By Will Falk
The San Diego Police Department scares me. All police, for that matter, scare me.
I’m writing this because I cannot drown out the sharp pops of a burst of police gunfire hanging on the still desert air.
I heard the eerily common sound of gunshots as I watched a video of police shooting an unarmed 20 year-old black man named D’Andre Berghardt near Red Rock Canyon in Nevada the other day with my partner.
A few days before viewing the video, we were on our way to Red Rock Canyon for a rock-climbing trip with friends. Highway 159 provides access to the canyon, but was closed due to a “police incident.” We made a mental note to check on the incident when we got home.
Back at home, safe on our couch in the living room, we started the video. The video was taken by two men sitting in their car as the entire encounter unfolded. You can see three or four cars stopped with drivers gawking on. There is even a bicyclist sitting on her bike seat calmly absorbing the scene.
The video opened with two officers, guns drawn, on either side of Berghardt. The officers spoke with Berghardt for a minute or so. Our disbelief grew as one officer pepper sprayed Berghardt. I paused the video to explain I’ve read that pepper spray often makes people vomit. A moment later, we watched Berghardt double over. We listened to the men taking the video asking, “Why don’t they just cuff him?” Then we watched as the officers taser Berghardt. I stopped the video again to say that tasering often causes the recipient to defecate in his or her pants. A few of the cars started turning around and driving past the scene.
Finally, my partner who is much braver than me and much more vocal, yelled out, “Why doesn’t some one do something!?”
All I could manage to say was, “I would be scared. The cops have their guns out. I’m not talking to a cop with his gun drawn.”
Then we finished the video as Berghardt eventually ran from officers who had pepper sprayed him and tasered him into an open police vehicle before being shot multiple times from a few feet away. Then, he died.
After watching the video, we learned that Berghardt had been walking down Highway 159 asking cyclists for water and telling them to “have a good ride.”
And now: I cannot drown out the sharp pops of a burst of police gunfire hanging on the still desert air.
It is time that we do something.
I’m writing this because I cannot drown out the voices of the women who have so bravely – despite tears, shaking voices, traumatic recollections, and even government-paid stalkers – told their stories of sexual assault at the hands of the SDPD.
With the recent news that the City Attorney’s office paid a private investigator to follow for 23 days and videotape one of former SDPD Officer Anthony Arrevalos’ sexual assault victims and now the news that another SDPD officer, Chris Hays, has been arrested on suspicion of committing false imprisonment and misdemeanor sexual battery while on duty, my fear of the police is growing stronger and stronger.
These disturbing sexual abuse allegations (and convictions) are not just here in San Diego, either. A quick Google search shows that almost identical cases of abuse are happening all over the country. Do any of these stories sound familiar? A few weeks ago in Dallas an officer allegedly told a woman he wouldn’t take her to jail if she would have sex with him. Last summer a school police officer in Eugene, OR was convicted of sexually abusing six women while on-duty and off-duty and several more women came forward after conviction. And, in Chicago, two officers are accused of raping a woman they offered a ride home while on-duty.
I have to be honest. I’ve never liked the police. It started when I was younger. I’ve always worn my hair long and have been pulled over too many times to have a cop let me go after explaining, “You have to admit, you do look like you probably have drugs on you.”
Then, I became a public defender, and learned first hand just how bad the police can be. There were too many times when I requested video evidence from squad car cameras only to find the officer ‘forgot’ to turn the camera on. Too many times I overheard senior officers telling junior officers how to testify in the hallway before hearings. Too many times I watched as police officers were cleared of claims of excessive force. Too many times I’ve seen women coming forward to report sexual abuse at the hands of police officers.
I’m afraid of the police. I’m particularly afraid of the SDPD because I live here, and because we keep getting report after report of their violence.
I’m also very angry. There are people who are responding to criticisms of the police with the tired rebuttal “If you don’t do anything wrong, you don’t have anything to be afraid of.”
D’Andre Berghardt wasn’t doing anything wrong. The women in Eugene, OR assaulted by a school cop weren’t doing anything wrong. The woman who took a ride home from police officers before being raped by both of them wasn’t doing anything wrong.
And what about the definition of “wrong?” It’s not wrong to smoke recreational marijuana in Washington, but it is in most of the rest of the country. Many states still have anti-sodomy laws on the books. It was wrong at one time in this country to harbor run away slaves.
And what about when the right thing to do is “wrong”? For example, who do you think is going to show up first with guns drawn if outraged citizens decided to dismantle California’s fracking sites? Who showed up at Wounded Knee in 1973 when indigenous peoples demanded the federal government honor their treaties? Who murdered Fred Hampton? Who smuggled cocaine from Nicaragua into the US? Who is teaching children to shoot likenesses of immigrants at the border? Who is shooting the immigrants?
I am afraid of the police. You should be, too, even if you’re doing nothing wrong. They will throw their phony reports at us. They will harass us if we speak too loudly. Their City Attorney will send stalkers to report on our sexual habits. And, yes, they might even point their guns at some of us.
But, we must be brave.
It is time that we do something.
I recently moved to San Diego from Milwaukee, WI where I was a public defender. I am looking for life outside of law. My first passion is poetry and I am interested in the way the land speaks through the poet. If you can’t find me drinking too much coffee in Cafe Calabria, I’ll be on a rock somewhere in Joshua Tree.