It was Friday, early evening. I was home resting after a long week, and not feeling particularly well. My family was out, waiting for my daughter to finish gymnastics. Suddenly there was a loud knock on the door followed by the doorbell.
I thought it was either my kids or the neighbor kids wanting to play with my kids. But when I opened the door, I almost jumped when I saw it was a police officer and, behind him, I saw a police car and a female officer.
He was looking for my wife. He was friendly and kind of recognized me. I told him to come back in an hour.
About an hour later, I poked my head outside and he was back. My wife was on her way back and we chatted. Friendly guy. By now I knew what this was about. The guy couldn’t have been nicer and, when my wife and nephew got home, we calmly explained that our nephew was having a tough time, and he took the time to talk to him and comfort him.
Over the years, we have always been treated well by Davis’ police. Some will see it as a disconnect between my personal experiences and my public policy stance as a periodic-to-frequent police critic, but that’s just the point – I’m not anti-police. I want to be able to call the police and trust that my family will be well-treated.
But, at the same time, I recognize that not everyone has the same experience with the police and not every officer is as good at handling what could have been a tricky situation – as this one turned out to be.
It wasn’t that long ago that a man mowing his lawn was confronted by a police officer in the man’s front yard. Unbeknownst to the man, there was a 911 call that described in vague details a potential burglar. As it later turned out, there was no burglar and the caller had mistaken a door-to-door salesperson for a suspicious person.
But the officer confronted the man, in his mid-60s, in his own yard and asked for his ID. Quickly the officer realizing that this man clearly lived there, and let him go. But what he failed to do was chat him up, make him feel okay about the encounter. Instead, the man was left to feel violated enough that this quiet and private man wrote a letter to the editor – something that his family told us was extremely unlike him.
This was not the first indignity suffered by innocent persons.
The year prior to this incident, two college-age students were having a heated discussion in front of their apartment at Glacier Point. The police were called. The officer arriving on the scene, instead of calming the situation down, came in with an aggressive approach. Sound familiar?
The result was an already heated situation which became more heated, and it led to one of the individuals being Tasered while the female was physically slammed into the police car.
Police Chief Landy Black, in a letter dated February 5, 2013, wrote, “Based on the evidence, it became clear the conduct of the first arriving officer with whom you interacted did not meet the highest standards of conduct and service we expect from our members.
“In particular, I determined your complaint of improper conduct had merit; the officer used an aggressive tone throughout and did not meet our highest standards for interacting with the public,” Chief Black wrote. “Therefore, that portion of the investigation was sustained, meaning that there is clear and convincing evidence that the officer engaged in conduct prohibited under our Department’s Rules and Regulations.”
The chief did not sustain allegations of bias against the first officer, identified by one of the individuals as Lee Benson, but, as a result of this incident, Mr. Benson was terminated from Davis PD. Unfortunately, Mr. Benson was hired by another department and is the subject of multiple use-of-force lawsuits there, as well.
Police often arrive at the scene where people are not in good states of mind. They may be suffering from mental illness, they may be agitated, and the first and initial approach is critical in determining how an incident will play out.
This is why we look at the Picnic Day incident and question the initial encounter – the police driving practically into a crowd, while performing a u-turn, turned what had been simply a crowded scene into a volatile one. We don’t know what was said, but the initial approach combined with the potential uncertainty as to who the men were in the unmarked van clearly escalated a scene that could have been approached in a very different manner.
In the jaywalking scene in Sacramento a month ago, we see the officer take a very aggressive stance in his initial encounter with Nandi Cain. Would I have been approached by the police officer if I were acting the same way initially? I tend to doubt it.
The officer has been cited by his own department because, when Mr. Cain became combative, instead of taking the high road the officer engaged in physical fighting.
In the case of Dazion Flenaugh last year, the police officers, when dealing with the mentally ill man, instead of acting with compassion and understanding, called the man a freak and suggested that a citizen use a baseball bat to mellow him out – before they took his life in an action that was justified by the department.
In the Joseph Mann case on Del Paso Blvd. in the north Sacramento area, the agitated and mentally ill Joseph Mann was chased down by police who talked about running him over before they, too, pursued and shot the man. The shooting was cleared by the department and no charges were filed, but the department paid the family $800,000 in a settlement.
What we see in many of these incidents which have happened over and over again is that police officers need better training on de-escalation techniques.
I’m very grateful that the officer we interacted with was so professional and understanding. But I also recognize that this treatment is not universal. Having police oversight, having improved training, having body cameras are all ways to protect both the public and officers in cases where things have gone wrong or people perceive that things have gone.
Just because we advocate for mistreated citizens doesn’t mean we hate the police or are not grateful when they show up when needed and handle the situation with calmness and compassion.
But not everyone has had that experience – even in this community. That’s why we need tools in place to make sure that everyone gets treated in the manner they deserve.
—David M. Greenwald reporting