Following the lack of indictments in both the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, there has been a much-needed discussion on police accountability in the United States. After speaking with several people around campus, though, it appears that many interpret such cases as simple acts of racism, as though the officer(s) involved killed their suspect on account of a blind prejudice. While race is involved in the problem, to attribute these events and their outcomes solely to the color of the victim’s skin is to miss the point entirely.
Richard Ramirez, a 38-year-old Hispanic man, was shot and killed by a Montana police officer during a traffic stop last April because Officer Morrison “thought he was going to pull a gun.” Ramirez, who was sitting in the back seat, turned out to have a small amount of methamphetamine on him, but no weapons. The same dashboard camera that captured the event filmed Morrison weeping after killing Ramirez, so no charges were filed.
Kelly Thomas, a 37-year-old white homeless man diagnosed with schizophrenia, was approached by three officers in mid-2011 for allegedly breaking into cars near the Slidebar Rock-N-Roll Kitchen in Fullerton, a claim which later turned out to be falsified by Slidebar management. He was uncooperative with their search and the officers beat him unconscious. He was taken to a hospital where he slipped into a coma and died five days later. The officers were charged with various crimes, but none landed.
My point in sharing these stories is not to discredit any claims of racist motives behind any similar cases, or to imply that statistics do not show that certain racial groups are more likely to be shot by police than others, but to begin to explain that this problem is not one localized in certain groups, but one which affects all of society. That is to say, all parts of society which interact with police presences.
It is difficult to determine the exact source of the problem. One crucial factor to consider is the growing militarization of the police. This is the adoption of military equipment and tactics by police forces, ranging from armored vehicles and assault rifles to using advanced intelligence-gathering techniques and an overall more aggressive style of policing, such as an increase in popularity of the No-Knock warrant and “jump-out” squads.
The equipment was originally made available in the early 90s as part of the 1208 Program (now the 1033 Program), in which Congress said the Department of Defense is allowed to provide Federal and State agencies with extra military vehicles in order to better fight the war on drugs. But, of course, none of these agencies are required to use their equipment and tactics exclusively in narcotics operations.
Americans across the country were shocked to see the police response to protests in Ferguson, Missouri following the grand jury’s decision to not indict Darren Wilson, but as most of us know, such methods were not news for residents of Isla Vista. Last spring, when a riot erupted during Deltopia, the police fired tear gas and rubber pellets at people on the street. The gas also affected people off the streets and some in their own homes. I use the word “riot” facetiously, as when I imagine a riot, I think of the 1992 LA Riots, where widespread looting, arson, assault and murder was quelled by the National Guard, not Deltopia, where partiers-turned-angry-mob threw rocks and bottles at police and pushed dumpsters into the road. Do both events merit the same label?
Another problem to be addressed is the fact that police do not receive as much training for their field as other parts of the legal system. Why, for instance, does it take seven years of education to defend and argue the law, but six months of training to wear a gun and enforce it? Can we really expect a proper understanding of all laws necessary for the job? To complicate matters further, the Supreme Court recently ruled that an officer’s misunderstanding of probable cause used to search a motorist’s vehicle was justified because it was a “reasonable” mistake.
Justice Sonya Sotomayor, the only to vote against it, believed that the ruling “means further eroding the Fourth Amendment’s protection of civil liberties in a context where that protection has already been worn down.” How much room for interpretation of the law will this decision allow? For questions like these, we must switch our direction from law to order.
The courts often set dangerous precedents for police behavior. After selling untaxed cigarettes on the sidewalk, an unarmed 43-year-old black man was choked to death by an officer of the NYPD using a technique banned in 1992, and this behavior was not condemned by the courts, but condoned? “Justice” seems a dubious title for this situation. We as a society need to recognize that our established channels for indicting police officers are inherently biased in favor of officers, people who work for the organization which is prosecuting them. Are we to trust this as a reliable process? If we wish to keep everyone accountable for their actions, we ought to take the responsibility upon ourselves.
How, then, are we to do so? You can begin by filming any and all interactions you have with the police and being clear that you are doing so. While the state of California normally requires all parties involved to consent to being filmed, courts have ruled there are clear “expectation of privacy provisions” to this law which permit citizens to openly record their interactions with on-duty police officers. If you do not make it clear that you are filming them, however, the footage might be deemed inadmissible in court due, and you do not need to give them any excuses to do that.
Knowing UCSB students as I do, you probably have a phone with multiple cameras: use them! Become familiar with apps like Livestream which broadcast straight from your phone to the Internet, immediately preserving your experience in case your phone is confiscated and your footage made to disappear. Video evidence is difficult to argue against and is thus one of the most credible tools you have for protecting your rights.
As I understand it, the Isla Vista Foot Patrol plans to begin using body cameras at the end of this month. This is a tremendous step forward for both the department and IV itself in terms of accountability and I look forward to seeing what comes of it. That being said, the legitimacy of body cameras is still under heavy debate, as people from cities with programs already in place have shared reports of interacting with officers who turned their cameras on and off at will. It also stands to reason that if they can film their interactions with us, we can film our interactions with them.
If we wish to combat police abuse, our defense will not come from brandishing firearms or other weaponry, but from documenting events and creating awareness of them in the community. The camera is mightier than the gun. Police accountability can be a reality in this country, but it starts with you knowing your rights and using them, Isla Vista.
Michael Lyons has his phone at the ready, just in case.