The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights is a strategy center for documenting and exposing human rights violations in the United States—particularly those perpetuated by law enforcement. A project of the Center, Bay Area Police Watch has a hotline that opened in 1995 here in the San Francisco Bay area and in 1998 in New York City where people can call and report abuses. We designed a computer database, the first of its kind in the country, that allows us to track problem officers, problem precincts, problem practices, so at the click of a mouse we can now identify trouble spots and troublemakers. This has given us a tremendous advantage in trying to understand the scope and scale of the problem. Now, obviously, just because somebody calls and says, “Officer so-and-so did something to me,” doesn’t mean it actually happened, but if you get two, four, six phone calls about the same officer, then you begin to see a pattern. It gives you a chance to try and take affirmative steps.
We also try to expose abuse by doing a lot of public education. This is something we’ve really pioneered. Sometimes when people who suffered abuse at the hands of the police tried to engage the mainstream media, they would do it in a way that made them seem shrill, alarmist, or racially divisive. Instead, we thought it was important to interact intelligently with the media in a way that let them know that we were credible and interested in moving this issue forward in a responsible way.
Look, we get ten phone calls a day here from survivors of police misconduct and violence. Some of it is, “Officer so-and-so called me a boogerhead,” or something minor like that, but it also goes as far as wrongful death. We see the full gamut here. We try to spend half an hour to an hour with every person who calls. We have people who call because their children have come home with a broken arm or broken jaw or their teeth shattered or because the child has been held in jail for four or five days with no charges. What we do when people call is that we let them tell their story and then we write the story into the computer. We don’t try to rush them.
Then we tell them about their rights and their remedies. We tell them if you want to file a complaint with this officer in this municipality, here’s the number you call, here’s how to get the form to fill out, here’s the process. We tell them if you want to bring a lawsuit or file a claim of some sort for money damages, here’s what that process looks like.
If a caller has evidence of police brutality, then we have a couple dozen cooperating attorneys that we refer those cases to. Those attorneys rely on us to screen to a certain extent—to ask enough questions about the incidents so that if somebody calls and says, “Police Watch told me to call,” then they can be relatively confident that there’s at least something to work with here.
We started out in January 1995 at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. Even though police issues were not a part of their docket (they usually focus on employment, discrimination, and other issues), they saw a need.
That need became clear, after we had been doing this project for a while, in the Aaron Williams case. This was the African- American man who died in police custody. We had a really close relationship to the process. Sometimes you have to have a certain amount of professional distance, but this case was not like that at all. Here the family and Police Watch volunteers merged efforts and spent those two years literally arm-in-arm. We went through three separate disciplinary hearings for the same officer on the same case within eight months, and we lost the first two times and we finally won in 1997. I’ll never forget the look on the officer’s face. It had gone beyond Aaron. This case became a question of not letting the authorities get away with this level of wholesale disrespect and disregard for human life and for the rule of law. Community witnesses, several dozen of them, all said that after Aaron was down on the ground and handcuffed, the policeman was kicking him in the head with cowboy boots, and that he was identifiable because he was the only officer in plainclothes.
Aaron had been sprayed in the face with pepper-spray, which is not a gas, like mace—it’s a resin. The resin sticks to your skin and it burns and it continues to burn until it’s washed off. The police never washed the resin off Aaron. And so this guy is beaten, he’s kicked, he’s stomped, he’s pepper-sprayed, gagged (because they didn’t want him bleeding on them), and then left in a cell. Well, that’s the sort of stuff you expect in Guatemala, but it happened just fifteen or twenty minutes from here.
All of this was illegal and inhumane and yet it was going to be sloughed under the rug. This case was definitely a turning point in my life. I knew what kind of officer this was; I knew what the family was going through and I just made a commitment inside myself that I was not going to walk away. . Win or lose, this family was not going to fight by itself. Every resource that I had, every bit of creativity that I had, all of the training in criminal law and community organizing that I had, I was going to put to work until we got justice.
As a result, I began to get threats. “Who do you think is protecting you?” or if something were to happen to you, talking about “People like you don’t deserve to live”; “People like you don’t deserve to be in this city.” It just went on and on.
But 99 percent of the cases don’t end as dramatically as Williams’s. We have this one African-American father who bought a sports car for his son. On the boy’s sixteenth birthday, he was driving him home in this new sports car and the police pulled him over—two black guys in a sports car. Now they put them on the hood of the car, they frisked them, they went all through the car. There was no physical violence but the guy wound up with a severe emotional and nervous breakdown. Small business went under. He just couldn’t recover from it because he was so humiliated in front of his son.
My point is that this sort of stuff just shouldn’t be happening. It doesn’t make our world any safer, doesn’t make law enforcement’s job any easier. It increases the level of resentment against law enforcement. And it’s plain just wrong.
Originally appeared in Speak Truth To Power: Human Rights Defenders Who Are Changing Our World by Kerry Kennedy.