Time for change
The past shows how tough treatment of the poor erodes community trust in police
By Randy Jurado Ertll 10/06/2011
There is a significant need to revise policies governing the use of lethal force by police departments. This issue has become even more relevant with the just-released report by the Police Assessment Resource Center (PARC).
The 30th semiannual report prepared by Special Counsel Merrick J. Bobb and PARC states that “61 percent of suspects in state of mind shootings turn out to be unarmed. What troubles us is that African American or Latino youth is more likely to be the subject of a mistaken perception of dangerousness that is a white or Asian person.”
The report goes further by specifically finding that “Latinos appear to be significantly overrepresented in shooting incidents in comparison to their overall arrest rates, while white suspects are underrepresented.”
Regardless of race or ethnicity, police-related beatings and shootings need to be investigated and monitored more closely. On the heels of the brutal and fatal July 5 beating of Kelly Thomas (who was homeless and suffered from schizophrenia) by Fullerton Police Officers Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli, cities around the country should grapple with this issue. Ramos has been charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. Cicinelli has been charged with involuntary manslaughter and excessive use of force.
The case will now go to trial, and the jury will have to decide whether or not the officers are guilty. Let us not forget that it is taxpayer money that pays police officers “To Protect and to Serve.”
We must remind law enforcement to provide suitable services to create safety and trust, not just in affluent areas, but also in poor and middle-class neighborhoods. It is a tragedy and an injustice that occurred in Fullerton, a city in Orange County where we would expect that police officers would be more respectful of its citizens’ civil rights, since a majority of police abuse occurs in poor, neglected neighborhoods.
The Fullerton mayor, City Council, and the chief of police have an obligation to establish an independent citizens’ commission that will oversee future police misconduct and monitor how the Fullerton Police Department treats its citizens.
Kelly Thomas’ case may have been ignored if he were not the son of Ron Thomas, a retired Orange County Sheriff’s deputy. Ron Thomas has led a citywide effort to bring justice to his murdered son. He is persistent and not afraid, especially because he has countless supporters and knows how our legal system favors the more affluent.
Wealthy individuals and powerful bureaucracies can hire high-caliber criminal defense attorneys, while the poor usually get sentenced, since they are unable to afford seasoned, well-known and expensive attorneys.
Police officers in departments around the country have used lethal force in many questionable circumstances.
Here are some of the most notorious examples from the last couple of decades — at least those that the public is aware of. Many cases go unnoticed or unreported, because the families of the victims are usually afraid to speak up or do not know how to access media attention and political support.
Back in 1991, a Salvadoran immigrant was shot by an African-American police officer and rioting occurred for two days in the Mount Pleasant area of Washington, DC. A lack of bilingual police officers, combined with cultural insensitivity, had built up into distrust and antagonism between the community and the police department.
Of course, we cannot forget the savage beating of Rodney King that year by four white police officers. These officers were acquitted on April 29, 1992, and the community was so outraged that rioting erupted, lasting three days and resulting in many deaths and more than $1 billion in property damage.
City councils and police oversight commissions must devise clearer and more stringent policies for the use of lethal force.
Let’s just hope and pray that these types of shootings can be prevented in the future through the implementation of better tactics to subdue or disarm individuals who pose a clear and present danger to civilians and police officers. Further, police officers should be trained in ways of improving communication and treating individuals who have mental and physical challenges.
The Police Assessment Resource Center says that “the problems we describe can be resolved or substantially ameliorated by further training, strict accountability and focused attention.”
Otherwise, distrust of and disrespect toward police officers will only continue to rise, not just in poor communities, but also in middle-class areas.
That’s the last thing we need.
Randy Jurado Ertll, executive director of El Centro de Accion Social, is author of “Hope in Times of Darkness: A Salvadoran American Experience.” Visit randyjuradoertll.com or write to Ertll at firstname.lastname@example.org.