Nissa Tzun and her Forced Trajectory Project tell the stories of families who’ve lost loved ones to the police
Before hashtags circulated after the officer-involved death of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, before vigils for Philando Castile, and the marches of Black Lives Matter, police in Suffolk County, New York, killed Kenny Lazo. Among its other ramifications, his 2008 death eventually resulted in the Forced Trajectory Project, or FTP, a media and advocacy organization, now based in Las Vegas, with a website that documents families and communities impacted by police killings.
Lazo’s death followed the now-common narrative. For 24-year-old Lazo, it began as a traffic stop in the seaside hamlet of Bay Shore. The area is known for its opulent wealth and stark poverty. It is a disparity heightened by the tensions between the white police officers and the working-class Hispanic population.
Accounts of Lazo’s death are disputed. His family said he complied with the officer’s directions. The police said Lazo tried to grab an officer’s gun. What is not in dispute, according to medical examiner’s minutes, is that five police officers beat Lazo with metal flashlights. He was later rushed to a medical center, where he was pronounced dead. The death was ruled a homicide by the medical examiner, but a grand jury did not indict the officers. The city moved on.
Months later, 28-year-old Brooklyn special-needs teacher Nissa Tzun was volunteering her photography skills for The Liberation News, a Harlem-based newspaper affiliated with a community group, the ANSWER Coalition. Tzun was asked to photograph Lazo’s family as part of The Liberation News’s commitment to helping minority communities.
Documenting the family in an effort to keep his death in the city’s consciousness changed Tzun’s life. “This was my first experience with anybody impacted by police homicide,” Tzun says. “At the time I didn’t know much about police corruption or police homicides. My only experience with law enforcement was that D.A.R.E. cop who came to my third-grade class to tell us ‘Stay away from drugs.’ I started doing more research, and I was thinking hard about how, as a visual artist, how could I advocate for the family.”
And so what began as a small photojournalism project in 2009 eventually expanded into an activist-journalism outfit. “Forced trajectory” refers to the unwanted path a family finds itself on after a loved one is killed by police. Through photographs, videos — of victims’ families, but also of such events as panel discussions — audio recordings, and written accounts, FTP wants to replace what Tzun sees as sensationalized news fodder with the human story of the victim. The media produced by FTP have been exhibited in several cities, including Los Angeles, New York City, and Las Vegas. Last month, Forced Trajectory helped organize a community forum on the subject of police use of force.
Tzun is now assisted by a main staff of eight and a handful of contributors nationwide. FTP is an official internship option for UNLV’s journalism and media-studies undergraduates. Tzun brainstorms many of FTP’s case studies on campus, where she is a part-time instructor and graduate student studying social work and journalism.
FTP has built a portfolio of the rich ordinariness of grieving families. The portraits range from the painful — such as a picture of Lazo’s pubescent son holding a white cross and a black-and-white photograph of his father — to the poignant: protesters gathering to honor the fallen. FTP captures the family members and communities as they find themselves in a rippling crest of pain, a search for answers, and, in some cases, a simple desire to have their loved ones viewed as human beings. For them, FTP is often the only public narrative that allows them to see their family members as they were before the media adopt the official storyline.
It’s an emotionally intense and volatile world Tzun has chosen to work in, and she brings to it an obvious passion and empathy. Her buzz cut and no-nonsense demeanor suggest a toughness that belies her empathetic nature. She has a habit of walking with her head bent upward, as if seeking some sign from the heavens. Conversations, when her cellphone isn’t erupting in a series of urgent calls, are intense. She will occasionally veer off topic when guest lecturing to point out historical examples of oppression in the country. She can be at once aggressive and defensive, protective of the families whose lives have now been whittled down to court dates, memorials, and hashtags. Hers is a style of earnest zeal that can, to some, come off as antagonistic. Committed activists are susceptible to physical and emotional burnout. Tzun counters this through meditation, yoga, and generous imbibing of cannabis (medicinally, she says, to treat a PTSD diagnosis).
“My initial impression of Nissa was that she is someone who is incredibly impassioned,” says Karintha Fenley, an FTP contributor. “She has almost been trained (in) guerrilla-style social activism in New York City to kind of operate a certain way.”
DRAWN TO SERVE
Before her rabble-rousing days, Tzun actually tried to become part of the system. In her early 20s, she applied to become a police officer in Southern California, New York City, and Las Vegas, where she had moved to be closer to her parents, who live in the West. A knee injury and a failed polygraph test derailed that dream.
“They said that I lied about smoking marijuana or being involved with marijuana, which at that time I was not a smoker or ever had tried marijuana or anything like that. That was heartbreaking for me,” Tzun says.
But even before that, Tzun was questioning her desire to join the police. During a ride-along with officers in Southern California, she said the officers mistreated a woman arrested for allegedly disturbing the peace. The woman appeared to be a prostitute and addict. Instead of showing compassion, Tzun says, the officers sexually harassed her, eventually hog-tying the woman and throwing her face-down into the back of a police car. In the past 10 years, Tzun has become determined to stop more police-involved killings and providing a platform for the families to counter negative media attention about their loved ones.
It’s taken a financial toll: Tzun does not make an income from grants or donations to FTP. She serves as an independent media consultant for Mass Liberation Project, a nationwide grassroots organization that focuses on mass incarceration issues and legislation. She is also a communications fellow for the Center for Community Change.
There’s an emotional toll, too: At one point she had to cease documenting a family because the brother of the deceased became verbally abusive. Tzun understands that even FTP can be seen as an outsider to a family trying to process a loved one’s violent death. Tzun, who is of Chinese descent, knows that to the mostly black and brown families she works with, she can seem like another interloper, there to gawk at their pain. This makes Tzun and FTP volunteers targets on which families focus their anger and frustration. It is perhaps because of this that Tzun gets worked up about getting the public to look at police killings differently. She sees firsthand what families go through.
As for negative responses to FTP’s work, they happen occasionally, by email or in comments on the website, sometimes directed at the family and saying the deceased deserved what happened. Others call Forced Trajectory a hate organization, Tzun says. Still, the relative visibility of a police-brutality activist in a town the size of Las Vegas — compared to the relative anonymity possible in New York City — makes her a little nervous.
Tzun doesn’t think her work should be seen as anti-police but more about holding the system accountable.
“Not to say they aren’t heroic law-enforcement interests,” she says. “I have friends who are law-enforcement, and they’re great people. People say, ‘Well, do you think it’s a bad apple thing?’ ‘Do you think it’s like there are good cops and then there’s a couple of bad apples, and we have to hold the bad accountable?’ I say it’s not that. I say it’s the opposite of that. It’s that there are a few good cops, but the bad apple is the system itself. It’s the (police) departments. It’s the corruption within the department.”
Being based in Las Vegas, FTP has evolved what Tzun says is “a special focus on policing in the Las Vegas Valley.” Residuum, an ongoing series of short documentary videos on the subject, delves into local police incidents.
In 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice recommended a series of sweeping reforms to Metro’s use of deadly force. The reforms stemmed from several controversial police shootings, as well as a six-part investigative series devoted to the issue by the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The DOJ experts cited “poor training, a lack of clear policies, and an unwillingness to discipline problem officers,” and, after analyzing 20 years’ worth of Las Vegas police shooting data, concluded that most of the deadly force incidents could have been avoided.
Seven years later, after implementing 75 reforms recommended by the DOJ — including training related to implicit bias — Metro is widely considered a model for police reform.
When asked how the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department views citizen activist groups, like FTP, that take a critical view of police work, a department spokesman emailed a response that did not directly address the question. Instead, the response stated that the “LVMPD prides itself on being one of the most transparent police departments in the United States.”
“Other departments from around the country come to the LVMPD for information on policies and practices regarding the release of information. We are also the first large metropolitan police department to outfit our officers with body worn cameras.”
As for her and FTP’s relationship with Metro, Tzun characterizes it as a wary one. She’ll engage with officials in community forums or panels if they show up, and FTP will seek comment or data from the agency. Otherwise, she says, “I keep a safe distance.”
RACE AND POLICING
The strained relationship between minorities, particularly African Americans, and the police is set on the stage of racial and economic oppression against the backdrop of slavery. In the South, police units were used for slave patrols tasked to eliminate revolts and finding runaway slaves. During Reconstruction, local sheriffs enforced segregation and helped with the disenfranchisement of the newly freed slaves.
Only two generations ago, the images of law enforcement clad in Ku Klux Klan regalia were prominent. Black-and-white images of peaceful protesters being attacked by police dogs, high-pressure water hoses, and tear gas are as much a part of American history as the moon landing. For much of the 20th century, law enforcement didn’t protect and serve all citizens. The country’s byzantine criminal justice system connecting police violence to an unequal social structure based on race makes it hard for individuals to stand up against the system.
There is no ongoing local, state, or federal requirement for law-enforcement agencies to aggregate or collect the number, type, and result of incidents of violence between police officers and citizens. (A 1994 federal mandate to gather such information was unfunded and never fully implemented.) Media outlets such as The Guardian and The Washington Post have tried to document how many people lose their lives to the police nationwide. But even those reports are fraught with inconsistencies as the data cannot fully explain the disparities, if any, in police killings.
A 2015 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics of the U.S. Department of Justice shows whenever police initiated the contact, “African Americans (5.2 percent) and Hispanics (5.1 percent) were more likely to experience the threat or use of physical force by law enforcement than whites (2.4 percent).”
An analysis by the Post of incidents over a few years indicated that black males are shot and killed by the police at alarmingly higher rates than other racial and ethnic groups. Unarmed victims of police shootings are also more likely to be minorities, according to FBI statistics analyzed and reported on by media outlet Vox. Key takeaways from the report found that at least 102 unarmed black people were killed by police in 2015, which is more than 31 percent of the total unarmed people killed by the police. Keep in mind that African Americans make up just 13 percent of the U.S. population. Only nine of the 102 deaths in 2015 resulted in any officer being charged with a crime.
Until recently, videos, and audio of police-involved shootings of civilians were rare. In 2017, Gov. Brian Sandoval signed a law that mandated beat officers to wear body cameras. Footage from Nevada police body cameras was already public information, but the new law allows it to be erased after 15 days.
Bill Sousa, a professor of criminal justice and director of the Center for Crime and Justice Policy at UNLV, said the use of body cameras was intended to “prevent some of the high-profile incidents that we see occurring like Michael Brown’s.”
“We have to remember that those types of incidents are extraordinarily rare in the world of policing,” Sousa says. “Most of what police do has very little to do with incidents that might lead to use of force or might lead to misconduct. Most of what police do involve responding to medical emergencies. They are assisting juveniles. They’re assisting people in need and resolving neighborhood disputes.”
Sousa says there is a difference between transparency and trust, as trust is rooted in some form of historical relationship.
“We often think that body cameras will increase transparency or increase trust,” he says. “What we have to realize is that things like trust and legitimacy are concepts that are somewhat nebulous. It takes a very long time for communities to distrust police, and then it takes a very long time for them (the community) to begin trusting them (the police) again.”
CLOSE TO THE SUBJECT
Las Vegan Trinita Farmer lost her son, Tashii Brown, on Mother’s Day 2017. Farmer says knowing that Brown died after soliciting help from Metro officers made the loss even more overwhelming and has contributed to her feeling as if her “life is in limbo.”
“I just couldn’t understand why he (the police officer) couldn’t just help him,” Farmer says.
Metro’s report of the incident states Brown approached uniformed officers about 1 a.m. inside the Venetian. The report says Brown was “sweating profusely” and told the officers it was because he had run from people who were chasing him. After a brief conversation, one of the officers, Kenneth Lopera, tried to grab him. Brown ran off, and the officers chased him into the parking garage.
Lopera stunned Brown with a Taser seven times. Additionally, Lopera struck Brown in the head 10- 12 times after being stunned. Brown was not showing any aggressive resistance to the officers when he was hit in the head. Afterward, Lopera put Brown in a lateral vascular neck restraint. This is the only neck hold approved under Metro policies. Later in the report, Lopera describes it as a different hold: a rear naked choke hold.
“I start punching him. Rear naked his ass. He went out,” Lopera told another officer, according to reports.
Brown lost consciousness and was later pronounced dead. After being arrested, Lopera retired from Metro and wasn’t prosecuted for Brown’s death.
Although the incident was captured on body cam, that didn’t seem to change the public perception that Brown was somehow responsible for his death. A Go Fund Me fundraiser for Lopera topped $30,000 a few days after going live in June 2017. Even after Lopera retired, people still contributed to the online fundraiser, which reached $44,255 by mid-May of 2019. Two years after Brown’s death, an online fundraiser for his family has only raised $1,157. (Tzun says the disparity may simply reflect a lower level of fundraising organization on behalf of Brown.)
Tzun met Farmer through documentary filmmakers covering Brown’s death. On Mother’s Day 2018, Tzun and her associates arranged for a silent march to mark the one-year anniversary, which included laying flowers at the Venetian.
Tzun is still in contact with Farmer. When Farmer wants to publicize a development in Brown’s case it is Tzun who does media appearances. Recently, on Farmer’s behalf, Tzun created a website to honor Brown.
“That touched my heart,” Farmer says.
Tzun understands that losing a family member to police action often results in being shunned by some elements of the community, as Farmer says she has.
“They are isolated from their communities because nobody wants to touch it,” Tzun says. “It’s like, ‘Oh, you’re involved with the police. You must’ve done something wrong or your loved one must have been a criminal.’”
For those mostly familiar with the typical policies of the modern mainstream media, this level of involvement with subjects — FTP’s mixture of journalism and outright advocacy — might seem unusual, though there’s a long history of it. But Tzun notes that she didn’t enter this line of work as a journalist, but as an artist. “I was trying to bring attention visually to the movement.” The journalism component happened organically, she says, as the site became more sophisticated. But it’s still journalism with a decided perspective, and dovetails with an increasing dissatisfaction, encountered on social media, with “both sides” reporting.
“The mainstream media already prints what the police say,” she says. “We’re going to uplift these voices that aren’t being heard.”
It is possible Brown’s story would not be as visible as it is without Tzun. The Brown case made Tzun the de facto face of FTP. It is not a position she is comfortable with, particularly as FTP’s case studies become more localized. “I prefer to sit behind the camera,” Tzun says, “not in front of it."
Editor's note: This story has been updated to add context or clarifications regarding Nissa Tzun's cannabis use, the federal gathering of police-shooting information, and fundraising efforts on behalf of Tashii Brown.