A little more than a week ago, Scott Greenfield wrote a post at Simple Justice about how a deputy at the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office shot an unarmed man in the back despite the fact the man had his hands in the air and was clearly surrendering. If it hadn’t been caught on camera by a bystander, it would never have been news because the sheriff initially lied about the facts, insisted the deputy was justified, and let the deputy return to full duty after only three days of paid administrative leave. Luckily, the footage couldn’t be clearer:
Scott wrote about the deeper message the sheriff was sending by approving of the officer’s clearly unjustified actions, which is indeed the more important thing to consider. By validating the taking by an officer of the life of a man who was surrendering, the sheriff declared open hunting season on his own men and who knows how many other law enforcement officers. After all, if a suspect knows he may die surrendering, what’s to stop him from fighting the police to the bitter end? If you see a massive spike in people shooting at authorities, thank Sheriff Babeu for that.
Although Scott may have struck the root of the problem, I’m in a pretty unique position to provide a little perspective about how deep the rotten roots go. The deputy who shot an unarmed, surrendering man was Heath Rankin. Rankin was a 2008 hire and once served as the poster boy for salary discrepancies in the sheriff’s office. That’s only the beginning, though, as Rankin has a short but very sordid history as a deputy. It’s almost hard to know where to start.
In Rankin’s brief five and a half year career, he has been no stranger to unnecessary violence. Only two years after being hired, he was involved in a 2010 shooting that also involved another high speed chase. His attempted use of deadly force in that incident was still under investigation when I interviewed Rankin in one of my client’s cases, in fact, and he admitted to it as if it was no big deal. After another high-speed chase in 2011, he broke his hand punching the suspect. Rankin, of course, claimed the suspect took a “fighting stance.” Don’t they always? When Jim Walsh, the county attorney at the time and a man I respected immensely even when I used to fight with the highly competent attorneys he had in his office almost every day, asked Sheriff Babeu why Rankin wasn’t charged for “blatantly punching” the man, the sheriff complained in writing. He noted that Rankin went without full use of his defendant-punching hand for nearly a year. Feel bad for Rankin? Imagine how the defendant getting punched felt.
On top of that, Rankin was later arrested for domestic violence charges against his girlfriend. Unlike who knows how many first time offenders Rankin had cited for the same thing and who were denied the same treatment, Rankin was allowed to participate in diversion and get the charges dismissed while continuing to serve as a deputy. As if it couldn’t be clearer than Rankin has a serious problem, the same link above explains that, minutes before the most recent shooting, Rankin’s Pinal County Sheriff’s Office superiors had ordered him to back off from the pursuit in the first place. He shouldn’t have even continued the chase. Had he followed orders, no one would have died.
But there’s even more, and it comes from my own personal experience. I was once tangentially involved in a lawsuit against Rankin after a nice older lady came to me after being thrown down and beaten by Rankin. Deputies had rerouted the interstate through her private property after an accident, and the highway traffic had seriously damaged her property and injured one of her dogs. When she blocked the road to her private property with her jeep and tried to direct traffic away, Rankin shined his flashlight in her face, pointed his gun at her, and yelled for her to put her hands in the air. Although she was unarmed and complied with his demands, he pulled her from the vehicle, threw her to the ground, and jammed his knee in her back while mangling her face by rubbing it in gravel, breaking her glasses, and cutting her left eye. The picture of her injuries were disturbing.
The poor woman, of course, was charged with felony assault against Rankin. She was represented by an exceptional public defender, so I felt I could be of little help. I did, however, refer her to an experienced civil lawyer to help with her federal lawsuit against Rankin and the county. As her criminal jury trial approached, the Pinal County Attorney amended the charge to a misdemeanor, which resulted in her no longer being entitled to a jury. At a brief bench trial, an elected judge in Pinal County who was aware of the woman’s federal lawsuit against Pinal County, the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, and Rankin found her guilty. Can you guess what happens to a federal lawsuit after the plaintiff gets convicted of assault arising from the same incident?
Although I have heard many other things about Rankin, the other experience of mine that stands out to me involved a client of mine charged with drug offenses. Rankin was the only officer involved in the important part of the case, which came about after Rankin initiated a traffic stop. From the beginning, my clients and the other occupants in his vehicle insisted that Rankin stole thousands of dollars and physically threatened them. They all seemed genuinely terrified by his sheer physicality and aggression. I felt so strongly they were telling the truth that I asked the experienced prosecutor in the case, who had insinuated that there would be a harsh plea at first, to wait until after an interview with Rankin to extend a formal offer.
In the interview, I was stunned by Rankin’s non-chalant mention of a previous use of deadly force and his almost amused response to my questions about the fact he wrote the following in his report:
It was not until I un-holstered my duty fire arm, and I told them, if the kept moving, I was going to crack their heads open, they stopped moving.
The plea my client ultimately accepted made him probation eligible, and although the prosecutor was characteristically professional and taciturn about his change of heart, I have no doubt he had concerns after the interview as well.
Scott nailed it when he explained the broader implication of a police force no longer willing to take prisoners, and a great local article notes the other important fact the elected sheriff’s approval notwithstanding the facts undermines public trust. That same sheriff is, after all, the person who proclaimed now-fired deputy Louie Puroll a hero after he lied about being shot by drug smugglers. Even now, it’s hard to know what really happened there, though it’s clear Puroll wasn’t telling the truth despite the fact the sheriff stood by his lies from the beginning.
The same article points out what I see as perhaps the biggest problem with the current situation:
The final determination of whether or not Rankin’s was legal and justified is reserved for Pinal County Attorney Lando Voyles, not [Pinal County Sheriff Paul] Babeu.
Do you really think that Voyles is going to do a damn thing to one of Babeu’s precious deputies? Voyles and Babeu were, after all, part of the Law & Order Team. Just look at how adorable they look together!
Please correct me if I’m wrong about any of this, but everything I’ve heard suggests that Voyles and Babeu are thick as thieves. BFFs, even. I even keep hearing gossip about the county sheriff sitting in on new hire interviews at the county attorney. I doubt anyone thinks Voyles ever would’ve been elected without Babeu’s endorsement, so what makes anyone think Voyles is going to do anything about the violent deputy Babeu’s defended from the beginning? That prosecutor who made a better offer to my client after hearing Rankin’s interview? I hear he was one of he first ones Voyles fired.
There are big lessons to be learned in all of this as well as broad negative implications for all the good deputies out there who don’t deserve the likely consequences of a bad apple in their midst shooting a surrendering man in the back, but none of this would be a problem if there hadn’t been something rotten going on in Pinal County for quite some time. Maybe some of the government there doesn’t deserve the public’s trust.
Filed under: Government Rants, Police, Prosecutors · Tags: babeu, car chase, county attorney, court, cover-up, deputy, drugs, federal court, heath rankin, judge, lawsuit, longoria, murder, pinal county, plea, punch, puroll, sheriff, shooting, stop, surrender, unarmed, voyles