Bad Cop Blotter

Alabama ​Police Killed a 'Sovereign Citizen' Who Was Dropping Off a Stray Animal at a Shelter

On Tuesday, police in Dothan, Alabama, fatally shot a reported member of the loosely-defined "sovereign citizen" movement after he refused to show a government-issued ID to employees at an animal shelter.

by Lucy Steigerwald
Jan 5 2015, 2:42pm

Photo via Flickr user cmh2315fl

On Tuesday, police in Dothan, Alabama, fatally shot a reported member of the loosely defined "sovereign citizen" movement after he refused to show a government-issued ID to employees at an animal shelter. Robert Earl Lawrence, 30, allegedly became combative when told he had to show ID to drop off a stray animal, and tried to use a paper indicating he was a sovereign citizen instead.

Police were called, and after an unspecified struggle over Lawrence's refusal to be calm, he was shot in the stomach and died that night in the hospital. Lawrence had a bit of a nasty rap sheet, and there might be good reason to require people show ID at an animal shelter. All the same, an unarmed man who appears to have initially been trying to do a nice thing for an animal was killed by police.

Did this really need to happen? Ever since the December 20 ambush killings of two NYPD officers in Brooklyn, police and their supporters have been stressing the fact that cops are in danger when they're on the jobs, not to mention disrespected by the public. Though the number of cops killed in 2014 was up by 56 percent, that number is more dramatic because 2013 saw a unique period of safety for agents of American law enforcement. Police shouldn't panic, and they shouldn't use tragic deaths as an excuse to get itchy trigger fingers—not even when dealing with weirdos and extremists.

Sovereign citizens are feared by police—though according to Free Thought Project, Lawrence's family disputes his status as one—because they basically don't believe in cops, and have occasionally ambushed them. However, disbelieving in authority doesn't magically translate to homicide. Some of these guys are content with being passive pains in the ass, like the Idaho dudes who, in 2012, made police cut them out of their seat belts.

Regardless of how unsympathetic Lawrence turns out to be, nobody unarmed should end up dead because they were a loudmouth—or even if they believe the government isn't legitimate.

Now for the rest of this week's bad cops:

–It's hard to know whether the NYPD slowdown is bad police behavior or not. Arrests for drug crimes, citation-worthy offenses, and other petty things are way down. This has been portrayed as the NYPD's revenge for the lack of respect they have been afforded by the public and by their mayor. But it's also a step back for "broken windows" policing, and other disputed crime-stopping tactics. Many critiques of the police want fewer arrests, especially for minor offenses. So who is this hurting? Not most New Yorkers, who commit small infractions, if any at all. Barring a violent crime wave that might prove that the NYPD needs to harass more people more often, this is doing nothing except perhaps marginally diminishing the amount of revenue the city of New York gets.

–The NYPD had been looking for the man who choked a 28-year-old public transit employee on December 23, only to realize the suspect captured on surveillance video was an off-duty officer. Officer Mirjan Lolja reportedly choked the woman after she tried to take his phone and swore at him for asking a question. The woman disputes this, and says she was horrified to discover her attacker was a cop. She was briefly hospitalized after the incident, and is still on leave from work. The officer turned himself in after seeing himself (smirking) on video, but no charges have been filed.

–On Saturday night, police in Wichita, Kansas, fatally shot a 23-year-old man who was drunk and had previously been in possession of a knife. An uncle of John Paul Quintero called 911 because they wanted help dealing with the man they called JP, but the police ending up shooting him. Now the family is saying they wanted help, but Quintero was shot when his knife was in the back of his car, far out of reach—he was no threat, in other words. As in other cases we've seen, a family wanted help for and protection from a loved one, and they ended up with him dying tragically.

–The November death of 37-year-old Tanisha Anderson while in Cleveland Police custody was ruled a homicide on Friday. According to the medical examiner, Anderson died from being restrained by police, who had been called to get her to a mental health intervention. Anderson's family had said that a police officer put their knee on Anderson's back when she was thrown to the ground, which sounds like the moment the medical examiner is citing as key here. Anderson, who had a history of heart disease, fell unconscious soon after being placed in the squad car.

–On Sunday, a member of the Boston Police Department was arrested for assaulting an Uber driver and, after claiming the driver dropped him off in the wrong place, driving the man's car away. Michael Doherty, a 16-year-veteran of the department, has been put on paid administrative leave.

–Also on Sunday, NYPD Officer Wenjian Liu was laid to rest in a funeral attended by thousands of police officers from around the country. Sadly, even though Liu's widow asked that officers refrain from protests, hundreds of them still turned their backs when Mayor Bill de Blasio made his remarks, the latest symbolic protest against a public official who has been deemed excessively critical of cops.

–Yonkers, New York, police officer Neil Vera was fired on Tuesday for lying on a search warrant that led to the death of a man in March. Vera had not been charged with a crime yet, but he appears to have committed numerous acts of misconduct. Allegedly, he lost contact with his undercover drug buys, and his flawed information led to a narcotics raid during which Dario Tena (who wasn't a suspect) climbed out a window and then fell to his death. The suspect Vera named on the warrant didn't even live there anymore, and his supposed informant wasn't even in the state. Once these problems came to light, Vera had another informant falsify reports of additional drug buys. The officer has ten days to appeal, but God knows why he would bother.

–The mentally ill Ezell Ford was shot three times by LAPD officers on August 11, and now the official autopsy report notes that one of those times was in the back. There was also a muzzle imprint on the 25-year-old's skin, suggesting very close range shots. Ford was unarmed during the confrontation with Officers Sharlton Wampler and Antonio Villegas, and police say he wrestled with an officer's gun, forcing his partner to fire twice. The back shot came from the officer on the ground. Both men are on administrative leave. Whatever happened, it's worth noting that yet another mentally ill individual has been killed by police, and that witnesses dispute police accounts of the incidents.

–"A helicopter and K9 unit were called in to help search for the suspect... The suspect is still on the run." Sounds dramatic, right? Actually, not at all. Turns out a Lee County, Florida, deputy was after a man who was riding a bike without a light at night on January 2, and then pedaled away from police. During the chase, a K9 deputy shot a pit bull who attacked his dog. The owner of the dog says it was within his yard and behind an invisible fence.

–Our Good Cop of the Week is spiffy new Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay, who on New Year's Eve tweeted a photo of himself holding a sign that read: "I resolve to challenge racism @ work #endwhitesilence." This horrified local police unions, who accused McLay of accusing his department of racism. He's not. Tweeting the photo was a risky move in an atmosphere of NYPD officers turning their backs to their mayor. But McLay has more to say: He wrote in an email to fellow cops that police are supposed to uphold the Constitution (well, yeah) and he has also noted that minorities have less trust in police. To wit: "The reality of US policing is that our enforcement efforts have a disparate impact on communities of color."

McLay even expressed regret for his past crime-fighting efforts, writing, "My own street drug enforcement efforts were well intended but had an impact I would not have consciously chosen." Finally, McLay noted he and supports are working on "restoring the legitimacy of the policing profession." This is just talk for now, but it bodes well for the new chief, and sure makes him sound like a good cop.

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