Friday, June 24, 2016

For the record: "Sudden in-custody death syndrome" and the SFPD


On this Thursday a Baltimore judge ruled that police officer Caesar R. Goodson Jr. was not guilty of killing Freddie Gray by giving the prisoner a "rough ride" in a police van. I can't say I'm surprised; police historically have been pretty much immune from repercussions from what the San Francisco Chronicle once labeled "sudden in-custody death syndrome." This doesn't mean we can settle for the fact that when (some) people are held by law enforcement, they just end up dead and no one is found responsible.

In the mid-1990s, the San Francisco Police Department delivered at least two prominent instances of this horror story, both involving big Black men and officers who loved their pepper spray.
  • Aaron Williams was a burglary suspect who got the full treatment from SFPD officers who picked him up in June 1995: he was hogtied, kicked, and sprayed at least twice in the face when placed in a police van. He died before reaching the station.
  • Mark Garcia was a recovering crack addict who went on a bender in April 1996, wandering half clothed and disturbed on Cesar Chavez Street. Cops tackled, hogtied and pepper sprayed him; he died of a massive heart attack in the back of a paddy wagon on the way to General Hospital.
What happened next is oh-so representative of what tends to happen after SFPD outrages.

According to a long story in the San Francisco Weekly the Police Commission set up an investigating commission; the cops stonewalled.

After almost a year of work on the issue, the task force recommended no changes in the procedure officers follow when confronting suspects like Mark Garcia and Aaron Williams, suspects who often die in police custody. ...

"There is no way an officer can determine who is susceptible to in-custody death and who isn't," says Deputy Chief Richard Holder, who headed the task force. "Pepper spray will continue to be used."

The use of force debate has since moved on to whether choke holds and shooting at cars is compatible with "minimal force".

In the Garcia case, seven officers were charged with "procedure violations." (One was recently fired Chief Greg Suhr who had command responsibility for the others.) The Police Commission refused to hold a public hearing and threw the hot potato to then-Chief Fred Lau who ruled that none of his officers had done anything wrong. The Garcia family sued for "wrongful death" but a judge tossed the case. After several more rounds of administrative haggling, the Office of Citizen Complaints and the Police Commission agreed in 1999 that officers involved in Garcia's death would suffer no more than 10-day suspensions.

Human Rights Watch summarized revelations in the aftermath of Aaron Williams' death:

Police acknowledged that department policy was violated by using spray twice (others say many more times) on Williams, and that officers did not monitor Williams's breathing as required. ...

Three of the officers involved in the Williams case had been named in previous civil suits for using excessive force, and two of the cases had been settled out of court. One of the accused officers, Marc Andaya, reportedly had been the subject of more than thirty complaints while previously with the Oakland police force, with his supervisor urging desk duty for Andaya because of his "cowboy" behavior. It is not clear why the San Francisco police department hired Andaya in light of the complaints against him while he worked in Oakland.

In October 1996, witnesses testified at Andaya's hearing before the Police Commission, with some stating that Andaya kicked Williams in the neck and head as others held him down. Officers claimed that Williams grabbed pepper spray from one of the officers. Andaya was accused of neglect of duty and using excessive force, but the Police Commission deadlocked on the charges (two for, two against, with one police commissioner absent), which was in effect an exoneration. The two commissioners who voted in favor of Andaya were criticized by the city's mayor and subsequently resigned. Andaya was subsequently fired by a newly constituted Police Commission for lying on his 1994 application to the department. Williams's family has filed two separate lawsuits against the city.

The story of the community campaign that led to Andaya's firing is preserved here. Short synopsis: when all other avenues closed, they realized they had to pin accountability on the mayor who could then be expected to cover himself by taking action against the worst police offenders. Contemporary campaigners might benefit from reading this analysis.

San Franciscans are struggling these days to rein in a police department which has killed five civilians in the last two years in circumstances in which officers' justifications for their use of force strain credulity. Alex Nieto, Amilcar Perez Lopez, Mario Woods, Luis Gongora Pat, and Jessica Williams are dead. No officer has been charged or (as far as we know) disciplined. In fact, since 2000, the SFPD has killed 40 civilians; no officers have been charged. A culture of impunity in the SFPD is not new; in the over 40 years I've lived in this city, new cases involving officers mistreating residents have recurred over and over. Calls for reform seem to achieve little. I plan to write an occasional post "for the record" recalling some of these incidents.

2 comments:

Hattie said...

Well, this is better than the "black box" situation here.

janinsanfran said...

Hattie: insofar as it is any better, it is only because generations of activists have kept prying open the boxes. It wears out each set and sometimes we make small progress.

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