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Black Lives Matter; Witnessing the Arrest of a Black Man

I stand with Black Lives Matter in protesting the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and so many others by law enforcement and vigilantes.

The issues with police in the United States are numerous. I encourage you to read about police brutality and racism (such as the history of slave patrols, an early form of policing). This post is about police transparency, in particular my experience witnessing the arrest of a black man.

The Arrest

On the morning of July 23, 2019, I was taking BART with a friend, and we got off at Embarcadero Station in San Francisco. We were both going to work. As we went up the stairs from the platform, we heard a commotion: a man was shouting and sounded like he was in pain.

We went towards the commotion and saw a black man face down on the floor, with a group of policemen detaining him. He was handcuffed, with multiple police officers holding him down. He was crying out in pain, and specifically asking the police to loosen the left handcuff.

Another bystander, a black woman, had gotten her phone out and was recording. My phone was off and I didn’t think to turn it on at the time.

The man on the ground asked why he was being arrested, and one the police officers said “you were resisting arrest”. He, like the rest of us bystanders, was baffled by this response, and continued asking and expressing frustration, but was never given a reason.

He was eventually forced to stand, and was taken to an unmarked metal door in the BART station which the police (some municipal, some BART) opened, and took him behind.

I asked why the police were detaining him, and they said “none of your business”. The police shut the door and I could no longer see the man. The closed, unmarked metal door stays in my memory as a symbol of the lack of police transparency and the authority wielded by police.

I continued asking police officers what had happened, and nobody would tell me; they said things like “we wear body cameras” and “there’s a public arrest log in Oakland” but did not take my concern seriously, and would not offer any meaningful information or help me follow up.

The Follow Up

My friend and left the station and called 311; they gave me the phone number and email of a Maureen in public relations. We made a voice recording of what we had witnessed, and tried calling the phone number they gave us. The phone line was busy, so I sent an email describing the event and asking for justification of the police activity.

Maureen emailed back later that day, stating they now worked for the fire department, and I was given a phone number and 2 police department emails: [email protected] and [email protected] I resent my email request to each of those.

Southern Station told me to contact [email protected], which I emailed, but I never got a response.

[email protected] said the area was not SFPD jurisdiction, and gave a BART phone number.

A couple days later, I noticed an ad on BART for the Office of the Independent Police Auditor (OIPA), and I sent my request to them.

They were fortunately more responsive. A few days later, they gave me a call and asked for details of what I’d witnessed. They also sent me a case number, and thanked me for my level of concern and interest.

A couple weeks after that, OIPA called to give me some information about the case: the arrested individual was stopped for fare evasion and apparently gave information to the officers’ questions about his name and birthdate that was deemed not correct. The police then subdued, handcuffed and arrested him.

Reflections

The police didn’t want to provide any information about the case, and were dismissive of my requests at the scene of the incident and over email.

Some things I wish had done:

I’m grateful for the Office of the Independent Police Auditor, which was established in 2010 following the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant, but I wish there had been more transparency into the case. For all I know, the man is still being detained.

I emailed the OIPA just now, about a year later. Hopefully they can confirm that the arrested man was not further abused by the justice system, like Kalief Browder was. I left a voicemail at the BART phone number as well. I’ll update this post if I hear back.

[Update] OIPA Responded

I got a call from OIPA who told me that upon being moved to the room, the man was cited and released. They confirmed that the incident was reviewed and was not found to be in violation of policy. They also reminded me that they had emailed me a pdf report that said the police were justified in their actions.

They gave me the link sign up for the arrest log at https://www.bart.gov/news/alerts; after clicking “Sign up now”, on the third step, “Select subscription topics”, Bart Police Daily Log is in the “Other” section. Of course, seeing as the day’s events happened months ago, signing up for the logs now isn’t much help. Another developer signed up for the email logs implemented https://bartcrimes.com, which aggregates the email list. Looking at the date in question, https://www.bartcrimes.com/date/2019-07-23/, I don’t see a report, probably because the man was only cited.

Holding Police Accountable

In the case of Martin Gugino, who was pushed over by Buffalo police and left bleeding on the ground, police said he “tripped and fell”.

In the fatal shooting of Walter Scott, the police officer who shot Scott claimed that Scott grabbed his Taser, and that he feared for his life. A bystander captured the incident on video, showing Scott was running away when he was shot, with no taser; after shooting, the police officer puts an object, possible his Taser, next to Scott’s body.

Another harrowing case is that of a Baltimore police officer planting evidence at the scene of a drug arrest. The video was caught by his body camera, which keeps a 30-second buffer of footage before it starts recording. Surprisingly, in Maryland, where this happened, fabricating evidence and misconduct in office are only misdemeanors.

Each of these incidents was captured on video, and I’m sure there are many others that were not recorded.

If we move to abolish the police, something will take its place. I hope that public records and independent oversight are expanded, not diminished, as we move forward. We need it.