A state investigation is under way to determine if police in Troy, Alabama, used excessive force in arresting teenager KeAndre Wilkerson over the Christmas weekend. Is an investigation really needed? Look at Wilkerson's face, post arrest, in the photograph above. If that's not excessive force, what is?
Many details still are not known about the Wilkerson incident, but this question likely is on many minds: What could happen to the cops who administered this brutal beating? They certainly could face state charges, likely for assault, but they also could face federal civil-rights charges, which might place each of them in prison for 10 years or more.
Has the level of police violence in the United States reached epidemic proportions? Has it become a major public-health problem, on par with the opioid crisis? As a blogger, I know the "ink was barely dry" on my Dec. 21 post about the cop beating of a Michigan woman named Tiffany McNeil when word came of the Wilkerson beating in Alabama. You can click on this link to remind yourself what McNeil's face looked like after an encounter with cops. McNeil's face looks bad, but Wilkerson's face looks worse. I doubt friends and family can even recognize him.
As grim as the Wilkerson case is, it does produce some dark comedy. Consider this lede on a story from al.com:
Following a Christmas weekend incident in which a Troy teen was seriously injured, police officials are asking the state to investigate whether their alleged use of force was justified.
Gee, fellas, you really think it's possible such force was justified? How many lies are the cops likely to tell in an effort to get themselves off the hook?
What led to Wilkerson's brutal encounter with cops? This is from al.com:
According to a report from WSFA, police say a 17-year-old was seen walking behind a business in the city's downtown area late Saturday evening, around 11 p.m.
Officers exited their patrol vehicles to engage with the teenager when he began to flee on foot, reports say. Once the teenager was apprehended, police allege he failed to cooperate with officers' requests.
Police say the juvenile reached for his waistband, as if to go for a weapon, prompting physical force.
The teen was charged with obstructing governmental operations and resisting arrest. He was taken to a medical facility with serious injuries.
Why did cops even try to "engage" Wilkerson? Walking behind a business late at night might look suspicious to some -- especially if the person walking is black -- but was Wilkerson doing anything unlawful? If he was walking through a parking area, that likely is considered "open to the public" under the law, so perhaps he was not even trespassing. The charges against him -- obstructing governmental operations and resisting arrest -- make it appear the cops had no predicate charge against him; they couldn't even make one up.
Both of these charges usually piggyback on some larger, predicate offense. For example, if you are charged with burglary or theft and run from cops, you might get hit with resisting arrest, along with the more serious charge. But there appears to be no serious charge here. Based on what we know now, there should not have been a "governmental operation" involving Wilkerson; his only apparent offense was "walking while black." And the cops apparently had no grounds to arrest him, so he could not have been resisting under the law. There is no indication from the al.com article that Wilkerson had a gun in his waistband. Did he get beaten because he hitched up his pants or tried to adjust his belt?
Here is the most important question for now: Was the arrest lawful? Was there even probable cause to believe Wilkerson had committed a crime? Under Alabama law, any use of force in an illegal arrest is unlawful -- and an officer has no authority to use force. From a case styled Jackson v. Sauls, 206 F. 3d 1156 (11th Circ., 2000):
" . . . if a stop or arrest is illegal, then there is no basis for any threat or any use of force, and an excessive force claim would always arise but only collaterally from the illegal stop or arrest claim."
As for federal charges, those would come under 18 U.S.C. 242 (deprivation of rights under color of law), and that could spell big trouble for the cops who beat Wilkerson. They could face up to 10 years in federal prison, and depending on the circumstances, punishment might become even more severe than that. The statute reads in part:
Whoever, under color of any law, statute, ordinance, regulation, or custom, willfully subjects any person in any State, Territory, Commonwealth, Possession, or District to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or to different punishments, pains, or penalties, on account of such person being an alien, or by reason of his color, or race, than are prescribed for the punishment of citizens, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both; and if bodily injury results from the acts committed in violation of this section or if such acts include the use, attempted use, or threatened use of a dangerous weapon, explosives, or fire, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both . . .
If a court finds the cops tried to kill Wilkerson -- and the photo above suggests that might have been the case -- the cops' problems grow exponentially. From the statute:
. . . and if death results from the acts committed in violation of this section or if such acts include kidnapping or an attempt to kidnap, aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to commit aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to kill, shall be fined under this title, or imprisoned for any term of years or for life, or both, or may be sentenced to death.
Based on what we know at the moment, the Troy cops could face up to 10 years in federal prison -- and that could expand to life in prison or even the death penalty. Was it really a wise move to "engage" KeAndre Wilkerson because he was walking behind a building?