Did Aura Rosser die in vain?
Ann Arbor considers policy changes after a police officer shoots a woman
“9-1-1. Where’s your emergency?”
A breathless man tells the address quickly. A house on Winewood Avenue. It’s late on a Sunday, a little before midnight.
“What’s going on?”
“A woman jumped on me.”
More details spill out too quickly for the dispatcher, who asks again, “What’s going on?”
The man identifies himself as the homeowner, Victor Stephens. “A woman jumped on me! She … she tried to k— …” The two struggle to communicate. “Could you get her please?”
Stephens says the woman, Aura Rosser, has been drinking. “I been drinking, too, but she been drinking heavy.”
“There any weapons in the house?” Pause. “Is there any weapons in the house? Hello? Victor?”
On Nov. 10, David Ried, a white Ann Arbor police officer with an exemplary service record, shot and killed Aura Rain Rosser, a black mother of three, in her home as she came at him with a knife.
More than two months later, following a Michigan State Police investigation, Brian Mackie, Washtenaw County prosecutor, released a memo describing his decision not to press charges against Ried. Unlike Ferguson, Mo., where waves of unrest broke out after a white police officer killed an unarmed black teen in August, there would be no huge local uprising, no cops in riot gear, no looting, no national coverage. But there were protests in Ann Arbor: a group of about 200 people rallied on Dec. 15; there was a downtown march on Jan. 31 that was big enough to block traffic; and a small group protested outside the county courthouse almost every day until Mackie released his memo. People at all those gatherings raised questions about the relationship between local law enforcement and African Americans.
Mackie’s memo and accompanying documents affirm a history of fights between Rosser and her boyfriend, Stephens, including one — which ended peacefully — to which Officer Ried responded. “On one occasion it was alleged by Mr. Stephens that Ms. Rosser had chased him with a knife, which Ms. Rosser later denied. On another occasion Victor Stephens complained that Aura Rosser had called someone to attack him.”
Rosser had “a serious mental illness,” the memo said, and wasn’t taking her meds. A diagnosis provided by a local treatment center suggested she had bipolar disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, cocaine dependence, non-dependent alcohol abuse and cannabis dependence. An autopsy and police interviews at the home indicated Rosser had been drinking and smoking crack the day she was killed.
But that’s not the whole story of Aura Rosser, and it leaves questions about the case and how to help others in similar situations. Why wasn’t Rosser taking her medicine? Exactly how much did mental health professionals know about her environment? Did the dispatcher have access to her medical records? If any of these factors were changed, would she be alive?
A friend’s portrait of Rosser contrasts with the official documents. He prefers to go by his nickname Wo Od (pronounced “wood”).
“I met her about three years ago and we became a couple,” he said. “And I was her boyfriend before she decided to move to Ann Arbor and get with Victor.
“Aura, losing her, that was definitely a hard pill to swallow. I’m gonna tell you the honest-to-God truth. That girl was 14 karat in my world. And anybody who met her would (tell) you the same thing.”
What about the report of Rosser calling people to Stephens’ house to fight him?
“Naw, that’s not Aura’s character. She never called me for help, because she know I woulda been over there to help her. … A lot of people took advantage of Aura … because (of) the person she is. You know, some people take your kindness for your weakness. Honest to God, I helped her in every way possible. She (called) me quite a few times to come pick her up from Ann Arbor and I’ve done it when I was living in Detroit. I don’t care what time of day or night. … She had a heart of 14-karat gold and I doubt (Stephens) will ever have anybody in his life again close to her. Aura was a very unique person. Fun loving. Outgoing.”
I asked Wo Od about the cocaine and alcohol abuse mentioned in news and Michigan State Police reports.
“I noticed how the paper tried to … talk about her character as far as her mental issues or drug abuse or whatever. That still don’t cover up the fact that she was shot and killed by two men police officers who probably could’ve handled her and got the knife from her from the training that they’re supposed to do. … I mean, people use drugs. … I’m personally a marijuana user. I don’t do pills, I don’t do cocaine, I don’t do heroin or nothing, but I do smoke weed. But that’s still not no logical reason — if I’m high off of weed and a situation’s going on — to be shot and killed.
“Shae (Ward, Rosser’s friend) posted … a small video of Aura. Aw, man, it broke my heart. Last year on her 40th birthday — she woulda turned 41 on January 20th — and, you know, she was saying, ‘It’s my birthday! I’m 40! It’s my birthday!’ I mean, you know, it’s real heartbreaking because that little short video is about 14 seconds long (and) will let you really know how Aura was. I’m talking about this is how Aura was about 99 percent of the time. She didn’t let nothing get her down. … That was part of her aura. She had the perfect name. … She’d light the room up wherever she (went). People knew she was there. She made friends quick. She was smart. She was beautiful. She had the perfect personality. She had class about herself. … They say ‘the good die young.’ I guess … God called her home. … And everybody who had the pleasure (of meeting Aura), even all my friends — there’s not one of my friends who didn’t like her. They all loved her.
“One of my guys films rap videos down in the neighborhood and she had a small part in there and, you know, it was funny. She chased a guy with a broom and she was supposed to look serious. We probably did like 30 takes of it, but she kept laughing so we said, ‘To hell with it.’ We just left the laughing part in where she chased the guy with the broom. … Like I said, Aura was sunshine. … The Temptations wrote that song, ‘I got sunshine’ with ‘My Girl.’ Shoot, I guess David Ruffin must’ve known Aura or something very close, the way he sung it.”
911 tape: Stephens and a woman scream at each other in the background for several minutes. The distance of the argument from the phone makes it almost impossible to decipher more than bits of the conversation. The woman can be heard saying things like, “You done me wrong!” Stephens calls her a bitch about twice per sentence and tells her to get out of his house.
Crashes echo in the background. Stephens comes back to the phone and says he needs the police. The operator tries to talk with Stephens, who again leaves the phone. The argument resumes. At one point, the woman screams, “They gon’ have to take me!” and cries uncontrollably. The shouting continues. And continues. The dispatcher wonders aloud where the police are: “Where the heck is Baker-22 coming from?”
I asked Wo Od what he thinks happened the night Aura was killed.
“Actions cause reactions. From my understanding, from what people told me in the house, you know, after the fact, they got into an argument. (Editor’s note: There were three other people in the house at the time of the incident, aside from the four principals, but none of them had a clear view of the incident.) He said something to her that was, you know, out of line. She said something to him that was out of line. He said something else. She threw a glass at the wall. Hit the wall. He told her he was tired, she had to go. She told him she wasn’t going nowhere. He went outside, he called the police. He stayed outside. I guess he saw the police coming, he walked back into the house. He left the door open. Now, this is what they said. Okay. When he walked in and (left) the door open, the Ann Arbor Police come in behind him. She was at the sink cooking or something. When they came in, they announced themselves as Ann Arbor Police. She turned around. She had a knife in her hand. The officer did a quick draw and shot.”
According to the prosecutor’s report and a statement from Stephens, the officers shouted for Rosser to drop her weapon. Wo Od said he was told the officers never said that, and he believes Stephens, who was on parole, was coerced into saying Ried and Raab ordered Rosser to drop the knife.
“I don’t care what the report said,” Wo Od said. “I believe Victor was forced into making the statements that he made because of his criminal past. … I believe, like I said, this is from the bottom of my heart, Victor Stephens was intimidated to make that statement the way he made it. Ex-con. You know, on parole. … That’s just how I feel. And I’m soberly speaking. I haven’t smoked no marijuana since I left Detroit and I left Detroit back around Thanksgiving. I don’t drink. But I don’t knock anybody who do any kind of drug. … Now if she woulda had a gun, that’d been one thing. … She had, what, a little (knife)? … And y’all fully trained veterans. What, Ried had 15 years on the force? What, you never had a confrontation with nobody? You scared you might get your nose busted or something? Print that. I want that printed.”
Wo Od says Aura’s death ties into the larger national issue of police brutality.
“Self defense. Self defense. Self defense. The guy in New York (Eric Garner) selling loose cigarettes. Didn’t have a weapon. It was self defense. The guy asleep in the park in Milwaukee was woken up by police. (The guy) sitting across from Starbucks because the people in Starbucks was complaining about the guy (sleeping). The police went up and woke him up, kicking him and hitting him with a nightstick. Of course (you’re gonna) wake up with a attitude. ‘Oh, he shouldn’t have been mad.’ What kinda crap is that?”
Back on Rosser’s death, Wo Od said, “I said probably the nonwhites are gonna be in trouble now because (the police) got away with murder, literally. And you know, (the) police knew her. She done had quite a few run-ins with the Ann Arbor Police … when she was with her old boyfriend and they had little domestic violence issues, you know. She wasn’t no pushover, you know? But she was still a good girl. … They knew her and she wasn’t a violent person.
“And I tell you something else, I believe I read … where (Shirley Beckley went) to the City Council meeting and asked for three minutes of silence and for some reason the mayor found it funny. You know, the mayor of Ann Arbor, or what I like to call it, and I call it right now, Klan Arbor. And you make sure you print all of that. That’s how I feel about it. I’m 49 years old. Freedom of speech. I can speak my mind. That’s exactly how I feel.”
According to the prosecutor’s report, Raab and Ried park, get out of their cruiser and walk toward the house. They hear the screams of a man and a woman arguing. The officers listen outside the door for a moment. The woman screams that she has a knife and there’s a loud thump from inside the small house. Raab enters the house first, followed by Ried. Stephens struggles with the woman, holding her wrists as she grips the knife. Raab draws his Taser. Ried draws his pistol. They identify themselves as police officers and shout for her to drop her weapon. Stephens lets go of her. Rosser walks toward the officers with the knife raised.
Prosecutor Mackie wrote, “The Ann Arbor Police had been to 2083 Winewood and had contact with both Stephens and Rosser previously for similar complaints.”
The report gives a detailed explanation of the legal and safety concerns of dealing with an armed suspect, including the legal definition of self defense, how police are trained to handle suspects armed with a knife, the choice between using a gun or a Taser, and why officers are unable to retreat if it would put others in harm’s way. According to the report, the actions of Ried and Raab were well within the law and correct according to their training.
According to the memo, full bottles of lithium carbonate (typically used to treat bipolar disorder) and Risperidone (used to treat bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, dementia and other disorders) were found at the home with Rosser’s name on them.
It continues: “The toxicology report does show high levels of cocaine, cocaine metabolites and alcohol in Ms. Rosser’s system, indicating that she had recently ingested large amounts of both cocaine and alcohol. Witness statements and evidence found in the home made it clear that Ms. Rosser had smoked crack cocaine. In our discussion, (Washtenaw County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Jeff) Jentzen explained that cocaine and alcohol can combine in the bloodstream and act synergistically. The combined cocaine-alcohol byproduct is called cocaethylene, and it was found in Aura Rosser’s system during the autopsy testing. Dr. Jentzen also explained that the effects of high levels of cocaine and cocaethylene can be exacerbated when a person has discontinued prescribed psychotropic medicine, and they can become highly agitated, aggressive and violent.”
Eyes on the police
Shortly after that awful night in November, the City Council approved a resolution for the AAPD to begin using in-car and body cameras.
Councilman Chuck Warpehoski, who lives across the street from Stephens, has some thoughts about that decision.
“I think body cams are an important step in dealing with this question of what’s known. Whether it’s things like the Aura Rosser death, where if the police officer had behaved properly … we would have had evidence for it, or if he had behaved improperly, then it would be easier to deal with that. Or things like, we had the incidents where an (AAPS) officer was soliciting sex when he was making traffic stops. … First of all, I think body cams would’ve prevented that behavior, but even if they didn’t prevent that behavior, it would’ve been much easier to investigate and to deal with that incident and that officer if we’d had the video evidence. The Michigan State Police’s investigation took months to try to track down, try to corroborate stories, all that stuff. If we’d had the video and audio evidence, it would’ve been a much easier case to deal with that situation of officer misconduct.”
The councilman doesn’t see the cameras as the complete answer, however.
“Looking at law enforcement trends nationally, there are great race-based inequalities in policing. … African Americans and whites use marijuana, for example, at roughly the same rate, but African Americans are three times more likely to end up in jail for marijuana possession. So there are things that are happening in our policing that are leading to racially disparate outcomes, and body cams don’t solve that.”
At one of the public protests about the Rosser case, I asked Joshua Erin Richter his thoughts about cameras.
“I think what happened with Eric Garner in New York illustrates that this is nothing more than a symbolic gesture. There was clear video evidence of a man being throttled to death by a police officer … over selling loose cigarettes and there was no indictment. There were no charges and that … should show you that putting body cameras on police, it’s nothing. It’s symbolic. It’s, ‘Hey, let’s throw a bone to these people and hope they take it and go away.’ I think ultimately what really needs to happen above all else is prosecutors will not prosecute police because the prosecutors need to work with police in order to catch criminals, and if they prosecute police then the police will not work with the prosecutor who prosecuted the police. So we need an entirely separate justice system to deal with police officers who are breaking the law, because the current one we have, there’s no reason for them to do that. They like the way it is. Because it’s cronyism. They’re all working together against us,” Richter said.
The ACLU has published recommendations for regulations and policies to accompany the implementation of body cameras to protect the rights of both officers and civilians. “The whole issue is a work in progress and law enforcement agencies and the community are gonna have to feel their way forward on how to proceed with this in the best way,” said Mark Fancher, racial justice staff attorney for ACLU of Michigan. “(Body cameras) are not necessarily a cure-all or a panacea. They won’t resolve problems like this.
“Everybody knows about Eric Garner, but there are even other cases where the actions of the police have been fully documented by video and/or audio and it has not necessarily resulted in consequences for offending officers,” Fancher said. “But, certainly, more information is better than less and they could be helpful.”
From Ried’s statement: “Rosser continued to walk towards us down the hallway. She appeared to be looking directly at us with her eyes wide open with what appeared to be a blank stare. When she exited the hallway, and was approximately ten feet from us, she was still holding the knife in the same threatening position, and I then had a clear line of sight to her. Rosser was still ignoring my commands drop the knife. I feared (for) my life and the life of Ofc. Raab. I believed we were in imminent danger. I was in fear for the safety for myself and Ofc. Raab, so I discharged my firearm one time to stop the threat. At the same time I heard a pop come from Ofc. Raab’s direction, and saw Taser wire deployed in Rosser’s direction. I then saw Rosser fall to her left, into the kitchen and onto the floor, face up. I then cautiously approached and I could see Rosser was still breathing and was bleeding from the left side of her chest. Rosser still had the knife in her right hand as I approached. I then used my right foot to move the knife out of her hand. Ofc. Raab stayed in the house and radioed that shots were fired, and to send in the ambulance. I then ran out of the house to turn my overhead lights on to help the ambulance find the location.”
Councilman Warpehoski also had some thoughts about the bigger picture of police and community relations.
“I think the efforts to improve community and police relationships need to be countywide. We have a lot of different law enforcement agencies in this county. Ann Arbor has its own police department, Ypsi has its own police department, Pittsfield has its own police department, U of M has its police department, EMU has its police department, Chelsea has a police department. … We can have the best and most responsive and respectful police department in the world in Ann Arbor, but then if you drive south to Meijer, you drive west to Chelsea, you drive East to Ypsi, you have a different police department and a different experience. … Well, that’s still a problem.”
Washtenaw County Ann Arbor Democratic Party and Chairman Mike Henry in January issued a resolution about local law enforcement.
“The resolution is regarding trust building and setting professional standards for law enforcement agencies that operate in our county,” Henry said.
The party’s recommendations:
- Improve communication and coordination among law enforcement agencies
- Improve coordination and communication with other agencies, like mental health groups, human services groups, substance abuse, domestic violence, other support agencies, legal aid
- Improving diversity training, sensitivity training and de-escalation training
- Go beyond body cams to include “objective” audio and video recording on officers and vehicles
- Mental health evaluations
- Community outreach with peace officers — “police officers in schools and interacting with young people, coming out to neighborhood organizations, speaking in churches and other community groups”
- Citizen oversight and a citizens review board.
Warpehoski offered alternatives.
“In Ann Arbor, our crime rates are at historic lows, so if the question is, ‘Do we need more cops to make our communities safer?’ I don’t see evidence that we’re gonna be a safer community, that we’re gonna reduce major crime if we have more cops. … So there’s still a push to say that there’ll be better community relations if the cops have time to get out of their patrol cars and get into the community and build relationships. And that might be true, but my concern is if this push for proactive policing means that we are just sending more officers to neighborhoods and communities of color, then I’m worried that that’s going to actually increase the racial disparities we see in our legal and criminal system, rather than decrease it. … At our council meeting (recently), we talked about services for the homeless and affordable housing. If we’ve got a hundred thousand dollars to spend, we could either hire another officer with it, or we could invest that money in services to help people who are homeless. I think investing the money in services for people who are homeless is more likely to save a life than hiring another cop.”
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