One day on the Gold Line
Pasadena writer Carla Sameth becomes an unlikely victim of bloody violence at the hands of sheriff’s deputies patrolling the local commuter train
By Carla Sameth 08/30/2012
I’m crouched and handcuffed, in a pool of my own blood, on the Highland Park Metro station platform, begging, “Help, someone, pleeease!” and crying out for my mommy. Passengers are walking in and out of trains but making a wide berth, staring, not stopping.
I am a 50-year-old Jewish woman, a single mother of a 13-year-old Afro-Jewish son, a writer and the owner of a PR firm in Pasadena. I frequently ride the metro to appointments in the downtown area. On that day, Dec. 28, 2009, I just wanted to go home, have a glass of Chardonnay, and watch “Weeds.” I was glad the year was almost over, the end of a rough one that included the un-blending of our blended family and the crushing impact of the recession on my previously thriving business.
So I leave Union Station, get on the Gold Line and am gazing out the window when an LA County Sheriff’s deputy asks me for my ticket. I dig for my Metro Day Pass in the usual chaos of my bag. He barks at me to “keep looking” then says, “give me your driver’s license,” which I do immediately. I find the receipt for the pass that indicated the date and time I bought it. I show it to the deputy, who gestures impatiently for me to follow him off the train. “That’s not good enough; you can show it in court.”
I’m not eager to go to court or pay a fine: “Wait, please don’t cite me. I can find the pass; I know I have it.”
“You’ll have a much worse day if you don’t get off right now,” he shouts, and I get right off. As I exit, I hear the crackle of a two-way radio.
Sheriff’s deputies immediately surround me — brown uniforms loom over me, blocking the view of the 4 p.m. rush of passengers swirling around the station. I start to look for my pass, but a female deputy orders, “Get up, put your hands there.”
“What, you are going to search me?” The words fly out before I can think, but I immediately put my arms on the pillar.
She searches me, shoving her hands roughly around my body, my breasts, around my waist and down under my underwear. I’ve never been patted down before, other than at the airport, and never this aggressively. Instinctively, I react to her hands jerking around my body, poking and grabbing. “Stop — you’re hurting me,” I cry and pull to the side.
Within a second, she bounces my head — SLAM, SLAM, SLAM — against the pillar, simultaneously snapping handcuffs behind my back.
I both hear and feel a loud crunch — impact of bone hitting hard surface. For a moment, I genuinely think I’m just having a bad dream.
One of the deputies whistles, “Oh dear, looks like she broke one.”
I see bright red blood spurting out everywhere. My nose, my mouth, ears — I’m not really sure where all the pain and blood are coming from. I thought of myself as a strong woman, but at this point, I’m broken. My earring has fallen to the ground and is floating in my blood.
The deputies stand around, chatting and ignoring me even when I beg, “Please help; let me call someone,” and “I hurt so bad; everything hurts.”
I squat, dripping blood and mucous. A deputy belches loudly. Another asks, “Did you call?” and the response is, “Must be a busy day for the paramedics.”
“We told you to keep your head back. You can’t use a phone until the supervisor gets here,” they shout at me, annoyed. I try to lean back but choke on the blood. I fall backwards, twisted up with the handcuffs. The tight metal is digging into my wrists. The female deputy remains impassive and silent when I ask her, “Why did you hurt me?”
Trains come and go. People walk by, staring. I feel alone and humiliated when they avoid my eyes. There is a general din around me and a thick, clogged feeling in my nose and ears. I taste metal. I feel dizzy.
A “supervisor” arrives with a video camera. For a moment, I hope someone is here who will make sense of this nightmare, but as he interrogates me, it’s clear he’s not the one.
He questions me — in front of the woman who broke my nose — while two paramedics check me out. I am handcuffed the entire time.
Months later, when my attorneys show me that video, I am both horrified and reassured that my memory was accurate. I feel so sorry for that woman calling for her mommy. There really is a large pool of blood on the platform — coming from me. Part way through the video, the supervisor asks, “Ma’am, are you hurt?”
I am put in the ambulance and the supervisor continues to interrogate me. Now that I look back on it, one of the strangest parts of my experience was receiving medical “care” while being held captive, handcuffed.
In the ambulance I ask the supervisor, “Why did this happen? Am I in custody?”
He switches the video off. Practically spitting out the words, “These questions are why. Now I’m telling you what’s going to happen. Be quiet. Lie down — you’re going to County.”
Arriving at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, I’m embarrassed by the handcuffs and try unsuccessfully to hide them under my coat. I used to work for a union representing many of the workers here; I am hoping I’ll find a friendly face. The male intake nurse with the SEIU button looks me over and politely asks, “What did your nose look like … before?” My friend, Maria Elena, calls our ethnic noses “strong.” I don’t actually know what it looks like now, but it is throbbing and painful, and it’s hard to breathe. It feels enormous and stuffed.
Another deputy pushes my gurney down the hallway into the locked facility. With a deputy present, I’m directed to take off my clothes and jewelry and put on a gown. My handcuffs are taken off for a moment. Feeling like I might faint, I struggle with the gown and try to pee but can’t. I see myself in the mirror for the first time — my face is covered with snot and blood, and my nose is definitely bigger, swollen. The gown is falling off. Again, I feel embarrassed.
I’m left in a corridor of a larger room, alone, crying, in pain. The wall is bare except for a sign that says, “You have the right to ask for pain medication.”
For hours, I intermittently call out, “Excuse me, excuse me,” in an attempt to ask for help — ice, medication, to make a phone call. A few people pause and tell me they will get something, but I don’t see them again. I’m told to be quiet or no one will help me, told I’ll be moved to a “fine room with a phone and television,” and later told that I’ll never make a call there. A nurse shakes her finger at me. “Ain’t no patients using the phone here; might call their families, other gang members,” she explains.
I stop asking for help, realizing that survival depends on being quiet and compliant. My arms and legs are tingling. My right ear and the side of my face begin to really hurt and feel strange, alternately numb and throbbing.
Someone gives me an ice pack. I’m eventually given pain medication, but I am nauseous from swallowing blood.
I wonder where my son is right now. I don’t want to think of his ever being in this position. If this could happen to me, what might they do to my black son? I’ve read the statistics — more than one in four African-American males will go to jail in his lifetime.
I had already become fearful of my son being racially profiled. He’s 13, just had his bar mitzvah and still doesn’t have hair under his arms, but as he gets taller and we move further south from Northwest Pasadena, he’s beginning to be treated differently. Though I’m familiar with the term “police misconduct,” I have operated on fear for my son, but never for me. It’s terrifying and absurd that anyone might see him as threatening. And yet, here I am. I’ve never been on the prisoner side before, except to give writing workshops in juvenile detention facilities.
A doctor comes to see me. He is youngish and greets me with an open, concerned expression. He seems to see me as a human, not merely an inmate. He tells me that he thinks my nose is fractured and orders a CT scan.
By this point, I really have to go to the bathroom. The deputy who originally took me off the Metro is nearby again, ready to take me to get the CT scan. He tells the nurse, “I think she’s going to need help getting up.” I appreciate that — it was like when I tried to walk after my C-Section. I am brought a bedpan to pee into.
The deputy wheels me in on a stretcher. Now talkative, he complains he’s been working over 19 hours and can’t leave until I do. When we are almost hit by a swinging door, he says, “With my luck, that would injure me; my day has been bad enough.”
Eventually, the doctor comes back. “I’m going to discharge you,” he says. “You’ll need to see an ear, nose and throat specialist — your nose is fractured. The septum was pushed to one side. They’ll have to see it when the swelling goes down. Put ice on it and sit up sleeping so you can breathe. I’ll make you an appointment. You’ll probably need surgery.”
I beg him, “Please don’t release me to the officers.” I am really scared that I will be made to “disappear.” The doctor looks at me hopelessly, “What can I do? I can’t keep you.”
I ask him about admitting me, hoping for that room with the phone.
“If I admit you, they’ll put you in the prison hospital. You won’t be able to make any calls or talk to anyone — you don’t want that.”
He leaves. I lie there.
Two deputies arrive, and I am told to put one item of clothing on and I’ll be taken to jail.
I ask about reaching my son. One says, “You haven’t spoken with him yet — right? So why should it matter now?”
I am not sure that I will make it out of here and desperately need to make contact. My son is staying overnight with his dad. No one knows where I am. Suddenly, the deputy who first took me off the Metro appears and tells me to sign a citation and I’m free to go.
“Why are they releasing her?” the others ask.
“I don’t know;” he shrugs, “they just told me, cite and release.”
“All I have to do is sign this and I can go?” I ask, disbelieving, afraid to move. While I am getting dressed, a deputy grabs my envelope with the follow-up appointment and instructions, citing it as “evidence.”
Eight hours after having my nose broken, around midnight, I stumble out of the hospital jail facility, clutching a few of my items — one earring in a bloody plastic glove and my blood-soaked rebozo (shawl,) which I later throw out, and my bag, which I won’t use again for over a year.
I don’t know exactly where I am or how I’ll get home. My phone is dead. I walk then almost run, putting distance between me and the bars. I stop in front of a security guard and cannot hold back the sobbing. I ask to use his phone.
I try the numbers I have memorized; no one is home. Finally, I reach my son’s dad, “What happened, sweetie? What did they do to you? I’m coming.” I can’t stop weeping, “You have to tell our son right now: Never, ever question an officer; do exactly as told.”
My son’s dad picks me up after 1 a.m. Our son is with him. Of all the places I thought he’d see me, this was not one. And not in this condition. I hug them both, holding my son tightly. He hears my story and says little.
When we get to my house, my son’s dad tells him he needs to stay with me. To me he says, “Look in your bag for the Metro Day Pass,” and I find it where it had slipped behind my wallet.
The price of misplacing a Metro ticket. My ears stay full of blood for a day or two. At first, the doctors think I have a skull fracture, since my nose and half my face are bruised and swollen and I have a black eye. The dentist tells me I have a cracked tooth, marked from the pillar. My nose is broken with little chips floating around. An ear, nose and throat specialist later cautions me, “If you have surgery, we’ll have to re-break your nose. Be ready to be re-traumatized.”
About a week after the assault, my brother takes me to speak with civil rights attorneys. They explain that deputies are trained in a culture of brutality in the jails and are then let out on the street. They are taught that “these people” are animals and need to be controlled.
A friend warns me that when “they break something,” they usually charge you. I discover that my citation indicates “resisting arrest,” though I was never told I was under arrest, read my rights or allowed a call while “in custody.” The charges were never actually filed.
My brother-in-law is convinced that the deputy who broke my nose, a woman young enough to be my daughter and probably about eight months out of jail duty, was simply “showing off for the boys.”
Recently, I read the deposition of the supervisor who took the video. He claims he “can’t remember much.” He can’t remember whether or not I was injured or if he questioned me in the presence of the deputy who broke my nose. He doesn’t give a clear answer when asked if it’s standard practice to interview victims in front of their assailants.
The deposed deputies are all unclear as to whether it is “standard practice” to search passengers who can’t immediately find their tickets. Their answers are all over the place — yes, no, maybe so.
In the months after my experience on the Metro Gold Line, I became aware of the many stories of Sheriff’s Department misconduct published in the LA Times and Pasadena Weekly. I couldn’t believe that with story after story of deputies beating unconscious inmates while shouting, “Stop resisting!” that my case wasn’t settled sooner.
More than two years later, we accepted an offer of $199,000. I had little desire to go to trial. Having worked for the Seattle City Attorney’s Office in the Family Violence Project many years ago, I had firsthand knowledge of the experience of victims without power in the criminal justice system. Usually, the juries tended to decide “if the woman deserved to be beaten or not” — despite instructions that assault is a crime, even if it is done by a relative. I wasn’t confident enough a jury would decide that people in uniform, sworn to “protect and serve,” could be that brutal. Their defense seemed to suggest that I had somehow injured myself, eerily similar to the batterers’ stories of women knocking their own heads against walls.
Though I’m glad I didn’t have to go to trial, it wasn’t enough. There is not a week that goes by without another article or story about violence committed by the LA County Sheriff’s Department. The deputy who broke my nose, the deputy who took me off the Metro, the “supervisor” who interrogated me in front of my assailant — no one — has ever admitted wrongdoing or apologized. I am not aware of any reprimands or training ordered as a result of the incident.
Looking at what happened to me and at what happens inside the jails, I have to ask, how many more stories like mine are out there?
I have survived, and my life is going much better now, but I will never forget this experience, nor will my son — who saw me immediately after.
We don’t talk about it a lot, and he’s never seen the video, but he tells me he still has nightmares of “them doing that to you.” And recently, when a student intern at JPL came to stay with us, my son warned him, “Be careful on the Metro. Hang onto your ticket.”
Carla Sameth is a writer, co-director of The Pasadena Writing Project and president of iMinds PR in Old Pasadena.