The home front
Long before the Iraq prison scandal, mistreatment of inmates and arrestees was already a national shame.

By Steven T. Jones

PRESIDENT GEORGE W . Bush describes the U.S. military's abuse of Iraqi and Afghan prisoners as an unfortunate aberration, saying it's "not the America I know." But that's probably because this child of privilege has never been a prisoner, a protester, or a person of color. That's the America he doesn't know.

Many Americans who have found themselves on the wrong side of a cop's baton or a jailer's cell door recognize the cruelty and dehumanization depicted in those infamous images from Abu Ghraib prison. And since many of them have no videos or photos to show, their stories never make the evening news.

The examples are all around us, but two seem to illustrate the problem: the San Francisco Police Department's clash with the local community and the tale of an unsuccessful corrections reformer.

Cops, lies, and videotape

Whether we're talking about U.S. soldiers in Iraq or beat cops in San Francisco, most of the men and women who enforce the institutional will of the United States are probably good people just doing their jobs, with the "bad apples" whom Bush blames for the problems a fairly small percentage of the total force.

Yet in a barrel as big as the American police state, these apples can do a lot of damage, particularly when they're condoned or covered up by their commanders.

Since 1996 San Francisco has paid out nearly $15 million in claims and lawsuits against the SFPD, mostly for excessive force and unlawful arrests. That's an average of some 162 bad incidents and nearly $1.9 million a year.

Increasingly, technology is exposing official lies, as the photos and videos did in Abu Ghraib. There is, for example, videotape shot March 20, 2003 – when thousands of citizens poured onto the streets of San Francisco to protest the war on Iraq.

Officer Anthony Nelson claims he was trying to clear protesters from Market Street around 11 a.m. when he was charged by a screaming woman swinging a "solid wooden pole." "I feared the woman would strike me," he wrote in his report, so he delivered a single baton strike, causing her to retreat back into the crowd.

Yet the videotape shows a very different story. The woman, Linda Vaccarezza, held a flimsy poster board sign, which wasn't on a stick, in one hand and with her other hand pulled another protester back from the advancing police line. When Nelson reached the pair, he violently jabbed the man with the end of his long baton and then started wildly swinging this potentially deadly weapon, reaching way back over his head.

His second swing caught Vaccarezza's left forearm, breaking it so badly that doctors would later have to insert a steel rod. Luckily, his third swing missed the protesters because Nelson swung so hard that he dropped the baton. Although his supervisors signed off on the report, the video later allowed the Office of Citizen Complaints to file charges against him of using unnecessary force and writing an inaccurate report. Nelson couldn't be reached for comment, and his San Francisco Police Officers Association representative didn't return calls.

During first-anniversary protests this year, when police again beat several protesters they say charged them, videotapes again showed many officers using unnecessary force. During an April 19 hearing by the Board of Supervisors' City Services Committee on the issue, board president Matt Gonzalez told assistant chief Greg Suhr that he had believed the police version until seeing the videos.

"As I started to see the footage, I thought, 'We're still not there yet,' " Gonzalez said.

Vaccarezza's lawyers say their case is about more than a bad apple; it's about a culture that accepts excesses in Bush's "war on terrorism."

"After 9-11, to object to U.S. policies suddenly wasn't the right thing to do," attorney Leslie Levy said. "It put you in the same group as the terrorists."

Antiwar protester Mary Bull understands that better than most. When she was arrested during the buildup to war for dumping fake blood outside the Chevron offices, she was put through the city jail's dehumanizing strip searches, like thousands of others for whom Bull has filed a federal class action lawsuit.

"I got thrown naked into a tiny room with bright lights, and they banged on the door every 15 minutes for 24 hours. It was torture," Bull said. "This was standard, and it's just sick."

After a San Francisco Chronicle series focusing on the jail's regular and illegal practice of strip-searching inmates ran last year, some changes were made, but Bull said this and other inhumane practices in jails across the country illustrate the need for fundamental, systemic changes.

"It's really a part of the fabric of the American criminal justice system," Bull said. "What happened in Iraq happens here. People need to realize that there is an underclass in this country that suffers this same kind of institutional violence."

The Bay Guardian has documented a litany of unaddressed excesses of the SFPD, from covering up officer violence (see "Inside the Scandal," 3/5/03) to framing people for murder (see "Innocent!," 9/3/03) to resisting openness and oversight (see "No Restraint," 5/5/04). And once you've unearthed official lies – whether by a former SFPD chief or this country's commander in chief – institutional credibility suffers.

That's why so many people just don't believe the official version of how the police shot Cammerin Boyd (see "Cops vs. Community," 5/12/04).

Bullet in the hip

The April 27 shooting of Bayview resident Robert Edwards has received less publicity than the Boyd case, but it raises many of the same issues.

Police say they pulled Edwards over on Sunnydale Avenue "because they recognized the driver as a person of interest." One of two unidentified uniformed officers opened the passenger door, "whereupon the driver threw the car into reverse, catching the officer between the door and the vehicle, dragging him. While being dragged, the officer fired at the suspect," according to an official incident report.

This narrative was already strange and hard to picture. How far could he have backed up with a police car behind him? How did an officer being dragged get off a shot, and how did the injured Edwards then put it in drive and get away? Police didn't return calls, and Edwards is now wanted on charges of hit-and-run and assaulting a police officer.

"It's just lies. All of it is lies," Edwards, who is still a fugitive, told us. "But their lies don't add up."

Edwards tells a story that is at least as easy to believe. His cousin, Daryle Robinson, had been shot a week earlier in an incident of gang violence, and a gang member had then shot and injured Edwards out of concern he would go to the police. So the police wanted to speak with Edwards as a witness to these crimes.

But when two officers approached his car as he was leaving for his cousin's funeral, he was afraid to be seen talking to them. Edwards said he asked if he was under arrest, and when he was told no, he drove away (forward, he said, never in reverse). And that's when he said one officer fired the bullet that's still implanted in his hip.

"I just wanted to get to my cousin's funeral," Edwards said. "Even if I was wrong for leaving, you don't shoot me."

At this point, Edwards wants to clear his name and turn himself in once his wounds heal a little more, but he says he's afraid of the police.

"They told my family that if they see me first, they're going to shoot to kill," he said.

With that sort of fear in the community, it's no surprise police are having a hard time finding cooperative witnesses to the 38 homicides so far this year, in only three of which there have been arrests.

Fallen prophet

Videotape that emerged earlier this year of California Youth Authority guards severely beating young wards wasn't enough to convince Attorney General Bill Lockyer to file charges, even though evidence of systemic abuse in CYA is legion, just as it is in the adult prison system.

All of this saddens John Lum, who has worked in corrections for almost 30 years, first back east in North Carolina, Massachusetts, Maryland, and New York, before coming to California in 1989 to help reform Santa Clara County's notoriously abusive jails.

"We have known for decades what was going on, and the government refuses to deal with it," Lum told us. "It's beyond a systemic problem now; it's part of the culture. It's the culture that sends a message that it's OK to do this."

Lum's mission has always been to put the humanity and rehabilitation back into the corrections system, replacing the kind of sadistic guard mentality that cropped up in Iraq.

In 1999, while serving as probation director in San Luis Obispo County, he became the first probation chief in the state to refuse to send county wards into the CYA system after reading media reports and hearing firsthand accounts of widespread abuse in the system. For that stand, he was eventually forced out by a law-and-order Board of Supervisors.

Lum was hired by Sen. Richard Polanco to work on prison reform issues in Sacramento but found himself repeatedly bumping up against powerful institutional forces that, emboldened by the "tough on crime" political wave of the 1990s and the financial clout of the prison guards' union, blocked every real effort to reform the corrections system. And with Polanco forced out by term limits, Lum finds himself without a job.

"I don't have any faith in the system anymore," Lum said. "Where's the outrage?"

Instead of outrage, he sees only the view now widely held by Americans that bad people deserve whatever they get, whether it be rape, brutality, or humiliation. And when that message is reinforced by people at the top – wardens, generals, police chiefs, or the president – it gets internalized by those who deal with prisoners and protesters.

"Even if they kill some of our people, they are still human beings," Lum said. "When we treat people like crap in our jails and prisons, and they eventually get out, how are they going to behave?"

E-mail Steven T. Jones at steve@sfbg.com.


May 19, 2004