By now you have probably seen the video footage of the San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies mercilessly beating a suspect who had surrendered in the middle of the desert after fleeing first by car and then on horseback. If this “high speed” and then “slow trot” chase wasn’t already ridiculous enough, the officers’ actions after the fleeing suspect is thrown from the horse and lays in submission borders on absurd.
You would think we were in the Wild West of 1815 instead of California’s Apple Valley in 2015, and the deputies were violent cowboys instead of sworn officers. Their actions are clearly reflected in the contemporary etymology of the word: reckless, wild, irresponsible, heedlessly handling a sensitive or dangerous task.
The incident, recorded from a news helicopter, shows the prostrate suspect first kicked in the head by one deputy then eventually pummeled by a number of others while more deputies watch their colleagues violently assault the man and do nothing to stop them. All ten officers involved have been suspended and placed on paid leave pending criminal investigations by multiple agencies including the FBI. Even San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon said he was “disturbed” by the video in a televised press conference the day after the event. He should be commended for his swift action in suspending the deputies and then immediately addressing the public on the excessive use of force.
Just last week I attended a community forum organized by the Riverside Coalition for Police Accountability (RCPA) held at the Mt. Rubdioux SDA Church. The event was co-sponsored by the Riverside NAACP, The Group, and Riverside Latino Network. The forum featured community leaders from diverse communities of color as well as Riverside Chief of Police Sergio Diaz and addressed the findings of the U.S. Department of Justice’s report on Ferguson, MO and drew parallel lessons to the 2001 State Attorney General’s findings on Riverside, CA after the shooting of Tyisha Miller.
As I sat in the forum that evening, I had no idea that earlier that day another national, potentially criminal use of force incident, had occurred in our region. I was aware of course of last week’s fatal shooting of an unarmed man by a Charleston, NC police officer and his immediate arrest. And of the numerous other incidents of police abuses caught on video by average citizens across the country. But not of San Bernardino’s public safety debacle in the desert.
We should view this latest “moment of crisis”, as a catalyst for improvement. According to RCPA’s Deborah Wong, Riverside has seen good and profound changes since the 1999 Miller incident, including better training, better supervision of officers, and better use of technology to document interaction with the public. Now it is San Bernardino County’s opportunity for reform. I know we will never be perfect, but I am convinced we can always be better.