Thursday, January 13, 2000
"As they cannot become the equals of the whites, they will speedily show themselves as enemies."
--Alexis de Toqueville, 1835
De Toqueville was referring, of course, to African-Americans, whose population was almost entirely enslaved by whites at the time he wrote Democracy in America 28 years before the Emancipation Proclamation.
In many ways, de Toqueville''s doomsaying prediction has not materialized. Today, African-Americans serve in Congress, preside as mayors of large cities, enjoy success in all professions, run major corporations, and are worshipped around the globe as sports heroes and entertainment idols.
As prescient as any outside observer who ever visited the United States, the Frenchman de Toqueville may have been correct in one respect, however: Many African-Americans still consider themselves enemies in the eyes of this country''s predominately white law enforcement establishment.
Charles Vaughn Sr. no doubt felt like an enemy on May 19, 1998.
Suffering from schizophrenia, wanting to be left alone, and "armed" with a corkscrew, Vaughn, 60--a former elementary school teacher, holder of three college degrees, and an All-American football player at Monterey Peninsula College--was pepper-sprayed and ordered shot to death on the roof of his Seaside home by a police sergeant with a history of antagonism toward him.
"If he comes toward me, cap him," the sergeant was overheard saying before the fatal shooting, an investigation by the district attorney subsequently revealed.
Whether the killing of Charles Vaughn Sr. was racially motivated is a question that will probably never be answered. Just as uncertain are the cases of the estimated 1,600 other minorities who have died nationwide since 1990 while interacting with the police. Ask the police and they''ll deny it, without hesitation or qualification. If you could ask the people who were killed, you might get a different answer.
The one place you won''t find answers is within the research conducted by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. That''s because they''ve never done any research.
Moreover, nearly all police departments nationwide--including every one in Monterey County--investigate themselves when an officer is accused of wrongdoing, making it next to impossible for the public to determine whether an officer did something improper or illegal. Only a handful of U.S. cities have independent citizen-review boards that investigate alleged police misconduct.
What we''re left to consider, then, are the stories of the African-Americans, Latinos, and other minorities who have died at the hands of white police. Despite, or perhaps because of, the lack of formal research, these stories have given rise to one of the fastest-spreading political movements in the country, one that''s asking the question: Do cops see in black and white?
Rodney King Redux?
Just as the name Rodney King has become synonymous with police brutality, the name Charles Vaughn Sr. may forever be associated with what a growing chorus of human-rights advocates throughout the Central Coast and the U.S. are calling the overzealousness of cops to use their bullets instead of their brains to keep the peace in the community--particularly in minority communities.
"Police brutality in communities of color has always been a fact of life," says Mel Mason, a mental-health counselor, longtime civil-rights activist, former Seaside City Council member, and Vaughn''s friend for 40 years. "Police brutality is primarily focused against those who are the least powerful--poor people, the mentally ill, minorities. It''s about oppression. It''s about keeping people down."
You might expect such strong words from a former member of the Black Panther Party, a target of one of the government''s many covert destabalization campaigns against radical political groups.
Regardless of whether you agree with his overarching theories, Mason is right about one thing: Though bureaucrats haven''t released any studies of their own, privately sponsored research indicates that minorities--mainly African-Americans and Latinos--are far and away more likely to be on the receiving end of a police shooting or beating than whites.
"The police have more of a tendency to open fire on a black person," says Mason, a member of several local and national police-accountability groups. "They will also kill whites. But they are more likely to draw on a minority."
Don''t expect success finding a police official who would agree with Mason''s assessment. Not here in Monterey County. Not anywhere. "We''re trained to look at a person''s behavior," says county Sheriff''s Sgt. Bruce Palmer. "Race doesn''t come into it."
Starting to Feel Uncomfortable
In death, Charles Vaughn Sr. has done more to advance the debate over the question than almost anyone could hope to accomplish in life.
His son, Charles Vaughn Jr., marked the first anniversary of his father''s killing last May by going on a 17-day hunger strike, which he ended only after the U.S. Justice Department agreed to investigate the shooting. He''s met with Jesse Jackson. He''s strategized with Dick Gregory. He persuaded Rep. Sam Farr to bring the case to the attention of Tipper Gore. And he created the Charles Vaughn Sr. Mental Health/Police Practices Task Force, which is trying to educate local cops about how to deal with people under mental distress without resorting to killing them.
So far, Vaughn Jr.''s campaign has delivered mixed results. The feds haven''t shown up yet. And, county officials waited several months before allowing his task force to join their own police practices panel.
But, as is often the case with political and social advocates of any ideological orientation, Vaughn and his voice seem to be perking up more ears nationally than here at ground zero. Debacles such as the Vaughn killing have a way of bringing out the squeamishness in locals, while--thanks to the mass media and the Internet--stoking collective outrage everywhere else.
As events would dictate, the Vaughn case was just the beginning. On Nov. 11, five Salinas police officers shot and killed Joe Hernandez, who, like Vaughn, was suffering a psychiatric episode at a private residence. Police say Hernandez, 40, lunged at them with a knife, leaving them no choice but to shoot him--23 times, his estranged wife has reported. (Though criminal and disciplinary investigations continue, the five cops are back on the beat.)
Then, on Dec. 17, another Latino, Francisco Cartagena, was shot in the parking lot of a Salinas convenience store after--according to police--he refused to put his hands up when ordered to do so. (This officer remains on paid leave.)
In a move uncharacteristic of many police departments, Salinas Police Chief Daniel Ortega asked the FBI to investigate whether his officers violated Hernandez''s or Cartagena''s civil rights. "My intent," says Ortega, just six months on the job, "is to show the community that we are open to outside scrutiny."
A New Movement?
Squeamishness over the Vaughn, Hernan-dez, and Cartagena shootings may explain why you haven''t been overhearing much discussion of the cases at local coffeeshops. Throughout the country and, increasingly, around the world, however, people are chatting up a storm on the Web.
Go to your favorite search engine, type in "police shooting" and "minorities," and one of the first hits you''ll get is the homepage of the October 22 Coalition to Stop Police Brutality.
If you don''t know what''s happened on Oct. 22 the past four years, you may hear about it in 2000. On that date, thousands of people concerned about police brutality--especially against minorities--take to the streets in dozens of communities throughout the country. More than 10,000 people participated last year, about 50 of those (including Mason) positioned at the Seaside intersection of Fremont and Broadway.
Headquartered in a Manhattan basement, the all-volunteer organization came to be in 1996, about a year after one of the most infamous police killings in recent memory. On Dec. 22, 1994, the four Baez brothers were playing in the frontyard of their Bronx home when their football struck a parked police car. After cuffing and beating one brother, Officer Francis Livoti clamped a chokehold onto Anthony Baez, 29. An asthmatic, Baez died, his father''s cries for mercy going for naught.
While Livoti''s conviction and seven-year prison sentence served to mollify the Baez family and its sympathizers, the affair also inspired the formation of another advocacy group. Among the first orders of business for the Anthony Baez Foundation was to team with the October 22 Coalition and the powerhouse National Lawyers Guild to undertake a study of police killings nationwide.
The product of the groups'' work is Stolen Lives: Killed by Law Enforcement. The book lists and, in most cases, describes the deaths of more than 2,000 people coming in contact with the police since 1990. Vaughn''s death is featured as one of the 40 most tragic cases.
The groups'' findings are, to say the least, disturbing. Of those cases in which race could be identified, nearly half of the people killed by police were black and more than a fourth were Latino. (See chart, page 12.) Considering the gap with demographic reality--13 percent of Americans are black; 11 percent are Latino--it''s enough to make anyone wonder what''s really going on.
Closer to the Truth
Amnesty International, a group normally associated with international human-rights issues, wanted to find out what was really going on. So the group spent 18 months investigating police brutality in New York City and learned some scary things:
-- More than two-thirds of reported police brutality victims from the late 1980s to mid-1990s were minorities.
-- Eighty-nine percent of the people who died in police custody from 1990-94 were African-American or Latino.
-- Most of the more than 30 people killed or hurt by police in recent years were unarmed minorities not suspected of committing a crime.
Human Rights Watch wanted to find out, too. After spending two years probing 14 big-city police departments, the group found little reason to believe that the situation in 1998 had improved much since 1968, when the Kerner Commission concluded: "To many Negroes, police have come to symbolize white power, white racism, and white repression."
The feds, who have yet to fulfill a 1994 congressional mandate to formally investigate police brutality, finally stuck a toe in the water last June, releasing a study showing that blacks are more than twice as likely as whites to be dissatisfied with the police.
These studies, though instructional to a newcomer to the issue, aren''t likely to rile veteran police-brutality activists. "Half the people in urban America know someone who''s had the shit beat out of them," deadpans George Kendall of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund''s Criminal Justice Project. "And the cops feel they can get away with it."
Nowadays, hardly a week goes by that you don''t hear about a cop somewhere shooting or beating up someone--usually an ethnic minority. For some reason, perhaps because of its active racial faultlines, New York City seems to be an epicenter.
Last Feb. 4, Amadou Diallo, a 22-year-old street vendor from Guinea in West Africa, died in a fusillade of 41 bullets--19 of which hit their target--as he walked unarmed into his Bronx apartment building. And on Aug. 9, 1997, Haitian immigrant Abner Louima reported being beaten and ultimately sodomized by NYPD officers in the bathroom of a Brooklyn stationhouse.
Los Angeles nearly reached the boiling point--again--when 19-year-old Tyisha Miller was fired upon 27 times as she sat in her car in Riverside on Dec. 28, 1998. About 35 people were arrested at police headquarters last May after prosecutors decided not to criminally charge the four white and one Latino officer involved.
Spend 15 minutes on the Internet. You''ll read about how unarmed LaTanya Haggerty was shot to death when police thought her cellphone was a gun during a traffic stop in Chicago last June.
About how unarmed Junious Roberts was shot to death during a traffic stop in suburban Virginia last April.
About how unarmed Malik Jones was shot to death during a traffic stop in Connecticut in April 1997.
About how unarmed Nathaniel Gaines Jr. was shot in the back and killed by a transit officer in the Bronx in July 1996.
About how unarmed Edward Anderson was shot in the throat and killed during a domestic situation in Seattle in January 1996.
"It''s incredible. How can these shootings be necessary?" asks Mary Powers, coordinator of the National Coalition on Police Accountability in Chicago. "It''s either lack of control or it''s deliberate. Or it''s a lack of training."
Issues can sometimes take months, years, even decades to get the attention of elected officials. President Reagan, some may remember, was in office for several years before uttering the word "AIDS" publicly.
Just as hundreds, perhaps thousands of people died of AIDS before the government took substantial steps to examine the problem, officials are finally getting around to taking allegedly racist police misconduct seriously.
Attorney General Janet Reno met with civil-rights leaders last February. And in June, President Clinton ordered a study of traffic stops to gauge the prevalence of "racial profiling"--otherwise known as "driving while black." Clinton took action after the head of New Jersey''s state police was fired for making racially insensitive remarks, and following a Gloucester County judge''s discovery that blacks were five times more likely to be pulled over than whites.
More ugly numbers could come forth. In the nation''s first such voluntary study, San Jose police officials announced in December that their officers pull over minorities far more frequently than whites.
Around Monterey County, not nearly enough police shootings have taken place over the past decade or so to draw any race-based trends. And no official studies have been done. Of the most highly publicized cases, Alan Fettig, killed by Seaside police in 1995 during a domestic incident, was white; Larry Cox, killed by Monterey police in 1993 while he was carrying a rifle, was white; and Fidelino Pascua, killed (like Hernandez and Vaughn) during a psychiatric episode in a private residence by Marina police in 1992, was Filipino.
In the only racially oriented study of police practices known to have been conducted recently, Monterey city police officials discovered two years ago that their traffic tickets were handed out in keeping with the city''s ethnic mix. "We treat everyone equally," says MPD spokesperson Randy Taylor.
That message is a big part of police officers'' training. "Hardly any training materials we use don''t address our responsibility to deal with the people from different walks of life the same," says Taylor.
Mason, for one, isn''t all that impressed. And while he''s passionate about protecting minorities from police brutality, Mason thinks everyone is at risk.
"Police brutality is a very critical issue facing not just people of color. It contributes to the erosion of all of our rights."