Friday, September 26, 2008

The Rachel Hoffman tragedy - some sort of reckoning

The investigation into the bungled police drug sting operation that led to the tragic death of Rachel Hoffman (covered previously in this blog) has now concluded with one of the investigators being fired, four more being suspended on no pay, and one reprimanded. The details, including the full internal affairs report are available here.

The basic facts of the story are as follows: Rachel Morningstar Hoffman, (December 17, 1984 – May 9, 2008) was a 23-year-old Florida State University graduate who was killed during a botched drug sting that started on May 7, 2008.

She was under drug court supervision for possession of 25 grams (0.9 oz.) of cannabis during a traffic stop on February 22, 2007. On April 17, 2008, she was busted in her apartment by Tallahassee, Florida police for possession of 151.7 grams (or 5.328 ounces) of cannabis (apparently it had been her turn to secure supplies for her group of friends) . She was threatened with a charge of manufacturing. Faced with a possible prison sentence if charged and convicted, she agreed instead to serve as a confidential informant to buy 1,500 ecstasy pills, 2 ounces of cocaine, and a handgun, using $13,000 cash in a buy-bust operation. While she worked undercover, police lost track of her and she was killed by two assailants (now arrested and facing life sentences).

The story of how Rachel was effectively caught and killed in the drug war cross fire, and the appalling police negligence that forced her into harm's way, has received much media attention (see here for comprehensive coverage) and become a rallying point for campaigners against the excesses of US drug law enforcement, especially the students for sensible drug policy (SSDP) group, of which she was a member.

ABC news coverage:

The more detailed ABC news 20:20 report is also available on Youtube

The news that the internal affairs investigation has led to one sacking and several suspensions is (without commenting on the appropriateness of the response) at least proof that a disaster like this will not be completely swept under the carpet. But there are of course bigger culprits; the drug war itself, its champions and defenders. They have created and maintained the system that criminalised Rachel in the first place, they have created the violent criminal underworld that she was thrust into, and they created the policing environment where the sort of madness that led to her death was even contemplated.

This case only highlights the bigger injustices still to be addressed.

This is a statement issued by The Hoffman family's attorneys, 2 days after her death:

Today, the community of Tallahassee, Florida mourns the loss of a beautiful girl. Today, those living in Pinellas County and the Clearwater Beach, Florida area mourn the loss of a beautiful citizen. Today, the State of Florida mourns the loss of a vibrant, intelligent, beautiful, and loving young woman.

No one feels this loss more strongly than the family and friends of Rachel Hoffman, whose life was taken in a senseless act of extreme violence. The anger and outrage in the community is great, and many questions are beginning to surface. The family is in the middle of grieving Rachel’s murder. Yesterday, they had only known for a short time that she was killed and would never be coming back. On that very day, a press conference was held by the Tallahassee Police Department regarding the death of Rachel.

From the press conference’s inception, the Tallahassee Police Department took the opportunity to inform the community of the victim’s criminal charges, and made the point, both directly and indirectly, that her death was the result of her breaking protocol during the sting operation. The family and the attorneys for Rachel Hoffman have serious concerns about the statement that Rachel somehow caused her own death.

Rachel Hoffman was a 23-year-old woman, a graduate of Florida State University, and a daughter, beloved family member, and friend. At no time during the press conference was it addressed that Rachel Hoffman was not a trained law enforcement officer, was not on the Tallahassee Police Department Vice Squad Unit, or that she had taken any training classes regarding the Tallahassee Police Department’s “protocol”.

It was not addressed why Rachel was placed in this situation in the first instance, other than she had criminal charges pending. However, even with criminal charges pending, the main concern is how Rachel came to this position and what measures were taken in order for her to agree to go there. Her family and attorneys believe it was her involvement in the drug sting that led to Rachel’s death, and not the fact that she allegedly broke any protocol, but rather that she was led to the site in the first place.

At no time was it discussed how police lost sight of her or what precautions they took to prevent her from being lost. At no time was it discussed what safety precautions were taken by police who knew she would be meeting with armed individuals.

At no time during the press conference was it addressed that Rachel Hoffman had no pending or past cocaine or handgun charges in the very county where she was to meet the individuals, yet she was sent into a sting operation to buy cocaine and a handgun. It was never addressed whether her vicious murder was committed with the very handgun she was going to purchase.

At no time during the press conference was it addressed that with regard to her first drug charges for which she was in drug court, a diversionary program, that she had a defense attorney who was representing her. The new charges that led to her agreement to become a confidential informant would have affected her success in drug court.

However, her defense attorney, Johnny Devine, was not notified. Mr. Devine’s client was talked to by the police regarding this matter. However, her attorney was not present nor was he notified. No details regarding this meeting were discussed at the press conference, although had Rachel asked to consult with her attorney and been denied that right, it would have been a severe miscarriage of justice. It was not discussed what charges she was told she was facing, or how much time she would spend in jail for them.

Although a concern for the family was expressed at the press conference, it was greatly overshadowed by an immediate shift to the victim’s criminal record and details of how she caused her own death by botching a sting operation. No where was it discussed why a 5 foot 7 inch, 135 pound young woman was sent into an operation to buy items that she herself has never been accused of having in her own possession.

During the press conference, mention of the fact that the Tallahassee Police Department did not know the two men that Rachel was helping to set up in a drug bust that night came immediately to light. However, at no time during that press conference was it addressed whether or not the Tallahassee Police Department has any policy or protocol of whether or not the research the very suspects and review their criminal record before they send in a confidential informant to bust them.

At no time was it discussed whether or not Rachel knew how dangerous those individuals truly were. Clearly, the police knew about the individuals by the time they were trying to get Rachel to set them up for arrest. And most definitely, the police were aware of the individuals’ identity in order for them to find them in Orlando, Florida so suddenly and take them into custody.

Bringing to light the victim’s criminal charges, her alleged faults during a sting operation, and repeatedly addressing the fact, in so many different words, that the Tallahassee Police Department is not responsible for the death of Rachel Hoffman did nothing to inform the public about what truly happened the night of the drug sting. It did nothing to inform the public about what is going to happen to the individuals who killed her. It did nothing to inform the public about what policies and procedures are in place to protect a confidential informant before they engage in a police drug sting.

The only purpose this information served was to both attack a woman who has been taken away from society in a ruthless, reckless, and vicious manner, and to allow her family to watch it all on television while they are still reeling from the shock of their loved ones death.

Today, a family is still grieving and a public outcry is being heard. Tomorrow, a mother will spend a Mother’s Day planning a funeral for her daughter. The attorneys for the family of Rachel Hoffman wish that her memory and her family’s well-being stay first and foremost in the minds of everyone who mourns her loss. People will remember Rachel fondly at her funeral and speak well of her. She deserves no less from the very government agency, the Tallahassee Police Department, which she helped to risk and ultimately lost her life trying to help.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Slightly off-topic:

A free audio book, from a distant time that is not so very different from today.

Enjoy the de ja vu!

"What Prohibition Has Done to America

by Fabian Franklin

In What Prohibition Has Done to America, Fabian Franklin presents a concise but forceful argument against the Eighteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Beginning in 1920, this Amendment prohibited the sale and manufacture of alcoholic beverages in the United States, until it was repealed in 1933. Franklin contends that the Amendment “is not only a crime against the Constitution of the United States, and not only a crime against the whole spirit of our Federal system, but a crime against the first principles of rational government.” Writing only two years after Prohibition began, he correctly predicts many of its disastrous consequences, such as runaway bootlegging and organized crime. The book is both a passionate defense of liberty, and a reminder to Americans of the perils of surrendering it. (Summary by Leon Mire)