The legal system in our country provides that criminal defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty- that presumption is even stronger if that criminal defendant is a police officer accused of excessive force. When a citizen is beaten by a police officer, the focus shifts from what the suspect/ officer did to what that victim did to the officer. Who the victim is and his or her standing in the community clearly plays a large part in whether or not the officer is criminally charged. It should not be the case, but let’s face it: “Justice” could not be more “UN-blind” than when police officers are accused of excessive force on citizens of color.
On October 16, 2014, 22 year-old Clinton Alford was riding his bike while Black in South Los Angeles when an undercover LAPD detective abruptly started to chase him. Unaware that the plain clothed detective was a police officer and like many other youths and adults, he was unaware that there is a belief in courtroom settings that “flight” (aka running from the police) could be evidence of “consciousness of guilt”. When other uniformed officers joined the chase it became obvious that the plain clothed person was a police detective. Detective Razo would later testify that he mistook Mr. Alford for a robbery suspect. This detective’s mistake caused Mr. Alford to run for his life near 54th and Avalon Avenues. Mr. Alford surrendered shortly thereafter, but there would still be pain.
Video surveillance footage captured 250 lb. LAPD Officer Richard Garcia violently kick Clinton in the head while he laid restrained and facedown on the pavement. Garcia continued to administer elbow blows and punches to Mr. Alford’s face and head area while other officers looked on. LAPD Officer Joshua Tornek, son of Pasadena Mayor Terry Tornek, stood on top of Clinton Alford’s feet and ankles during the attack.
After beating the restrained and non-combative youth, Officer Richard Garcia punctuated the violent beating with one of the vilest gestures available – he spat on him!
Had the roles been reversed, and Mr. Alford the aggressor, he would have most certainly been prosecuted for attempted murder on an officer and jail time would have been required if he were not killed during the act. Officer Garcia was not even forced to go to the jail for fingerprints and booking photos, he was given the courtesy of having the booking process handled at the courthouse instead of jail- how’s that for star treatment? Unlike other violent felonies, the victim, Clinton Alford was not allowed to have input about the sweetheart plea arrangement struck between Garcia’s attorney and the District Attorneys office, he was merely told the terms of the deal: Garcia would plea to a felony in May, 2016 and sentencing would be suspended until May, 2017. Upon completion of community service and a $500.00 fine, Officer Garcia could have the felony withdrawn and a misdemeanor entered instead.
In December 2016, L.A. District Attorney Jackie Lacey told the Los Angeles Sentinel that, “In advocating elimination of bias training,” she “wants to guard against actual or perceived observations that racial or ethnic bias plays in the prosecution of cases in Los Angeles County.” Some of the Deputy D.A.’s must have missed that memo. On May 23, 2017, Dep. Dist. Atty. Oscar Plascencia told a local reporter that “prosecutors considered the victim’s own criminal case” — which includes completely unrelated charges — “when weighing how to resolve the assault charge against Garcia.” UN-blind justice struck again in Los Angeles County and as far too commonplace when it strikes it involves a seriously injured or DEAD member of the Black or Brown community. We are rarely, if ever, faced with our White brothers and sisters protesting or blocking freeways because they did not get justice after a Black cop killed or beat up Caucasian kid or White homeless grandmother as in the Marlene Pinnock freeway beating case.
Cases of excessive force on people of color in Los Angeles County have not necessarily increased in recent years, but have been spotlighted through public postings of cellular phone and surveillance camera footage. Blue on Black crime has not changed but the explanations and justifications for the Use of Force has evolved from the simple “deny everything, admit nothing, and demand proof” days of ole from the law enforcement community to the “don’t belief the video footage you see with your own eyes, believe what I am telling you because the video doesn’t tell the whole story”. Interesting how the video never seems to tell the “whole story” when it’s used from the citizens’ perspective.
When Clinton Alford and his girlfriend arrived in my office in the early evening hours of October 24, 2015, my initial impression of him was that he was a very soft-spoken, clean-cut young man …with an incredible story- possibly too incredible? Surely, a uniformed officer would not be stupid enough to kick him in the head in front of other officers in broad daylight and then pummel him with a barrage of punches and elbow blows while he was restrained. Clinton Alford’s description of events was quite remarkable, matched only by the actual color video completely corroborating it.
Surely these officers realize that they are just a “Send” button click away from being caught and put on social media, so why take the risk?
Well, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office has failed to charge officers for the use of excessive force in nearly every case. Most notably, the Ezell Ford shooting, the officers there were not prosecuted; in the CHP beating case, homeless grandmother Marlene Pinnock was beaten “for her own safety” D.A. Lacey later reasoned; in the Brendon Glenn case, Chief Charlie Beck urged the D.A. to charge Officer Clifford Proctor for shooting the unarmed man- to date, no criminal charges; and in the case of young Kendrec McDade who was shot 8 times including shots to the back in Pasadena the then newly elected D.A. did what some would call a very cursory investigation before ruling the teen’s killing was “justified”. Pasadena P.D.’s independent investigator, Michael Gennaco has since slammed the officers’ handling of the call and the subsequent investigation.
The only was to truly balance the scales of justice is to relieve the elected official of this responsibility and place it in the hands of independent counsel.
Caree Harper is a Civil Rights and criminal defense attorney in Los Angeles and can be reached at: (213) 386-5078 Twitter @attycareeharper.