The hardest part of my job is to sit down with family members after the loss of their loved one and try to ask questions to figure out what happened. That was what I was faced with when the mother, father, sister, brother and fiancée of Michael Barrera sat down in the Vanguard conference room on Monday afternoon. It was just four days after Mr. Barrera, only 30 years of age with a ten-year-old daughter and another child on the way, was killed after being Tasered by Woodland Police.
The family had just come from seeing his body for the first time, and our hearts go out to them, acknowledging the obvious pain and suffering they have gone through.
I have done this long enough to know that the system is disorganized and cruel to the loved ones of the deceased, under any circumstances. The family is getting conflicting accounts of what happened, which is making things more difficult.
The family is angry and hurting, and they believe they have been wronged. Regardless of whether the police acted inappropriately or appropriately in this case – the family deserves answers and they deserve the right to be able to trust that those answers will come from independent and disinterested parties.
Unfortunately, what we have is that Woodland, like most smaller cities, has no independent review of law enforcement. They have no police auditor to ask to take over the investigation.
As Woodland PD released in their initial statement, “The Woodland Police Department’s standard operating procedure for any officer involved violent incident is to have an outside agency conduct the investigation of the incident. The Yolo County Sheriff’s Department is conducting the investigation and will submit the investigation to the Yolo County District Attorney’s office for review.”
While that may sound good on the surface, the reality that we have seen over and over again is that law enforcement and prosecutors do not do a good job – for the most part – of policing their own. The Yolo County Sheriff’s Office has to rely on the Woodland Police Department for mutual assistance, and the local prosecutors rely on law enforcement to make the arrests and testify in their cases.
While every police agency has its strengths and weaknesses, this is not about distrusting either the Woodland Police Department or the county sheriff’s department, it is about setting up a transparent system where a disinterested and independent party investigates all angles and makes the tough call – either way – based on the facts that come up during the investigation.
The problem with the sheriff’s department is quickly found in the statement by the family.
“We know my brother was unarmed when he was killed and we have reason to believe that there is shadiness going on,” a family member said. “The Sheriff’s Department are investigating Woodland PD. We believe Sheriffs were on the scene when it happened.”
If that is true – and we have gotten no return calls from the sheriff’s department, and Woodland PD had no additional information when we spoke with Lt. Anthony Cucchi on Monday – then the sheriff’s office should not be conducting this investigation.
This is not to point the finger at either agency, this is a problem endemic to law enforcement – there is no mechanism set up for independent review in most jurisdictions.
Indeed, we saw the same problem when the Sacramento DA declined to prosecute the officers who shot and killed Joseph Mann.
Two weeks ago, Assemblymember Kevin McCarty issued a statement, “For far too long, there has been distrust surrounding police shootings and the decisions by local D.A.’s that work closely with police officers. This decision, coupled with the decision of Ezell Ford in Los Angeles, is yet another example of why we need an independent investigation for an officer involved shooting where a civilian is killed. California needs a better process to investigate these incidents like the states of Wisconsin, New York, and Illinois.”
He is exactly right and intends to introduce legislation in this regard shortly. Calls to his Assembly office on Tuesday were not immediately returned either, but everyone in the region has been focused on the matter of the Oroville Dam, so it is understandable.
Just as the Sacramento DA’s office cleared both officers in both the shooting of Dazion Flenaugh and that of Joseph Mann, we see the same problem here. Is there video of this encounter? Will the Woodland PD or the sheriff’s office release it?
In the Flenaugh case, for months the family was told there was no video, but months after the shooting, the police released video which was troubling. It showed an officer calling Mr. Flenaugh “a freak” when speaking to him in the police vehicle, and then later it captured an officer suggesting a citizen beat the mentally ill man with a bat, suggesting that would mellow him out.
Is there a video of Michael Barrera’s Tasering? The family has pieced together information suggesting that they Tasered him while he was on the ground and in handcuffs, but without a video that would be hard to prove.
The bottom line, though, is that we need to have confidence in the investigation. Since it is quite probable that there were sheriff’s deputies on the scene when Mr. Barrera was Tasered, the community and the family need to know that an impartial third party is meticulously reviewing the death and that, if the officers erred, they will disclose that to the public.
We have no such confidence that the current system will suffice, and we believe that an independent investigator is needed to give the family answers and the community confidence in the efficacy of the investigation.
Whether this needs to go to the AG’s Office to remove it further from local law enforcement, or to an independent investigator, someone else will have to make that call.
—David M. Greenwald reporting