POLICE BRUTALITY CONTINUES IN OUR COMMUNITIES. WE NEED BETTER COPS.
The year started with the ugly but not necessarily unexpected news that a couple of cops who apparently beat a man to death were acquitted. The jury couldn’t see its way to convict the Fullerton police officers who were videotaped mercilessly beating a homeless guy, a guy with severe mental illness, until he was a bloody mess. One cop was seen on videotape slowly and methodically pulling on rubber gloves and menacingly telling the homeless man, “You see these fists, they’re getting ready to fuck you up.” And they did.
Thirty-nine-year-old Kelly Thomas was eventually taken to the hospital by the cops on the night of the brutal beating. He died several days later. On the videotape, Thomas pleads with the cops to stop pummeling him with their fists, stomping on him and beating him with the blunt end of a Taser gun. He cried, “Dad, help me, they’re killing me.” And they did.
His dad, by the way, is a retired cop himself. Right after the verdicts were announced Ron Thomas said, “All of us need to be very afraid now.” He added, “Police officers can beat us, kill us, whatever they want, and it has been proven right here today they’ll get away with it.” He said police have “carte blanche” to brutalize people. And, remember, this is coming from a former cop.
He called the verdict an outrage. I agree. But it’s not surprising. Juries are loathed to find cops guilty in such cases. Philosophically people serving on juries tend to believe not only that cops can do no wrong, but that if cops are convicted of using “excessive force” on bad guys, then all the bad guys in the world will run wild in society. Only cops keep the bad guys at bay, goes the mantra. And you can’t keep cops on a tight leash. Oh no. That would embolden the bad guys to run amok. Of course, it is often the cops who run amok. And they have a badge. And a gun. And the authority to use it and the “untouchability” that comes with the uniform.
Interestingly, the infamous Kelly Thomas case involved a white, middle-class victim. It shows the cops can be equal opportunity in administering injustice. But the reality is that most of their violence and brutality is visited upon the poor and politically powerless. Latinos are today – and for a long time have been – frequent targets of particularly pernicious police abuse.
I grew up on Los Angeles’ eastside where, as chavalos we learned to fear the cops. They were a brutal occupying force. Not much has changed, despite those L.A. civic types who say the federally-imposed “consent degree” that mandated reforms in the LAPD in recent years has made the department a “better police force.” Yeah, but better than what?
I was a street reporter for 30 years. I covered City Hall and politicians. I covered criminal trials. I covered the range of earthquakes and natural disasters that routinely hit California, as well as Mexico and Central America. But, like most reporters, I often covered cops. Guys (and they were mostly guys) on the streets and the brass of the department. I saw how they operated. I got a glimpse into the perspective of the cop.
In my experience cops believe there are two kinds of people in the world: cops and everybody else. And that group of “everybody else” is made up of criminals or would-be criminals. For cops, some criminals are easier to spot than others and some of them are civilians who are really just “criminal wolves in civilian sheep’s clothing.” Us against them. That’s the mentality of cops. And they are not shy about using all the weapons at their disposal to ensure that “law and order” (as they might define that) prevails. And rookie cops soon find themselves molded by veterans into that culture. It’s a pernicious socialization process.
Cops are quick to draw their guns and pull the trigger. The police brass quaintly refers to such incidents as “officer-involved shootings.” I cannot tell you how often I heard the refrain –- on the street, at news conferences and at criminal trials: “Fearing for my safety, I drew my service weapon and fired at the suspect who was reaching for his waistband.” They should add: “and then I kept shooting until my gun was empty.” I once covered a case where two cops put nine bullets in a guy; they would have put more bullets in him if they’d been better shots.
In the Kelly Thomas case, one of the defense attorneys for the cops said the police were just “doing their job, that’s what they are trained to do.” Yeah, right. The lawyer told the jury: “This isn’t about a bully cop who was trying to just beat down a homeless guy. It’s about a police officer who for ten years protected his community and did everything he could to keep the community safe.” Yeah, right.
While the dust was settling after the disturbing verdict in the Kelly Thomas case, yet another case of apparent police abuse surfaced. A Latino teenager in the city of Highland, some 50 miles east of Los Angeles, was shot by police. A 16-year-old Latino named Joshua Alvarez remains in the hospital in critical condition.
Cops showed up outside the kid’s home following a family argument. According to police, the boy had a hammer in his hand. They ordered him to drop “the weapon.” When he didn’t comply immediately the cops shot him. There have been vigils for the boy and protest demonstrations outside the police station. The kid is still in the hospital, in very bad shape.
And this incident comes following a nearly unbelievable series of events on the other side of the country. In Durham, North Carolina a Latino teenager “mysteriously” died in the back seat of a police patrol car. A 17-year-old kid named Jesús Huerta was arrested by the cops, handcuffed and placed in the back seat of a police cruiser. He was driven to the police station. The car was in the parking lot when, according to police, there was the sound of a gunshot. Cops from the police station went outside and found the teenager dead of a gunshot wound to the head. His hands were handcuffed behind his back!
The Latino community there (and we are now everywhere in this country) was outraged. They held a vigil to protest what they considered police abuse. The police responded by firing tear gas into the crowd and dispersing those who had gathered for the vigil. Weeks later the police “investigation” concluded that somehow, the kid got his hands on a gun and shot himself. The cops say they didn’t do it. It strains credulity. State authorities are “looking into the case.” Increible.
Just a few examples of what Latino (and African American and poor white marginalized) communities confront all the time.
That’s why we must always be vigilant about how police operate. They have the guns and the legal authority. Police are a necessary evil. But they can’t be allowed to abuse their authority. There are, of course, bad guys out there and we hire police to protect the public from bad guys. But too often we have a situation where the fox is guarding the henhouse, with disastrous consequences.
What’s the answer? There are several. None of them easy to implement. Better training, of course. Taking steps to end the culture of fascist abuse of authority. Civilian review boards with teeth. All easier said than done, I admit.
But here’s one notion I’ve suggested for a long time, ever since I began to follow police abuse cases closely: hire better educated cops. Right now, an 18-year-old with a G.E.D. can become a cop in Los Angeles (and other cities) and make a very decent salary. They are totally vulnerable to being conditioned by veteran cops and the culture that says, “Shoot first and ask questions later.” How about this? Make a college degree a requirement for anyone applying for a job as a cop. That doesn’t guarantee, in and of itself, that you’ll get better material for the police department. But it couldn’t hurt. Sure, there are jerks who have college degrees, but there is a likelihood that a mature, educated man or woman would be less vulnerable to the socialization in police departments that creates and nurtures a culture of brutality and abuse. Why not give that a try? There are lots of unemployed college graduates out there. And while we’re at it, why don’t we improve our evaluation process to try to weed out applicants with a demonstrated lack of regard for the rights of citizens to be free from abuse?
Something certainly has to change about the way we pick and train cops. Otherwise there will inevitably be more and more Kelly Thomas cases down the road.
Copyright 2014 Luis R. Torres. Luís Torres is the author of the recently published book “Doña Julia’s Children: The Life and Legacy of Educational Reformer Vahac Mardirosian” available online at Barnes and Noble.