My View: Does Buzayan Case Still Matter?

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Justice-for-halemaClosure is a word that, more and more, I think should not exist.  The more I live and observe, the more I recognize in human psychology there is no such thing as closure – at some point, people just move on with their lives.  But there is never closure and in most ways they are never the same.

And so this week, I too am forced to deal with one of the pivotal moments of my past, as the Buzayan family made a decision to end their case.

I cannot run from this as one reader noted – this was my legacy.  My first instinct was to reject that notion.  But as we discussed it further, I think we both realized that, while legacy is probably not the correct word, it was a crucial moment in my life.

There would not be a Vanguard today without this case and I’ll try my best to explain why.  Because as I look back on it, I have seen far worse cases of police abuse and it was only a comedy of errors of mishandling that led this to become far more important than what it should have been.

We are talking about a case where there might have been a bumper bender in the parking lot.  And really, that is both in question and does not matter.  The witness never saw contact, but saw the SUV driving close to the vehicle, and saw damage in the parked vehicle after the Buzayans had moved on.

I had seen both damages.  The one on the Buzayan car was a long thin scratch and the one on the other car was a small dent.  The family hired a crime scene analyst who found that the damage was incompatible and the paint transfer inconsistent.

But at the end of the day who cares?  The family decided to pay for the damage and the case should have ended there.  The reasons that it did not end there are far more important than what happened on that day.

Still, the two worst cases of police abuse and misconduct that I have seen in this county greatly trump whatever happened in the Buzayan case.  One of those was the beating of the Galvan brothers, that put Ernesto Galvan in a coma and has created such brain damage that, for the rest of his life, he will have to deal with psychosis.

The other case involved the shooting of Luis Guitierrez by three sheriff’s deputies.

The Galvan brothers ended up with a small and modest settlement, the Gutierrez family watched a federal jury acquit the officers in a wrongful death suit, and the Buzayan case ended up with the family incurring $500,000 in legal debts and getting nothing.

The first lesson here is that the legal system is not the place where wrongdoing is adequately or reliably addressed.

But in recent years, those two cases have caused me considerable doubt when it came to the Buzayan case.

In most ways, the Buzayan case only matters in a place like Davis – even though the story got picked up in regional newspapers and was the subject of numerous KGO-San Francisco TV Broadcasts.

The problem is that the city did just about everything wrong.  We can start with Officer Pheng Ly.  He should have dropped the case after it was demonstrated to him that the Buzayans had paid for the damage.  That is what the “victim” wanted and what the rather conservative Yolo Superior Court Judge Thomas Warriner ultimately ruled.

But Officer Ly, who in 2006 was named Davis Police Officer of the Year and who a few months ago got an award by MADD for his vigilance in apprehending drunk drivers, was determined to show that the family was lying to him.

He made what I think most police officers have acknowledged was an error in judgment when he decided that he should pursue this case and then arrest a minor late at night.  It’s a misdemeanor case, and it is under questionable legal authority, at best, that he could arrest anyone for a misdemeanor that he did not personally witness, but why not simply allow the parents to bring the girl in the morning as they requested?

He compounded that error by failing to stop his interrogation once the defendant asked for the assistance of counsel.  And the police further erred in attempting to use the citizen complaint process as a means to extract a confession from the young defendant.

Jamal Buzayan then found the political avenue unsatisfactory.  He brought his complaint to the police but they dismissed the complaint.  He brought his complaint to city hall, but they ignored it.  Had he gotten a simple apology, which he told me numerous times was all he really wanted, this case would have ended there.

Instead, Mr. Buzayan was forced to take it to one body that would listen to him and advocate for him, the Davis Human Relations Commission.  The fact is, his case was not the only complaint that commission was hearing about the Davis Police Department at that time.  They were receiving numerous complaints about racial profiling.

In fact, in February of 2006, a large group of African-Americans, mostly young male students, came before council to complain about their treatment.  The protest was organized by a young African-American student, ironically whose father was a ranking officer at the LAPD and who was outraged at the treatment of students.

A few months later, another group organized by the same individual marched from the Memorial Union to the Davis Police Station.

There are a thousand ways this could have been handled far better than it was.  In the end, the HRC asked for a citizen’s review board, the council was not willing to go that far and ultimately hired a police ombudsman.  Things could have stopped there.

Documents that I obtained, through public records act requests, showed the former Police Chief busy not with his job, but busy trying to organize counter-protesters against the HRC and to attack its chair, who, by the way, happened to be my wife.

It was during this time that I was a graduate student in the Political Science Department at UC Davis.  I was not involved in anything other than trying to finish my dissertation when my wife called from City Hall to ask me to record the council meeting as I had done dozens of times previously.

For reasons unbeknownst to me, this time, instead of turning it off, I listened to it as I did my work.  And what I heard appalled me.

It was councilmember Ted Puntillo who is probably most responsible for my involvement.

Ted Puntillo said, “What I want are police officers out there that are using their training and their instincts, I don’t want them thinking about oh somebody’s going to be reviewing what I’m doing. “

That quote goes against every core of my belief system about government.  What we need is more oversight over those with a badge, not less.  I honestly believed that if people just heard what I had just heard in this liberal community, they would be outraged like me.  I was wrong.  My error shook my confidence in this community and made me realize that I could no longer take things for granted.

Things escalated from there.  By the end of the spring, this case had made regional news and polarized the city, but the biggest shocker was yet to come.

Police Chief Jim Hyde resigned, blaming the Human Relations Commission and its Chair, Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald for for “limit(ing) my effectiveness to work with this fine community.”

“Despite the great work of the members of this police department, the HRC has divided the community along race and religious lines to fulfill a self-serving political agenda,” Mr. Hyde wrote in the email to council.

He added, “In my 27 years of government service, 10 years of clinical psychology and 16 years of working with nonprofit organizations, the HRC is the most dysfunctional and incestuous group I have ever witnessed. I hope that (the) City Council will correct this community problem.”

I would suggest people look at what happened in Antioch and in particular his Reno 911 remark about the Davis Police Department.  I think history largely shows that Mr. Hyde was a huge part of the problem.

But the council did not see it like this at the time, and made the decision to disband the HRC in late June following the 2006 council election, but before Ted Puntillo left the council and Lamar Heystek was sworn in.

It was a 4-1 vote to disband the commission – a week later it would have been 3-2, and I wonder if they would have done it.

Nevertheless, following that incident, I realized there were serious problems in city government, that the local paper was not going to report them accurately, and it was on July 30, 2006 that I launched the first version of this publication.

Without the Buzayan case, there would be no Vanguard.  At the same time, what I realized this week is that long ago the Vanguard ceased to be about the Buzayan case and became a publication that in part intended to highlight problems in our community that needed to be addressed.

In the big scheme of things, the Buzayan case will always be an overblown case of a bumper bender in a grocery store parking lot, that always said more about the officials trying to handle the case than about the case itself.

And yet, while I have seen far far worse than this in my approaching seven years on this job, still, in a way this case was much more personal than a lot of the other cases.  Few people will realize how much personal turmoil we incurred from this one case on a very personal level.

When I spoke to attorney Whitney Leigh on the phone as I wrapped up our brief conversation, I realized that the Buzayans had finally moved on and thought, I guess I should too.  Then I realized, I really already had.

In the next few weeks, we will see some troubling news cases involving the same officer, Pheng Ly, and also cases where two Yolo County Sheriff’s deputies end up lying about traffic stops.  More on those later…  It’s business as usual in Yolo County and there is still much work to do.

The Buzayan case will always occupy an important chapter in my life, but it will never define my legacy.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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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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30 thoughts on “My View: Does Buzayan Case Still Matter?”

  1. JustSaying

    Thanks for this review of the history of this event, the aftermath and your personal impressions at the time and upon reflection these many years later.

    It seems a classic tale of people knowing they’re in the right and wanting to make those they perceive are in the wrong pay for their errors and of how everyone’s over-reactions can cascade into a lack of resolution for anyone. Now, we’re left with everyone needing to just move on without satisfactory closure.

    What would have happened if any of the parties had decided to take a different route at any stage of this Rashomon-like tragedy?

  2. David M. Greenwald

    Just Saying: that last question is my point. Had someone with common sense emerged at any stage, this would have been a foot note in history. If you re-read the fire report, in a lot of ways, the fire report was the Buzayan Case without the lengthy investigation. That Hyde had the sense to leave, probably saved the city tremendous in resources, look at the number of claims filed pre and post Hyde and you’ll see the stark difference.

  3. Frankly

    My point of legacy was more about that uncontrollable external perspective. The case will forever be linked to the Greenwald family, the Human Relations Commission and the Vanguard. I also think it was a crucible of learning for those activists with a grudge against the Davis Police and a propensity to see the world through racism-tinted glasses. At the time, these people were a bit out of control. The cooler-head response from the residents and the Council was a calming tonic that, after a burst of retribution-motivated energy, caused the Vanguard to adopt a much more professional-adult approach toward the goal of improve minority-cop relationships. And, in the final analysis good work has been done and improvements have been made.

    Of course the journey matters, but it is the final result that deserves the most attention. So, with this, David and the Vanguard should be congratulated in achievement while periodically reminded of their past that includes the Buzayan case front and center.

  4. AdRemmer

    [b]Greenwald[/b] opined: [quote]“The first lesson here is that the legal system is not the place where wrongdoing is adequately or reliably addressed.”[/quote]

    Please share with the group exactly the forum where the above cited would be adequately/reliably addressed?

  5. David M. Greenwald

    “The cooler-head response from the residents and the Council was a calming tonic that, after a burst of retribution-motivated energy, caused the Vanguard to adopt a much more professional-adult approach toward the goal of improve minority-cop relationships. And, in the final analysis good work has been done and improvements have been made. “

    From my perspective the council was not a cooler-head response, instead they threw gasoline on the first at several critical junctures, overreacted in shutting down the commission. Things seemed to calmdown at that point but that was a constellation of three things.

    1. The decision to shutdown the HRC had a tremendous chilling effect on those in the community who had grievances. The damage was considerable. The most visible example is look at the racial make up of the attendees of the MLK Day event before and after 2006.

    2. The chief problem left town in June 2006. Landy Black is by no means perfect, but he’s a professional, his department acts professionally under him, and he has not been actively agitating against citizens.

    3. The hiring of the Ombudsman/ Auditor. It’s not a hugely noticeable thing, but one thing I have noticed is a large percentage of cases where the ultimate disposition of complaints is not to sweep it under the rug. The city of Davis has actually laid off several problem officers in the last few years, the most recent in the Tatiana Bush case.

  6. David M. Greenwald

    “Please share with the group exactly the forum where the above cited would be adequately/reliably addressed? “

    Compare the outcome of the Tatiana Bush matter to the outcome of the Buzayan matter including the amount of angst in the community.

  7. SouthofDavis

    David wrote:

    > Mr. Buzayan was forced to take it to one body
    > that would listen to him and advocate for him

    Mr. Buzayan was not “FORCED” to make a big deal out of this, he was pissed off and emotional and “DECIDED” to make a big deal out of this. A close friend of mine is a SF Cop and tells me a lot of stories about jerk cops so I’m not letting Officer Ly off the hook.

    It seems to me (after reading about this for years and years) that we ended up with a pissed off citizen and a pissed off cop that got in to a “pissing match” to try and make the other back down. They then “circled the wagons” and and ended up with the people that think cops are (almost) always right fighting with the people that think that people of color are (almost) always right.

    There are (unfortunatly) a lot of jerks of all races out in the world. Sometimes the jerks treat white people badly and other times they people of color badly. It is my hope that we can get more people of color (and the whites that want to cry racism every time anyone treats a person of color badly) to realize that while there are some true “racists”, most people that treat people of color badly are just “jerks”…

  8. David M. Greenwald

    I would have felt compelled to raise this issue too had it happened to my family. bTW, I don’t believe and have really never belived this was a racial issue.

  9. Mr.Toad

    Arlo Guthrie said ” and the judge walked in sat down with a seeing eye dog, and he
    sat down, we sat down. Obie looked at the seeing eye dog, and then at the
    twenty seven eight-by-ten colour glossy pictures with circles and arrows
    and a paragraph on the back of each one, and looked at the seeing eye dog.
    And then at twenty seven eight-by-ten colour glossy pictures with circles
    and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one and began to cry,
    ’cause Obie came to the realization that it was a typical case of American
    blind justice, and there wasn’t nothing he could do about it, and the
    judge wasn’t going to look at the twenty seven eight-by-ten colour glossy
    pictures with the circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each
    one explaining what each one was to be used as evidence against us.”

    Welcome to the real world Obie.

  10. Mr.Toad

    “the Buzayan case ended up with the family incurring $500,000 in legal debts and getting nothing.”

    What a waste of money. How much taxpayer money did the defense spend?

  11. jimt

    Re: South of Davis’s comment above: Yes, it also seems to me that we have educated, encouraged, and conditioned minorities to attribute perceived instances of unfairness or rudeness or harsh treatment to racism; when in fact there may be a myriad of other causes for this treatment; and many whites (particularly poor whites) have had to deal with such treatment from authorities as well.

    Not to say that racism does not exist; there are instances of racism. I’d argue that the number of incidents that arise from racism are highly exaggerated; as is is the degree of racism involved in most (but not all) incidents. I think as a society we would be better off not viewing such incidents thru the prism of racism; but taking a balanced view that accounts for the complexity of human nature and social interaction.

  12. medwoman

    I cannot help but wonder if any of those who have expressed their support for this sentiment belong to a minority group.
    “walk a mile in my shoes” ?

  13. Morpheus

    Medwoman – if I had walked a mile in the Buzayan’s shoes in this matter, things would indeed have been different. If my child had rear-ended another vehicle and driven away, I would have taken them back to the ‘scene of the crime’ to leave a note and/or find the owner, exchange insurance information, and apologize. If a police officer showed up at my house at 10:00 at night telling me my child had rear-ended someone and driven away, I would have asked to see the damage to my vehicle, and upon seeing the damage, would have provided the officer with everything he needed to finish his/her report, including STRONGLY encouraging my child to do the right thing and tell the truth. If the officer wanted to take my child to the police station, I would have accompanied them, wanting to see for myself my child learning a valuable lesson about breaking the law.

    Would I have felt bad for my child? Would I have the instinct to be protective? Of course. But I would not have left my child with the impression that it is OK to do something dishonest and wrong and daddy will hire a good lawyer to try to get you off and sue everyone involved.

  14. David M. Greenwald

    Your sequence was off here.

    First, they were contacted by the police. Remember it was not the teen driver who was in the car alone, rather, the mother was there and she claimed she was the one driving. The police insisted that the daughter driving based on eye witness description. But eye witnesses are known to make errors of that sort, especially if they weren’t intently looking. And why would the family lie?

    Second, so what did the family do? They paid for the damage. They though it was done.

    Three days later, the police come back at 10 pm and conduct the arrest.

    The police did not allow Mr. Buzayan to accompany her and did not allow her to request an attorney?

    So, do you care to revise your story based on these established facts?

  15. medwoman

    Morpheus

    My “walk a mile” comment was with regard to perceived racism, not the specifics of the Buzayan case.
    However, there are two separate issues here and one does not invalidate the other.
    1)How should the Buzayan’s best have handled the situation in my opinion….say and teach their children to say absolutely nothing to a police officer without a lawyer present. Second, make restitution for any damage caused as apparently they did.
    2) How should the police have handled the situation ?
    I would say, not assume guilt. Not make arrests on misdemeanors of people in their pajamas in the middle of the night. Not apply bullying tactics to attempt to get people to make comments without a lawyer present.
    And if any of these things have been done in error, just apologize.
    Would that really be so difficult ?

  16. Morpheus

    David,

    You need to revise your timeline in your “established facts.”

    Remember, the family claimed they were not involved in the accident. They even hired an investigator who told them what they paid him to tell them – that the damage “didn’t quite match up,” something that was at odds with the actual physical evidence, as well as the eyewitness evidence (which included a witnesses to the accident, a vehicle description and license plate number).

    Why would the family lie? To protect their daughter, and quite possibly, because they thought they could get away with it.

    Sometimes, one eyewitness is all you need – this one said the shorter female (without the headscarf) was driving, which matched the actual description of mom (taller) and daughter (shorter). That, along with the make and model of their sport ute, license plate number, and matching damage was enough for probable cause.

    The family did not pay for the damages until after the criminal case was initiated. This was smart on their part, because by the time they appeared in front of Judge Warriner they could demonstrate that they had already made restitution to the victim.

    And speaking of the victim, the Buzayan’s would not have had to go through any of this if they had just done the right thing and left their insurance and contact info on the victim’s car windshield like they are legally -and morally – required to do. Heck, they even could have lied and said mom was driving! Insurance rates are pretty expensive, though, and they increase when you are at fault in an accident. Just like the victim’s rates would have increased had the Buzayan’s been able to scamper off and she had to file a claim to fix the damage.

  17. David M. Greenwald

    I don’t need to revise my established facts, I can however add more detail. They were driving the car. Nobody actually saw contact between the two cars and the damage does not seem to match up, neither did the paint transfer, and that’s what the investigator said.

    However, they said the mother was driving the car and they paid for the damage. Why did the case go beyond that point? Warriner dismissed the charges based on them paying for the damages.

    The rest of your point assumes that they (a) they hit the car (and the evidence there is mixed at best) and (b) that they knew they hit the car.

  18. Mr.Toad

    “Insurance rates are pretty expensive, though, and they increase when you are at fault in an accident.”

    Yes but not so much as wasting $500,000 on a fender bender.

  19. David M. Greenwald

    All of their actions suggest to me, that it was not about money – all the way through.

    BTW, having gotten to know Halema and the family, I can’t possibly imagine her lying.

  20. eagle eye

    Lots of confusion here: Buzayan’s auto was not the car that damaged the other vehicle. Pheng Ly thought they were lying because they were Muslims.
    I believe gangs have figured out their own sad way of seeking justice,
    street justice. They’ve learned the legal system won’t help them at all.

  21. Mr.Toad

    The whole case was like a Quentin Tarentino movie where everyone ends up wiped out in the end. The absurdity of spending $500,000 on this case boggles the mind. The damage to the reputations of so many on all sides. The divisive nature of the case in the community, where, both Fang Ly and Halimah Buzayan received awards by competing constituencies, the ACLU, Davis Enterprise, Human Relations Commission, the family’s bank account, the District Attorney’s office, the Davis Police Department. I wonder about the ethics of an attorney that didn’t tell them to forget it when the price tag hit six figures.

    Of no mention is the backdrop of this case being used in the heat of a campaign for an open District Attorney seat. If you really claim to be over it you should break bread with Jeff Reisig and work together to improve justice in Yolo County.

  22. Morpheus

    David – like I said, it’s your timeline that was at issue. However, consider some inconsistencies:

    1) They initially insisted that they were not driving the car, and were not in an accident, and that they had been profiled. Later, the statement changed to mom was driving the car, not the daughter. They lied.

    2) While the witnesses were not standing right next to the vehicles with a magnifying glass to see actual point of contact, they saw the distinctive “bump” between the two vehicles as the Buzayan’s vehicle collided with the park car of the victim.

    3) Their investigator did indeed tell them that the damage and the paint transfer did not seem to match up, but that’s what he was paid to say. that did not match up with the police reports nor the insurance reports.

    4) The family did not pay for the damage THAT THEY CAUSED until after the criminal case was initiated, and most likely did so because their defense lawyer told them to (which was smart). The case was properly dismissed by the judge when Buzayan’s attorney demonstrated that the victim was made whole.

    One point I’d like to make: if they didn’t do it, if the evidence was SO “mixed” that they did it, then why would they pay the victim? Their conscience? Where was their conscience in the parking lot when they ran into the victim’s parked car then drove off?

    Minor fender-bender or not, I have absolutely NO SYMPATHY for people who hit someone else’s car and drive away, and less sympathy for someone who tries to avoid responsibility when they are caught. These people offend me.

    (Officer Ly’s lack of judgment is another issue, one that has to be separated out from the underlying facts. I could be equally harsh in my assessment of his decision to arrest the daughter at 10:00 at night instead of allowing her to come down the next day. As demonstrated by the audio tape, he was polite – another matter the Buzayan’s lied about – but manners don’t excuse his decisions, which likewise offend me.)

  23. David M. Greenwald

    1. They did not say they weren’t driving the car, they said the daughter wasn’t driving the car and that they did not believe there was an accident.

    2. The witnesses actually said they did not see contact, look at the first amended complaint which quotes from their statement.

    3. The two damages were about 12 inches off vertically

    4. The family was contacted by the police, and at that point that they were informed of the accident, they paid. With respect to the law, it doesn’t matter as long as the damage is paid for.

    They said at the time, that they did not think they had been involved in an accident, however, their younger child was in the hospital at the time and did not want to deal with the hassle and it seemed the easiest way to put it behind them. Btw, that’s the representation Officer Ly made to them.

  24. Mr.Toad

    “Reisig was not involved in the case.”

    I have a bridge i want to sell you David if you believe that. You can’t really deny that this was a huge issue in the DA race with Ritter milking it and Reisig using all the resources of the DA’s office defending the status quo. Oh yes David, Reisig offered the tapes that were released to the Enterprise and Deputy DA Fong to KDVS about a week before the election. KDVS turned them down. To deny that this was rapped up in the DA’s race is at best revisionist history and at worst willful ignorance on your part.

  25. Mr.Toad

    From a family law blog “There’s another phrase common among lawyers that goes like this: “a person only sues on principle once.” It means that when a person realizes he has spent much more on attorney’s fees fighting for what he was rightfully entitled to than the value of the thing he was fighting for, he learns from that mistake and doesn’t do it again.”

    Half a million dollars. Their lawyer should be ashamed instead of laughing all the way to the bank. They could have had any juvenile record that existed sealed or expunged for a few thousand. What a waste of time and money.

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