While sitting in a restaurant in Philadelphia’s Chinatown last week during my first visit here in more than a decade, I watched TV news reports of normally placid Anaheim, California engulfed in riots that exploded after that city’s police officers shot to death two young men over the weekend. It was shocking. The photos of riot-clad police tussling with and firing bean-bag rifles at protesters brought back bad memories of growing up in the Philly area in the 1960s and 1970s.
These days, Philadelphia is a surprisingly calm place, but back then, when tough-guy Mayor (and previously police commissioner) Frank Rizzo ruled the roost, there were frequent confrontations. The worst incident actually came after Rizzo left office when city cops in 1985 dropped a bomb on a row-house occupied by a black liberation group and killed 11 people, including five children. Those were dark times, but it seems as Philly has learned some lessons that have evaded California police forces.
While Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait is, thankfully, no Frank Rizzo, he tried his hand at tough-guy rhetoric at a press conference: “Vandalism, arson and other forms of violent protest will simply not be tolerated in our city. We don’t expect last night’s situation to be repeated but if it should be, the police response will be the same: swift and appropriate.”
Of course, we are all against violence, vandalism, and arson. Indeed, the mother of one of the victims poignantly called for calm. But it's ridiculous to argue that the police response was appropriate. Tait—who at least called for an FBI investigation of the police shootings that triggered the incident—has failed to live up to the promises he made when he took over as the city’s mayor. Tait promised to foster a culture of “kindness” in the city.
It’s no secret that Anaheim’s police culture echoes the old Los Angeles Police Department culture that values aggressiveness over community policing, and the city administration has shown no willingness to confront it. City police have shot six people so far this year, five of them fatally. But all shootings are not the same. Sunday’s shooting involved a man who was a known gang member who reportedly fired back at officers. But it was Saturday’s shooting of an unarmed man named Manuel Diaz that ultimately brought people to the streets.
Diaz, 25, reportedly ran from police, possibly from plainclothes officers. He was unarmed and, according to a lawsuit filed by family members and by witnesses quoted in the media, a policeman shot him near his buttocks and then another officer shot him in the head. Police reportedly left him on the ground dying without calling an ambulance. It’s not hard to understand the outrage, and then it’s even easier to see how angry people got after police responded as if they were occupying the Gaza Strip.
After police officers beat to death an unarmed homeless man in Fullerton last July, hundreds of people took to the streets in protest and there were no incidents. Officials there just left the protesters alone. In Anaheim, the police—bolstered by reinforcements by nearby agencies—cordoned off the streets, stood in riot gear, and even fired painful beanbags at the crowd, including at assembled journalists. Police blocked entry to the City Council meeting and such policies helped turn an angry protest into a riot.
I covered one police shooting in Anaheim in 2008 after a 20-year-old newlywed stepped outside his house with a wooden rod after hearing a ruckus nearby. Police had been chasing a robbery suspect, and when the young man came out of his house they shot him to death. Even Police Chief John Welter, still the Anaheim chief, said the man “was innocent of anything that the officer thought was going on in that neighborhood,” yet nothing apparently has changed since then.
While Anaheim has a deeper need to re-evaluate its policing policies than other cities, the police use-of-force problem is endemic throughout the country and especially California, where union priorities—i.e., what's best for officers, not the citizenry—have dominated policy decisions for decades.
Recent news reports show a significant increase in police-involved shootings in many areas of California. Police shootings account for one out of every 10 shooting deaths in Los Angeles County, according to a Los Angeles Times report. Videotapes of the encounters often show that the official version of the story is at odds with what really happened. No wonder police agencies spend so much time confiscating video cameras of bystanders, something that should bring a chill to every freedom-loving American of the left or right.
The state Supreme Court’s Copley Press v. San Diego decision in 2006 shrouds allegations of police misconduct in secrecy. The public can have access to complaints raised against doctors, lawyers and others, but in California the misbehavior of public employees who have the legal right to use deadly force are off limits to scrutiny. Because of an exemption in the public-records act, police agencies need not release most details of their reports of officer-involved shootings.
Furthermore, the Peace Officers Procedural Bill of Rights (POBOR) gives accused officers such strong protections that officers can rarely be disciplined or fired. The code of silence is alive and well in police agencies, which are allowed to operate in virtual secrecy. Most citizen-review panels are toothless. We should never condone violent protests, but it’s not hard to understand the frustration in central Anaheim. What if it were your child or your neighbor's child?
It’s time for a real discussion about how police should deal with the community and under what conditions they should use deadly force. It’s time to bring California in line with other states and open records to public oversight. If Mayor Tait is serious about creating a safer and kinder city, he will need to insist on this debate regardless of the expected pushback from the police unions and stop trying to channel Frank Rizzo.
Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.