he rammed an empty police cruiser.

Leo Slone, a trooper who had grown up with Jacobs and once helped save his life after a drug overdose, shot him three times. Jacobs died at the scene.

As police shootings have become a flashpoint in US cities, The Marshall Project and the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting spent a year examining those urban killings’ little-publicized counterparts in rural America.

Officers in rural areas fatally shot about 1,200 people from 2015 through 2020, while in cities there were at least 2,100 such deaths, according to the news organizations’ analysis of data compiled by The Washington Post; no comprehensive government database exists.

The data analysis found that, although the rate of rural police shootings was about 30% lower than the urban rate when adjusted for population, the rural incidents mirrored many of the dynamics of police shootings that have come under scrutiny in cities.

And even as deadly police shootings declined in cities and rural communities during this time, according to the analysis, the rural decrease was more modest: about 9% versus 19%.

High-profile urban police shootings such as the killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, have set off protests, prompted widespread calls for change and led to new policies in some law enforcement agencies. But rural deaths seldom attract attention from the public or the national press. Police shootings in isolated areas are rarely captured on video, and many rural officers do not wear body cameras.

Police and sheriff’s departments that each had a single deadly shooting account for hundreds of the rural fatalities. But in a handful of states, including Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Texas, state troopers are responsible for many of the deaths.

Rural shootings by the Kentucky State Police, the agency with the largest number of such deaths in the six-year period, illustrate both what distinguishes these encounters from other police killings and how they fit within broader patterns nationwide.

Kentucky state troopers shot and killed at least 41 people during that period, including 33 in rural areas. To examine these deaths, reporters interviewed more than 100 people and reviewed dozens of court cases and thousands of pages of police investigative reports, in addition to conducting the data analysis.

One big difference was that most of the people killed in the rural shootings, in Kentucky and elsewhere, were white. White people make up the rural majority in nearly every state, and two-thirds of the people fatally shot by law enforcement in rural areas across the country were white, the data analysis shows; about 10% were Black. (In cities, 37% were Black and 31% white.)

Nevertheless, in some states, a disproportionately high number of Black people were shot and killed by the police relative to their share of the rural population, according to the data. These include Alabama, Virginia and — the starkest example — Louisiana, where Black people accounted for about 20% of rural residents but almost 37% of rural police shootings.

Christopher Jacobs’ sons, Dakota Chase and Thomas Blake, walk to place flowers on their father’s grave in Pippa Passes, Ky. on Aug. 2, 2021. Christopher Jacobs was killed in a police involved shooting on Nov. 1, 2017. As fatal police shootings have become a flashpoint in U.S. cities, they have also occurred at high rates in rural areas — largely without national attention. (Morgan Hornsby/The New York Times)

Other characteristics of the rural Kentucky incidents were closely aligned with both rural and urban police shootings across the country. Most of the people shot in rural Kentucky were men, and two-thirds were armed with guns, according to police records. A majority had drug addiction or mental health problems, including some in the throes of crises that troopers did little to de-escalate, police records show. And many of the shootings occurred in the state’s poorer counties.

“We tend to get justice in this country based on whether you have access to money,” said Peter Kraska, a criminologist at Eastern Kentucky University and a policing expert. “Rural areas suffer from a lot of the significant problems that the rest of the country does.”

Like most other police shootings across the country, those in rural settings seldom lead to indictments or prosecutions of the officers involved, the data show. This holds in Kentucky, where the state police investigate their own shootings without an independent review. That model is changing in many parts of the country, where states and municipalities have set up independent investigative units.

The Kentucky State Police declined to be interviewed but provided a written statement. Without commenting on individual cases, the agency defended its record on public safety, training and the use of deadly force.

The agency takes “any use of force seriously, trains troopers in de-escalation and reviews the use of force to ensure the force is justified to protect the public and the trooper or officer,” its public affairs commander, Sgt. Billy Gregory, said in the statement.

He stressed the agency’s broad mandate, which goes far beyond highway patrol. Kentucky’s 740 troopers police rural communities and assist local law enforcement in what he called “volatile cases”: responding to a 911 call, executing a warrant, investigating a domestic disturbance or an armed person barricaded in a house.

More than half of the rural Kentucky shootings examined occurred at residences. About 55% of households in the state have guns, according to estimates from the Rand Corp., which ranks Kentucky 12th for gun ownership. And in at least nine of the 33 rural Kentucky deaths during the period reviewed, troopers fatally shot someone who had fired at law enforcement.

During that time, one Kentucky trooper was shot to death while on duty. His killing offered a cautionary tale for other officers contending with a frequent reality of the job: working alone.

More Risks, More Bodies

Cameron Ponder, who had been a state trooper for less than a year, was by himself one night in September 2015 when he pursued a speeding Dodge Avenger with Missouri plates down an interstate highway in rural Kentucky. When the car finally pulled over, the driver opened fire, hitting Ponder three times, according to police records. He was pronounced dead at a hospital.

Officers tracked the driver’s cellphone signal into nearby woods, and a trooper shot him at daybreak, police records show. The man had refused to drop his gun, officers told investigators.

Cases like these attest to the dangers of the job, especially for officers working without partners. Sometimes, policing experts said, solo officers may be more inclined to shoot because they feel at risk knowing that backup could be many miles away. Working alone “affects the mindset of the officer on the scene,” said Ralph Weisheit, a professor of criminal justice at Illinois State University who has studied rural policing.

Working alone is one of several challenges the state police face, former agency officials said. Another factor is methamphetamine use, which was involved in about half of the 22 rural deaths for which toxicology reports were available.

“If we had better control over the meth problem, the drug problem in general, if we took better care of our people who were suffering from mental illness, then you wouldn’t have these numbers,” said Alex Payne, a former deputy commissioner of the Kentucky State Police.

Since 2019, the agency said, it has required training for cadets in “mental health first aid.” But it has not adopted practices that some big-city departments now use to try to prevent violence, including having mental health professionals respond to some calls, forbidding officers from shooting into moving cars and employing body cameras.

After a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, shot and killed Michael Brown in 2014, the federal government began pushing law enforcement agencies to adopt body cameras to improve accountability. As of 2016, almost half in the country had done so, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

But not the Kentucky State Police. The agency is still considering the idea, its spokesperson said. In the meantime, in the absence of video, there have been conflicting accounts from troopers and witnesses about how fatal police encounters played out.

John Casey had a long history of run-ins with law enforcement and had been known to carry guns, according to police records. But when officers investigating an alleged assault tried to question him at his home near the West Virginia border early in the morning of July 31, 2016, Casey cooperated — at first. According to police records, Trooper Jonathan Rouse spoke with the man, saw that he had an outstanding misdemeanor warrant and decided to arrest him.

About 20 minutes later, Casey would be dead.

Rouse, who was not wearing a body camera, later told state police investigators that the man fled into the woods. The officer was alone when Casey returned to threaten him, he said, throwing a rock that hit him in the head and hurling another that missed. Then Casey started to pull “something silver” from his pocket, the trooper said, that appeared to be a handgun.

There was nowhere to take cover, Rouse said, so he fired one shot from his Glock 35. Casey was hit in the chest and died.

The only item troopers found near Casey’s body was an unopened can of Milwaukee’s Best beer, according to police records. A toxicology report showed that he had been legally drunk.

A grand jury declined to indict Rouse, saying that throwing a rock at an officer could be considered felony assault.

But court records in a lawsuit filed by Casey’s mother, Betty Casey, challenge the trooper’s account. A photograph entered into evidence suggested that Rouse had no injuries to his head, despite his statement to investigators that the rock had struck him so hard he had seen “sparks.” And an eyewitness testified that Casey had not thrown a second rock. The lawsuit also argued that the trooper could have taken cover among “abandoned vehicles and heavy vegetation” at the site.

After a federal judge found “genuine disputes” regarding the circumstances surrounding the shooting and the force used, the case settled last March for $175,000.

Rouse did not respond to requests for comment.

Of the 33 rural Kentucky shootings reviewed, at least 20 were presented to a grand jury. None of the officers involved were indicted.

Shoot First, Ask Later

Critics and even some supporters of Kentucky’s state troopers have raised concerns about the training and oversight of the officers, who sometimes have deep roots in the communities they police.

“Shooting first and asking questions later was the way that a number of these public servants were trained, and that is not a service to them,” said John Tilley, who from 2015 through 2019 led the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, which oversees the state police.

The state police came under criticism last year after lawyers suing the agency discovered training materials that told recruits to see themselves as warriors and “ruthless killers.” Some slides quoted Adolf Hitler.

Officials said the Hitler material was no longer in use, but they apologized, and the commissioner resigned. State police officers are now required to take “courses on use of force, implicit bias, race relations and social intelligence,” the agency spokesperson said.

The lawyers who discovered the training materials represent the family of Bradley Grant. When officers encountered Grant on May 20, 2018, he was struggling: After years of sobriety, he had relapsed and — like roughly one-quarter of the people shot by Kentucky troopers in rural areas, according to the data analysis — had recently threatened suicide, police records show.

Troopers were looking for a man accused of beating and molesting a child when they arrived at a house where they thought he might be staying. Instead, they found Grant, pressure-washing the porch. The child’s mother was riding with one of the officers and told him that Grant was not the abuser, according to police and court records.

Still, when Grant went inside, the officers followed — even though they did not have a search warrant.

There, Detective Aaron Frederick broke down a locked door and found Grant pointing a shotgun at his own chin and saying, “Shoot me,” according to court records. Frederick later said he had told the man more than once to drop the weapon before firing at him. Grant died soon after.

Video from a home security system, cited in the Grant family’s lawsuit, shows that 20 seconds passed between Frederick’s kicking down the door and firing the first of four shots.

Frederick declined to comment.

Grant’s brother, Gary Grant, a forest ranger, said that when investigators interviewed him, it seemed as if they had already decided the shooting was justified and were looking for ways to defend the officers.

Sheila Grant, mother of Bradley Grant, with her granddaughter Natalie in Harlan, Ky. on Aug. 1, 2021. Bradley Grant died in a police involved shooting in 2018. As fatal police shootings have become a flashpoint in U.S. cities, they have also occurred at high rates in rural areas — largely without national attention. (Morgan Hornsby/The New York Times)

“When I hung up the phone, I felt like it was a smear campaign against my brother to try and present my brother as a career criminal, as a lifelong addict, a junkie and a piece of trash,” he said.

A federal judge dismissed a claim of excessive force, agreeing with the officers that the circumstances justified the shooting. But the judge also ruled that the troopers had violated Grant’s constitutional rights by entering the house without consent or a warrant. The state police are appealing.

Deaths at the hands of troopers in rural Kentucky have not sparked protests or widespread distrust of the agency, according to interviews with more than a dozen friends and family members of those killed. They were more likely to criticize individual officers than the Kentucky State Police.

But families including the Grants have raised concerns about the agency’s investigations into shootings by its own officers. The friends and family of Jacobs, who was killed in Pippa Passes in 2017 while trying to run from the police, said they shared those doubts.

In this community of about 650, named for a poem by Robert Browning, state police investigators spent several months examining Jacobs’ death. They found that he had been hit by Tasers before bullets struck his abdomen and spine.

Slone, who shot him, told investigators that an informant had said Jacobs had a sawed-off shotgun and would sooner kill police officers than return to jail. Jacobs had meth in his system when he was killed, the investigators said, and he was unarmed.

The trooper and his brother the sheriff’s deputy, Robbie Slone, did not respond to requests for comment. But in an interview with investigators, the trooper confirmed that he and Jacobs went way back: “I was raised with him, right in the same community. Went all through school with him.”

The evening of the shooting, he and his brother “tried everything,” the trooper told investigators. He had to shoot, he said, because he was afraid Jacobs would hit them with the Impala.

But several witnesses disputed that account, including Daniel Hanson, who said he saw the shooting from his yard across the street. The Impala was not moving when the trooper fired, Hanson said. “They had no right to shoot him,” he added.

Less than three months after Jacobs’ death, a grand jury declined to indict the trooper.

Jacobs’ mother, Terrie Jacobs, said this spring that she was still mourning the son who, as a pudgy baby, had so resembled the Pillsbury Doughboy that the nickname stuck until the day he died.

“I’m going to have this hurt with me all my life,” she said. “Till they bury me.”

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