“A win for one, in a police brutality case, is a win for all,” says Beverly Smith, Ward 8 resident and mother of a 27-year-old lost in such an incident a few blocks from her home. The death of Alonzo Fiero Smith, in custody of special police officers at Marbury Plaza Apartments, 2300 Good Hope Rd. SE, was ruled a homicide. Before he was even laid to rest in November 2015, Beverly Smith was working for justice in Alonzo’s case. That goal has never been separable, she says, from promoting community control of police and ending police brutality.
Justice4Zo at Two Years
Beverly Smith marked the second anniversary of Alonzo’s death with a group of neighbors and supporters outside Marbury Plaza, remembering his life and announcing a lawsuit in his name. The suit seeks financial damages on behalf of his estate, but Smith primarily hopes the proceedings will yield a full account of the incident and admissions of responsibility.
Last year, the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia announced “insufficient evidence” to pursue criminal charges, federal or local, against the special police officers (SPOs). This determination, the statement continued, does not “suggest anything further about what evidence, if any, exists,” because such a criminal case must “not only prove that the force used was excessive, but must also prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the officer acted with the deliberate and specific intent to do something the law forbids.” Civil charges do not require the same “willfulness” proof.
The wrongful death lawsuit makes civil charges, both federal and local, against the individual SPOs as well as others allegedly responsible for Smith’s death. Defendants include Blackout Investigation and Security Services, which employed the SPOs; Marbury Plaza and management, which hired Blackout; and the District of Columbia, which created the rules, regulations and training for SPOs. The complaint alleges several forms of negligence along with violation of Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable seizure and restraint.
“It took us a long time to find attorneys willing and able to help,” Smith said in late November. She reported that the firm of Price Benowitz had been investigating for months before the suit was filed. “We were blessed to have this firm to accept this case.”
SPO Training Cited and Revised
The Oct. 31 filing in Smith’s case cites SPOs Alonso Wilson and “Officer” Vega, alleging, among a litany of charges, that both “failed timely to employ resuscitation efforts and failed to protect the life of Smith.” In particular, the complaint alleges, “Wilson used excessive force which would not have been used by a reasonable law enforcement officer in similar circumstances against Smith,” and “Wilson also stole Smith’s cell phone.”
Throughout the filing, plaintiffs allege that defendants, including Blackout and the District, knew that DC’s commissioning of SPOs posed “pervasive and unreasonable risk of constitutional injury to Smith and other persons.” Many charges center around inadequacy of training.
Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, then chair of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, proposed enhanced training for SPOs – particularly around the use of force – in late 2015, citing Smith’s death and that of James McBride, killed in a separate SPO incident the same year. That legislation remained in committee. In June 2016, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced her own proposed training enhancements, specifically mentioning “carotid neck restraint, knees in the back, and positional asphyxia,” relevant in Smith’s and McBride’s cases. In the ensuing months, Beverly Smith repeatedly asked the mayor to share an update, receiving no response.
Executive and Committee Updates
The Office of the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice reported at press time that “proposed revisions … are slated for implementation upon securing the required funding. The Bowser administration is committed to ensuring individuals who serve as special police officers in the District will be properly trained to protect residents and visitors and that the necessary funding is considered during the upcoming budget cycle.”
The Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, now chaired by Charles Allen, says that during McDuffie’s tenure, the mayor and the Metropolitan Police Department [MPD] “agreed to create and implement new regulations guiding behavior, training and misconduct penalties for special police officers operating in the District. MPD’s oversight already included conducting more than 300 annual site visits.” The new regulations have not been implemented, however, according to Allen’s office, and required funding must be identified by DC agencies like the DC Public Library and General Services that employ SPOs.
“The role of SPOs, including considering regulations and the progress of changes, is always included as part of committee’s ongoing oversight of MPD,” the committee’s statement adds. “As the new chair of the Council’s committee on judiciary and public safety, Councilmember Allen will be inquiring about the status of the regulations governing SPOs in the coming oversight hearings as well.”
Virginia Avniel Spatz writes irregularly for Capital Community News, maintains WeLuvBooks.org, EducationTownHall.org, and SayThisName.Wordpress.com and blogs at SongEveryDay.org.