Episode 7 ties together stories from previous episodes, focusing on the long-term ramifications of repeated exposure to violence and negative interactions with the justice system.
We continue to follow Jesse Nickerson from Episode 6. Last we heard, Jesse had been kept for days in the same makeshift holding room as East Cleveland defendant Arnold Black (whose $22 million jury verdict was overturned this week, by the way). Despite East Cleveland’s apparent pattern and practice of holding defendants in this room without food or bathroom facilities for days, Nickerson’s attorney dismisses the idea of a civil lawsuit, saying the case would be hard to prove.
Instead, listeners follow Jesse through a new series of events: a case in Euclid before Judge LaBarron (who has since left the Euclid bench), a heated interaction with an East Cleveland Police Officer at a gas station, and a retelling of Jesse’s childhood and the violence he has witnessed in his 29 years.
Koenig also weaves in an update on Erimius Spencer, who we first met in Episode 3. Erimius was assaulted by Euclid Police officer Michael Amiott in his own apartment building and was seeking damages through the civil system. When we left Erimius in Episode 3, listeners were told that Officer Michael Amiott had been recorded violently beating up another Euclid resident. In this episode, we follow Erimius as he resolves his criminal charges. We learn that Erimius ultimately settles the civil suit for $50,000 and we learn that Michael Amiott was rehired by the Euclid Police Department — news that broke only a few days before the episode aired.
In this response, we’ll cover the following:
- Euclid police training allegations
- Toxic stress & community trauma
- Serial’s focus on civil lawsuits to respond to police misconduct
Euclid police training allegations
We spend most of this episode in East Cleveland and Euclid. Although I discussed East Cleveland’s history at length in response to last week’s episode, I want to take a quick minute to discuss Euclid’s own demographic shifts and how these changes might play into the allegations made against its police force.
Euclid was a predominantly white suburb that was propelled through the first half of the twentieth century by manufacturing and blue collar jobs. It would famously become associated with the Slovenian immigrant population who created the Cleveland style of polka music (feel free to check out Euclid’s Polka Hall of Fame but click at your own risk — the website automatically loads background polka music).
Indeed, through the 1960s the number of white Euclid residents completely dwarfed the number of non-white Euclid residents.
1960 US Census Data on Euclid, courtesy of the Cleveland Public Library
This census data might be surprising for those of us who have only known Euclid in the last few decades. It is now a majority-minority city with around a 60% African-American population. After the first episode on Erimius Spencer, I set out to gather some information on Euclid’s demographic change and learn more about how and when it happened and how the city responded. For example, I quickly found this photo of the Euclid Police Department, showing an apparently all-white police force in 1978. I was curious and whether this police force reflected the city’s demographics at the time.
However, I could find very little Euclid history after the 1960s. This seemed odd because the town loves it’s history — I could learn lots on the 1800s and early 1900s through books, the city’s own website, and the many historical resources curated by the Euclid Public Library. But Euclid history seemed to stop sometime around 1970. Even the books that claimed to cover later years drifted off into generalities about change and clearly preferred to dwell on the Euclid’s earlier days. I couldn’t even find a clear summary of the demographic data until Cleveland Public Library’s Government Documents Department kindly pulled the individual census records for me from 1950-1990.
As it turns out, Euclid went from being 0.8% black in 1970 to being 7.6% black in 1980. However, the tract-level data shows that the majority of this change happened in the more southern areas of Euclid which went from having almost no black residents in 1970 to having about 20% black residents in 1980. This map from the 1980 census data is a good opportunity to see the effects of segregation and demographic shifts in both East Cleveland and Euclid.
So, yes, it’s very likely that the apparently all-white police force from 1978 was patrolling parts of Euclid that had quickly growing communities of color.
Of course, 2014 data gathered by the New York Times shows how common such disparities are between police forces and communities. But even if there were no historical race questions lingering over Euclid, lapses in training at Euclid’s police department have recently come to light. Officer Michael Amiott’s assault of John Hubbard III actually took place after another Euclid officer shot and killed a man named Luke Stewart inside his own car. Discovery in Luke Stewart’s case revealed training materials like this, which bear the tagline: “Euclid Police Department, Defensive Tactics Training, protecting and serving the poop out of you.”
Euclid also used this Chris Rock sketch “How not to get your ass beat by the police” as part of its training.
Euclid’s cavalier attitude towards escalating police violence were not enough to create civil liability in Luke Stewart’s case, as I’ll discuss later in this response. And because the court found there to be no underlying constitutional violation in the police officer’s actions, Luke Stewart’s family could not hold the City of Euclid responsible for its lapses in training.
Toxic Stress & Community Trauma
This week’s episode revolves around the ramifications of repeated interactions with the justice system and also touches on the long-term consequences of repeated violence early in life.
Although Koenig and Dzotsi don’t use these terms, I’d encourage listeners to view this week’s episode through the lens of “toxic stress” and “community trauma” — which are increasingly part of the lexicon in Cleveland and around the country.
According to Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, a toxic stress response occurs “when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse . . . exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship—without adequate adult support.” If you are listening to Serial because you are an auditory learner, this NPR story does a good job of covering the basics of toxic stress and giving some concrete examples.
Harvard’s Center goes on to argue that:
This kind of prolonged activation of the stress response systems can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years.
In other words, there are psychological links between a childhood spent in poverty and the type of impulsive behavior that can lead to interactions with the criminal justice system.
Similarly, the term “community trauma” comes from a growing understanding in psychology that trauma can be reside in and pass through whole communities rather than individuals alone. Here is an explanation of community trauma from a official City of Cleveland presentation on the topic:
These terms are beginning to infiltrate the discussions in Cleveland. While there’s plenty to quibble with in Mayor Jackson’s recent State of the City address, he repeatedly and explicitly framed problems in Cleveland schools through the lens of toxic stress. Cleveland City Council recently received a training on community trauma, and is hoping to work with MetroHealth to put community-trauma-trained counselors in all of Cleveland’s rec centers.
Cleveland is even trying to frame its various programs through the vocabulary of community trauma:
While adoption of this vocabulary and viewpoint is a start, a casual review of headlines in Cleveland will tell you that we are far from fully implementing this vision — housing conditions in Cleveland are still generally poor, CPD’s community policing units (i.e. NICE units) are understaffed, and Cleveland’s economic growth continues to provide lackluster results for our poor communities. Vocabulary and framework is important to understand the stories being told in this episode. But it’s just the beginning.
Serial’s Focus on Civil Lawsuits to Respond to Police Misconduct
“I’m not saying all police are bad, but if the system don’t fix the ones that are bad, that means the whole system is corrupt.” –Callie Spencer to Sarah Koenig
When I first heard that Season 3 of Serial would focus on criminal justice, telling the story of “one courthouse week by week,” I thought we’d be spending most of the time humanizing the litany of current criminal justice concerns: plea bargaining, low level drug offenses, disproportionate targeting of communities of color, prosecutorial discretion, prison labor exploitation, bail reform, and so on.
Instead, the season has focused more than I expected on what citizens do after being mistreated by police officers — how defendants get justice against the system, rather than how the system gets justice against defendants.
These stories are crucial to tell, but there’s been no explicit recognition of this focus. As a result, Koenig and Dzotsi’s assumptions about how to handle police misconduct have gone largely unexplored.
Indeed, we have now spent multiple episodes where the baseline assumption is that civil lawsuits are the bulwark against police misconduct. It is assumed that we might see police departments shape up if only cities were held accountable through the civil system for the full damage their officers inflicted.
But let’s take a moment to interrogate this assumption. The legal standard for winning one of these civil cases — called a Section 1983 case after its location in the U.S. Code — is extraordinarily high. Police officers enjoy what is called qualified immunity. And in the Sixth Circuit (where Ohio sits), courts can only consider the police officer’s decision at the exact moment of using deadly force. Even if the officer created the circumstances that necessitated deadly force, a court in Ohio must “segment” the actions and look only to the split second before the use of force.
For instance, I mentioned the killing of Luke Stewart earlier. Stewart was sleeping his car when Euclid Police Officer Matthew Rhodes got into Stewart’s vehicle, startled him awake, a set off a series of events that resulted in Rhodes shooting the unarmed Stewart. But, because of the “segmented” approach, a federal court found that Rhodes had not acted improperly.
Excerpt from the judicial opinion in Luke Stewart‘s civil lawsuit.
Even if cities could pay out the judgments in civil lawsuits, our current civil justice system effectively immunizes police from responsibility. That’s why there is a growing legal movement to modify the qualified immunity defense in Section 1983 cases.
Moreover, the entire civil system is, of course, a reactive rather than a proactive response. If we rely exclusively on Section 1983 to fix the problem, we are already ceding the point that police officers can act violently to citizens — often kill them — and then fix the problem later with money.
The consent decree and the Community Police Commission are, at least in theory, supposed to be proactive responses that will decrease these incidents. The problem is that the community has seen very little buy-in from rank-and-file officers and police unions. Instead they hear from people like Steve Loomis who deny that implicit bias impacts policing. Or they see police unions fighting to reinstate officers like Michael Amiott who have a growing list of victims in their wake.
I am glad to see Serial tackling stories of police brutality in depth. But you do not get the full picture if you assume that the civil lawsuit system will provide an adequate measure of justice. Section 1983 is not going to save us from this problem.
I wanted to end this week with two different groups who are taking very different approaches to addressing two issues raised in this episode: driver’s license suspensions and police encounters because of broken tail lights.
Fix216 is a criminal justice “scope-a-thon” happening this weekend to “scope out” the problems faced by communities and then have guided conversations with experts to begin to build solutions. The event is being carefully curated so it does not turn into a more traditional “hack-a-thon.” And after numerous interviews and community dialogues, one of their top issues for the weekend will be thinking through new approaches to Ohio’s drivers license suspensions process and other so-called collateral sanctions.
Towards the end of the episode we hear East Cleveland Judge William Dawson determining Jesse Nickerson’s sentence for his various misdemeanors. Judge Dawson offhandedly mentions the likelihood that Jesse will next be pulled over for a broken taillight or a similarly minor offense. Of course, using tail lights as a pretense to disproportionately pull over drivers of color is well documented. As a result, one local group has been raising funds to bring in car mechanics and fix broken taillights for free in their “Gimme A Brake” brake light clinics.
Finally, I will put in a plug for Issue 1, which will be voted on by the time Episode 8 comes out in two weeks. Issue 1 is an opportunity to change how Ohio criminalizes drug use. You can read a thorough and non-partisan evaluation of it here. I’ll be supporting it and I certainly hope you read up on it before heading to the voting booth.