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Journey through Riverside Police Department's Internal Affairs: the hearing

by Mary Shelton Wednesday, Jun. 06, 2001 at 7:28 PM

At the Commission meeting, activists spoke out against the police tactics used during "Retaliatory Monday" but in the end, did it matter, as the city of Riverside exonerated an officer who assigned a supervisor to investigate himself, saying that it was legal, justified and proper. Misconduct thus continues to be excused by the city, and its agencies.

On the last week of April, a half dozen activists who had watched the members of the Riverside Police Department SWAT team pluck artist Don Collins-Gallegos out of a crowd of peaceful demonstrators, testified in a matter of speaking in front of the Community Police Review Commission. One after the other, six men and women spoke eloquently, of the terror, anger and sadness they felt, and still felt at the first premeditated attack against an activist, the police had launched during a Tyisha Miller demonstration. The Commission sat back in their chairs, obviously not expecting such emotional testimony about a protest that was nearly two years old, but the feeling that it invoked, would last a life time for the activists who experienced it. Not that tear gas guns were fired, or people were struck by rubber bullets, like at other demonstrations in Seattle or Los Angeles, but the insidious act of using police power, to target all demonstrators, by choosing one in particular, chilled the protests, from that point onward. That, and the fear of prosecution for participating in the freeway demonstration took its toll on the weekly marches.

I tried to gauge the facial expressions of the nine commission members, six with extensive law enforcement backgrounds ranging from local police departments to a stint as an operative agent in the CIA. Some look interested, their faces resting on their hands, as activists spoke. Others looked more hostile, especially one individual, a former Riverside Police Department reserve officer, who was viewed as a provocateur by the activists. If a meeting passed where he did not start an argument over an innocuous agenda item, such as laminated name tags, it was a rare occasion indeed. I said my piece, exceeded the three-minute limit, and was stopped in my tracks, by Commission Chair Bill Howe, a retired African-American police chief, who once had cross words with me, when I expressed my concern about the heavy concentration of law enforcement on a police commission. He said for me to be patient, to see how fair the Commission could do its job, but the expression on his face, wasnt filling me with confidence about his impartiality.

Chuck Taylor picked up, talking about being drawn to the death of Tyisha Miller, at the age of 69. A retired union activist, who nearly went to prison because he did not want to fight in the Korean War and kill civilians, Taylor always spoke his mind, and he never held back, as he condemned the act committed against Gallegos, who had walked alongside him across the street, before the police pounced. And himself as well, as he was ticketed by the SWAT team an hour later, simply because he had been involved in the 91 freeway demonstration, and had been misidentified by a lieutenant involved with the criminal investigation. The department needed a means, to get his proper name and address, so they could include him on the list of suspects, they were putting together in the weeks after the freeway protest. So, with a single citation issued by force, Robert Taylor became Charles, and he was issued his invitation to the judicial system, when he received a letter from the District Attorneyss office several months after Retaliatory Monday.

The only question asked by the Commission came from Howe, who asked if Gallegos had ever filed a complaint with the Commission, but activist Larry Halstead, who spoke last and exceeded the speaking limit, could not answer. Actually, Gallegos had expressed little faith in the complaint process, because he felt that it existed, so that the police could investigate their own misconduct. Time, and my experience proved he was right, once again. He had filed a law suit in U.S. District court alleging a pattern of civil rights violations at the hands of law enforcement officers, including Retaliatory Monday.

A couple of rows in front of us, sat the remnants of the Riverside Coalition for Public(formerly police) Accountability not looking at all pleased by our testimonies. I still remember their words when they had seen the front page picture of Gallegos being dragged off by five officers, after Retaliatory Monday.

Oh, why did he have to wear that button, a retired professor said, when he saw the cops lie too button on Gallegos shirt.

Arent there any police on the force that you like? his wife asked me on the ride home, from the last meeting I ever attended, where I had resigned in protest, of the expulsion of Gallegos from the Coalition because several members objected to his political art, as they did to my public speeches at Council meetings, and my writing. I thought hard, but could not think of a single one at that point, I just saw a sea of shaved heads, from a summer past.

When I pressed her to mention the names of the officers she trusted, she could only name two: Alex Tortes and Lt. Pete Esquivel. Tortes had the trust of the Eastside residents, which was where he worked. However, his last promotion had been fought by the white male sergeants, which marginalized him, as an exception to the rule that RPD officers were not to be trusted. He had kept his distance from the protesters because he believed that reform could only come from within the department, but in his over 25 years on the force, that had never happened. I said. Esquivel, I remembered had given us the five-minute warning during the civil disobedience arrests of May 1999, and he had been civil, extending the five minutes to 2O, and refusing to drag off a praying minster, on his knees in front of the television cameras. However, I remembered reading in the local paper, that he had been a member of a music group, called CUBO(conduct unbecoming to officers) which included former officer and Tyisha Miller shooter, Michael Alagna as a member. That dropped him down more than a couple notches in my mind, after the whole irony of the news article wore off, concerning Alagna.

And the Coalitions members had objected, or at least seen the advantage of publically distancing themselves along with the other white citizenry, from the freeway demonstration, for their own survival, in the citys political canvass. After all, there were future board or commission positions at stake for a couple members, and the coalition could not be seen as too radical, or to on the fringe, and still be accepted by the mainstream, which in Riverside, leaned conservative. Having never been to a commission meeting where members did not simply sit around, eat sandwichs on the taxpayers dollar and discuss future meetings, I personally did not see the value in joining one, or what it would accomplish to better the positions of all the citys residents.

None of the Coalition members saw the brutality in that protest except to warn people that if they kept marching, bones could be broken the next week, as if people who protested vocally with their mouths and their bodies against police brutality deserved what they got, essentially. After all, it was time for diplomacy, time for healing, time for working with the city government on solutions. Problem was, the city did not want to change its police department except cosmetically, without a fight. And the other problem was, that with the exception of a couple Black members, none of the Coalition had ever been negatively impacted by police brutality, nor had they ever experienced the added insult of traveling through the citizen complaint system. Given that most of the Executive Boards inner circle, worked at local universities, the issue remained academic, and theorectical discussions ruled the meetings, rather than practicality, and the reality that the solutions had to be concrete, to accomplish change. The topic of police accountability remained intangible to the majority of them. They felt that they needed to help those affected by police misconduct, rather than supporting those people, so they could liberate themselves.

I, and Gallegos had been members of its executive board, in fact Gallegos had originally been voted on unamiously by the other members, due to his hard work ethic on the front lines, as well as his creativity as an artist. Ironically, these gifts would serve as catalysts for his dismissal.. As a maverick entity, the Coalition was at its most effective, as a thorn in the side of the city officials. The city reacted to its existance by offering it a spot on the committee, formed to research different forms of independent police oversight. They had been trying to get a petition circulated to create an initiative on the ballot to create an independent form of police oversight. However, the people who did the legwork, were the people who were exluded from the dialogue. Without people to do the gritty task of gathering the thousands of signatures required to put it on the ballot and to try and sell the idea of a police review board on the street level, the work the Coalitions inner email circle did not want to bother with, nothing could be accomplished. And the Coalition finally acquiesced on the initiative effort and cut its losses on the issue, by jumping on ship with the citys plan to create its own review board, by ordinance.

The truth was, that the moderates and the radicals needed each other, yet the moderates failed to see themselves as having anything in common with those more radical than themselves. They became more concerned with how they were viewed by city officials, than their goals, to improve police oversight, even saying that some of us were too critical of law enforcement. Hard not to be, whenever you turned around, they were there. Activists had their cars impounded, and been followed by plainclothed and uniformed officers. Or gone home to squad cars parked in front of their homes, or even in the driveway. It was impossible to be too critical of the police.

Even the coalition had not been immune to increased surveillance by the men in blue. Information had leaked back to the Board from the law enforcement grapevine in a neighboring county, that the Police Officers Association had planned to send people to meetings, to obtain information, even to disrupt proceedings, far from the public stance that they had taken, regarding the coalition. And sure enough, several white men came to meetings, and tried to upstage, and throw off the agenda in a fairly bombastic fashion, but did not succeed.

So both groups of activists sat in separate rows at the Commission meeting, and the Coalition was there, to ask that the death of officer Doug Jacobs, that took place several months earlier be examined by the Commission, as stated in the ordinance. Jacobs had been shot and killed on top of a staircase, after arriving as backup to officer Ben Baker, who had originally arrived at the house to do a citizens arrest on a woman for playing loud music. Steve Woodruff was the alleged gunman, who fired gunshots from the bottom of the staircase, after he saw Baker and Jacobs trying to place handcuffs on his brother, and mother. Local reporter Lisa ONeill Hill, who had been criticized by many activists for her bias towards police officers, dutifully took notes. I sat back, and listened but believed that the Commission likely had little interest in investigating a shooting, that might not be as wrapped up, as they had read about in the newspapers. The Commission looked green in the gills, at the thought of dipping their toes in such complicated affairs.

Several weeks later, I received a letter from Assistant City Manager Larry Paulson regarding the complaint I filed with the Commission, that stated:

Based on the information and evidence contained in the reports from the Police Chief and the Commission, I have determined that your allegations of improper procedure involving the assignment of an involved supervisor and the failure of departmental procedure to prohibit a person involved in an incident to investigate did occur, but were justified, legal and proper under existing policy.

I held the letter in my hand, realizing that not only had a police officer been allowed to assign an officer to involve himself, but that the officer would be exonerated by the city of Riverside for doing that. Sounded like business as usual, in a city which had fostered incompetence and racism within one of its agencies for decades.

(to be continued)

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