Eye on the Courts: Stop Celebrating, Alvarez Sentencing Changes Nothing

AlvarezI have seen a few notes and tweets from people following the 205-year sentence to Sergio Alvarez for the rape and kidnapping of several women while he was on duty as a sworn West Sacramento police officer.  The truth, however, is that there is nothing to celebrate here because, quite frankly, nothing has changed.

Make no mistake, what Sergio Alvarez did was horrific.  He used his position of public trust and authority to trap women, put them into custody under the false pretense of being a law enforcement officer, and then sexually assault them.  The fact that one of them consented in this power-asymmetry does nothing to lessen the charge.

The same reason why we have sexual harassment laws is the reason why none of these acts were voluntary and informed.

At the same time, I remember the first time I sat in a court room waiting on a verdict in a serial rape case.  This was the Ajay Dev case and, long before I was appalled by the prospect of an innocent man going to jail, I was appalled by the idea that the state could sentence someone to 378 years in a case in which no one was killed.

The fact is, if I thought this verdict changed something, then I might be more willing to accept it.  However, the fact is that the police officer was not convicted of  the crime of excessive force, of shooting an unarmed person in a vulnerable position, but rather he was convicted of using his powers of a police office to commit rape.

While nothing I say here today should diminish the heinous nature of these crimes, nothing that happened in the courtroom or in Judge Fall’s sentence changes the difficult nature of convicting police officers on excessive force charges.

The cases I worry about are not ones where the DA’s office will handle the Sergio Alvarez’ of the world – because for them, these are easy cases, there is a clear-cut crime and a chance to throw the book at a law enforcement official, showing that they are willing to seek equal justice.

But nothing has changed.

Earlier this year in Orange County, two former California police officers were acquitted of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in the 2011 beating death of homeless man Kelly Thomas, a beating that was caught on video.

There is the 2009 shooting death of a 22-year-old African-American man, Oscar Grant, by the BART police.  In a rarity, Johannes Mehserle was actually convicted, although supporters of Oscar Grant have long been angered that the jury convicted Mehserle only of involuntary manslaughter, leading to a total of only 12 months in prison.

The killing of Mr. Grant, the failure of prosecutors to convict Mr. Mehserle of murder, and his early release sparked protests in Oakland and around the country.  The incident is now the poster case for the difficulties of getting criminal convictions for actions by police during the discharge of their official duties.

If we go further back in time, we can point to the acquittal of police officers in the 1991 beating of motorist Rodney King.

More locally, in 2012, the District Attorney’s office declined to bring criminal charges against UC Davis police officers in the 2011 pepper spray incident on the UC Davis Quad.  An investigation by the DA’s office looking into the 2008 shooting death of Luis Gutierrez by Yolo County Sheriff’s Deputies produced no criminal charges.  A subsequent federal civil rights lawsuit brought an acquittal in 2012.

There is also the 2005 beating of Ernesto and Fermin Galvan which brought three criminal trials … against the victims of a savage beating by police.  When contemplating a fourth criminal trial against the brothers – on relatively minor charges – Judge Fall was said to question the DA’s office as to why they would even consider a fourth trial.  He was told that the defendants were suing the West Sacramento Police Department, which apparently prompted Judge Fall to ask Deputy DA Robin Johnson whether the DA’s office represents the people or the West Sacramento Police.  They would ultimately decline to file for a fourth time and the brothers would later settle for a modest payout.

Most recently, the Yolo County District Attorney’s office declined to file criminal charges against former West Sacramento Police Officer Christopher Wright, who critically wounded West Sacramento resident Kevin Hughey in a 2012 call on a domestic disturbance.

Despite evidence that former Officer Wright fabricated a confrontation to explain the discharge of his weapon, the Vanguard received a November 15, 2013, letter from Assistant Chief Deputy DA Michael Cabral who wrote, “The Yolo County District Attorney’s Office, as an independent agency, has completed its investigation and review of the above referenced officer involved use of force.”  He clarified that they are only addressing whether there “is sufficient evidence to support the filing of criminal charges” against Officer Christopher Wright.

He concluded, “We conclude that the use of force in this case does not warrant the filing of criminal charges against Officer Christopher Wright.”

Critically, he wrote, “In evaluating the totality of the circumstances under a reasonable doubt standard, we have considered and analyzed the opinions and conclusions set forth in the December 20, 2012 report from Hughey Moenig, Attorneys at Law.”

Mr. Cabral noted, “The report reflects that on balance they believe that the use of force was unreasonable.”  He cited evidence that there was a crime occurring within the residence and but also “that there is evidentiary support for the proposition that there was a struggle between Officer Christopher Wright and Kevin Hughey prior to the discharge of the weapon” and “that there is evidence that Officer Christopher Wright believed that he had an injured victim and that if he was disarmed he and his partner were at risk of suffering death or great bodily injury.”

However, Mr. Cabral’s statement seems detached from the evidence that we have viewed in this case.

And that is the point.  For those celebrating the excessive 205-year sentence, this verdict changes nothing because the rapes by Sergio Alvarez are easy charges for a district attorney’s office to file and go to the mat for.

In the end, they change nothing.  Those concerned about police officers getting away with acts of murder will see nothing change as the result of this verdict.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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7 Comments

  1. Tia Will

    I gained an interesting perspective on some police think about their role when attending a recent Citizen’s Academy.
    The topic for the evening was gangs and gang activity. The presenter was a identified as a local expert on gang activity.
    Some of the key points of his presentation involved the identification of gangs and gang members. Some of the key identifiers per his presentation were:

    1. Gangs are hierarchical with strict performance criteria for rising in stature within the group
    2. The gang is a “brotherhood” with internal loyalty highly valued
    3. The gang is based on a strict code of conduct with a complicated set of rules of behavior
    4. Individual actions valued according to their promotion of the well being of the group
    5. The gang is identified by specific apparel or signs, frequently a specific color.
    6. Gang members are frequently armed and will use force to obtain their objectives.
    A quick glance around the room confirmed that there were several individuals there who met all of his stated criteria. They were all policemen.

    I do not state this in any way to disrespect out police officers, most of whom I believe are very sincere in their desire to protect their community using lawful means. I say it rather to emphasize that when a society gives a huge degree of power over others to any particular group, this type of thinking and action, in this setting attributed to “gangs” can also become the MO of the empowered group, who are, in their own minds as stated in his presentation, “the good guys”. I believe that it is the individual actions of each individual police officer on a day to day basis, not the fact that they are a police officer, that determines whether or not he or she is acting as the “good guy”. Likewise,covering for each other in a misguided code of loyalty although prevalent, is not the action of a “good guy” but would come closer in my mind to his own definition of a “gang’.

    1. Frankly

      Wow. This attempt at bad-good association is breathtaking. So police are a gang?

      Your are significantly lacking in a full assessment of moral equivalency here. And, like David, your social justice tilt has you manufacturing criminals into victims and law enforcement into criminals.

      Do we have bad cops? Sure. We have as many bad cops as we have people behaving badly in any and all professions. Frankly, I think a bad teacher does plenty of material harm to others and yet we hear nary a peep of similar outrage and protest.

      The problem with your comparison is that the code for a true gang demands crimes and violence. Conversely, the code for cops is intended to help prevent crimes and to keep the peace. Big difference… and one that deserves recognition from you and David and others fixated on hyper criticism of law enforcement.

      1. David Greenwald

        I work with and deal with a lot of police officers that I respect. I’ll give the Davis Police Department a lot of credit in the last few years trying to get things in a better place than they were a decade ago. My biggest concern is holding people in a position of public trust (police or otherwise) who do wrong accountable for their actions.

        1. Frankly

          Working in the IT industry responsible for a company big mainframe and data center, when the system went down we would get a lot of bad press. Then we started to publish percent of up-time and mean time between failures.

          This helped provide some perspective of real performance and softened the noise that tended to rise with each unfortunate problem. It helped provide perspective.

          That is what we need with respect to law enforcement. It is not the few bad cases that define the quality of law enforcement, it is the percentage of bad relative to the number of transactions executed.

          The media sensationalizes the single negative events, but does little to illuminate the vast number of positive transactions and interactions between cops and the public. In most cases the glass is 99.9% full/good.

        2. David Greenwald

          While that’s true of any government sector and probably any industry, I’ve always been frustrated as to how difficult it is to scrutinize police practices as opposed to other practices in government.

      2. Tia Will

        Frankly

        “So police are a gang?”
        Only when their actions meet the criteria that they themselves use as the definition of a gang.
        This was not my definition, it was the one the police officers giving the course layer out.

        “The problem with your comparison is that the code for a true gang demands crimes and violence.”

        This article was about crimes and violence perpetrated on civilians by a police officer sworn to protect them. So how does that make my comparison in error. I was careful to state up front that I respect and trust most police to do the right thing. When they do not, they should be subject to the same judicial process as any other citizen whether gang related or not, and they should not let their personal loyalty to other police officers get in the way of equal justice. That was all I was saying. Do you disagree ?

  2. SODA

    ToTia’s point, I once had a law enforcement supervisor tell me that he felt his role ws to control his officers’ aggression; that they had personalities that were aggressive and therefore there needed to be efforts to channel it appropriately for the job. There are many of us who do not have the personalities to ever want to be in law enforcement…..

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