It’s been a turbulent week in the criminal justice system for the family of slain 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley Jones. In a sensational story that’s captured the nation’s headlines, the Detroit police officer responsible for her death, Joseph Weekley, was arraigned on involuntary manslaughter charges on Tuesday. One day later the girl’s father, Charles Jones, was arraigned in Detroit’s 36th District Court on first degree murder, weapons, and perjury charges in a case that precipitated the raid that killed his daughter.
The case has become a litmus test on what happens when the scars of a city become primetime entertainment. Now, the question is whether either indictment will even begin to scratch the surface of the city’s deeply flawed method of policing.
Weekley was also charged with careless discharge of a firearm causing death. He entered a plea of not guilty on all counts. If convicted of the involuntary manslaughter charge, Weekley could face up to 15 years in prison.
Aiyana Stanley Jones was killed in May of 2010 as Weekley’s Special Response Team served an early morning search warrant on her home. Less than 48 hours before the raid, 17-year-old Ja’Rean Blake had been shot and killed in the area. Police were searching for the suspect in that case, who was said to be hiding out at Jones’s home. A TV crew from A&E’s reality crime drama “First 48” tagged along.
Shots were fired. A flash bang grenade was reportedly used. Later, even high-ranking police officers would question the use of such excessive force, worrying aloud to Charlie LeDuff at Mother Jones whether the team had “gone Hollywood.” When it was all said and done, police had apprehended their murder suspect, Chauncey Owens, for Blake’s slaying. (Owens would later plead guilty to second degree murder in Blake’s death.) Aiyana Stanley Jones was dead, shot while sleeping on the sofa next to her grandmother, Mertilla Jones.
“A woman grabbed my gun,” Weekley reportedly told his sergeant after the shooting. “It fired. The bullet hit a child.”
That fact is being disputed. Geoffrey Fieger, the family’s attorney, says that the police were the aggressors. He claims to have once been shown a videotape that proved it – but the tape has since disappeared.
“First 48’s” principal photographer, Allison Howard, has also been indicted on perjury and obstruction of justice charges amid allegation that she lied to prosecutors about showing or giving video footage of the raid to “third parties.” The indictment did not specify who the third party was, it’s believed by some to be the family or Fieger, their attorney. Howard also plead not guilty.
Reality television crews have since been banned from accompanying Detroit police officers.
But for some people in Detroit’s most economically devastated communities, the individual criminal prosecutions won’t solve the larger systemic problem of an overly aggressive and increasingly militarized police force.
“While we are pleased to see this recent development, we know that Officer Weekley did not act alone,” wrote Ron Scott of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality in a statement. “The procedure itself, and those who initiated it, should be held equally accountable.”
Detroit’s police department has long been troubled. The department is under two federal consent decrees stemming from lawsuits brought by the Justice Department in 2003. The Justice Department accused DPD of excessive force, including allegations that officers had imprisoned homicide witnesses and kept unsafe holding cells in which inmates had died. In 2009, U.S. District Court Judge Julian Cook voiced what he called his “extreme displeasure” that the department had achieved only 39 percent compliance with his orders six years earlier to make reforms.
The style of policing has also come under scrutiny. In 2010, the National Black Police Association issued a statement criticizing the growing use of military-style raids in poor black neighborhoods.
It is immoral and unacceptable that police leaders, members of Congress, other legislators and the U.S. Department of Justice say nothing about this increasingly occurring phenomenon of American apartment renters and homeowners killed by police unnecessarily pursuant to No Knock warrants accompanied by police dressed as soldiers carrying military armament.
“The arrest of Aiyana’s father, Charles Jones, has created more questions than answers in this case,” Scott said. “It will be a while before our community will be able to breathe a collective sigh of relief, knowing that Aiyana has received justice.”