A young child plays with a toy handgun in his front yard; a teenager hangs out near home; a 35 year old man sits on his porch steps; a 22 year old father is arrested on New Years Eve for public intoxication. Besides being American citizens what do these people have in common? They were all unarmed civilians who were executed in cold blood by the police.
Jolly coppers on parade
Police departments nationwide resist efforts to document civilian shootings, concerned they will later be read by the fifth estate or lawyers hired by grieving families. While statistics are scarce, http://www.copwatch.org has created an Internet site to document police brutality. The ACLU has also been compiling statistics and it appears about 25 percent of all police shootings involve “unarmed suspects,” a euphemism for executions.
While nonwhite Americans are many times more likely to be assaulted by police, don’t assume being white makes you safe. Douglas Zerby of Long Beach, California, had been sitting on his back porch when a neighbor called 911 to report Zerby carrying a handgun in public. The caller said he didn’t know the make of gun and that it hadn’t been fired. In truth Doug Zerby was holding a garden hose nozzle in his hands as police arrived and without any verbal warning, promptly executed him. Six handgun rounds were fired as well as several shotgun blasts, and according to some reports Zerby was shot 27 times. He was white with blond hair and lived in an ordinary middle class neighborhood. He was married with a young son, had had too much to drink and was having a bad day before police arrived…
Coast-to-coast, from large urban areas to mid-sized towns, more and more ordinary people are facing lethal force from police who shoot first and ask questions later. While some local activists call for community review boards, this has not been a panacea for protecting the public. Liberal San Francisco has a civilian review board but it has not been successful in preventing police brutality or homicide. San Francisco police continue to shoot unarmed civilians in nonlethal situations while their corrupt civilian review board twiddles its thumbs and does nothing, unless you count its obstruction of documentation. Another problem with such review boards is they must be funded and tax monies are scarce, and those who serve are often opportunists, not activists.
There are many reasons for police violence; to be fair many Americans are themselves violent or impaired and fail to communicate well with officers, leaving police to determine the level of threat. Tragically, police training rarely deals with common situations and real life is often more complicated than a classroom scenario. Training is expensive and police departments prefer to spend their funds on hardware — new guns, surveillance cameras, computer programs, new autos — all the fun, sexy stuff they love; problem is, what they want isn’t what they necessarily need.
If one believes Johannes Mehserle, the BART transit cop who shot unarmed and restrained Oscar Grant to death on December 31, 2008, he didn’t know his taser from his handgun. Few in the Oakland community believe this for several reasons, including the very long history of police violence directed primarily at Oakland’s African-American community. Police are rightfully regarded by many as the enemy, and it doesn’t help that many within Oakland P.D. look like skinheads and hold racist views. People once called San Francisco the city of love but nobody ever said that about Oakland.
Besides being racist, is it possible that Mehserle was also a bumbling, badly-trained cop? Oscar clearly was not the only intoxicated celebrant on New Year’s Eve, nor was he the worst behaved. According to some witnesses he was already handcuffed, according to others he wasn’t but lay face down with his hands held firmly behind his back. Both accounts prove Mr. Grant was both prone and under police restraint at the time of his execution.
Mr. Mehserle had little reason to feel threatened; he was larger than Oscar Grant, not intoxicated and about the same age. There were several other officers at the scene, and while a bit rowdy and boozy, the scene at the Fruitvale Station was not unusual for New Years Eve. Meserle was fearful despite having force and weaponry on his side: cowards like him must not be allowed to police anyone, anywhere; yet there he was, packing heat and destroying lives.
Late Oscar Grant with daughter
Oscar Grant left behind a 4 year old daughter, a wife, a mother and an uncle; all are struggling to carry on after police violence ended his life and shattered theirs. This was an outrage against not only the African-American community of Oakland, but against us all. Police ran roughshod in Nazi Germany as they do today in the United States, but not in the free world. It is impossible to say that we live in a democratic, federalist republic when the police are out of control and we are their targets.
Where do urban police generally live? Outside the cities in a few select suburbs where they receive incentives to buy houses and raise families. Unlike America’s cities, these “police friendly” communities are predominantly white, middle class, and republican with easy donut access.
Health food restaurant in police suburb
Living in such places while working the sometimes violent streets of the cities increases the disconnect many officers feel towards those they purportedly serve and protect.
Fortunately there is a solution and its name is Cop Watch. Formed in 1990 in the city of Berkeley, California, this grassroots group teaches citizens how to safely monitor the actions of the police. Local law enforcement are supposed to be under local control as public servants, and our right of assembly is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution; we the people have a responsibility to stand up for our rights.
Don't let this happen to you. Protect your rights!
If we act like cowards and victims ourselves we will be treated as such: pushed around, abused, manipulated, even shot to death by poorly-trained, cowardly cops.
Volunteers patrol their neighborhoods where police are active, wearing identifying badges and holding clipboards as they stand witness during police encounters. The idea isn’t to interfere with police but to observe their actions. Cop Watch has gone national and hopefully viral as police violence against unarmed citizens continues to escalate.
Professional police officers (yes, Virginia, there are a few good cops) become used to Cop Watch volunteers and shout out their badge numbers so they can be written into the record; corrupt cops must be identified by eye witnesses. If police are “just doing their job” as they maintain, what harm can civilian oversight bring? Our presence as witnesses can be an incentive for police to follow the rules and respect our constitutional rights, and it can save lives in the communities in which they serve. No thug likes his handiwork watched and documented by others, yet no professional should mind.
Busted: a Citizen’s Guide to Surviving Police Encounters by Flex Your Rights, is a useful video produced with the guidance of civil rights advocates, including members of the ACLU. The video (accessible by clicking on Busted, above) explains in detail what your rights are during police encounters. Cops will often trick people into giving up their constitutional rights and our despicable Supreme Court has naturally allowed this travesty of justice. Don’t be a fool — too many have been arrested, tried and convicted because they inadvertently gave police permission to search their homes, cars or persons. Their lives were ruined because they cooperated with law enforcement against their own best interests. Know your rights! This is another vital life skill never taught in the public school system but one you need to know no matter how law abiding you may be.
If nothing else, memorize saying, “OFFICER, I DO NOT CONSENT TO ANY SEARCHES.” This phrase may well save you from arrest, lock-up and expensive legal fees. They could easily be the most important words you ever utter. Remember, too, that not every question asked by the police need be answered by you.
I’ll readily admit to not being a fan of the police, having been assaulted and nearly shot in 1980, also in broad daylight and without probable cause; but every society has law enforcement and they can play a positive role in the community. Let’s face it, there are some bad people out there people need protection from.
In many cities and towns across the United States, however, innocent civilians are being terrorized by rogue cops who want to shoot first and ask questions later. Our police are unusual in carrying lethal firepower as a matter of course but then again, we’re a society immersed in guns and violence. Sometimes American cops strike out from fear, sometimes in anger, and many are influenced by racism or vengeance. It is illegal and intolerable that the police have gotten away with their rampant corruption, criminal behavior, and wanton violence for so long. Make your community and our society a better, safer place where justice is the rule, not the exception. Consider volunteering at your local Cop Watch, or starting one in your community. At the very least, if you see a police stop, stay and observe their actions and take down numbers.
Do not let the police intimidate you — you have the right to be a witness whether they like it or not. Oscar, Doug, and thousands of others would thank you if they only could.
Consider, too, whether a situation really warrants a 911 call — the police rarely make things better and assuming their “best intentions” has landed many inside a jail cell or even the county morgue.
Remember, the law as written is on our side and the police only violate it because we let them in our astonishing apathy. We must police the police or live in a police state. The choice is clearly ours to make and it is not too late to correct this long-standing injustice.