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