“Every time they see a black boy in a car they pull you over,” McCord said.
The last time he was at 15th Street and Central Avenue near the Health Sciences campus, McCord was riding with a friend who was pulled over by GRU Public Safety Officer Wesley Martin for not having a tag light. Martin told McCord he was under arrest for an outstanding warrant from South Carolina.
McCord said that he knew there was no warrant and that when he didn’t put his hands on the back of Martin’s car as instructed, the officer used a stun gun on him without warning.
According to the use-of-force reports filed by Martin and Sgt. Zack Skinner, McCord ran and resisted arrest.
There was no outstanding warrant for McCord, but he was jailed on a charge of obstruction of an officer. McCord said he spent four hours in a holding cell at GRU before being taken to the county jail, where it was discovered he had bled through his shirt where the prongs of the stun gun hit him in the back.
He pleaded guilty that day without an attorney.
“I don’t even drive near (GRU) anymore,” McCord said.
McCord was one of 19 people threatened with a stun gun or actually stunned by Martin. An analysis of the department’s use-of-force reports over a three-year period from 2010 to 2013 reveals Martin used his stun gun against 13 people, more than twice as often as any other GRU officer. The officer with the next highest number of such incidents had five, and the median number was two.
Only six of GRU’s 56 officers used force against suspects more than nine times. Martin topped that list with 24 incidents. The list also included three supervisory officers.
The Augusta Chronicle began an investigation of the GRU public safety department’s use of force and arrests after the July 11, 2013, acquittal of Fredrick Gibbons, whom Martin repeatedly stunned during a traffic stop. The investigation covers the time span when the university was called Medical College of Georgia and then Georgia Health Sciences University. Augusta State University and GHSU merged in 2013 to become GRU.
During Gibbons’ trial for felony obstruction of an officer, Martin admitted during cross-examination that he lied about his reason for stopping Gibbons on March 1, 2012, when he filled out his police report, when interviewed by the officer assigned to investigate Gibbons’ complaint against Martin, and when he testified before the jury.
District Attorney Ashley Wright said she hasn’t had the opportunity to review Martin’s testimony. In general, she said, a perjury prosecution is difficult because you have to prove the person had the intent to mislead others and knew what he said was a lie, instead of just being mistaken about a fact.
Martin testified that he warned Gibbons about using the stun gun if he didn’t cooperate, but there was no warning heard on the video recording from Martin’s body camera, a violation of the department’s policy.
Gibbons, a small businessman with a clean record and a family, rejected a plea deal of probation and risked a possible five-year sentence and felony conviction. He did it, Gibbons said after his trial, because too many people are being abused by GRU officers. He wanted the university to investigate its public safety department.
But GRU didn’t.
Martin wasn’t disciplined over Gibbons’ arrest or for any use of force, according to personnel records obtained by The Chronicle. Of those officers who have used force the most, none was ever disciplined, though one was told not to hit any more hospital patients in restraints, according to the personnel records.
Through a spokeswoman, Chief Bill McBride said after the Gibbons trial that the matter was closed. Repeated requests to interview McBride for this story were denied because of a pending investigation of another of Martin’s arrests in which he shot someone with a .40-caliber Glock.
Stewart and James
The shooting of Donte Stewart on Feb. 22 wasn’t the first time Martin fired at someone with his handgun. On Nov. 2, Martin shot at Keith James during a traffic stop but didn’t wound him. On both occasions Martin reported the suspects tried to run him over. Both men were charged with aggravated assault on a police officer, a crime punishable by 20 years in prison.
James has pleaded not guilty. Stewart has not been indicted.
Stewart, who spent more than two weeks in the hospital and still suffers from numbness in his face, said he was leaving University Village when he saw Martin in a shooting stance in front of his vehicle, blocking the apartment’s entrance and exit lanes. Martin and other officers were responding to a noise complaint.
Stewart said he stopped and thought Martin was going to come to his car to speak to him. Instead, Stewart said, Martin started shooting.
“Once I got shot, I was trying to get out of there. I panicked,” Stewart said. He crashed into a tree just outside the complex. Martin and other GRU officers reported that Stewart got out of his vehicle and ran.
“I got out and started crawling,” Stewart said. He remembers watching as blood pooled on the ground below his face.
According to the physical evidence, Martin fired 10 shots at Stewart. The shot directly through the windshield hit Stewart’s face after glancing off his hand that had been on the steering wheel.
Stewart, a GRU freshman majoring in criminal justice, chose the field because his goal is to have a career as an Army officer. He got a late start on college because he joined the National Guard after graduating from the Academy of Richmond County in the college prep program. He intends to return to school.
“I’m coming back; there’s no doubt about it,” he said. “I’m coming back more mature … And I’m not going to bash the whole thing. You know there are a few bad seeds, so I’m not going to say the whole GRU police (department) or Richmond County (sheriff’s office) is bad.”
The district attorney has an open file on Stewart’s case, Wright said. It is being reviewed for possible indictment.
Policy and procedure
GRU’s use-of-force policy states that deadly force should be used only when an officer believes his life or the lives of others are in immediate danger. The stun gun can be used when other options have failed, or when a suspect is actively resisting or not complying with commands and showing willingness and ability to harm the officer or others.
In a GRU police report, Martin said he shot at Stewart’s car because his position prevented him from moving out of harm’s way.
“Generally, the idea is if you have time to shoot, you have time to get out of the way,” said Lorie Fridell, an associate professor of criminology at the University of South Florida who researches use of force and biased policing. “That is the state of the art on policies: to get out of the way.”
Fridell said the use of stun guns is particularly tricky because departments need to detail exactly when and where they can be used.
“Policies should balance the positive aspects of Tasers against the harm and the unknown,” she said.
Fridell said there are varying degrees of resistance: passive, defensive and active. Passive resistance, she said, is generally defined as someone who is not obeying an officer but is not physically resisting. A person is using defensive resistance when physical with an officer, but in an attempt to thwart police intervention without harming the officer.
Active resistance would be physical resistance where the person is trying to harm the officer, Fridell said.
Martin testified during Gibbons’ trial that most of his stun-gun use was against unruly psychiatric patients at the hospital. Records, however, revealed that only four of 19 incidents were against hospital patients.
Most of Martin’s stun-gun incidents began with traffic stops off campus. The working jurisdiction of GRU public safety officers is generally within 1,000 feet of university property, said Christen Carter, Georgia Regents’ director of media relations. The officers also are sworn deputies of the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office, however, and can write citations, make arrests and enforce county ordinances outside of their working jurisdiction, she said.
Richmond County sheriff’s Sgt. Shane McDaniel said GRU officers tend to stick close to the university. However, with campuses stretching from Wrightsboro Road to Walton Way to Reynolds Street, GRU officers have authority to conduct stops when they spot infractions while traveling from one campus to another. At that point, McDaniel said, the officers can issue a citation or allow the sheriff’s office to take over.
One such traffic stop off campus grounds involving Martin occurred Feb. 23, 2012.
Martin said he pursued Charles Bostic that night after clocking him at 67 mph on Wrightsboro Road. Martin reported that Bostic wouldn’t stop for blue lights and siren, and a chase ensued through the Hill area until Bostic crashed the stolen vehicle he was driving on Central Avenue and, according to Martin, tried to escape on foot until Martin stunned him twice.
Bostic could have faced serious prison time for the slew of charges compounded with his criminal history, but charges were reduced and the prosecutor recommended a two-year sentence.
In the incident with James on Nov. 2, Martin said he spotted the 2006 Volkswagen Passat traveling at twice the speed limit on Wrightsboro Road, but the video shows the officer never topped 45 mph in the pursuit and reached the stopped car at the Walton Way intersection.
Martin doesn’t explain in the report why he needed to pull his weapon to write a speeding ticket. He wrote that the driver refused to turn off his vehicle and ran over his foot in an attempt to hit him before Martin started shooting. The video shows Martin moving toward the vehicle. He is near the driver’s door when the shooting begins.
A question of discrimination
A video recorded another incident involving Martin, one that eventually resulted in a jury’s acquitting the man he stunned.
Austin Brown was with others taking a friend to the emergency room on Sept. 9, 2011. In Martin’s report, he contends he was confronted by a hostile crowd of black men after telling them they couldn’t enter through the ambulance bay.
Martin said his back was to a wall when Brown, whom he charged with obstruction of an officer, and others moved threateningly toward him. According to the recording from the stun gun, Martin shot Brown twice.
“You gonna act right now? I’m asking you a question,” Martin said after the second firing, which he later described as a “ride.”
Brown said he felt Martin was taunting him. He refused a plea offer and stood trial, where a jury acquitted him.
Brown is black, as are Gibbons, Bostic and McCord. According to the department’s records, GRU officers used force against 111 known blacks and 36 known whites. Martin used force against 18 known blacks and four whites.
Fridell said a disparity between force used against blacks versus whites is fairly consistent throughout the country.
“Police use of force against minorities could reflect the disproportionate involvement of minorities in crime and in situations where they resist the police,” she said. “The stats you have don’t tell you whether the use of force is based on differential behavior on the part of those groups or police bias. It could be some combination. But, as a social scientist, I can tell you it’s very difficult to parse the potential causes of disparity out.”