Legally Speaking With Pamela Price

Pamela Y. Price, Attorney at Law

Month: May 2020

Warning: A Dark Piece

Body Bag demonstration outside Trump International Hotel in Northwest D.C
Body Bag demonstration outside Trump International Hotel in Northwest D.C
Credit: Yilmaz Akin / Provided by Subminimal

Warning: this is a dark piece in a dark time.

As I think about what to write this morning, I recognize the need to express the shame, horror and fear of this moment. Almost 100,000 people dead from COVID-19. Millions of people have no way to pay for food or rent. Millions of elders are at risk of death or homelessness. Yet, we cling to the shreds of a dying democracy and a fantasy called “getting back to normal.”

The shame is that we as a nation seem oblivious to the tragedy of so many unnecessary deaths in our midst. Part of struggling to stay sane in this season means trying to maintain some sense of normal life for ourselves and our loved ones. I quote my sister often these days: “You have one job – get through the pandemic!”

Our efforts to maintain stability in the midst of obvious chaos make it appear that we are unaffected by the massive death toll. Yet, we are all affected in some way. Truly, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. observed, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

It may be a relative or friend that you know has COVID-19. You may have a loved one who died from COVID-19 or a loved one you fear may die from COVID-19. We are all affected. But to the outside world, it looks like we are insistent on “getting back to normal.” It seems like we are willing to die for “business as usual.” It is only a facade created to make us all feel better while making us all look worse than we are.

Our National Hypocrisy

The New Jersey Veterans Home in Paramus on Wednesday, April 8, 2020
New Jersey Veterans Home, 4/8/20
Credit: Michael Karas / NorthJersey.com / USA Today Networks

The Memorial Day holiday highlights the hypocrisy of the moment. This is a holiday to commemorate those who died while serving in the military. Politicians preen themselves to acknowledge military service on this day. We are all taught to say “thank you” in the presence of veterans. Yet, last week, we learned that a COVID-19 experiment killed at least 26 veterans receiving care at VA medical centers. Others required ventilators to survive at higher rates than veterans who were not administered the death drug. These veterans died too, at the hands of the military.

Ironically, the experimental treatment imposed on these veterans by our government reminds us of the tragedy of the Tuskegee experiment. From 1940 to 1972, a government study left 399 Black men with untreated syphilis. The government did not tell the men they were being used as guinea pigs. Even when doctors recognized penicillin was an effective treatment in 1945, the “study” continued for another 27 years.

We Are All Expendable

What COVID-19 exposes in America is that we are all expendable. That includes veterans in hospitals, in prisons and without homes. At least 8-10% of those imprisoned in this country are military veterans. One 2012 study found the mortality risk for veterans released from prison is 12 times higher than the general population. No doubt the mortality rates for all returning citizens in the post-COVID-19 season will skyrocket. There is no protection from COVID-19 in prison. As clergy woman Melissa Cedillo notes, “The American prison system today is a new iteration of this long-standing white supremacist goal —  to control and dehumanize people of color, the impoverished, the marginalized.

Outside of prison, COVID-19 is killing Black people at three times the rate of white people. And as Dr. Fauci notes, this is not “news” and there is nothing we can do about it in this moment.

In fact, we are all expendable: veterans, nurses, health care workers, domestic workers, gig workers, low-wage workers, small business owners, homeless people, incarcerated people, Black people, Latinos and Native Americans, all of us. Indeed, in January 2019, according to Forbes magazine, 78% of all American workers were living “paycheck-to-paycheck.” That was last year, before the pandemic hit us. Now, for at least 40 million people, there is no paycheck. No health insurance. No savings, only student loans, enormous medical bills or credit card debt.

A Dark Piece

I warned you – this is a dark piece. This is bearing witness to the collapse of an economic system coming apart at the seams. A democracy that has succumbed to celebrity fascism. A failing education system erected on inequity based on race and social status. Suddenly, the rest of the world considers America “a shithole country.” As writer Marley K. points out:

“America is the rich nation where people can starve to death, children can sleep in cars and no one is bothered by it, where citizens get sick and can’t afford to get well, and where people who work all their lives can’t afford to grow old and die in peace.”

 U.S. Postal Service worker in Los Angeles, California
 U.S. Postal Service worker in Los Angeles, California
Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

We face the closure of the Post office, a national institution since 1775 and a place of employment for Black people since the end of slavery. According to writer umair haque, we have actually become “too poor” to save ourselves. And we are still only at the beginning of the pandemic. With states rushing to “re-open” the economy, the death toll will only rise. We are simply not seeing the body bags that were widely displayed on television during the Vietnam War. But people are in fact dying: 100,000 people so far to be precise.

Who Will Make The Change?

We already have the answers. We already know what must be done. It starts with Medicare for All. We must have a guaranteed basic income for all. We must have a Green New Deal. It is up to us to destroy the “inherently unequal” school system that Thurgood Marshall challenged and start over. We must end mass incarceration and dismantle our criminal injustice system. This pandemic must result in a fundamental re-ordering of our priorities and how we pay for them. The question is who among us will be alive to make it happen.

Like I said: “You have one job – get through the pandemic!”

Death in San Leandro

Steven Taylor, Killed by Police  in San Leandro
Steven Taylor Killed by San Leandro Police, April 18, 2020
Photo Courtesy of S. Lee Merritt

Death in San Leandro

I live in Oakland California about 3 miles from San Leandro California. San Leandro is what some call a “bedroom community” to Oakland. It’s a City where restrictive covenants and land use permits were used to stop Black people from moving from Oakland to San Leandro. Local celebrity Brian Copeland tells the story of how he grew up in San Leandro when it was 94% white. Copeland wrote a play and a book about it.

Most folks in the East Bay know San Leandro’s history. So when San Leandro police shot and killed Steven Taylor in a Walmart store on a Saturday afternoon, it was not a surprise. Steven Taylor was allegedly mentally ill, with a diagnosis of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. He appears to be in a mental health crisis when 2 San Leandro police officers approach him. He refused to put down a bat and pulled away as the officers tased him. They then shot and killed him in front of dozens of shoppers. The video shows that an officer actually tased Steven Taylor as he lay on the floor bleeding to death.

This is the second recent police killing in San Leandro. On June 11, 2019, San Leandro police shot Anthony Gomez, an unarmed allegedly intoxicated Latino man. An officer shot him from the street as he stood alone on his mother’s front porch. Officers claimed he had a block of wood in his hand that looked like a gun.

Mental Illness Should Not Be A Death Sentence with Police

There is an increasing recognition that mental illness is a reason to spare people not from responsibility for their crimes but from the ultimate sanction of death. Simply put, a mental health crisis should not be a death sentence.

Gwen Woods and her son, Mario Woods
Courtesy: ABC News

Steven Taylor’s murder in San Leandro is so so reminiscent of the murder of Mario Woods by police in San Francisco.

The same month that San Leandro police shot and killed Anthony Gomez, Walnut Creek police shot and killed 23-year-old Miles Hall. Walnut Creek is another almost all-white enclave in Contra Costa County. Hall’s family members reportedly sought mental health assistance from police in the days before he was shot by two officers who came to his home. Miles Hall was Black.

California’s New Law

In California, a new law changed the standard for use of deadly force, effective January 1, 2020. The law is based in part, on the recognition that “individuals with physical, mental health, developmental, or intellectual disabilities are significantly more likely to experience greater levels of physical force during police interactions, as their disability may affect their ability to understand or comply with commands from peace officers. It is estimated that individuals with disabilities are involved in between one-third and one-half of all fatal encounters with law enforcement.”

The new law allows the use of deadly force by a law enforcement officer only when the officer reasonably believes that deadly force is necessary to defend against an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to the officer or another person. The impetus for the Legislature to pass the law was the murder of 22-year-old Stephon Clark. Clark was an unarmed Black man shot dead in Sacramento after officers mistakenly thought they saw a gun. He was shot 8 times, including 3 times in the back, in his grandmother’s backyard. Assemblywoman Shirley Weber wrote and pushed for AB392 in response to the murder of Stephon Clark.

Steven Taylor’s murder in my Assembly District 18 provides an early test for the new law. Regrettably, the person in my district who will interpret the new law is District Attorney Nancy O’Malley. DA O’Malley has never prosecuted a cop in Alameda County for murder.

Death in Alameda County

Between 2010 and 2015, at least 6 people died at the hands of police in Alameda County: Hernan Jaramillo, Roy Nelson, James Greer, Kayla Moore, Mark Bennett and Martin Harrison.

Hernan Jaramillo was allegedly having a mental health crisis and begged officers for his life. Video footage was not released by police until 2 years after his death. It shows Mr. Jaramillo pinned to the ground by officers who ignored his cries of “I can’t breathe.” (Sound familiar??) DA O’Malley did not even investigate Mr. Jaramillo’s death because she did not have a policy to investigate in-custody deaths that don’t involve shootings.

In March 2017, Fremont police officers shot and killed Elena “Ebbie” Mondragon, a 16-year-old passenger in a botched police attempt to arrest the driver of the car. Ebbie was shot 5 times with AR-15 styled rifles when plainclothes officers fired into the moving vehicle.

While the DA’s investigation was pending, O’Malley accepted a $10,000 donation from the Fremont police union to her re-election campaign. Shortly thereafter, she cleared the shooters – the Fremont police union president and another officer – of any wrongdoing in Ebbie’s death. She ruled that the shooting was “justified.”

2018 Police Killings in Oakland

In January 2018, a BART police officer ran from the West Oakland BART station onto the street and shot Sahleem Tindle in the back. Tindle was unarmed at the time. O’Malley declined to bring any charges. In March 2020, however, a jury found BART liable for wrongful death and awarded Sahleem Tindle’s family $6.34 million dollars.

In March 2018, Oakland police shot and killed Joshua Pawlik. A federal court monitor ruled that the police essentially executed Mr. Pawlik, when they woke him up and shot him as soon as he moved. Again, O’Malley’s investigation exonerated the officers and she released her report a year later in conjunction with OPD. She released her report on the same day that OPD released theirs with the same conclusion – no fault. The fallout from Mr. Pawlik’s murder ultimately led to the firing of former OPD Chief Anne Kirkpatrick. The settlement of the lawsuit by Mr. Pawlik’s family for $1.4 million is pending.**

The Conflict of Interest

Our experience with DA O’Malley in Alameda County is a clear example of the conflict of interest that district attorneys experience when asked to hold police officers accountable. O’Malley’s investigation of Mr. Gomez’ death is not yet finished almost 9 months after police shot him on his mother’s front porch. Clearly, Mr. Gomez’ death and determining whether police acted justifiably or wrongly is not a priority for DA O’Malley.

Maybe if DA O’Malley had taken the San Leandro police shooting of Anthony Gomez seriously, Steven Taylor would still be alive?

Fortunately, there is a solution. I have introduced a resolution to the Alameda County Democratic Party Central Committee to support Steven Taylor’s family’s call for an independent investigation into his murder. The resolution calls upon the California Attorney General to “investigate, manage, prosecute or inquire about any incidents of use of deadly force by law enforcement officers to ensure that the laws of the State are being adequately enforced and in particular, to ensure compliance with AB392 codified as Penal Code Section 835a.”

The Oakland East Bay Democratic Club, Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club, John George Democratic Club and the Coalition for Police Accountability also support the resolution. It is based on Article V, Section 13 of the California Constitution which allows the Attorney General to supervise and supercede the powers of every District Attorney. The resolution was passed unanimously by the Alameda County Central Committee.**

A Test for California Law

Steven Taylor’s murder will be one of the first cases to “test” the enforcement of California’s new law for use of deadly force. If the Attorney General accepts the call, he could create a statewide standard for police accountability when deadly force is used.

The murder of Steven Taylor happened in our Assembly District 18. Therefore, I called upon the leaders of our Assembly District to support the resolution at the Central Committee. Both Assemblymember Rob Bonta and his former District Director and Alameda City Councilmember, Jim Oddie have a vote. Central Committee member and San Leandro City Councilmember Corina Lopez has already pledged her support of the resolution.

I am hopeful that the leaders of our community and Attorney General Xavier Becerra will be found standing on the right side of justice. Hopefully, accountability for police use of deadly force will be established before another person is killed unnecessarily.

** This piece was updated to reflect that the Alameda County Democratic Party unanimously passed the resolution on May 6, 2020 and that a settlement payment of $1.4 million by the City of Oakland to the Pawlik family is pending.

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