Guest Commentary: Woodland Police Deserve Our Support, Not Suspicion

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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.

But there are several things we do know, according to Woodland police Lt. Anthony Cucchi in an interview with Fox 40 News and as reported by the Daily Democrat:

  • 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.”

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About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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9 thoughts on “Guest Commentary: Woodland Police Deserve Our Support, Not Suspicion”

  1. Tia Will

    Matt

    calling the police racist murderers and alleging that there will be an investigatory cover-up by the Sheriff’s Office”

    In order to do their job properly, the police need our support, not our condemnation or suspicion.”

    While I agree that it is good to always consider both sides of a story, I also believe that it is good to not include exaggerations in one’s counter arguments. I have read the relevant Vanguard articles and in neither did David Greenwald call the police “racist murderers” or say that “there will be an investigatory cover-up”.

    My position is that police, like every other human on the face of the earth are fallible. There is no need for demonization to decide that police are no better nor worse than any other human or more or less likely to act with a self protective manner when something undesirable has occurred. As a doctor, I know that it is possible to make a mistake that costs another individual his life. I also know that when such an event has occurred, in every system in which I have been a part, there is an investigation that includes members of another department ( aka an outside investigation) since there is just too much temptation to try to frame one’s own actions or those of a close colleague in the most favorable light possible. One does not have to believe that the police are evil or racist to understand that this principle should also apply to them.

    I fully agree with you that the best way to achieve optimal outcomes in community safety would be for the police to have the full support of their community. For me the best way for that to be achieved would be for the police to fully embrace outside, fully independent investigation when any such death or harm in custody occurs. Full, immediate and ongoing transparency would also help to build the kind of community trust that you and I both believe is vital.  I do not believe, as you seem to, that a “trust us because we are the police” attitude is sufficient.

  2. David Greenwald

    I will have a full response Monday or Tuesday.

    But there a few quick points I would like to make:

    1. For me this is a process based issue.  What is the process that occurs when someone dies because of police action by which the community and family can be assured to the degree possible that a fair and thorough investigation occurred.  Woodland PD for the most part is a good organization, but that doesn’t mean someone couldn’t have made a mistake.  The family and community deserve to know and the city council has acknowledged this.

    2. I met with the family on Monday, they came directly from seeing the body to my office.  The Sheriff said in the Daily Democrat that they saw the body on 10th (the friday before), I don’t believe that is accurate.

    3.  They stated he had a violent record.  I found an assault charge from 2006, that’s ten years-ago.  It doesn’t appear that he has a criminal arrest since.

    Also point out there is a difference between my writing something and my reporting that someone said something.

  3. Todd Edelman

    Support includes criticism — this is key. But the goal is support of justice and democracy, for which the police are one among many imperfect attempts at a solution. The Supervisor seems to frame this whole thing as binary (i.e. “…with us or against us.”). Evaluation of law enforcement is best handled by objective and informed civilian bodies. Association with Black Lives Matter is inherently suspicious in the view of this Supervisor. The cited author Heather Mac Donald doesn’t think that state assistance is a right, and to some extent defends racial and religious profiling, the Patriot Act, high rates of incarceration, torture used as an interrogation technique and thinks that the Abu Ghraib prison scandal was “overblown” and “torture lite” compared to what Pol Pot did.

    1. Tia Will

      thinks that the Abu Ghraib prison scandal was “overblown” and “torture lite” compared to what Pol Pot did.”

      Wow ! I did not know that there was anyone who would hold Pol Pot as the point of comparison for what would constitute torture.

       

  4. Cherie Goodenough

    One can support the police and also support mechanisms for independent review of the use of force. In fact, having such mechanisms is a form of support in helping the police maintain and increase trust in the community.

    I have read the Greenwald articles and the suspicions and accusations Supervisor Rexroad objects to come from a bereaved family.  Surely Supervisor Rexroad can have no argument with Greenwald’s statement:

    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.

    No information regarding the deceased’s past record has any bearing on whether excessive force was used in this case.  The claims about the incident itself are, of course, valid to consider, but should be subjected to the scrutiny of an independent investigation.

  5. Richard McCann

    Unconditional support is never warranted, except perhaps of our children. The Yolo County Sheriff and District Attorney may well be able to conduct a thorough and unbiased investigation, but they do not conduct themselves in a vacuum. Unfortunately, numerous examples from across the nation demonstrate that the intertwined relationships among prosecutors and police are much more likely to lead to lack of diligence. Rather than not wanting “to rely on a bunch of rogue cops as it would impair the validity of their arrests and prosecution,” the incentive appears to be to cover over all incidents so as to project an image of complete infallibility. Yolo County and Woodland must now conduct an investigation within an environment in which law enforcement has lost much of our trust due to outside events beyond their control. Our local law enforcement must show that it takes these concerns seriously and demonstrate that it is as transparent as possible.

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