Savage police brutality revealed

January 14, 2010

Gary Lapon reports on a horrific police beating in Springfield, Mass., caught on videotape--and the months-long inaction of police and city officials.

A VIDEO released last week shows how a routine traffic stop by local police for a dragging muffler last November turned into a nightmare for Melvin Jones III.

Jones, an African American and resident of Springfield, Mass., was pulled over on November 27--and ended up in the hospital with severe injuries to his face, after he was beaten by Jeffrey Asher, a white police officer with a history of brutality against African Americans.

The video, which was posted online, was only just released after being quietly held "in the hands of law enforcement and city officials for several weeks," according to Masslive.com/The Republican newspaper.

It shows Asher striking Jones, who was unarmed, repeatedly with a flashlight, at least 18 times, according to my count. Although not visible on tape after that point, it appears that police continued to beat Jones, since a bystander can be heard to exclaim, "They're still...they're beating him with the flashlight."

A woman, possibly his companion Malika Barnett, the driver of the car, can be heard yelling, "Please don't" and one of the officers apparently called Jones a "nigger"--a male bystander can be heard saying "Somebody called him a fucking nigger."

Melvin Jones III after being beaten by Springfield, Mass., police
Melvin Jones III after being beaten by Springfield, Mass., police

The arc of the light and the loud, sickening "thwack" from each blow of the flashlight suggest that Asher was hitting Jones, who was being restrained by multiple white officers, with full force. Asher resumes hitting Jones multiple times, for a total of at least four separate stretches of beatings.

While an injured, possibly unconscious Jones is lying motionless on the ground, surrounded by six police officers, one of the officers yells, likely about Barnett, "Fuck her, lock her up, too!"

Finally, paramedics arrive to take Jones to the hospital. Jones suffered a broken finger and fractures to the bones in his face, which required reconstructive surgery and left him partially blind in one eye.

According to Masslive.com, "Jones is charged with three counts of felony narcotics possession, resisting arrest and assault and battery on a police officer. The police report of the incident says the struggle ensued when Jones, who acted suspiciously during a traffic stop on Rifle Street, attempted to flee and then grabbed one of the officer's guns. The report states that Asher struck Jones with his flashlight in order to 'disorientate him' as the officers attempted to take him into custody."

What you can do

Call the Springfield, Mass., Police Department at 413-787-6322 or e-mail them at [email protected] to demand that they open a public and transparent investigation into the conduct of Jeffrey Asher and the other officers involved in the beating of Melvin Jones III, and take further steps to address police brutality.

Call Springfield Mayor Dominic J. Sarno's office at 413-787-6000 and demand that the mayor address the pattern of brutality, racism and unaccountability of the Springfield Police Department by establishing an elected, representative civilian review board with the power to discipline police officers.

For more information on protests and activities in this campaign, call Holly Richardson of ARISE for Social Justice at 413-348-8234.

But this conflicts with the video evidence showing Asher repeatedly hitting Jones while Jones is surrounded by several officers, apparently restrained. What's more, Masslive reported, the police report "doesn't indicate any injuries to the officers."

Jones' father, Melvin Jones Jr., told Masslive.com, "The way they wrote the report is not the way the video shows it, and it's not the way that it was told to me by various people who were witnesses."

Jones Jr. continued, "They beat him like a wild animal...I counted 17 or 18 times they clubbed him with that flashlight. Those officers have no regard for human life."


THIS ISN'T the first time that Officer Jeffrey Asher, who is under internal investigation for this incident, has been accused of brutality against African Americans. Nor is it the first time that other officers of the Springfield Police Department have been involved in cases of racist attacks on African American residents.

According to Masslive.com, Asher, who was president of his class at the police academy, was accused of beating Michael J. Cuzzone after the man's friend got into an argument with Asher's father. The city settled with Cuzzone for $75,000.

In 1997, Asher "was caught on videotape" (as shown here in local news footage) kicking Roy Parker, another African American victim who was brutalized while he was already handcuffed and held down by other officers.

Asher was "cleared of any criminal wrongdoing by a judge who said he had used reasonable force," according to Masslive.com. While he was "suspended for one year and ordered to undergo sensitivity training...a labor arbitrator later reduced Asher's suspension from 12 to six months and awarded him about $20,000 in back pay" saying he'd been punished "too harshly," the Web site reported.

In 2004, Asher was among four white police officers who beat Douglas Greer, a Black charter school principal, as he suffered a diabetic attack in his car at a Springfield gas station. According to a 2004 article in The Republican, "a man who said he witnessed the incident told investigators...that he saw police officers beating Greer with a chrome flashlight."

The Police Commission voted 3-2 to find "no probable cause to pursue disciplinary action against" against Asher and the other officers. The City of Springfield settled a civil lawsuit with Greer in 2007 for $180,000.

In addition to Asher, one of the officers accused of beating Greer was "James L. Shewchuck, accused of helping to organize a support party for another officer ultimately cleared in the fatal shooting of a Black motorist who was driving a van falsely reported stolen in 1994," Masslive.com reported.

The party was for Officer Donald Brown, who was accused of shooting to death Benjamin Schoolfield, an unarmed 20-year-old Black man. The charges against Brown were dropped, as well--and the city later settled with Schoolfield's family for $700,000.

According to a 1994 New York Times article, the Western Massachusetts Order of Black Officers stated that "during the party last month, a ham was presented to [Brown]...a ritual gift of Old South vigilantes." Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr.--then the executive director of the NAACP--told the Times that he heard of the ritual when he was growing up in eastern North Carolina. "It's something that white vigilantes would be rewarded with sometimes for committing acts of racial violence," Chavis said.

According to the Times, invitations to the party that were posted at police headquarters read: "Congratulate Don on a job well done (Keep up the good work)."

So Asher is only one high-profile member of a police force that has a long history of wrongdoing and a disturbing culture of tolerance for--if not outright support of--racist violence against African Americans.

For over a month--until Masslive.com published the video of the assault last week--city and police officials in Springfield, who had the video, made no mention of it or the investigation.

This lack of transparency is consistent with the city's pattern of keeping violent, racist cops on the streets, choosing to spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayers' dollars to settle with victims and their families rather than firing cops like Asher and Brown when they beat--or in the latter case, kill--African American residents who they claim to "protect and serve."

The beating of Melvin Jones III by Springfield police is yet another reminder that institutional racism is alive and well in the U.S.--and that police and government officials are unwilling to take concrete steps to reign in police officers who terrorize Black communities.

Too often, African American victims of police brutality end up dead at the hands of police who are not held accountable for their actions. Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell and Oscar Grant III are examples of police killings of Black people thrust into the national spotlight because activists refused to allow their deaths to go unnoticed.

According to a 2006 United Nations Human Rights Committee report, "The 'War on Terror' has created a generalized climate of impunity for law enforcement officers, and contributed to the erosion of what few accountability mechanisms exist for civilian control over law enforcement agencies. As a result, police brutality and abuse persist unabated and undeterred across the country."


MASSLIVE.COM reported that Police Commissioner William J. Fitchet--who has had sole discretion to discipline officers involved in incidents of brutality since the abolition of the Police Commission in 2005--told 150 outraged community members at a forum on Friday, "We will get to the truth...you have got to have faith."

But some Springfield residents aren't taking Fitchet at his word, understanding that unless they take action, Springfield police will continue to terrorize African Americans.

On January 11, about 30 people gathered in front of the Federal building in downtown Springfield to demand justice for Melvin Jones III and call for an end to police brutality. The rally was called by ARISE for Social Justice and joined by members of Out Now, a local LGBTQ youth group; the International Socialist Organization; and Western Mass. Copwatch.

Behzad Samimi, a Springfield resident, connected the beating of Jones to the charges against Jason Vassell, an African American former University of Massachusetts student, who faces decades behind bars if convicted of charges stemming from his self-defense against two white men who attacked him in his dorm room while yelling racial slurs.

"It's a travesty of justice when a victim of a hate crime faces prison while repeat offenders are encouraged and get away with it, over and over," Samimi said. "All of these instances of racial profiling and hate crimes are connected...We the community must speak up and demand accountability and transparency."

Holly Richardson of ARISE, who organized the protest, said that beyond calling for the firing of officer Asher, protesters are demanding "a real, transparent civilian police review board" with the power to discipline police officers when they commit acts of brutality. Currently, "the board can only make recommendations, and they conduct their meetings behind closed doors," Richardson said. "The police end up monitoring themselves, which is never effective."

Richardson said ARISE and its allies plan to continue organizing to keep pressure on the city to hold Asher and the other officers accountable, address the issue of police brutality and "get at the root cause, which is institutionalized racism."

Shortly after the rally, Fitchet and Mayor Dominic Sarno announced guidelines for a "new civilian police commission" that, "if approved, it will have disciplinary authority." This is a step in the right direction, although it remains to be seen if this commission will be representative of those targeted by police brutality, and how transparent and effective it will be in practice.

However, even if it is all of these things, it won't be nearly enough. None of the officers on the scene at the beating of Melvin Jones III can be seen on the tape making any attempt to stop Asher. Greater civilian oversight is welcome, but further steps are needed to address the racist culture of the Springfield Police Department.

The announcement from the mayor and the police commissioner shows that the city is on the defensive and will grant reforms if pressured. That they waited over a month to take action, and only did so after the tape became public and the community responded with outrage shows that continued pressure is necessary to hold city and police officials accountable.

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