Lead with Data: The Jeremy Mardis Incident

Good use-of-force data will point the way to better practices

By Nick Selby & Ben Singelton  |   Nov 23, 2015

Last month, when we wrote a general case to support Attorney General Loretta Lynch and FBI Director James B. Comey in their calls for a national police use of force database, we said the most urgent value was in data projects that rise to become more than just body counts.

We also repeated that, in law enforcement, context is everything.

It was all the more heartbreaking to have such a compelling, real-world case-in-point this month, when two Louisiana marshals shot and killed young Jeremy Mardis. The marshals claimed their ill-fated engagement with Jeremy’s father was tied to their need to serve him with a municipal misdemeanor arrest warrant.

The worst part is that, had we started just a little sooner, had we moved with the determination of leaders upon whom it is incumbent to protect and serve, Jeremy might still be alive today.

How could tracking police use of force have protected the autistic boy? Simple: When we track correctly the police use of force, we see patterns that are otherwise invisible to casual observers. The most telling of these are patterns that have nothing to do with use of force at all, but which are revealed when digging in to use-of-force incidents.

Use of Reserve Officers

In the Mardis case, last week we noticed and observed that, of the two officers involved in the killing of young Jeremy Mardis, one was a reserve officer. Reservists typically serve as volunteers. There’s nothing particularly alarming about that . Across the country (though somewhat less prominently in the northeast and somewhat more prominently in the south), a national force of almost 30,000 reserve police officers serve countless cities and towns.

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Founder Nick Selby, armed, on-duty and serving a search warrant as part of an investigation in another state. In this investigation, Selby was working as a reserve officer. However the agency paid for transportation and travel expenses related to the multi-state, multi-agency investigation into fraud and wholesale credit-card theft.

Several of us at StreetCred serve, or have served, as reservists.

Reserve-Specific Issues

Laws governing the use of reserve officers vary by state. In Louisiana, reserve police officers must have passed a minimum of 360 hours of approved instruction and meet other criteria. In Minnesota, reservists are by law unarmed and do not have the same authority as officers. Reserve officers in Texas and several other states are required to attend the same police academy, and subsequent training, as full-time police officers. Their certification is the same as for that of full-time police officers, as is the authority given to reservists. In law, in appearance, in function, in legal authority, the Texas reserve officer is indistinguishable from the full-time officer.

Reserve officers often have full-time employment elsewhere, in different professions, and they volunteer some of their free time protecting the citizens of their communities, sometimes at great personal risk. But in looking at reserve officers and use of force, we observe that, this year, just two cases (this one, as well as the shooting in February by reserve Tulsa Deputy Robert Gates) in which deadly force was used involved reserve officers.

Both those reservists were indicted. It turns out that, as necessary as they are, and as well trained as many are, reservists may just not be appropriate for all types of policing. Warrant service may be one of those roles that don’t work well (both cases this year were botched cases of warrant service during which a reservist who it turned out was ill-trained for the task, was assigned it).

How could this be? Maybe (and we’re not sure this is true, but it’s a theory based on the data collected this year) it’s because it’s not about basic training but rather workflow and experience. Again, this is not a piece against reservists. Their value is beyond question.  Many of us at StreetCred have, or do, reserve.*

But consider this: When an officer does the job for a paycheck, he is on the street 40-plus hours a week and is in tune with his jurisdiction’s rhythms. It’s his or her livelihood. Officers know that job performance is being reviewed and that they are being compared to his colleagues for the next promotion. They attend briefing every day, at which they discuss recent incidents at various locations, recent case law, jail population, crime trends, equipment in need of repair, etc.

The professional officers knows that the assailant from last week’s domestic assault has been released from jail and shouldn’t be within 100 feet of 837 Ohio Street. He has the photos of the assailant in his phone for reference, should he see him in the area. He knows the people who live there, and they know him.

In many states, there are no standards for how many hours a reserve officer must work. There are many reserve officers who go years without putting on a uniform. But the reserve officer usually works about one shift per month, depending on departmental requirements which vary.

Often this shift is worked after a full day of civilian work. Think about that …

The reservist hasn’t been to briefing in 30 days. He hasn’t driven unit 351, and doesn’t know that the shotgun rack is sticking and requires some extra manipulation to release the shotgun. He wasn’t at last week’s briefing, in which officers discussed the Republic of Texas member that moved into 341 Hickory Street and issued a warning to the police department that stated he would shoot any police officers that set foot on his property without a warrant.

None of this is the fault of the officer. But we should be realistic about the expectations of those who spend one day per month wearing a uniform.

Let’s do some simple math. Ben worked ten years as a police officer. In that time he spent roughly 21,840 hours on duty. A reserve officer, working one shift per month, would get the same experience after 182 years of service. In fact, a full-time rookie officer spends about 2,184 hours on duty in his first year.

Members of the military reserves are required to attend training frequently, but also undergo intense, mission-specific training immediately prior to deployment. Consider other professions that carry life-altering authority, such as surgeons or commercial pilots. Would you consider putting your life in the hands of these people if you knew they worked once a day monthly without pay? Of course not.

There are going to be exceptions. Some reserve officers spend their weekends working the street and are very good at what they do. But there’s no standard across states, and that’s a little frightening. At the very least, we need to follow the data on this and act accordingly.

Marshal-Specific Issues

Next, we consider it highly noteworthy that the officer in question in Marksville is that of the city Marshal. Floyd Voinche, Sr., serves as Marksville’s elected city marshal. There have already been public accusations of irregularitiesincluding among them questions surrounding the licensure and practices of the elected marshal.

Our suspicions were alerted further by the facts of the Mardis case itself . You’ll remember that many newspapers reported early on that the now jailed marshals were said to have been serving an arrest warrant when they confronted Jeremy’s father, Christopher Few.

This is significant because it later came to light that no such warrant existed. For any confusion to have existed means, definitively, that best-practices oversight activities are not taking place at the Marksville Marshals office. City marshals are not confirming with the court arrest warrants before service, so judicial oversight is lacking.

Because of our inside-baseball knowledge of how the reserve and the misdemeanor warrant process works, we’re able to see that this is actually quite startling. This lack of oversight exposes a potential underlying financial motivation: When a judge isn’t confirming warrants, the likelihood of corruption by a marshal increases exponentially.

Just last week we warned in Texas of the perils of debtors’ prison. Left unchecked, the potential for this vulnerability to be abused by a dishonest marshal is quite frightening. We have seen cases like these in which the motivation turned out to be financial, and others in which the motivation was in fact otherwise criminal.

Had we more aggressively highlighted the likelihood to uncover potentially predatory actions of elected officials like Marshal, could this have been exposed in time to save Jeremy’s dad, Chris, from the immeasurable sorrow of burying an innocent child?

We’ll never know.

Conclusion

How can we move forward? We can learn lessons found within the data. Staying focused intently on data that highlights potentially corrupt practices, and most important, making the data non-partisan, free and open.

Data is only valuable when it can be trusted and used as the basis for information on which decisions can be made.

**StreetCred CEO Nick Selby was a reserve officer for more than three years before taking a paid position as an investigator. Ben Singleton, the co-author of this article, was a full-time officer for 10 years and has reserved for more than a year since joining StreetCred. Robert Johnson, account executive, was a full-time officer for more than four years and currently reserves as an officer and as a SWAT negotiator. Gregg Rowland, our COO, has reserved for decades as a Sheriff’s deputy. Director of customer support Chris House was a full-time police officer, and several of our collections employees were full-time officers or reservists.