Next week the city of Davis will be hosting a forum discussion on the need for police oversight in this community. To understand that need, it is important to understand that Davis has long had a problem where people of color perceive that they have been targeted by the police, who have engaged in vehicle stops and even non-vehicular stops based on skin color and vague descriptions.
We can look no further than the incident where an African American in his sixties was approached by a police officer while mowing the lawn at his home… Well, since that incident occurred now four years ago, I would like to offer to some more recent examples.
One of the points I have made in recent months is the fact that people of color have had a fundamentally different experience with law enforcement here in Davis than the white community. Former Councilmember Michael Harrington got himself in some hot water a few weeks ago at a council meeting, as he explained that he has always been treated well by the police. He also cited his mixed-race son as an example – no doubt his Filipino son will experience a different world than his father as he moves from being a small child to a teenager.
Following the Picnic Day incident this April, the Vanguard began looking into the activities of the Davis Police Department and in particular the SAFE (Special Assignment and Focused Enforcement) Team, which the Picnic Day officers were a part of. What we learned was troubling but not surprising. The most frequent complaint we heard was overzealous raids on properties.
In fact, one such raid occurred by the SAFE Team in February 2015 at the very same home where the incident reported on earlier this week occurred, where Eduardo Letelier was punched in the face by two different Davis police officers.
The February 2015 incident also sought to serve a warrant on the place. It occurred at 10:30 at night while there were at least three adults and multiple children present.
The children – ages 6, 12, and 19 – were asleep while the adults were still awake, when there was a pounding on the door, with the Davis police arriving and claiming to have a search warrant.
When Mr. Letelier’s brother opened the door, they put a shotgun to his face, threw him against the wall, and handcuffed him.
They went up the stairs, had the 19-year-old sit down by the wall without cuffs, but grabbed the 12-year-old and pulled her down the stairs. They were about to put her in cuffs when one of the officers yelled that she was a minor and they sat her down.
They cuffed all of the adults, and left them on the floor. The officers searched the place in total for nearly five hours, not leaving until 3:30 am in the morning.
After they had searched through the house and flipped everything over, the officers finally questioned the adults and finally told them an hour and a half into it that they were searching for stolen items. But they did not specify what – the police just said electronics.
Two of the officers were Ryan Bellamy and his brother Sean Bellamy, both of whom were involved in the Picnic Day situation.
The family would not learn exactly what the police were searching for until the police left the home, having found nothing. They left the warrant on the floor and only then did the residents find out that they had been handcuffed for five hours, at gun point for some of that time, and had their house trashed and turned upside down to find a stolen bike and a stolen computer – neither of which were found.
This was just one of several complaints I have heard about raids and, as traumatic as this incident was – and the 19-year-old nearly two years later is still suffering from PTSD – the family was actually quite fortunate. These kinds of mistaken heavy-handed raids often produce loss of life and loss of pets, as critics like Radley Balko have chronicled over the years (a few examples: here, here, and here).
This is just one example. Last summer, we attempted to get from the police more information about these raids, but our request was declined. What we can tell you from the conversations we have had: (1) most of the raids involve relatively minor items; (2) most of the raids involve disproportionate tactics; and (3) few to none of them resulted in the filing of complaints.
And there is a fourth point – all of the people raided that I spoke to were people of color.
There is a perception that a lot of the complaints against the police result from lack of cooperation on the part of the contacted party, but in the case of these warrant searches, the police are going in with overwhelming and disproportionate force from the start and, in many cases, the contacted parties were completely innocent of even the relatively minor charges.
I believe in only one of the six cases I looked into did the party actually file a complaint against the police. In most cases, the explanation given was they did not believe that a complaint would warrant any changes and they were fearful of retribution from the officers.
Finally, similar names came up with regard to officers that were responsible for these tactics and, even within the raids themselves, the residents told the Vanguard that some of the officers were extremely polite and professional, while others operated almost with impunity.
—David M. Greenwald reporting