The U.S. Police in the World Spotlight

Editor’s Note: The second article on issues of police violence and militarization

Largely downplayed in the national political discourse, police violence and militarization is nevertheless reemerging as a major issue of the day. And it is one that is drawing notice abroad.

Last week, it was the turn of the border city of El Paso, Texas, to be in the international spotlight when a jailhouse video was released that showed the March 2013 shooting of Daniel Saenz by El Paso police officer Jose Flores. Saenz, who was a powerful bodybuilder, was handcuffed on the ground and struggling with a pair of officers when a single bullet from Flores’ gun ended the prisoner’s life.

The video went “viral” on the Internet, registering hundreds of thousands of hits and getting an airing on the “Young Turks” show. Saenz had been transported from a local medical center, where he assaulted two people while he was hospitalized for high blood pressure, but reportedly was on his way back to the hospital after he head-butted a jail door.

According to a lawyer for the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT), the group which represents Flores, the shooting was an accident. Reportedly, Saenz had been tasered multiple times before he was shot.

According to local media, the El Paso County Medical Examiner found evidence of designer drug bath salts, steroids and the DMAA supplement in Saenz’s system.

An El Paso grand jury declined to indict Flores earlier this year, but the officer remains on paid administrative leave pending an internal investigation by the El Paso Police Department, according to CLEAT Attorney Jim Jopling and local police sources.

Some El Paso human rights advocates said Saenz’s death deserved answers and actions.

The Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project’s Jed Untereker said the video “only raises disturbing questions” about the local police department and the officers involved in the deadly encounter. “We do not see any reason why a gun should have been pulled and a finger placed on the trigger,” Unterrecker was quoted in the local media.

Jose Manuel Escobedo, policy director for the Border Network for Human Rights, called for an independent oversight body to monitor El Paso’s police department. The commission should be made up of individuals representing religious, academic, business, civil society and law enforcement sectors,” Escobedo said.

“We propose something similar with the Border Patrol,” he added.

In California, meanwhile, protests over officer-involved shootings,  many of them involving Latino and immigrant communities, continue to boil up and down the Golden State.

Half Moon Bay, a small coastal town south of San Francisco best known for its annual pumpkin harvest, became the latest scene of protest June 3 when San Mateo County Sheriff’s Deputy Menh Trieu shot to death an 18-year-old woman, Yanira Serrano Garcia.

According to media reports, Serrano, who was known to the Sheriff’s office because of earlier calls to 911, was in the throes of a mental health crisis and allegedly wielding a knife when she was shot by Trieu outside the Moonridge housing complex, which is situated in an unincorporated section of the county just outside the Half Moon Bay city limits.

Vigils and protests followed the fatal shooting, with some residents chanting slogans in both Spanish and English.

Due to the close proximity of Moonridge to Half Moon Bay, Serrano’s family members and their supporters turned out to city council meetings. The residents demanded a transparent investigation, the formation of a task force to study the availability of social services in Moonridge and a city council declaration of June 3 as Yanira Serrano Memorial Day.

Addressing a city council meeting, Half Moon Bay clinical social worker Belinda Hernandez Arriaga contended that coastal communities were marginalized from mental health services that are available elsewhere in the affluent county and which could have prevented the tragedy of June 3.

“Today it’s Yanira. Tomorrow it might be one of your relatives or one of our relatives,” Hernandez warned.

The San Mateo County District Attorney is expected to have its investigation of Yanira Serrano’s death completed by early August.

The Brown Berets Autonomous Chapter of Santa Rosa released a statement in response to the Serrano shooting, which said in part: “The epidemic of police killings in California, largely directed at the mentally challenged and people of color, is a rapidly growing cancer that must be eliminated before it continues to (evolve) and kill more innocent victims.”

Alex M. Salazar, a Los Angeles-based civil rights investigator, blamed deadly police shootings nationwide on several factors, including the militarization of police forces and cases of PTSD suffered by officers.
Returning veterans from Iraq and other foreign wars who find jobs with civilian police departments sometimes remain in a war mode, he told FNS.

A U.S. Air Force veteran who later worked as a Los Angeles policeman from 1989 to 1998, Salazar attended a June 21 rally in Albuquerque convened to protest police shootings and other abuses.  “The federal government needs to get involved,” Salazar said. “It’s a very serious matter.”

Legendary Chicano/Mexicano activist and attorney Kiko Martinez also attended the New Mexico protest, delivering a speech that gave a historical context to contemporary movements against alleged police abuses springing up across the United States.

Martinez spent eight years as a fugitive during the 1970s after he was accused of mailing pipe bombs, but later went free after the charges were dismissed. Despite his innocence, the Colorado activist was placed on the Bush administration’s “no-fly” list that was developed after the 9-11 attacks.

According to Martinez, the trend toward police militarization picked up when the Nixon Administration “threw a lot of money at the police forces” during  the early 1970s, a time when there was a “big contrived uproar of crime out of control” and the government was out to destroy “oppressed nations” and the organizations that had risen up to challenge the status quo, including the American Indian Movement, the Black Panther Party, the Black Berets and the Brown Berets.

More recently, Washington has given surplus military equipment from today’s wars to police departments, Martinez said. “There’s a war abroad and a war at home,” he contended.  The longtime activist urged the Albuquerque movement to press its struggle. “You have the nation’s attention. You have the world’s attention,” he said. “Keep focused on police violence.”

On a similar note, the American Civil Liberties Union has released a new report, “War Comes Home,” on police militarization and the widening use of SWAT teams.

“Our neighborhoods are not warzones, and police officers should not be treating us like wartime enemies,” the report states. “And yet, every year billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment flows from the federal government to state and local police departments. Departments use these wartime weapons in everyday policing, especially to fight the wasteful and failed drug war, which has unfairly targeted people of color…”

The ACLU report was the subject of a June 24 story in the British Guardian newspaper.

“The findings set up a striking and troubling paradox,” author Ed Pilkington wrote. “The Obama Administration is completing its withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the US is on the verge of being free from war for the first time in more than a decade; yet at the same time the hardware and tactics of the war zone are quickly proliferating at home.”

Routinely, the U.S. Department of Defense makes military equipment available to domestic police forces under its 1033 program, the Guardian noted.

In his Albuquerque speech, Kiko Martinez touched on the COINTELPRO era of J.Edgar Hoover’s FBI, which spied on, infiltrated and disrupted organizations deemed contrary to state interests.  Frequently, COINTELPRO was put into operation in coordination with local and state police forces.

Fast forward to 2014, and Albuquerque activists got a taste of COINTELPRO-like police spying when several undercover APD officers were watching and filming the June 21 protest rally at Roosevelt Park.

Immediately prior to the rally, uniformed officers both in cars and on bicycles were visible the march route taken by protesters.

Albuquerque Police Department (APD) Chief Gorden Eden later admitted to the media that the surveillance did occur, but held it was done to protect the safety of the public and activists, especially because of previous protests in which an assault rifle was spotted, property was damaged and the interstate shut down.

Eden suggested the undercover surveillance was standard operating procedure, when he said in a statement to Albuquerque media outlet KOB that “officers at such events are normally assigned to watch for criminal behavior….regardless of the topic or nature of the event.”

“This community has a First Amendment right to peacefully assemble,” said anti-police violence organizer Sayrah Namaste. “Since the event was completely peaceful and no one broke any laws, there is simply no justification for this behavior.”

The New Mexico branch of the ACLU agreed with Namaste, announcing it had filed a public records request this week for any APD surveillance data from the June 21 demonstration.

In a press release, the New Mexico civil liberties group noted that APD had a long history of engaging in political spying, including during the 1980s when the police department burned evidence despite a court order requiring the preservation of 1362 police files, and later in 2003, when it spied on opponents of the Iraq war.

Another New Mexico activist, Larissa Lewis, is ready to take the issue of  local law enforcement to the world stage. On June 21, Lewis came to the Albuquerque rally with a poster board full of pictures of her murdered son, Kerry Lewis.  According to the mother, the 21-year-old was shot to death by one or more killers in Albuquerque in July 2009.

In interviews, Lewis described serious irregularities that accompanied the handling of Kerry’s body as well as the police investigation. Although one man, Luis Martinez, is facing trial for the murder, Lewis said others involved in the crime, including possible police informants, have avoided proper punishment.

Frustrated by her treatment by medical and law enforcement officials, Lewis said she picketed Santa Fe during the Richardson administration, demonstrated at the University of New Mexico, and variously visited the U.S. Attorney for the District of New Mexico, the Bernalillo County District Attorney and the FBI.

“I’ve spent years gong to the FBI,” Lewis said. “They say, ‘We know (APD) is corrupt. Why don’t you get a lawyer?’”

The title “Victim of Corruption” was emblazoned across Lewis’ poster. Now, like one of the mothers of murder or kidnapping victims from Ciudad Juarez or Chihuahua City on the Camino Real south of Albuquerque, Lewis is considering airing her grievances with a local justice system to an outside audience.

“I have to go international,” she said, naming the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) as the likely forum.

Fellow activist Dinah Vargas said taking the local police violence issue to the UN hasn’t been specifically discussed by the larger coalition but the concept  is an intriguing one,  especially given the slowness in the reform process and additional fatal officer involved shootings even in the wake of the U.S. Department of Justice’s critical April 2014 report on APD use of force policies.

“I think it would be interesting if we could do it,” Vargas said. “I mean the DOJ is here, so who do we go to?”

The New Mexicans might well get a receptive ear at the UN. Last March, the UNHRC meeting in Geneva delivered a report sharply critical of the United States, concluding that this country had committed 25 violations of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, including racial profiling, police violence and NSA mass surveillance.

“Young Turks” segment on the Daniel Saenz shooting:

Spanish language video of the Daniel Saenz shooting:

ACLU report on police militarization:

Additional sources:, June 25, 2014. Article by Elizabeth Reed. The, June 24, 2014. Article by Ed Pilkington. El Diario de El Paso, June 19, 2014. Article by Diego Murcia. El Paso Times, June 19, 2014. Article by Daniel Borunda., June 19, 2014. Half Moon Bay Review, June 18, 2014. Article by Mark Noack., June 17, 2014., June 16, 2014. Article by Alex Darocy. Northbaycopwatch., June 13, 2014. Truthout,org., April 4, 2014. Adam Hudson

Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico

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