When 16-year-old Matthew Robinson and his mother, Eva, took their dog out for a walk one September evening four years ago, they never once thought they’d end up in a federal courtroom. Yet that’s where they have been as their terrifying case against two police officers was put in the hands of a jury this week in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Tased, beaten, and terrorized — the Robinsons were not suspected of any crime when they were stopped by police beside their home in Dover, Arkansas. The catalyst for the stop was innocent: Matthew looked and waved at Dover Deputy Marshall Steven Payton as he drove by. Payton admitted this behavior is perfectly legal, yet said he found it suspicious. That led to Matthew being beaten, tased multiple times, kicked, searched, and arrested while his mother was also beaten, handcuffed, choked, and arrested. Her glasses were broken as her face was repeatedly slammed into the hood of a patrol car.
Dover Deputy Marshall Steven Payton testified that he detained the Robinsons and their dog in the back of his patrol car, with the intent to take them to jail solely to identify them. When co-defendant Pope County Sheriff’s Department Sergeant Kristopher Stevens arrived on the scene, he ordered Matthew to get out of the car. When Matthew was not able to get out quickly enough, the Pope County sergeant tased him twice inside the car.
Counsel for the officers claim that the incident would have been avoided if Matthew had said who he was or if he had gotten out of the patrol car when they said, maintaining that officers had “no choice” to use the taser.
We disagree. De-escalation is always an option.
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The case has been rife with missing evidence that police had a duty to preserve. Data from the taser, which would have shown the number and duration of taser deployments on Matthew, was destroyed even after a request was made for a copy of the data. Sergeant Stevens admitted at trial he was untruthful when he told Mr. Robinson there was no data on the taser. Though three police cars were audio and video capable, and should have been in use, police produced only one grainy video of part of the stop.
Photographs show 22 separate taser marks on Matthew’s torso, sides, shoulder, stomach, and lower back. Police admitted at trial to tasing Matthew at least six times, though Sergeant Stevens’ written report from the incident reflected only three tasings and Deputy Payton’s report showed only one. Sergeant Stevens admitted that his testimony in the juvenile case against Matthew, where he denied tasing the teenager while he was on the ground being cuffed, was untrue and that he had in fact tased the minor while he was on the ground. He also admitted that each of the six tasings were in violation of the department’s policy, as was the failure to properly record the incident.
To boot, each officer testified that the other was in charge of the scene. Neither Matthew nor his mother were ever read their rights or told that they were being arrested or why. This is in direct violation of the Robinson’s rights and the polar opposite of good policing.
While the officers continued to deny any wrongdoing, they have admitted to previously testifying falsely, false reports, missing evidence, and multiple violations of policy and training standards. We brought out the missing evidence and inconsistent testimonies in the Robinsons’ case. Missing evidence and police misconduct, after all, are often reasons that the criminal justice system fails us.
With the officers and departments disclaiming any and all responsibility, the Robinsons had nowhere else to turn but to court. They’ve had to fight for four years to ask a jury to serve as the first line of accountability.
In the end, Sergeant Stevens and Pope County settled with the Robinsons just before the verdict for $225,000. No action has been taken by the departments or the officers to prevent such a thing from happening again. Officers have not been disciplined or retrained, and no policies have been revised or implemented. In fact, both officers testified that they would do things exactly the same again.
Success in civil rights cases is against the odds, especially in a case involving police. Tremendous time, money, resources, and energy must be invested just to fight for a chance to obtain some bit of relief or accountability. And then, judges and juries are not empowered to truly bring about better, safer policing.
Unchecked violations of the duty to serve and protect threaten police credibility and safety as well as public safety. We entrust our police officers with great power — to detain, arrest, and use deadly force if necessary — and we provide them special status in return. For all our sakes, they should honor that status by serving and protecting, not terrorizing and tasing.