Around 12:30 AM on August 26, 2017, police in Flint, Michigan responded to a call about a hit-and-run. Two 13-year-old girls, Ashyrinta Clemons and Tatiana Labree Brown, lay dead in the road, killed by a speeding motorist.
The Flint Police Department reportedly found the vehicle involved within two days of the incident. The driver turned himself in soon after. However, no charges were filed and he was released as he allegedly did not admit guilt in the accident, and Genesee County Prosecutor, Democrat David Leyton, did not authorize charges. The traffic report cited that alcohol and reckless driving were suspected factors in the incident.
Nearly six months have passed since the fatal incident, and still no charges have been filed. The delay prompted the creation of a petition on Change.org back in November to demand action from city and state officials.
“To date, the man suspected of running down these two children still walks free,” the petition read. “The Flint Police say that it could be 6 MONTHS or more before they’re even able to complete an investigation. This is unacceptable. No family should have to suffer from this kind of negligence.”
Around the time the petition was created, we reached out to the Flint Police Department, the mayor’s office, and the Genesee County prosecutor to inquire about the case. While we heard back promptly from the department and the mayor’s office, who told us that prosecution could not move forward without the results from the coroner reports and laboratory analysis, the prosecutor’s office did not respond to our requests for comment until last week.
Last month, we received the following email from Deputy Chief Assistant Prosecutor John Potbury:
We take fatal accidents very seriously and they require very technical analysis and review by the investigators. Some cases take longer than others to complete and each case is unique. The City of Flint alone – with its well-documented crime rates and lack of sufficient police resources — handles around 30 such accidents each year. This volume can, at times, cause somewhat of a backlog as each one is required to be given careful technical analysis by the police investigator and requires various lab reports to be completed (including autopsy and toxicology reports among others) before a case is even presented to us for prosecutorial review.
Flint has been in the news a lot in the last two years, having struggled with a water crisis since the city switched its water supply in 2014. Approximately 40 percent of residents live in poverty, a majority of whom are black. The city itself has been in disrepair for decades as officials continue to grapple with budget cuts and financial issues.
The Flint Police Department has not been spared the strain. In September 2017, MLive reported that the police department was hiring entry level officers at $11.25 an hour–an annual salary of $23,400, meaning a decrease of nearly $10,000 from what was offered in 2012. The most recent FBI statistics place Flint as the ninth most violent city in the United States, and yet the Department’s emergency response times were reported to grow from 21 minutes in January 2017 to 58 minutes in July 2017–though today they’re reportedly down to under 30 minutes again thanks to the use of a new intelligence data center.
The Flint police force has also dwindled in size over the past several years. In 2003, they had 242 officers. By 2011, that number was almost halved to 122 officers. Today, the number is reportedly closer to 100, as officers have been fired (and rehired) over the past few years due to budget cuts. Flint has 1 officer per 2000 residents, compared to the nationwide average of 6.
One underlying cause of these cuts in police resources is the rapid population decline of Flint. In 2008, the city’s population was estimated to be around 113,000. It decreased to roughly 97,000 people in 2016–a decline directly attributed to high crime rates and infrastructure issues.
“The police department will have to do more with less, and better reshape their priorities,” said Jeff Mathwig, Research Director at the Center For Homicide Research, in an interview with us. “If a hit-and-run fatality is not a priority, I don’t know what is.”
The most recent data compiled from the Center for Homicide Research found that in 2009 and 2010, the City of Flint’s conviction rates for homicides were less than 50 percent. Just 12 of 36 homicides led to conviction in 2009, and only 31 of 64 in 2010. With limited resources, the City’s Police Department has struggled to solve crimes and conduct thorough and timely investigations.
But these explanations of the grim realities facing Flint fall far short of easing the pain felt by those residents immediately affected.
“I am so angry because the police department has shown no empathy, no sympathy towards the situation,” Clemons’ great aunt, Annina Banks, told us in an interview. “I understand they might just be dealing with death, killings, murders, but if she was shot or stabbed, there would be so many officers investigating her case.”
According to Banks, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver’s office initially told her there was nothing they could for her regarding the case. This was before she organized a rally outside the building where the office is located to protest police inaction. At that point, Banks told us, the mayor became more receptive to discussing the case and helped convince two local funeral homes to cover the cost of the girls’ funeral expenses.
“Originally, they told us it could take six months to a year, maybe longer, that this man could even be charged,” Banks noted. “First it was the crime lab, then it was the prosecutor, so they’ve just been pointing fingers. But nothing has happened since August.”
The Flint Police Department claimed the long delay was at the discretion of the prosecutor’s office awaiting complete investigative reports to be completed.
“The Genesee County Prosecutor’s office has notified us that they will not approve the charging document until several reports (coroner’s report, laboratory analysis report(s), etc) have been completed on this matter,” deputy police chief Devon Bernritter told us in an email on behalf of his department. “Obviously these have to be completed by organizations outside of our agency. We have submitted all necessary requests and are awaiting the results, as directed by the Prosecutor.”
At the time, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver’s Office declined to comment further, directing us back to the Flint Police Department’s statement. The victims’ families are meeting with Bernie Sanders and Our Revolution President Nina Turner this weekend, when Sanders and Turner will be touring Michigan to hold rallies against Trump’s tax bill.
Editor’s Note: 2/23/2018 The last line contained information that we could not confirm nor deny, so we removed it to conform to Progressive Army Editorial Standards.
2/26/2018 The last line of the article has been confirmed and restored.