Two Indianapolis police officers cleared by a special prosecutor of criminal wrongdoing in the shooting death of an unarmed black motorist who fled a traffic stop still face an FBI civil rights probe, a federal lawsuit and potential disciplinary action by the department.
Here’s what we know about the June death of Aaron Bailey, 45, who was shot after driving away from the officers and crashing his car following a short pursuit, and what’s next in the case:
The traffic stop: The special prosecutor’s report, released Tuesday, states that Officer Carlton Howard pulled over Bailey’s car about 1:45 a.m. on June 29 after noticing Bailey make a turn without signaling. The officer ran Bailey’s license plate and found that he had a suspended driver’s license. Howard then pulled over Bailey’s car and approached, finding Bailey driving with a woman as his passenger.
The pursuit and crash: Bailey grew increasingly nervous during the traffic stop, despite Howard repeatedly telling him that his suspended license was “no big deal,” the report states. Howard returned to his squad car and ran Bailey’s name in a national database on criminal convictions and arrests, finding he had several convictions and was a suspect in multiple robberies.
After Officer Michal Dinnsen arrived at the scene in his squad car, Howard asked Bailey to exit his vehicle, but Bailey asked why. When Howard repeated his order, Bailey drove off, and both officers followed in a short pursuit that ended when Bailey’s car crashed into a tree.
The shooting: When the officers pulled their cars up to the crash scene, Howard got out, pulled his handgun and looked inside the crashed vehicle, finding its air bags had deployed. Howard saw Bailey turn toward the car’s center console and begin to “rummage” there, the report states. Believing that Bailey was searching for a weapon, Howard repeatedly told Bailey to show his hands, to no avail, the report says.
When Bailey turned toward Howard, the officer fired six shots at Bailey. Dinnsen, who told investigators Bailey was “frantically” going through the console, fired five times. An autopsy found four bullets hit Bailey in the back. No firearm was found in his car.
The special prosecutor’s decision: The special prosecutor appointed to review the case, St. Joseph County Prosecutor Kenneth Cotter, cited the officers’ claims of self-defense and Bailey’s actions and refusal to respond to police commands in deciding that they would not face criminal charges in his death. Cotter’s report says there is “insufficient evidence to refute” their claims that they feared Bailey might be reaching for a weapon.
Aaron Bailey: Bailey was a father of an adult son and daughter. Cotter’s report states that Bailey had several convictions, was a suspect in multiple robberies, had a suspended driver’s license and was on probation at the time of his death. His daughter, Erica Bailey, said Tuesday that she doesn’t think he endangered the officers’ lives at all after the crash, and that he was dazed from the crash impact and air bag deployment.
Family’s reaction: An Indianapolis attorney sued the city, its police department and the two officers in September on behalf of Bailey’s adult son and daughter and his sister, alleging the officers used excessive force and that Bailey posed no threat to them. The federal lawsuit seeks unspecified damages and contends the officers’ actions violated Bailey’s constitutional rights.
The officers and what could be next: Dinnsen, 32, is white and Howard, 26, is biracial. Both are three-year department veterans and neither has any formal discipline in their personnel files. They remain on administrative duties as an internal review of their actions continues. Police Chief Bryan Roach said Wednesday the officers could go before the department’s firearms review board as soon as Friday to answer questions. That panel will eventually send the chief its findings on whether the officers violated any department policies and its recommendations on possible disciplinary action.
Roach will determine what, if any, discipline they might face. They could avoid discipline, be suspended or be fired.
The civil rights probe: The FBI’s Indianapolis office says it still is investigating whether the officers committed civil rights violations by shooting Bailey. The FBI and the Justice Department opened that probe in July.
Federal prosecutions in recent fatal shootings by police around the country have been infrequent. Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of aw professor Shawn Boyne, who studies civil rights issues, said federal authorities face difficulties proving that police officers acted willfully to violate a victim’s civil rights.
“In this case, they’d have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officers did not believe the suspect was reaching for a gun when he was shot,” Boyne said.