By Matt Rexroad
Yolo County Supervisor
It is a tragedy when someone dies in an altercation with police – not only for the victim and his family, but also for the police officers involved whose lives will never be the same. Unfortunately, the tragedy is compounded when there is a rush to judgment to condemn the police before all of the facts are known.
Such has been the case with the unfortunate death of Michael Barrera, who died on Feb. 8 after being Tased by Woodland police officers. At this point there is much that we don’t know about this incident, including the cause of death, whether Barrera had any drugs or alcohol in his system and whether he had a history of medical problems or a possibly unknown, life-threatening medical condition.
- Barrera had a violent criminal past in Woodland.
- He was wearing nothing except a towel and a trench coat as he walked around an apartment complex, exposing himself to people and cursing at passers-by.
- He was initially carrying a pair of scissors and a chef’s knife.
- He got hold of a golf club and attempted to break into vehicles.
- Police arrived and saw him acting erratically as he swung the club around.
- Officers repeatedly ordered him to put down the club, and officers trained in crisis intervention techniques attempted to negotiate with him in an effort to avoid the use of force.
- Barrera charged at and assaulted one of the officers, injuring him or her.
- He was Tased twice in an effort to subdue him, then handcuffed.
- At some point the officers observed that he was not breathing and they performed CPR and called for an ambulance.
If this is essentially what happened, it’s an unfortunate tragedy. But it doesn’t sound like cold-blooded murder by out-of-control cops who decided they wanted to kill someone that day and just happened to pick Barrera as he walked down the street minding his own business.
Unfortunately, that’s the impression conveyed in an article, “Family Holds Vigil Seeking Answers in the Taser Death in Woodland,” by David Greenwald in the Feb. 14 Davis Vanguard. It’s a long article, 1,164 words, with nearly all of them an attack on Woodland police by Barrera’s family members and others. They allege that police officers have repeatedly lied, are engaged in a cover-up, have provided numerous versions of the incident and that Barrera was unarmed and “murdered by the Woodland Police Department.”
The article goes on to mention a shooting death in Woodland in 2009 without providing any details of that incident. And it quotes a Black Lives Matter activist and a labor organizer, both of whom accuse the police of wrong-doing, including brutality and targeting people of color.
The following day Greenwald wrote a commentary in which he said he has no confidence that the Yolo County Sheriff’s Office will properly investigate the incident. He based this on the accusation that “over and over again … law enforcement and prosecutors do not do a good job – for the most part – of policing their own.” And he based it on the suspicion that “it is quite probable that there were sheriff’s deputies on the scene when Mr. Barrera was Tasered.”
But Greenwald does not cite even one instance of law enforcement and prosecutors doing a bad job of investigating police-involved deaths. You would think that if this happens over and over again it would be easy to cite just once instance.
It also turns out that sheriff’s deputies were not on the scene when Barrera was Tasered. Yolo County Sheriff Ed Prieto told the Woodland Daily Democrat on Feb. 17, ““None of my officers were involved. I was the first person on scene because I am the coroner and (Mr. Barrera’s body) had already been removed from the scene.”
Greenwald’s other argument for why Prieto and his staff can’t be trusted to investigate the incident is that, “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.” But that’s actually an argument in favor of the Sheriff’s office doing the investigation because they and local prosecutors have so much at stake. They don’t want to rely on a bunch of rogue cops as it would impair the validity of their arrests and prosecutions.
This rush to judgment, calling the police racist murderers and alleging that there will be an investigatory cover-up by the Sheriff’s Office, is bad enough on its own, unfairly smearing the men and women who put their lives on the line for us every day. But it’s also potentially dangerous for law-abiding Woodland residents.
Heather MacDonald, in her New York Times bestseller The War on Cops, discusses what she has called “The Ferguson Effect.” That effect attributes the recent increase in violent crime throughout the country to officers backing off of proactive policing in response to Black Lives Matters demonstrations and media narratives alleging an epidemic of racist police murdering people of color.
Woodland is a relatively safe place in which to live, according to the Woodland Police 2015 Annual Report. But we shouldn’t be complacent. Despite being a medium-size city of about 56,000, in 2015 there were 1,254 larceny thefts, 346 burglaries, 301 motor vehicle thefts, 158 aggravated assaults, 52 robberies, 18 arsons, 14 rapes and 2 murders. Woodland’s per capita crime rate is higher than the national average in most of these categories.
In order to do their job properly, the police need our support, not our condemnation or suspicion. Let’s withhold judgment on the Barrera death until the investigation is finished and all of the facts have been made public.
In the meantime, we should join with Woodland Police Chief Dan Bellini as he described in the 2015 report the great strides his department has made in crime prevention, rebuilding the Neighborhood Watch program and launching a gang-resistance training program, among other safety measures.
“The Department’s accomplishments would not have been possible if not for the sworn and civilian members who worked tirelessly not only to keep our community safe and secure but also to devote their time for programs and activities to improve our community relationships,” Bellini said. “Their dedication and professionalism inspire me every day and I thank them and their families for all they do.”