Held to Justice
How do you call the cops on the cops?
By Ben Saari
When I was in elementary school, a parent pulled a gun in the teachers' lounge. He was there to kidnap his son. Two teachers and the principal dogpiled on him, and the gun went off a couple times before Mr. Wurtzberg got his finger behind the trigger and Mr. Woods jammed his finger in the barrel.
The schoolyard rumor was that the parent was also an FBI agent, but it was clear to me that, agent or not, the faculty in the teachers' lounge acted right. When someone pulls a gun at a school, the right thing to do is dogpile and disarm him, and it doesn't matter if the gunman works in law enforcement.
But when the person in law enforcement with a gun is actually on the job, and isn't trying to kidnap someone, things seem to become less clear.
Last week, Johannes Mehserle, the ex-BART officer who shot and killed Oscar Grant in Oakland on New Years' Day in 2009, was given the minimum sentence for involuntary manslaughter. With credit for time served in jail, early estimates have him free in seven months.
It is a historic event for an officer to be convicted in a line-of-duty killing. In early January 2009, it looked like Mehserle was going to walk. While Oscar Grant was bleeding on the BART platform, cops on the scene detained witnesses and tried to confiscate cell phones and cameras. In the week after the killing, word of mouth, community radio, and ultimately internet postings of cell phone video spread the truth of what had happened.
On Jan. 7, Mehserle resigned from BART in a continuing dance to avoid making on-the-record statements. It wasn't until 12 days after Grant was killed that Mehserle was arrested. Whatever one thinks of the adequacy of Mehserle's sentence, it's doubtful any charges would have been brought against him without the combination of clear video evidence and a fracturing social order.
This brings up very distressing questions locally. In the 56 cases of people who have been killed by Sonoma County law enforcement agencies or who have died in their custody, not a single officer, employee, or contractor has faced a criminal charge. While large wrongful-death settlements have been made in a number of high-profile police killings and in-custody deaths, these invariably come with gag conditions that silence surviving family members, and the payouts are buried in department budgets, making a clear public accounting difficult.
In the mid-'90s, many families of those killed locally went another route and, at great risk to their reputation, spoke out publicly about their experience. These families got the attention of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, who held a hearing and released a report in 2000. That report and its recommendations for a civilian review board were blasted in the Press Democrat—the same week that two more people were killed by police.
Ten years down the road, not much has changed. Shootings by city police are still investigated by the county Sheriff's department and vice-versa. The local Democratic Party has added police review to its platform, but even with a countywide majority, it has failed to institute even a pilot program in any city. Despite two new chiefs in Santa Rosa, there has been no meaningful change in policy. Surviving families find themselves having made a call for help that resulted in the death of an already distressed loved one. I cannot imagine how tough that is.
Last week, I visited the roadside memorial for Nicodemus Sullivan, who was shot between 30 and 42 times by three Sheriff's deputies and a CHP officer in southwest Santa Rosa. When I approached the site on Hargrave Avenue, one of Nic's friends was in front of a makeshift altar, red-eyed, chain smoking and grinding his heels into the asphalt. I parked down the road to give him privacy and walked back slowly, looking at the spraypaint marking where cars had been and bullet casings had landed. I paid my own respects and left a list of other local people killed by police on the altar.
We live in a county where part of the population regularly has their cars stolen by the police because they weren't born on the right side of an imaginary line; where three to four people a year are killed or die in custody without any daylight on the following investigations; where departments refuse to fill public-records requests in a timely fashion. The only relief we see comes from regular folks: the people who step up to divert traffic from driver's license checkpoints, who assist those abused by police and who monitor and document public police work. No one doing this work gets paid for it, and none are advancing a political program or party. All are doing it simply because it is right.
Ben Saari is a police accountability activist and construction worker. He lives in Roseland with his family, his dog and his Star Wars memorabilia.
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