Robert Gammon / The East Bay Express & Mary Noble and Ryan Heuser / East Bay Express & Craig Gordon / The East Bay Express – 2014-12-14 00:23:35
When Police Kill
Robert Gammon / The East Bay Express
OAKLAND, Calif. (December 10, 2014) — The recent decisions by grand juries in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York to not bring criminal charges against white police officers who killed unarmed black men has sparked outrage and protests throughout the nation, particularly in the East Bay. The grand juries’ decisions also made it clear that our criminal justice system is broken and needs immediate reform.
Some activists and criminal justice experts say that the two recent cases highlight two aspects of police-officer-involved shooting investigations that are plagued by serious conflicts of interest. The first conflict entails the fact that officer-involved fatal shootings are typically investigated by cops from the same police department as the officer who killed someone. And the second has to do with the fact that local prosecutors who maintain close working relationships with the police agencies in their jurisdiction usually handle police brutality cases.
‘Of course there are conflicts — but there shouldn’t be,’ said Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods. ‘When it comes to police officers being charged with crimes . . . the system is broken.’
Earlier this year, Wisconsin became the first state in the nation to tackle one of these conflicts of interest — the investigations of officer-involved fatal shootings. And it only happened because a father of young man who was shot and killed at point-blank range by police had waged a nearly ten-year-long campaign to create accountability when cops use lethal force.
That father, Michael Bell, a white, retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who flew in three wars for the United States, said in an interview that he was initially stunned when he first realized that police investigators had covered up evidence about the killing of his 21-year-old son Michael in 2004. Michael was handcuffed when Kenosha, Wisconsin police Officer Alberto Gonzales put his gun to Michael’s temple and fired.
Bell said he was then shocked when Kenosha police investigators quickly rallied around Gonzales and exonerated him, while completely ignoring Bell and his family. ‘I thought, ‘If that happened to me, a white man, what must other people be going through?”
Bell then took the only path left to him: He sued the Kenosha police. He hired private investigators to re-examine the case and eventually won a $1.75 million settlement — but that wasn’t enough, considering the fact that Gonzales never lost his job (in fact, he’s also a licensed concealed-gun instructor). So Bell refused a demand by Kenosha’s attorneys that he remain silent about the case, and forced them to turn over all the investigative reports involving his son’s death.
Bell then used the $1.75 million to fund an extensive public-awareness campaign, erecting billboards throughout Wisconsin that read, ‘When police take a life, should they investigate themselves?’ The billboards sparked a strong backlash from police unions throughout the state. But eventually Bell gained bipartisan support in the state legislature for a slate of criminal justice reform proposals.
Because of his background in piloting planes, Bell based his three reform ideas on how the National Transportation Safety Board investigates plane crashes. First, he requested that officers involved in fatal encounters be tested for drug and alcohol intoxication — just like pilots must do immediately after incidents involving their planes.
Second, he pushed for all officer-involved fatal encounters to be investigated by outside police agencies — and not by the department of which the cop in question is an employee. This second reform also called for the results of such investigations to be given to the members of the victim’s family, regardless of whether an officer is charged with a crime.
And, third, he asked that each investigation of a deadly police encounter be handed over to a panel of outside experts to review it to make sure the probe was done correctly.
In the end, Bell only got the second proposal through the legislature, but it was nonetheless groundbreaking. When signed into law by Republican Governor Scott Walker earlier this year, Bell’s legislation made Wisconsin the first state in the nation to require that all deadly police encounters be investigated by outside law enforcement agencies (Bell said he hopes that his third proposal will win approval next year, but the first one, involving alcohol testing, has virtually no chance because of staunch opposition by police unions).
For Bell, the idea that a police department should be prohibited from investigating its own when it comes to fatal encounters was a no-brainer — because of the obvious conflicts of interest. Criminal justice experts throughout the country have also applauded Wisconsin’s new law. But does it go far enough?
Rory Little, a former federal prosecutor who is also a well-known professor at UC Hastings College of Law in San Francisco, said that Wisconsin’s new statute is a strong step in the right direction but it doesn’t address potential conflicts of interest between local prosecutors and police.
Typically, it’s the county district attorneys’ office that ultimately decides whether a cop will be charged with a crime. And many local district attorneys are wary of taking on individual police officers because they must maintain good working relationships with area police agencies in order to successfully prosecute other criminal cases. ‘It’s absolutely a problem,’ Little explained.
Indeed, it seems clear that the prosecutors in both the Ferguson and Staten Island cases had no interest in convincing their grand juries to file criminal charges against police officers Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown, and Daniel Pantaleo, who strangled Eric Garner to death.
Little argues that fatal cases involving police should be handled by the state Attorney General’s Office, which does not have to maintain day-to-day relationships with local police agencies. However, Woods, Alameda County’s Public Defender, said he wasn’t sure that was such a good idea in California, because he said the state Attorney General’s Office doesn’t have many trial lawyers who are experienced in prosecuting criminal cases.
(Woods also added that he supports Wisconsin’s new law and believes Alameda County, under current District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, has improved its handling of police misconduct cases.) Little acknowledged that the state AG’s office has shortcomings, but said it could hire a team of experienced trial lawyers to handle these cases.
But what about handing over fatal cases involving police to federal prosecutors for civil rights prosecutions? Currently, the US Attorney General’s Office is investigating both the Ferguson and the Staten Island killings. But Little, a former federal prosecutor, notes that bringing federal civil rights charges against a cop who kills someone is generally considered to be more difficult than convicting the officer of murder or manslaughter in state court — although it has been done.
“It’s not impossible — that’s what we did after Rodney King,” Little said, referring to the successful federal civil rights prosecution of Los Angeles cops who had been acquitted in state court of assaulting Rodney King, even though the beating was caught on video.
Little thinks that of the two recent cases, the Eric Garner investigation will more likely result in civil rights charges being filed against the officer involved — because, like in the Rodney King case, it was captured on video (Little is also a strong supporter of mandating that all police officers wear body cameras to record all interactions with the public.)
“I would not hesitate to take [the Garner] case to a grand jury,” Little said, adding that he believes a civil rights indictment should be easy to obtain and that the reason the state grand jury chose not to indict Pantaleo was because the local prosecutor involved likely didn’t push for it.
In the end, criminal justice reforms like Wisconsin’s new law and the proposal to have state attorneys general handle fatal police encounters require state action — not a federal solution. And considering the fact that Republicans will soon control both houses of Congress, federal legislation on police shootings seems unlikely. But there’s no reason that California can’t pursue reforms. After all, if Wisconsin can do it, why can’t we?
Cops Arrest Law-abiding Citizens While Vandals Escape
Six Media Myths about the Black Friday
Demonstration in San Francisco, Debunked
Mary Noble and Ryan Heuser / East Bay Express
SAN FRANCISCO (December 10, 2014) — Since November 24, protests have been raging across the nation in response to the non-indictments of police officers Darren Wilson, who fatally shot unarmed black teenager, Mike Brown, and Daniel Pantaleo, who strangled an unarmed black man, Eric Garner, to death in New York City on camera.
We believe the media has covered the protests in a way that exaggerates their violence and has minimized their significance. Here are six myths about a large demonstration in San Francisco that took place on Black Friday, followed by what actually happened.
Myth 1: the Media Said the Protest Became an Ugly, Violent Riot
Ugly. Violent. Riots. Looting. Cowering shoppers. Frightened crowds. That’s what Americans heard about the Black Friday march in San Francisco from the media.
But how violent was the protest really? The answer: not very. Only a tiny minority of the people present was involved in property damage or assault. And those moments were vastly outweighed by long periods of peaceful marching.
You might think it’s hard to estimate how much of the protest involved criminality. But we’re going to try, based on a minute-by-minute report of the four-hour protest by San Francisco-based freelance journalist Sam-Omar Hall, eyewitness accounts (including from us), and from information released by San Francisco Chief of Police Greg Suhr.
In the five incidents of vandalism and violence in Union Square, an estimated 9 people were involved, out of about 400 protesters — in other words, just 2 percent of those participating. The incidents took place over a span of about 15 minutes, starting at 6:43 p.m. — the only time during which vandalism occurred in the first two hours of the march.
Over the next two hours, in the Mission District, about nine isolated incidents of vandalism and violence took place during a span of about 20 to 30 minutes. In all, the four-hour protest involved isolated incidents of criminal behavior over about 35 to 45 minutes — far from the “riot” described by the media.
For comparison, let’s look back to earlier this fall, when the San Francisco Giants won the World Series. Rioting sports fans in the Mission District damaged 28 Muni buses; lit street bonfires on couches, trash cans, mattresses, and Lyft’s pink mustaches; smashed five police vehicles; and shot guns, wounding two people. The damage to Muni alone totaled at least $140,000. Despite the far greater intensity of property damage and violence, police only made forty arrests — half the number made on Black Friday.
Myth 2: There Was Indiscriminate Looting
In reality, property damage was targeted at major chain stores and upscale businesses. Stores damaged included Macy’s, Bank of America, Simayof Jewelers, McDonald’s, RadioShack, and Beretta — an upscale restaurant on Valencia Street.
What are the common denominators of these targets? They’re either large national chains or symptoms of gentrification.
Myth 3: Police Arrested 79 Vandals
In reality, police did not arrest any vandals. In a press conference last week, San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr concluded his statement by saying that “All told that night, we made 79 arrests.”
But Suhr did not specify why the 79 people were arrested, leaving the journalists present with the impression that 79 arrests were made in response to violence and vandalism.
A later question, however, blew that idea to shreds. In response to a media question about how many arrests were made in regard to vandalism, Suhr admitted, “We have no arrests for vandalism.”
In fact, of the 79 arrested, all but 4 were cited and released for misdemeanors unrelated to assault or vandalism. Of the four booked into jail, two were for outstanding warrants, leaving only 2 arrests that had anything to do with violence that night.
But of the 9 news reports of the press conference, only 2 mentioned that none of the 79 arrests were for vandalism.
Myth 4: Police Acted Legally Throughout
In reality, police mass-arrested seventy people on legally dubious grounds. Starting at about 9:45 p.m., police silently arrested around seventy protesters who were trapped and huddled together on Liberty Street. The arrests occurred over a period of about two hours.
So you might imagine that cops had good reasons for the mass arrests. But you’d be wrong.
Those arrested were compliant, exhausted, and wanted to go home. Here’s how they ended up cuffed and jailed instead:
The group had turned onto Liberty in an attempt to escape two police lines trapping them on Valencia. Police chased them onto Liberty and ordered them to get out of the road and onto the sidewalk. Everyone got onto the sidewalk.
Then a different police line approached from ahead and ordered protesters to get back into the road. Police circled the group of protesters, forcing everyone back onto the sidewalk and up against a wall on Liberty.
Police wouldn’t respond to questions, and when approached, they lifted what looked like automatic weapons. (These weapons were probably rubber-bullet guns.) No one knew what was happening, everyone was tired, and no one was offering any resistance. People started calling family to say they were likely getting arrested, as police began picking off and cuffing protesters one by one.
People were not read their rights. Police quickly mumbled the charge numbers to each person as they were handcuffed. It turned out that everyone present had been charged with jaywalking and with failure to obey a law enforcement officer. Everyone was taken to the Hall of Justice in vans, cited, and released some hours later — except for three people detained overnight because they had prior warrants.
Were the arrests legal? Not really, because it was impossible for protesters to simultaneously obey two sets of officers and be on and off the sidewalk at the same time, one legal expert explained. “Implied with any directive is the ability to obey or comply, so if they told you to do something that was in some way impossible then that would be unlawful,” said Danny Everett, a criminal defense attorney and former San Francisco deputy district attorney.
The arrests were legally dubious in another respect, too. The officer who handcuffed one of us — Ryan Heuser — told Heuser that he had “failed to disperse.” But no dispersal order was given in the vicinity of the mass arrest.
We later learned that a dispersal order was given to a different group, several blocks away on Valencia and completely out of earshot. This tactic has been used recently by Los Angeles Police Department officers who arrested a large group of protestors after a dispersal order had been read in a different part of downtown.
Is that a legal move by police? Not exactly. “If you give an order to one set of people and then expect another to comply with it, then that would not be lawful,” Everett said. “It’s not a lawful order.”
Myth 5: Police Acted With Great “Restraint”
Police Chief Suhr said last week that police acted throughout the protests with “restraint.” Media accounts have supported that narrative and totally avoided any criticism of police tactics.
Yet during the protest, SFPD used a kettling tactic — essentially blocking or trapping protesters in a tight area — that is highly controversial in other countries. In the United Kingdom, some legal experts say that kettling is used to make protesting so unpleasant that people who experience it will never protest again.
It’s also widely accepted that kettling is likely to provoke violence. In Union Square, it was only after protesters had been kettled between police lines for more than fifteen minutes that we heard glass break for the first time. “Does the benefit of any prevention of disorder by kettling justify the anger, dismay, and sometimes further disorder that it creates?” asked British reporter Dave Hill in a report after a notorious kettling incident in London in 2010.
Myth 6: Police Acted In The Public Interest
Arresting people who aren’t criminals is not in the public interest. But arresting protesters who didn’t commit a crime has one major advantage for police. It makes those people less likely to ever take to the streets and protest again. “I would highly anticipate that there’s a 99.9 percent chance that all those charges would be dropped,” Everett said. “The purpose is to arrest you and defuse the situation.”
Police Censorship Defeated — for Now
The decision in Oakland to reinstate the Urban Dreams curriculum was a victory for social justice and a defeat for police-state censorship
Craig Gordon / The East Bay Express
OAKLAND, Calif. (December 10, 2014) — How often do corporate media mention that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Dream” speech called out “the unspeakable horrors of police brutality?” Never. But Ferguson and Staten Island call to mind those words and others by MLK, such as, “Riot is the language of the unheard” and his naming “[his] own government . . . the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
Today’s police use militarized force to “protect and serve” the One Percent and intimidation to silence critics. St. Louis cops last week demanded that five black NFL players on the hometown Rams be disciplined for publicly showing solidarity with Ferguson protestors. And, for the past seven months, police pressured the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) into eliminating a lesson about MLK’s deepest critique of American injustice. But persistent protest defeated this censorship.
Last April, Fox News reported that the national Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) objected to a history unit on MLK’s little-known radical ideas posted on the OUSD website. The unit included a lesson asking students to consider a parallel between textbooks’ exclusion of King’s radical ideas and media censorship of the most controversial death-penalty case of our time: the 1982 conviction of ex-Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal for killing a Philadelphia cop.
OUSD submitted to police pressure by taking the MLK unit offline, along with 26 other social justice lessons collectively called Urban Dreams. This ensured that students wouldn’t learn about MLK’s ideas challenging American society’s core values or about Abu-Jamal, the nation’s best-known critic of police violence.
The FOP professed reverence for MLK and outrage that a lesson connected him to Abu-Jamal. But police also spied on, abused, and threatened King. In his final year, King consistently opposed the Vietnam War, US aggression worldwide, and a system in which “profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people.”
He was murdered weeks before he was to lead a multiracial Poor People’s campaign to occupy Washington, DC.
OUSD’s decision to repost Urban Dreams shows that police censorship can be defeated. Persistent pressure from community supporters, teacher unions, the county labor council, Ed Asner, and Alice Walker prevailed. But the forces of “law and order” won’t relent.
It took activism by millions to win Civil Rights movement demands and end the Vietnam War. It will take more to achieve what King and Abu-Jamal both have advocated: a society with jobs, housing, food, education, medical care, and a healthy environment for all.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.