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Jackson’s action

The death of an OKC man while in police custody spurs Rev. Jesse Jackson to call for a congressional probe.

Tim Farley March 27th, 2013

Prominent civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson has vowed he won’t rest until justice is served for Robin Howard.

Jesse Jackson with members
of Robin Howard's family
Credit: Shannon Cornman

The 54-year-old Howard died June 23 from pneumonia caused by blunt force trauma to the chest following a confrontation four days earlier with Oklahoma City police officers. The death was ruled a homicide by the state medical examiner.

Jackson came to OKC last week to support the Howard family’s quest to obtain full disclosure of the police department’s criminal and administrative investigations. More than 100 demonstrators — including Jackson, Howard family members and leaders of the state’s American Civil Liberties Union chapter and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — marched from police headquarters to city hall.

The family and their attorney, David Slane, contend police officials have withheld important information regarding the use of force in connection with Howard’s death.

“This is becoming a national issue just like Rodney King,” Jackson told Oklahoma Gazette. “We’re going to be looking at records from the last three years and how many people have died while in police custody and at the jail. This man (Howard) didn’t puncture his own lungs.”

Jackson accused Oklahoma City police of a coverup to protect the officers involved in the alleged beating of Howard, who had a history of drug-related offenses.

“This is nothing but the blue code of silence,” he said at a March 19 news conference. “Here is an unarmed man in police custody and he’s alive, but he comes out dead. We demand the records now.”

Police Chief Bill Citty acknowledged he did not provide copies of the reports but did share “quite a bit” of information about the case.

“We did not provide all of the officers’ statements, and we wouldn’t. But this is going to end up in litigation, anyway,” the chief said.

Slane said police shared only a few facts about the incident. Police investigative reports and field notes are not considered public record.

Jackson said the issue “will get bigger and bigger” until the Howard family receives all documents related to the death. He said he intends to shine a national spotlight on the death of Howard, who was black, making a commitment to return to Oklahoma City to “expand the [public] demonstrations.”

Jackson also plans to seek help from leaders in Congress, including U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.

Citty said he would welcome such inquiries.

Credit: Shannon Cornman

“If the Justice Department wants to come in and look at that, it’s fine. We’re a public entity, and we have to be open,” he said.

The beginning
The case began when police officers Jeff Coffey and Doug Grady tried to stop Howard for a traffic violation. Howard led them on a short vehicle chase before crashing into another car and then a pole along Monticello Court.

He tried to make a run for it, but the officers caught up with him. Police say Howard resisted arrest and the officers used force, including knee strikes, to detain him.

Howard was taken to Integris Southwest Medical Center, where an exam revealed fractured ribs, a fractured arm and other injuries, according to a report from the state medical examiner.

He was alert and cooperative with police Internal Affairs officers investigating the use of force. On June 23, however, he fell into a coma and had to be revived three times. Howard died the following morning.

The two officers were placed on restricted duty after Howard’s death but returned to their regular duties after Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater declined to file criminal charges.

That prompted Slane to suggest that the officers should remain on restricted duty until all investigations are complete.

Citty, however, said the D.A.’s decision allowed him to return the officers back to their normal duties.

“[Howard] made a decision to run, and he made a decision to fight with the officers. This person was not brutalized,” he said. “If he (Officer Coffey) intentionally broke the suspect’s ribs, it would be a different story.”

A final disciplinary decision has not been made because of a formal complaint filed by the family.

“I’ll tell you this: It doesn’t rise to the level of termination,” Citty said.

The FBI is conducting an independent civil rights investigation while also reviewing the police department’s criminal probe, according to police Capt. Dexter Nelson.

The department’s use-of-force panel determined the action taken against Howard was justified but the way officers applied it was inappropriate, Nelson said.

A separate administrative probe into possible policy violations is ongoing.

No notification

Credit: Shannon Cornman

Part of the dispute in this case involves notification of family members regarding Howard’s arrest and death. Police officials contend the family knew Howard was in custody and had been hospitalized.

Yet, Howard’s sister, Kim Howard, claims the family never knew he was taken to a hospital.

Citty publicly acknowledged the department slipped up by failing to immediately notify the family when Howard died. Family members did not learn of his death until four days later.

“We couldn’t believe it,” Kim Howard said. “We were in shock. We kept calling the [Oklahoma County] jail, and they said he wasn’t there. We were led to believe another county had him. We never knew he was in the hospital.”

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