Tarika Wilson Hearing – February 4, 2021, 1 pm Eastern
Transcript: Hearing on the Case of Tarika Wilson
- Rapporteur Marjorie Cohn
- Commissioner Sir Clare Roberts
- Commissioner Prof. Mireille Fanon-Mendes-France
- Mr. Derek Sells, attorney for the family
Marjorie Cohn 00:00
[Welcome to the] hearings of the International Commission of Inquiry on systemic police violence against people of African descent in the United States. These hearings are a process by which witnesses can present accounts of the unjustified killings and maimings of Black individuals by police officers in the United States before an international panel of human rights experts. We will now begin the hearing in the case of Tarika Wilson. My name is Marjorie Cohn and I am the rapporteur for this hearing. Presiding over this hearing today are Commissioner Mireille Fanon-Mendes-France of France and Commissioner Sir Clare Roberts of Antigua and Barbuda. The witness for this hearing is Derek Sells. There will be 50 minutes for this hearing. The witness will testify followed by a period of questions from the commissioners. I will call time at the 30 minute mark in the 45 minute mark. Please excuse my interruptions, commissioners, Fanon-Mendes-France and Roberts I now present to you the witness Derek Sells. Derek Sells, please confirm your name.
Derek Sells 01:16
Thank you. Yes, I’m Derek Sells.
Marjorie Cohn 01:19
Do you promise that your testimony to the Commission of Inquiry will be true to the best of your knowledge and belief?
Derek Sells 01:26
Yes, I do.
Marjorie Cohn 01:29
You may begin.
Derek Sells 01:30
Thank you. And commissioners thank you for for asking me to speak on behalf of Tarika Wilson. You know, it’s my distinct honor and pleasure to have represented Tarika Wilson’s family in a wrongful death suit following her death or tragic death and unnecessary death at the hands of the Lima police department in Lima, Ohio. I want to talk first, before I get into the details of Ms. Wilson’s tragic death. I want to talk about Lima, Ohio. And what it was like back in 2008, January before her death, Lima historically, was a part of Ohio that, at this point in time had about 38,000 people in it. Of those 38,000 people about 10,000 or just about 27% were African American people. So there was a 27% African American population in Lima. Lima was surrounded by pretty much farm towns that were almost exclusively all white. The Lima police department at this time, did not reflect Lima itself. So the Lima Police Department back in January 2008 had 77 police officers on the force. Of those 77 police officers only two were African American. There was a complete distrust by the African American community in Lima of the police department.
Many of the police officers that made up the police department were from the surrounding farm towns. And they were not individuals who lived in Lima itself. And so this was a backdrop to what was going on before the police entered Ms. Wilson’s home. So the big complaint that many of the African American community members had with the Lima police department was that they would stop African Americans out at a much higher rate than they would white citizens and in Lima and they felt that the policing was over aggressive towards African Americans in the community. And so, when the events unfolded that led to Tarika’s death, it produced quite an outcry. A lot of anger among community members in Lima, Lima. So, talking about this incident, at the time that this happened, Tarika Wilson was 26 years old. She was a mother of six children who spent band in ages from one to eight. her youngest was 14 months, his name was sincere. And together along with Ms. Wilson’s boyfriend at the time, an individual by the name of Anthony Terry, lived in a rented home they rented out a home that actually belonged to one of the city council members in Lima. And they had been living there for a while, the place was a two story place so that there was a, you know, a bedroom on the first floor, and a bedroom on the second floor. And Tarika lived there with her children and Mr. Terry, Mr. Terry had some dogs that also lived in in the house.
in the days and weeks leading up to January 4 2008. The day that Tarika was shot and killed, the police had been investigating Anthony Terry on suspicions of drug dealing. They believe that Mr. Terry was a drug dealer, they believed that he presented a danger to the police. And so they began following him. They began investigating his his movements. And eventually, they applied to the local court to get what’s called a no knock warrant, where they can go into the house and arrest Mr. Terry for his for his drug dealing, and also do a search while they were there. So a no knock warrant, just so you understand is a is a warrant that is is filled out by an affiant, someone who swears that the contents of the affidavit are true. And in this particular case, they believed the affiant swear out an affidavit saying that Mr. Terry, they believed was involved in drug dealing. And they believed that he presented a danger. And so they wanted to arrest him. The police had staked out the house where Mr. Terry lived, but they also knew his whereabouts. And what is what showed I guess the the disrespect and the devaluing of African American lives, is the fact that the police waited for Mr. Terry to go inside the home before they tried to arrest him. Mr. Terry was an African American man, Tarika Wilson was an African American woman. Her children were African American as well.
Now, the fact that the police did not arrest Mr. Terry, before he came into the home or at some location other than the home, meant that the police who had sworn out this affidavit saying that Mr. Terry was a danger to them, and therefore they didn’t have to knock before they entered his home to arrest him. They knew that they would be subjected to these, these children, these six children who span from one to eight, as well as their mother, who they did not suspect at all of being involved in the drug trade. They would be subjecting them to the dangers that they believe they would face if they had to confront Anthony Terry. And so just the fact that they decided to go into the home, knowing that they could have a violent showdown with Mr. Terry. And they did so at a time they knew that the children were there as well as Tarika Wilson, meant that they did not care about their lives or hurting the lives of innocent African American children and women. There was no belief on the part of the police that these children were involved in drug trade or that Tarika Wilson was. So that set the stage for this raid that that the police conducted on the home. So in January on January 4 2008 was it evening time, just around, I think eight o’clock or 7:38 o’clock that evening. The police knew that Anthony Terry was inside the home. Anthony Terry, at the time that the police made their entry was in the downstairs bedroom. He was there with his dogs. And Tarika Wilson was upstairs with her six children in the upstairs bedroom.
The police knew this as they, as they attempted to go into the home. And so in order to try and create a diversion, the police set off what’s called stun grenades. They use these flashbangs that make a loud noise, and they make a bright light. And so the police in order to try and distract the occupants of the house set off these flashbangs, Tarika Wilson did not know what was going on. So she retreated with her children into the upstairs bedroom. She asked that she told her kids to get down on the floor. And she held her one year old, Sincere, in her arms. And so as the police broke into the house, she was in the upstairs bedroom with her kids on the floor. And she was holding her one year old. Anthony Terry was on the bed in the downstairs bedroom. And when the police burst through the door, his dogs went out after police. When the police made the entry, they broke up into two teams. One team and this was a you know, they were highly armed. They were wearing vests and helmets. They were carrying, you know automatic rifles and machine guns. And they broke off into two teams, the bottom team that the team that went into the first floor. They confronted the dogs as the officers led by Sergeant Joseph Chevalia, who was a 31 year old veteran now he wasn’t 31 years old. He was a 31 year veteran of the Lima police department. He led the group of officers upstairs. And he had in his hands an automatic rifle that he had on semi automatic. So anytime he would press the trigger, three bullets would be released automatically. The choice of him being the leader of that group that went up the stairs was very puzzling. Because Chevalia, who had been on the force for 31 years, was approximately 60 years old. And was really in no condition to lead any kind of raid let alone to have an automatic weapon in his hands at such a time.
In any event, as the team arrives in front of the dogs downstairs. Chevalia was leading the charge upstairs. All of a sudden gunfire went off downstairs. The police officers downstairs decided that they were going to shoot the dogs so upon them shooting the dogs and as Chevalia was approaching the bedroom with, Tarika’s five children were on the ground. The sixth one was in her, in her hands and she was standing up holding the baby Sincere. Creaky finger Chevalia squeezed the trigger and three bullets went out. One of those bullets ripped through Sincere’s index finger. Cut it off. The bullet traveled after ripping off Sincere’s finger into Tarika Wilson’s chest and it killed her. The other two bullets luckily did not hit her children that were on the floor. But Tarika Wilson died as a result. Now the dogs were killed. Anthony Terry was placed under arrest. without incident he did not resist in any way. Tarika Wilson did not resist. She stood there holding her child.
There was an an outrage following this raid where Tarika Wilson, was, was killed. People demanded answers, they wanted justice. And the Attorney General at the time in Ohio did an investigation. And the officer who shot and killed Tarika Wilson was charged not with any serious charges. But with a misdemeanor charge for reckless assault, he was brought before a jury. And because it was a misdemeanor charge, he only had eight jurors on the on the, on the jury. And those eight jurors were all white. So despite the fact that Lima, Lima, Ohio, had 27%, of a black population, the jury, the jury pool, the jury that decided the fate of this officer was all white, they acquitted him of any criminal charges. And so Tarika Wilson died. And there was no criminal justice that was done. Now, one of the things I always say we’re here, you know, like in America right now, it’s Black history month. And I get asked sometimes, you know, who is someone that I want to recognize during Black History Month? And I always say, I want to recognize Tarika Wilson. And the reason I say that is because whatever you might say about, you know, some of the choices that she made in her life. She loved her kids. And although some people say, and I have no doubt that they are sincere when they when they say it, they say that they would die for their kids. Well Tarika Wilson did. And so to me, she’s a hero. She died protecting her kids. The fact that she didn’t get the justice that she deserved in the criminal justice arena is very disturbing. It’s very hurtful. And it’s something that needs to change. But her life and the way that she died should be something that we honor. With that. I’m happy to answer any questions that you might have. But just remember Tarika Wilson.
Marjorie Cohn 18:35
Thank you, Mr. Sells. We will now turn to questions by commissioners Fanon-Mendes-France and Roberts.
Sir Clare Roberts 18:53
Attorney Sells, I was struck by your statement that something has to change. What do you think? What measures should be put in place to change the, one, the impunity? The lack of accountability and the over aggressive policing against?
Derek Sells 19:31
Yes, Commissioner, you sort of broke up. But I think I have the gist of your question. And one of the things that I believe in is what’s called community policing, right. So in many cities like Lima the population of the The city is is very, it’s diverse, but it’s also broken up into different sections. And where you have, like in this situation where you have a predominantly African American community, where Tarika, and Mr Terry lived. Instead of having police officers who come in know, these white police officers who came from, you know, many farm towns that didn’t have very much experience with the African American community, I think there’s just a lack of care, and a lack of, you know, of a desire to protect the lives of African Americans. I believe that if the same raid were to be conducted by officers who actually came from the African American community, officers, that came from the African American community in Lima, where, you know, they would hopefully know, to Rica, they would hopefully know, Anthony Terry, that a different method of arrest would have occurred, there was absolutely no reason that they needed this huge SWAT presence, where they needed to arrest Anthony Terry in the house, where Tarika Wilson, and her six children were residing at the time. They could have gone and found him at any number of places, because they had followed him they knew exactly where he was going, what his path was, there was no reason for them to have to jeopardize the lives of these children, and Tarikica. And I think there was just a lack of care, a lack of understanding that their method of operating would endanger the lives of innocent African American citizens. And so I think it starts there, too. I think that police officers, who conduct themselves in a manner that violates the constitutional rights of citizens, they need to be held accountable, both criminally and civilly. And so, right now, when situations like this happen, and there’s liability found in the civil context, which is how I represented the Wilson family, it’s the taxpayers that end up paying for whatever judgment is rendered, whatever settlement is made, it’s the taxpayers that pay for it. And until you could make police officers responsible themselves financially, either by going into, you know, the police pension funds, or some other way making these police officers financially responsible for their misconduct, then it’s going to be very difficult to change their behavior. Police officers need to be fired. They need to have some repercussion, financial as well as criminal when they conduct themselves in a fashion that violates the rights of others. And so, I think those are some measures that if taken would help change behavior.
Mireille Fanon-Mendes-France 24:09
May I ask, may I ask you one question please. After Chevalia was acquitted, why is Tarika’s, with some families does not introduce a trial for on behalf of children to pursue the police for excessive use of force. And without any, any reason?
Derek Sells 24:48
Okay, Commissioner, I did, I was the lawyer who represented Tarika Wilson’s family. So we did sue Chevalia and we did sue the Lima police department, we allege that there was excessive force that there were constitutional violations. We had a number of depositions, we went through a lot of discovery. We went to the house, we had experts that looked at the different angles from where the gun was fired. Um, you know, so we did litigate this case and and at some point during the course of the litigation, the city of Lima wanted to settle the case. And so we were able to get a very favorable financial settlement. We’re able to set the children up with, with what’s called structured settlements, so that they all have a source of income as they are now into adulthood. And these things were, we’re you know, we’re done through Tarika’s mother, Darla Jennings, God rest her soul, she passed away a little while ago, but she was feisty, she was a fighter, and she would not let her daughter’s death go in vain. And so, she asked us to represent to represent Tarika’s children. And that’s what we did.
Mireille Fanon-Mendes-France 26:22
As an attorney, and you are an attorney in Lima in the city?
Derek Sells 26:29
I actually, I reside in New York, I practice primarily New York, but I do civil rights cases all around the country. People in Alabama, represented people in Washington, DC, I’ve represented people in Ohio. And, you know, I’m getting ready to start a case down in Louisiana. So I represent police brutality victims, all across the country.
Mireille Fanon-Mendes-France 26:59
How do you as an attorney, how do you explain the double standard of use of force? And the fact that the police officer when they shot someone, are acquitted? Most of the time, there is impunity? How do you explain that? Yeah, we know, we know, we know, we are aware about the racialization in US particular attacking particularly people of African descent. But is it for you, is it is it the only reason? Rests on racialization, or is there another reason, or point of view?
Derek Sells 27:50
Yeah, no, that’s a very good question that you raised. And, you know, I gotta be. It’s disappointing to me at the way that police shootings and police misconduct cases get investigated. Because most of the time, the investigative bodies, the people that are investigating whether or not a police officer has acted in a criminal fashion, are police officers themselves, or their prosecutors who work with police officers. And so when you go into the process of the investigation, which is critical in any type of prosecution, any type of serious prosecution where you want to try and prove that someone has committed a murder, you need to have fair and impartial investigators. And here, like in so many other police shooting cases, the investigators are police officers themselves, and they already are leaning towards the police. And oftentimes they look to try and justify police actions through the lens of a police officer. There are also certain protections that are in place for police officers in situations like this. Unlike an an average citizen, who is alleged to have shot and killed someone where the police, if they know who this person is, they get them. They could question them right away. They can get whatever evidence they need from them right away. With police officers, it’s different from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and vary somewhat. But in every jurisdiction, a police officer who is alleged to have done something illegal is given time before they can actually be questioned. Some places it’s 48 hours, some places, it’s longer. And during that time before the police officer who’s involved, there’s a question, is an investigation taking place. And the person who is going to represent the police officer, and whatever investigation occurs, is often associated with the police union, that that police officer belongs to. And so the police officers who are loyal to the blue code of silence, sometimes it’s called the thin blue line, where, you know, police officers will stick together no matter what information is fed from the investigating officers, to the union, so that the representative for the police officer knows what evidence is there is. And so they can then try and shape their stories to fit into the narrative of, you know, this was justified. So the way that this can be stopped, or prevented, number one, is to have neutral investigators get people from the outside from the outset, to start the investigation and get involved. Number two, video evidence is very helpful. You know, back in 2008, when this occurred, and even earlier than that, you know, there wasn’t the same prevalence of cell phone camera use, it wasn’t the same prevalence of, of cameras and other ways to record like body worn cameras for by police officers. So oftentimes, it was a situation where the police officers word just carried the day, because there was no video proof to undermine it. Nowadays, it’s different, because nowadays — I can’t say a lot different because there’s still too many situations where police officers are acquitted in situations where I believe at least, that they should have been convicted of crimes. But at least now we have video proof where, um, you know, a police officer can now make up a complete you know, whitewashed story, because they have to now deal with the video of their actions and their conduct.
Derek Sells 32:40
And so in certain situations, like there was a case that occurred, there was a, I think it was the Walter Scott case, in South Carolina, where you had this this, you know, 50, something year old man who was running away from a police officer, when he got shot multiple times in the back. And the police officer, you know, claimed that Mr. Scott had taken his taser and was, you know, presented a danger to him, shot him and, you know, then rendered aid to try and help him, that was his testimony. But after he gave his testimony, and unbeknownst to him and other police officers, there was, there was a citizen, who had taken a cell phone video of what transpired. And because the citizen hadn’t shown himself to the police, they didn’t know about it, and they couldn’t work the video into this police officers testimony. And so once the video surfaced, it undermined his whole story where the video showed that the police officer, in fact, lied about Mr. Scott having his taser, the police officer actually went back and you can see him on the video, he went back and picked up his taser and then went back to where Mr. Scott was and drop the taser next to Mr. Scott’s body to make it appear as if that’s what happened. It also undermine this officer in another officer’s testimony that they rendered first aid to Mr. Scott to try and save his life. The video showed that they did not render any aid, and so you know, it’s those types of things that has brought police credibility issues to the fore. Police cover up issues to the fore. And hopefully, as time goes on, it will break down the blue wall of silence and make police officers realize that they’re not gonna get away with this type of misconduct. And these types of, you know, just blatant cover ups.
Marjorie Cohn 34:57
This is the 35 minute mark.
Mireille Fanon-Mendes-France 35:01
Do you think, do you think though the reform, the reform of the police will be enough to solve this inequality of treatment? This way, the police, it’s considers Black bodies don’t matter, as with the slogan Black Lives Matter, do you think it will enough to reform?
Derek Sells 35:28
Well, listen, you know, there have been, it’s been police reform for decades. Right. And so it depends on what the reform is that we’re talking about, I think one of the one of the ways that, that we can better police, the police, is to require that police officers wear their body worn cameras every single time they interact with the public, those cameras should be on and they should not be off. We need to create a database as well so that we can see, no matter where we are in the country, in the world, we can have access to information about particular police officers, officers might not have been found to have been guilty of certain misconduct. But at least we could know if they’ve been reported on one or more occasions, to have engaged in misconduct. And that way, if we get police officers who continually show up in this database, then we know that this is a walking red flag, and that we need to be careful to allow, you know, such such walking red flags to interact with the public, because it’s just a matter of time. You know, most police officers are good. They follow the rules. They don’t try and and you know, violate people’s constitutional rights. But it’s the bad apples, the few bad apples that bring down the whole bunch, because when these bad apples act, and you get the good police officers who try and cover them up, they get dragged just as easily into the into the muck that these bad apples create. And so we need to really remove the bad apples. And that should be the first true reform, get rid of the people that shouldn’t be there as police.
Mireille Fanon-Mendes-France 37:36
You spoke about the power, where if I may say, off the union, trade union police? Okay, you you you mentioned the the power of the union police, police union sorry. And you understand what I mean? And and I would like just know, what is exactly the role of this police union? When there is a shooting or execution of Black people? What is exactly the role, how they can impact the truth, how they use their power as union. Right? Because I know, I know, more or less Fraternal Order of Police. But I would like to get more information about that.
Derek Sells 38:46
Right. So this is what this is. This is what I mean, the police union is there to represent the police, right in the interest of the police. And so there’s a view from the top of these unions, that there’s a war, that the police are at war with the general public, that they’re under attack, that every time there’s some type of reform that’s being threatened or every time there’s a body worn cameras that are, you know, required to be worn, that somehow it’s taking away and attacking the police. And so they want to try and stick together. And that’s why when you have an actor, someone who who commits of a violation against a person’s rights, there’s a pressure on the that’s placed on the innocent officers, the ones who you know, otherwise would not engage in this kind of conduct, to now all of a sudden conform to this, you know, horrible place. This horrible tactic of police coverup. And so even though they didn’t maybe engage in the conduct themselves, the fact that they are now pressured to support this, you know, this unconstitutional action, it poisons them, too. And so therefore, we have a culture of poisoned police officers. And it’s, and it’s maintained by the union, the union forces, essentially, these police officers to stick together. And that’s why we have this blue wall of silence, this blue thin line, where all of a sudden police officers don’t see black, they don’t see white, they just see blue, and anything blue is what they have to support.
Mireille Fanon-Mendes-France 40:48
But another question, and because what we can see also is the role of the justice sometimes even in front of the facts, justice is not making this work. Because it’s not justice. They miss the case. That said, there is no enough evidence or something like that, when it when it’s a concern when it comes down to African American, and what it is there isn’t really a relation between the police and justice at the county level or, or state level?
Derek Sells 41:37
I mean, listen, there’s when you look at it, from a system wide perspective, when you talk about the, like the criminal justice system itself, right, the police officers work hand in hand with the prosecutors, the ones who bring the charges against individuals, and the prosecutors work hand in hand with the judges that oversee the prosecutions. And so, you know, in terms of how the police fit into the system, they’re, they’re well known to the system. And it starts with them. And so if the police are starting off from a perspective of, you know, of racial imbalance, where they’re going after African Americans, and people of color, at a higher rate, or a more aggressive rate, like they like they did in New York City where they had to stop and frisk policy where in African American and Hispanic communities, you know, the police would stop people. unjustifiably they would frisk them, you know, and then they would bring them in, if they found something. And then it’s, you know, even though this, and then this was their policy, right, this whole stop and frisk policy. So now that there’s an arrest made from a bad stop, a constitutionally invalid stop, a racist stop. Now, the prosecutors are brought this, you know, this stop, they, they, they interview the officer, they understand, they must understand that this is a disproportionate impact on African Americans. And yet, the prosecutors at the time, would go ahead, and, you know, write these people up, they wouldn’t dismiss the charges, they would write them up. And then the judges would, would oversee it. And so the system was corrupted from the bottom up, and all of these actors have to work together in order to create what ended up being a very racist policy. You know, this whole stop and frisk, you know, broken windows policy in New York City. That’s what started, right. And Mayor Bloomberg at the time, was the the mayor that, that that wrote it. And he paid for it when he tried to run for, you know, the Democratic nominee for president in this last election cycle. You know, people didn’t forgive him for that people understood that he was the reason in large measure, why this racist form of policing was no good.
Marjorie Cohn 44:40
Excuse me. We have six minutes remaining in the hearing. Commissioner Roberts, would you like to ask questions of Mr. Sells?
Sir Clare Roberts 44:49
Yes, thank you, Mr. Sells, what is the root of the deadly level of force that officers employ to detain Black suspects, we have heard a sense of fear the idea the perception that Black people are dangerous, that which is racist in itself to me. But what do you think is the root, why you need a sort of a war, machine guns, stun grenades and all that, to make an arrest, to detain someone?
Derek Sells 45:35
Well, exactly, you asked me the root. And I’ll tell you the root, the root is history. The root is history. You know, the history of this country is an important one, as it relates to African Americans. You know, I spoke on another panel, just a couple of weeks ago, where I talked about the Constitution of this, of this country. The very document that put this country together did not recognize African Americans as people. We were not people, we were not whole people, we were three fifths of a person. According to the Constitution of this country, we started off as slaves. And that has permeated the way law enforcement has conducted itself for centuries. The same machine that seeks to enforce the law was created on the basis that African Americans were not real people. And so now as we go further, and, you know, you look at the number of deaths that occur at the hands of police and police misconduct. And you see, that it’s mostly African American, when you when you when you look at the, at the numbers, that is, you know, it’s disproportionate, were killed at a higher rate by police than we exist in, in, in society as a whole. And so I think it starts there, it’s rooted in the history of the country. And that needs to change. You know, we need to be more accepting of each other. And until we can root out this, you know, this belief that we’re not African Americans are not equal in the eyes of the law, then we’re going to continue to get killed at a much higher percentage, George Floyd, we saw people were telling that officer to get off of him. And he did it in broad daylight, cameras going, he choked the life out of George Floyd. And that’s rooted in the history of this country.
Mireille Fanon-Mendes-France 48:12
One, one more question. from your experience, dues a victim get more justice from the state than from the federal level?
Derek Sells 48:30
You know, Justice is a, is a loose term. You know, and so if you’re asking about civil justice, in terms of whether or not you know, the survivors, the families that survive, individuals who have been killed by police. Yeah, I mean, there’s federal laws that protect them, as well as state laws. But I think justice is sometimes denied, because the same laws that provide for justice there, counter laws that, you know, try and support and justify police misconduct. And so there’s, there’s this thing called qualified immunity, that needs to be gotten rid of, at least in the United States, this this doctrine of qualified immunity, where police officers, even if they, even if they’re wrong in their actions, as long as it’s it’s articulately reasonable for them to have done what they did, then they don’t have to face civil justice. And so, you know, there are certain things that yes, there are things that will allow in both the federal and the state level families to recover for the wrongs. There are also laws, both the state and federal level that protect police officers from misconduct, so that needs to be looked at as well.
Marjorie Cohn 49:59
Thank you. Mr. Sells. This concludes the hearing in the case of Tarika Wilson. The hearing in the case of Sham Walker will begin at the top of the hour. Thank you.