Rodney King may have died last month and the riots set off 20 years ago by the acquittals of the Los Angeles Police officers who beat him may be a distant memory, but Californians are still struggling to rein in police brutality. Widespread civil disturbances in Anaheim following the shooting of three Latino men, two of whom were killed, by local police officers have reignited tensions between the Golden State’s communities of color and law enforcement.
While clashes between fatigue-clad riot police and angry demonstrators outside the gates of Disneyland have dominated the headlines, other major Californian law enforcement agencies are under heavy scrutiny for officer-involved shootings and beatings as well. What’s more, state laws and court decisions present a serious obstacle to public scrutiny of misconduct allegations and civilian oversight of the police.
Anaheim Police Department
Manuel Diaz’s shooting on July 21 had a depressingly familiar tinge to it.
The 25-year-old, whom Anaheim Police claim was a gang member with the moniker "Stomper," fled from officers who attempted to stop and question him. Police fired on Diaz twice as he fled, striking him in the leg and the back of his head. Video of the shooting’s immediate aftermath show APD officers moving to disperse a gathering crowd while a still-breathing Diaz’s hands twitch, cuffed behind his back. Later that day, police fired less-lethal rounds on a crowd of men, women and children protesting Diaz’s killing. Particularly chilling was the image of a police dog snapping at the arm of a Latino man prone on the ground as he tried to ward off the animal while holding his infant son.
Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas has promised a thorough investigation of the three shootings. Rackauckas’ office is notable among California district attorneys for actually charging officers for their involvement in a homicide: former Fullerton Police officers Manny Ramos and Jan Cicinelli will stand trial for the death of homeless man Kelly Thomas, who was bludgeoned to death by Ramos, Cicinelli and four other colleagues in July 2011.
However, the track record on police shootings does not inspire confidence that the Anaheim officers involved in the recent shootings will make it before a jury. According to Orange County DA records obtained by Colorlines.com, from 2003 through February 2011 there were at least 40 shootings by Anaheim Police officers. In every instance, the APD officer involved was cleared of criminal liability. In a case similar to Diaz’s shooting, 18-year-old Salvador Guillen was wounded by Anaheim PD officers despite being unarmed. Both officers were cleared by the Orange County DA 10 months later.
Diaz’s family has filed a $50 million wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Anaheim.
Two days after Diaz’s killing, APD officers shot another young Latino man to death. Anaheim Police claim police pursued a stolen silver SUV driven by 21-year-old Joel Matthew Acevedo. Police claim Acevedo fired on them after the 21-year-old fled the vehicle on foot, and say a handgun was found near his body at the scene. Witnesses who spoke to OC Weekly right after the shooting dispute APD’s account.
On July 27, APD officers shot and wounded a burglary suspect after he drove his vehicle at police responding to 911 calls in a condominium complex.
Dozens have been arrested during protests in Anaheim over the past few weeks, and vitriol at APD shows no sign of abating.
L.A. Sheriff’s Department
One county over from Anaheim, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department–California’s largest law enforcement agency at 10,000 deputies–has been under intense scrutiny for the past year and a half over allegations of widespread brutality in its sprawling jail system committed by "cliques" of deputies who eerily resemble the gangs they are supposed to police.
An independent commission and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are conducting inquiries into reports by the Los Angeles Times that a group of deputies assigned to the third floor of Men’s Central Jail in downtown L.A. systematically beat inmates. Known as the "3000 Boys," the group of LASD deputies shared common tattoos, had their own gang signs and brawled with other deputies who weren’t part of their set at a 2010 Christmas party in Montebello.
The 3000 Boys are just part of an internal culture in LASD that reflects the myriad street gangs that have long been a part of Los Angeles. In May of this year, seven deputies were suspended for their involvement with the "Jump Out Boys," a clique within LASD’s Gang Enforcement which celebrated officer-involved shootings and marked its members with tattoos of an oversized, grinning skull with glowing red eyes, adorned with a bandanna labeled "OSS," short for "Operation Safe Streets." A skeletal hand grasps a revolver, which would be decorated with smoke if the deputy bearing it was involved in a shooting incident.
L.A. Sheriff Lee Baca and his second-in-command Paul Tanaka accepted some culpability for the behavior of the 3000 Boys and brutality in county jails. However, neither Baca nor Tanaka could explain why they ignored subordinates’ concerns about violence, ignored systematic irregularities in reporting uses of force and encouraged deputies to engage in aggressive behavior. According to a 2007 internal report quoted by the Los Angeles Daily News, Assistant Sheriff Tanaka told "deputies at Century Station to ‘function right on the edge of the line’ and be ‘very aggressive’ in dealing with gang members."
An examination of LASD’s recent past reveals gang-like organizations have been a constant for two decades. The Lynwood Vikings and the Regulators were two such predecessors of the 3000 Boys and the Jump Out Boys. Furthermore, in 2007 Tanaka admitted to the Los Angeles Times that he had a history with the Lynwood Vikings, which a federal judge characterized as a "neo-Nazi supremacist gang":
"Even one of Baca’s top managers, Assistant Sheriff Paul Tanaka, got a Vikings tattoo while assigned to the Lynwood station in the 1980s. Tanaka has said that the tattoos are harmless and that he didn’t know of any inappropriate behavior by deputies who had them."
Oakland Police Department
In Northern California, the Oakland Police Department continues to struggle with police shootings and an entrenched culture of racism despite almost 10 years of court-ordered reforms. The clouds of tear gas, wounded veterans and mass arrests that defined clashes between Occupy Oakland and OPD last October have brought OPD’s policies and internal disciplinary practices into the public eye. U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderon warned in January that he would place OPD under control of a court-appointed receiver if the department failed to speed up its pace of reforms.
Since the beginning of the year OPD has engaged in the mass arrest of over 400 people on questionable legal grounds, botched the investigation into the wounding of Marine Corps veteran Scott Olsen on Oct. 25, 2011, and received a scathing review of its response to Occupy Oakland from an independent investigation.
Just last week, the independent monitor in Oakland’s federal oversight revealed that photographs of Judge Henderson, who is African-American, and Mayor Jean Quan, who is Asian, were defaced in a racially offensive manner and posted outside the lineup room in OPD’s headquarters for at least two days after an employee complained about them to a supervisor.
Like in Anaheim, excessive force in officer-involved shootings are at the heart of many Oaklanders’ antagonism towards police, which boiled in 2009 and 2010 after Oscar Grant was killed by former BART cop Johannes Mehserle on New Year’s Day, 2009. The fatal shooting of 18-year-old Alan Blueford by Officer Miguel Masso on May 6, just weeks before his high school graduation is the latest in a long list of names, predominantly young African-American or Latino men, who have been killed by OPD over the past decade.
Blueford’s family are publicly challenging OPD’s assertion that Blueford had a gun in his possession after he fled from a stop-and-frisk in Deep East Oakland. OPD initially claimed Blueford got into a gun battle with Masso, a claim debunked by the coroner’s report.
Furthermore, there are questions about OPD’s decision to hire Masso in the first place. I discovered that Masso was involved in the beating of an inmate held in the NYPD’s 52nd Precinct in 2007, which cost New York City taxpayers $54,000 in settlement money. Documents show an Internal Affairs investigation into the beating was open when Masso was applying to the Oakland Police Department in 2008, though Internal Affairs later cleared him of misconduct.
The Blueford family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit and is mounting a campaign to force Alameda County law enforcement to disclose information about the investigations into his death. Moreover, the Blueford family’s demand list includes a repeal of the Police Officer’s Bill of Rights, a 1977 state law that makes it illegal for California law enforcement agencies to disclose personnel information, such as misconduct complaints or disciplinary proceedings.
As I reported for Colorlines.com in a 2011 investigation, the 1977 law, along with the state Supreme Court’s pivotal Copley Press v. San Diego decision, pose a major roadblock to genuine systemic reform of law enforcement throughout California. Together, the law and the ruling are key reasons why problem officers are permitted to stay on the job and go rogue–as they have in Los Angeles, Anaheim and Oakland.
Ali Winston is a Colorlines.com contributor and reports on criminal justice for San Francisco Public Radio, KALW 91.7 FM. This story is a follow up to his Aug. 2011 Colorlines.com investigation, "Deadly Secrets: How California Law Shields Oakland Police Violence," which was supported by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.