February 9, 2007

Black and Latino Groups Join to Question Police Shootings

By Raymond R. Beltran

EMERALD HILLS — District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis found herself under fire from black and Latino groups this past Monday evening when she met with them to address community concerns about police officers’ use of deadly force.

Members of Coalition for Justice, mainly black, and El Grupo, a Latino human rights organization, gathered at the United Church of Christ in Emerald Hills, where they raised issues from police shootings to reforming procedures in the DA’s office.

During that meeting, Dumanis said that of 148 police involved shootings her office has investigated, only two have led to unjustifiable homicide charges. Although, both officers charged were acquitted, she said.

“Don’t you think these numbers are somewhat skewed?” asked Reggie Sibley, member of Coalition for Justice.

“Not if you look at the cases individually,” answered the district attorney, whose office handles these cases.

Preceding an open discussion, community groups allowed Dumanis to make a presentation about the DA’s role and their investigative process.

“We give an individual, factual evaluation … if there has been a fatal, officer involved shooting, or if it’s not fatal as well,” she said. “We don’t determine whether or not they used the best tactical strategy, or whether or not they used protocol.”

The DA’s task, Dumanis said, is to determine whether or not an “officer’s conduct is lawful” and “if the use of deadly force is reasonable under the circumstances.”

That is exactly what many concerned citizens who attended the meeting are questioning.

“We’re searching, as a community, [for someone] who we can get to take a look at this,” said Reverend Art Cribs of the Coalition for Justice. “I’m running into walls here.”

The shooting of 26 year old Jorge Ramirez was a specific example that was mentioned.

Two years ago, Ramirez was a robbery suspect in Vista who was running from officers when he was shot twenty two times by Deputy Mark Ritchie. He appeared to be reaching for his waste, claimed the deputy. The Latino community hollered excessive force, seeing as how the deputy had to reload his clip to continue firing at the suspect’s body.

Ramirez was one of three Latinos shot by North County deputies in one week in late July and early August of 2005. Sergio Garcia Vasquez, 32, and Jesus Eduardo Manzo, 23, were also gunned down by officers.

Dumanis, whose office investigated the incidents, found that the deputies’ actions were justified and reported that the suspects all had an extensive criminal history with methamphetamine in their systems at the time of the shootings.

Because all the suspects shot were Latinos, the groups say there’s a level of insensitivity involved in officers’ decisions to use deadly force and there needs to be a non-governmental agency to conduct investigations. Dumanis declined to sponsor the idea.

“In these shootings, we know all the victims were Latino, and the cops were white,” said Bill Flores of El Grupo, a North County organization. “If there’s an appearance of discrimination … in the use of deadly force on one specific ethnic group, wouldn’t that be illegal?”

If there are biased behaviors in the police department, it would be a matter for their department, Dumanis said.

The groups wrestled with the DA over their frustration because they feel the police “are doing their own refereeing” and that Penal Code 196 (which states “homicide is justifiable when committed by public officers or those acting by their command”) gives officers too much ground to stand on in fatal incidents.

What also struck a chord in concerned citizens is that, in such cases, the jury is not allowed to hear a review of police officers’ history of behavior, a luxury many would like to see extended to the victims of police shootings.

The black community present wanted to discuss the police shooting of San Diego Chargers Linebacker Steve Foley, but Dumanis made it clear she would not discuss the case in progress.

“I’m elected, so, you hold my feet to the fire, and if you don’t like what I’m doing, then you can elect somebody else,” she said.

For now, the groups, El Grupo and Coalition for Justice, say “the citizens have lost confidence in local law enforcement’s investigations into police involved shootings” in a recent press release. The groups say they have delivered thousands of signed postcards to California State Attorney General Jerry Brown to request his office take over such investigations.

Ultimately, Dumanis says the issue at hand is a lack of trust. “I don’t know how we can go about resolving that issue,” she said.

“Truth!” someone shouted from the crowd.

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