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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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For Cathy King, being barred from her son’s deathbed was the final insult. “No one should stand in the way of a mother in the final moments of her son’s life,” she said at a February conference on police violence in Oakland.

At a press conference that evening, OPD Homicide Lt. Ersie Joyner said Gonzales had acted appropriately. Later that week, Assistant Chief Howard Jordan described Gonzales’ actions in the following matter: “He fired in defense of his life at an armed and dangerous subject.”

OPD would later claim Gonzales thought King was reaching for a gun in his waistband, and offered as proof a broken revolver they claim was recovered from his body. Michael Haddad, an attorney for the King family, maintains the revolver could have been planted by OPD to justify the shooting. It’s not an outrageous claim: In November 2007, a federal jury ruled OPD had planted an assault rifle in the home of Torry Smith to justify an illegal search. Witnesses say they never saw King with a gun and claim Gonzales overreacted—again.

King’s death sparked protest marches from North Oakland to City Hall. The intersection of 54th St. and Martin Luther King Jr. Way became an impromptu shrine to the dead 20-year-old: flowers and candles were placed around a BART pillar, which was decorated with a mural of a smiling King above a layer of clouds. Although the mural was sandblasted in 2009, the sidewalk still reads “RIP G-Money,” and a stop sign bears angry epithets towards OPD.

In September 2009, the Oakland City Council approved a $1.5 million settlement between the city and the King family for Gary Jr.’s death. The City Attorney’s office said it supported the payment in order to avoid a potentially higher payout if the matter came before a jury. However, Oakland denied all wrongdoing on the part of Gonzales. After a three-day administrative leave that is standard after officer-involved shootings, he returned to duty supervising the North Oakland Crime Reduction Team.

Less than two months later, Gonzales was back at the center of controversy. Officers from the unit he now led pulled over Rahsan Kountz for an allegedly expired registration and gave him the same rough treatment Gonzales had been accused of dishing out to Andre Piazza years before. Kountz was strip searched and arrested for possession of a crack rock and a half-smoked joint. The incident, along with similar encounters by other Oakland residents, resulted in a class-action lawsuit. The case is still outstanding.

Reform Without Accountability

Since the Copley ruling, OPD has struggled to keep the public’s trust through transparency with its investigations of police shootings.

Policy reforms mandated by federal oversight have revamped the department’s investigations of officer-involved shootings and uses of force. The Internal Affairs Division now investigates officer-involved shootings for tactical and policy shortcomings; prior to 2003, shooting incidents were reviewed by the Homicide Division and only for criminal wrongdoing. Internal Affairs also now handles civilian complaints about officer-involved incidents; previously, they would have directed such allegations to Homicide. Training policies have also been improved to help officers make better decisions on when to pull their guns.

The court-modified policies also require more reporting on uses of force—officers now have to report when they point their gun at a suspect—and officers involved in shooting incidents may be placed under extra scrutiny by their supervisor to avoid similar incidents. Past shootings, uses of force and complaints (made to either the CPRB or Internal Affairs) are now looked at when evaluating whether an officer should be disciplined. But the public is no longer able to closely monitor whether all of this is actually happening for any individual officer.

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