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The New Killing Fields: Police shootings in the Inland Empire

by Mary Shelton Friday, Apr. 13, 2001 at 4:38 AM

The rash of recent shootings by law enforcement agencies in the Inland Empire is part of an ongoing epidemic of death stretching back years, as it moves forward. And it leaves community members in those cities wondering, who's next?

Since December 30, 2000 when SWAT team members broke a window and fired their weapons into the house of a sleeping couple, there has been a rash of police shootings in the Inland Empire. But the epidemic began years before, and has become a laundry list of death, that has gone on so long, it is difficult to see where it all began, let alone if and when it will ever end.

The Inland Empire sprawls outward for miles, and was created initially by the flight of whites, from coastal cities. It's politics has always been conservative, and its hostilitiy towards people of color has become legendary, racism which has spilled over into the law enforcement agencies which police the valleys, into the higher and lower deserts.

In December 1998, a young black woman was shot to death inside her aunt's car as she lay in medical distress by four white Riverside Police Department officers, and became the straw that broke the camel's back, in this city of 250,000 people. After months of marching, the officers and their supervisor received their pink slips. But, Miller's shooting was the 7th fatal shooting of that year, and the first shooting in the previous 15 incidents to result in disciplinary action against the officers involved. Usually, the officers are rewarded for their misconduct as followup studies on several incidents has shown.

Several weeks after the Miller killing, Irvin Landrum was shot to death by officers Jacks and Hanna in the Inland city of Claremont. Later, the two officers were given 00 and "city employee of the year" titles, and also were named "police officers of the year" by their association. A slap on the face, to Landrum's family, and a community in shock. These two officers had killed a young man, said he had a gun, and then watched as it was later revealed that this gun was last owned by a retired police chief in the nearby city of Ontario, and had never been sold or reported stolen. Its whereabouts the past 10 years, unaccounted for, or even investigated.

Riverside did similar, with its officers. Officers involved in shootings and other fatal incidents including beatings have been promoted, and assigned to areas where they train the next generation of law enforcement officers. many have been award recipents, as well.

In 1994, Derek Hayward was in his bathroom, in emotional distress, and the police were called to assist him by family members. Officers Guy Toussaint and Larry Gonzalez were dispatched. According to records, Toussaint broke the door down and started hitting Hayward with a flash light. Gonzalez used the controversial cartoid hold on the man, sending him into cardiac arrest. Medical assistance was denied, even though a trained licensed vocational nurse stood by, and watched her fiance' suffere irreversible brain damage. The police blamed drugs, but a law suit was filed, and a jury found the officers and the city that employed them responsible and asked a judgement of .1 million for the family.

Toussaint later was involved in a controversial crackdown on a protest, when he grabbed a political artist from the middle of a crowd by wristlock and cited him for crossing against a don't walk signal, and was served this week with legal papers for a law suit resulting from that incident. In January 2001, he was promoted to sergeant, and praised by Chief Russ Leach as "an excellent officer who will make a good leader."

Gonzalez went forward and quickly became involved in another fatal incident involving a Latino man, Hector Islas in 1997. He and five other officers were sued for their involvement in the killing, when they chased a man bringing home milk for his family on a bicycle onto the front lawn of a nearby high school, and according to his family members, broke his upper, and lower jaw and bruised his face so badly, he could not be recognized at the morgue by his family. Gonzalez currently teaches at the basic peace officer academy at the Ben Clark Training Center, and works in hiring and training of personell.

Hector Islas was one of two Latino men to die at police hands that month. Of the other five officers involved in his death according to a lawsuit, one, Marco Quentana, was promoted to detective last May. Another V. Bryant retired after having a rocky history in the department. He had been fired, rehired just before his arbitration hearing and arrested by the Fontana Police Department at a car impoundment lot. After the Islas incident, he ran off and drank alcohol, when he was supposed to be turning in a urine sample for toxicological testing. He finally complied 36 hours later, but not before the Association faced off with then Chief Ken Fortier to try and block the drug testing. Fortier retired soon after the standoff.

A man named Ocheo was killed the same month as Islas, when four officers shot him to death in a motel parking lot in downtown Riverside, after he held a knife and began to advance after being roused from a nap. A witness later said the knife was very small, and dull edged, and that the officers overreacted. This witness was harassed intensely by the police after that incident.

Before Miller's shooting, seven other people were shot to death including a young man who was killed for holding up his baggy pants while running and then later left to bleed to death in the bottom of a gully.

Miller's fatal shooting brought a reprieve in the epidemic of Riverside shootings, as state and federal agencies put a spotlight on the Riverside Police Department. Ironically, at the same time, the department and State Assemblyman Rod Pacheco awarded former sergeant Gregory Preece with several awards, while hundreds of officers and their relatives and friends applauded and embraced him as he walked down the aisle. Preece is the latest officer to be awarded after killing a person of color, a fact obviously not lost on those few black officers, in the sea of white faces, standing at the top of the side aisle who refused to applaud him.

With police reform, changes are made in procedures such as training, in terms of how the rules are written but the attitudes entrenched in the hardware of these young men and women remain untouched. And it is the attitudes that kill.

While many shootings are blamed on inexperience before the officer has even been identified, the latest officers of several Inland Empire shootings were hardly rookies. Officer Robert Marks, the alleged trigger man in the shooting of Dante Meniefield was a 10 year veteran, and his parter, Dion Davis, nine years on the force. Highland Officer Michael Rude, worked five years before shooting little Ginenne Stover to death at her own home. Allegedly, he told a ride along Explorer Scout, after the shooting, "just another one down." Both of these officers returned to active duty shortly after their shootings.

The shooting of Meniefield was the second by the Moreno Valley Police Department in three months. Ruben Vega was shot to death in his own bedroom and his girlfriend injured, when the bullet that killed Vega ended up lodging in her chest, after officers broke a window and fired their weapons into the house.

The federal investigations have opened inquiries into the deaths of Meniefield and Stover, with another expected to be done on behalf of Vega.

Both Moreno Valley and the city of Highland contract their law enforcement services with county agencies, to save money, but at what price to those who live in those cities? The leaders of those cities cite costs in dollars that would result from getting an independent agency, including Mo Val's mayor, Bonnie Flickinger who made her first public statement a month after Meniefield died with his hands up two blocks away from City Hall. The leaders of Highland have yet to issue a peep, about the death of Stover, even as marching has begun on her behalf.

Two grave plots have been filled in Riverside's Olivewood Cementary in recent months, and questions have been raised in those deaths that need answers, as the spilling of blood by those hired to protect and serve continues onward, unabated. As it always has; as it likely always will.

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