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How California Law Shields Violent Police Officers

Is a police officer's right to privacy more important than the right of the community to know who's policing them--and whether they have a record of brutality?

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“I didn’t even feel it, I just hit the ground” Rollins said. He fell face first on the sidewalk as blood welled up in his mouth. “I thought I was hit in the chest,” he recalled.

Rollins’ family and friends describe a gruesome scene. Effie Smith, his mother, ran to the scene with one of her daughters. “They had a sheet on him,” she recalled. “All you could see was his tennis shoes.” Police had taken him for dead and covered him from public view after handcuffing him, before medical personnel arrived on the scene. Rollins faded in and out of consciousness, briefly coming to in an ambulance and then passing out.

The bullet wound to his neck rendered him a quadriplegic. His family filed a civil claim in state court and received a $100,000 settlement from the city that mostly went towards covering medical bills.

Still, despite two shootings and multiple use-of-force controversies on Gonzales’ record, his career advanced. After the June 2006 shooting of Rollins, Gonzales was promoted to sergeant and reassigned as the supervisor of a “crime reduction team” in North Oakland, his first posting away from East Oakland. Gonzales’ new unit was tasked with crime suppression and apprehending violent felons. He had also become a firearms instructor for OPD and had been assigned to the department’s SWAT team.

On the afternoon of Sept. 20, 2007, Ameir Rollins was sitting in his bed at Children’s Hospital in North Oakland when he heard sirens and saw police cars and ambulances speeding towards the intersection of 54th St. and Martin Luther King Jr. Way. An angry crowd gathered in the street and milled around for several hours, but Rollins dismissed the event and fell asleep. It wasn’t until the next day that he learned another young black man had been shot by Patrick Gonzales, this time fatally.

“I saw all the police and wondered what was going down,” Rollins recalled. “I didn’t believe it until I watched the news.”

Gary King, Jr., a 20-year-old vacuum salesman and contractor, lived around the corner with his parents and siblings. That afternoon, King and a few of his friends went to East Bay Liquors to buy snacks. As they exited the store, Gonzales drove by in his patrol car.

Gonzales was on the lookout for a suspect in a month-old murder that had taken place several blocks away. Witnesses say he swerved across six lanes of traffic into the liquor store parking lot, where he got out of his car and approached King. The two exchanged words. Gonzales then slapped soda and chips out of King’s hands and grabbed hold of him. King resisted, and witnesses say Gonzales pulled the young man into a headlock by his shoulder-length dreadlocks and punched him repeatedly. Gonzales then Tasered King multiple times, according to a civil suit filed by King’s family.

King broke free of Gonzales and staggered west across MLK Way, holding his sagging pants up and yelling for help. Witnesses say Gonzales then drew his pistol and fired twice. King fell to the sidewalk with two fatal bullet wounds in his back. Gonzales ran over to King’s body and planted his foot on top of it while aiming his pistol at King’s friends, warning them to back up. He then cuffed King’s hands behind his back.

King’s parents, Gary Sr. and Cathy, ran out to the street, where additional OPD officers had been summoned to hold back an increasingly angry crowd. Cathy King tried to get through to her son’s inert body but was stopped by a police officer. She and her husband were not allowed to see their son, who by now was hidden by a clutch of OPD officers and EMTs. The Kings followed the ambulance to Highland Hospital, where doctors told them Gary had died but refused to let them see his corpse.

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