‘Heroes’ View Us as Little More Than Collateral Damage

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Americans will rarely witness the kind of full-scale manhunt now going on throughout Southern California and the San Bernardino mountains as hundreds of heavily armed police and federal agents hunt down Christopher Dorner, a 33-year-old former Los Angeles cop and former Naval officer suspected of three murders.

Homicides are routine in Southern California, but this one is different. As Reuters reported, Dorner is “a fugitive former police officer accused of declaring war on law enforcement in an Internet manifesto.” He allegedly shot two officers in Riverside, killing one of them, and also allegedly murdered the daughter of the former police captain who unsuccessfully represented him in the disciplinary proceedings that led to his firing.

This isn’t about police protecting the public, but police protecting themselves. When one of “theirs” is threatened or killed, police act like invaders. And like any invading army, the public can expect collateral damage. While the national media focused on the basics of the manhunt, there have been too-few reports on the casualties of the ramped-up police presence.

“Emma Hernandez, 71, was delivering the Los Angeles Times with her daughter, Margie Carranza, 47, in the 19500 block of Redbeam Avenue in Torrance on Thursday morning when Los Angeles police detectives apparently mistook their pickup for that of Christopher Dorner, the 33-year-old fugitive suspected of killing three people and injuring two others,” according to a Los Angeles Times blog. “Hernandez, who attorney Glen T. Jonas said was shot twice in the back, was in stable condition late Thursday. Carranza received stitches on her finger.”

The quotation from Jonas was priceless: “The problem with the situation is it looked like the police had the goal of administering street justice and in so doing, didn’t take the time to notice that these two older, small Latina women don’t look like a large black man.”

According to reports, Dorner was driving a different color and different make of Japanese truck from Hernandez and Carranza, but whatever. If I were in Southern California this week, I’d keep the Toyota or Nissan truck in the garage given the number of police eager to mete out “street justice.” Police defenders will no doubt argue that this was a fluke, a case of a poorly trained cop overreacting (because he certainly believed his life to be in danger).

But apologists for police brutality will have a hard time with this case. As the Times blog also reported: “About 25 minutes after the shooting, Torrance police opened fire after spotting another truck similar to Dorner’s at Flagler Lane and Beryl Street.” Fortunately, no one was hurt at that one. If there were injuries, the cops would just shrug it off. The second shooting reminds us that this is how police will routinely behave. Police officials will then adamantly defend this behavior even in the federal court system.

For instance, a case that just recently headed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal highlights the disturbing attitude of police officials toward innocent bystanders. The following are details from plaintiffs, in their lawsuit against the city of Sacramento and two of its “finest”:

On April 10, 2009, California Highway Patrol officers stopped a Honda Civic for having illegal taillights. As the officers approached the car, the driver, Manual Prasad, drove away and eventually crashed his car into a wall and started running in a residential neighborhood. Sacramento city police were called and used their helicopter to pinpoint the fleeing man who climbed a tree in a backyard.

James Paul Garcia and six of his friends had the misfortune of being in the yard where Prassad was hiding out. Without any apparent warning and without checking to see if there were innocent bystanders, the officer released a police dog into the yard. Police dogs are trained to attack and hold suspects, but they are not trained to distinguish between suspects and bystanders.

So “Bandit” headed into the yard, spotted the first person he saw (Garcia) and did what vicious police dogs do to people: bit the heck out of him and held him at the ground, as its teeth punctured Garcia’s leg in several places.

The police and the city of Sacramento argue that this behavior did not violate Garcia’s rights and of course sought every type of immunity to delay the case and keep its officers from facing discipline. The city argued that giving an adequate warning could – let’s repeat it now in unison, given that this is the trump card police always use – “jeopardize officer safety.”

In Anaheim a few years ago, police were tracking a burglary suspect through a neighborhood. A young newlywed came out of his house with a wooden dowel to see what the ruckus was about. The officer shot the bystander to death, then handcuffed him as he lay dying. Police officers reportedly were angry at the chief for apologizing to the family.

That case epitomizes the “us vs. them” mentality common among our highly militarized police forces. I wasn’t surprised, then, when years later the Anaheim Police Department acted like an invading army after residents protested some deadly shootings by police (including, apparently, the shooting of an unarmed man in the back).

When police pursue suspects, it is official, acceptable policy for officers to do anything they need to do to protect their own safety, even if it endangers the public’s safety. My advice – if you see police anywhere near you, stay very far away. And hope they don’t mistake your car for a suspect’s car. In their view, we are only potential collateral damage.

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