I 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