Commentary: More Questions than Answers Emerge in Picnic Day Incident

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One of the arresting officers has his badge out when he has the suspect on the ground, but that badge was not visible on the video – it was tucked under his shirt

The police’s decision to release video on the Picnic Day confrontation sheds some light on what happened, but key questions remain due to the lack of audio on the video that the police released.

At the outset it is important to note that there is a difference between the ongoing criminal investigation, and the internal investigation as to whether the police used excessive force and racial bias in how they handled the matter.

Some discussion focused on the crowd that had gathered outside of a house party on the corner of College Park and Russell Boulevard.  The video shows the crowd, mostly peaceful but clearly spilling onto the street and at least partially blocking part of Russell Blvd.

The key is the approach of the unmarked police van that makes a U-turn and appears to come close to members of the crowd.  From what we could see, Antoine Perry and his girlfriend Angelica became angry when the van came close to Angelica, forcing Mr. Perry to pull her out of the way.

The witnesses have reported that the van’s occupants shouted at the crowd to “get the f— out of the road,” to which some in the crowd returned shouts of profanity.

The key question is how did the physical confrontation start and whether the occupants of the van identified themselves as police officers.  The witnesses claim not to have known that they were police officers until well into the confrontation – and remember, while the Vanguard only had nine seconds of video, the confrontation itself occurred in only about 13 seconds – a very short amount of time for people to figure out what is going on.

The police allege that Mr. Perry lifted his shirt to simulate a gun in his waistband, and the police say they found ammunition in his backpack but no gun.  The video is at best inconclusive on whether he lifted his shirt.

The key questions that need to be addressed here are: (1) How did the confrontation begin – what did the police say, who took the first punch, and why? (2) Did Mr. Perry lift his shirt to simulate a gun? (3) Did the officers approach the situation appropriately?  Should plainclothed officers be attempting crowd control under such chaotic circumstances?  Did they identify themselves as police officers?  Did they use profanity?  Did the approach escalate a situation that, while crowded, was not unruly?

These are all critical questions.  We need to remember that there is a separate criminal investigation as to whether the three defendants and, it appears, at least a few others committed criminal acts.  While the conduct of the police will have some bearing on that, it is entirely possible that criminal acts were committed by defendants and others AND the police acted improperly in how they approached the scene and conducted themselves at the outset of the situation.

This is why the independent investigation is so important because, despite the proclamation by people like Bob Dunning that “there is no doubt that the police acted appropriately,” there are plenty of unanswered questions that relate to whether the police did act appropriately.  Had they arrived in uniform and taken a different tact, would this assault have occurred?

Even if we decide that the police acted appropriately in defending themselves from an attack, there is plenty of room to scrutinize and criticize the steps taken up to the point where the first punch was thrown.  Mr. Dunning is simply doing what he accuses the Vanguard of doing – jumping to conclusions and glossing over crucial details that call the actions of the police into question.

But the problem now is that with an incident that occurred in only 13 seconds and mired in shades of gray, we need to be able to trust an independent investigator to be able to impartially weigh the facts.

The hiring of former Sacramento Sheriff John McGinness complicates these matters.  He was involved in more than his share of the problems that beset the Sacramento Sheriff’s Office for more than a decade, and he has statements in the press questioning use-of-force complaints and attacking statistics that demonstrate potential race profiling.  And the amazing thing is that a radio show where he discussed this took place just a week ago.

On Wednesday, when all of this was released, Chief Darren Pytel invited me to come to the CAB (Community Advisory Board) meeting.  Unfortunately, I was out of town on a pre-scheduled trip to the north coast and unavailable.  It seems like whenever I leave town, we get a critical incident or story.

Lauren Keene of the Enterprise reports from that meeting, “The selection of a former sheriff to conduct the probe was questioned by a couple of people at the meeting, who raised doubts as to whether he would maintain an objective view of the officers’ actions.”

The explanation is that “the investigation requires someone experienced in asking the right questions and eliciting information, and who is familiar with law-enforcement tactics and policies, particularly those involving use of force.”

With someone less experienced, “you may get the facts, but the crucial point is, what does that mean?” Chief Pytel is reported saying.

He then went on to explain, “While the city has its own police auditor, Bob Aaronson, Pytel said he was not an appropriate choice to conduct the internal review because his role is to audit completed investigations — not perform them — to ensure that they were handled properly and reached reasonable conclusions.

“If Bob does the investigation, who is going to audit his work?” Chief Pytel said.

There are several different problems with this answer.  On the face of it, what he says makes sense.  But the first problem is that there are a variety of options for independent investigations.  One that is proposed in officer-involved shootings is to have the Attorney General’s office conduct the investigations.

There are certainly a number of retired police officers who I think would conduct fair and impartial investigations.  One who comes to mind is Calvin Handy, the retired police chief from UC Davis, who for a time served on the three-person panel in charge of investigating police complaints before it was disbanded probably in 2008 or 2009.

The biggest problem here is that the individual chosen to conduct the investigation does not appear impartial.

The second problem is that the police auditor has the experience with law enforcement to conduct this investigation.  Chief Pytel argues that his job is to audit completed investigation – but we know that Mr. Aaronson has performed investigations in other locales and in 2008 performed the investigation into the fire department.

The question Chief Pytel raises is that, besides the report, independent investigators do not generally get their work audited.

This case is exposing a fundamental problem with our oversight system – we have created the auditor position precisely to avoid this problem and have sidestepped it and plunged head on into the problem.

Finally, I have really buried the lead here, and intentionally.  We now know who the officers involved are.  Sergeant Steve Ramos (who is wearing the beige shorts and dark T-shirt) with Detective Ryan Bellamy (blue shirt and cap) and Detective Sean Bellamy (in the dark vest).

What is most interesting to me is that the Bellamy brothers have long been at the top of the list of most complained about Davis officers.  They have been in YONET.  We have seen them testify in trials numerous times.

Over the years, we have received a whole host of complaints about them, especially regarding fights and excessive force.  Often these complaints have emerged during court trials, but we have also received numerous complaints about planting drugs on suspects and excessive force that have never been reported to the DPD because the individuals involved were vulnerable and feared retaliation.

When the names of these two became available, another party contacted the Vanguard last night to let us know that these officers were involved in another excessive force case and that they have clear video showing their conduct.

This is clearly something that bears more investigation – how it is that two officers, with a reputation for fights and excessive force, just happen to be the officers involved in this fight?

Many questions remain here and we need a process that will give us the confidence that answers are forthcoming.

—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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