The Consortium

Who's Watching the Police?: One Town's Tale

By Dennis Bernstein and Julie Light

Two years ago, Tina McCormick moved her family from a tough urban neighborhood north of Oakland, California, to the well-manicured bedroom community of Fairfield about 40 miles northeast, along Interstate 80 in suburban Solano County. Her goal was to protect her four children from gang violence.

Instead, McCormick believes she put them in the path of a police department that is running wild. "Here they use dogs and batons against the children," complained McCormick. "All that's missing are the hoses. It's like walking back into the 1950's. Martin Luther King missed this town."

But McCormick, who is black, is finding common cause with some whites who agree that law and order in this fast-growing town of about 87,000 has gone too far. Dan Parkinson, a local contractor and longtime resident, calls himself a "conservative, white, Mormon Reaganite who also voted for Bush and Dole." But Parkinson echoed McCormick's alarm about the Fairfield police.

"It's not just racism," Parkinson told The Consortium. "They're out of control period, particularly [when dealing] with unstable and emotionally disturbed people. It's like somebody's given them [the police] a little power, and they've gone nuts."

Parkinson is bringing a suit against the Fairfield police on behalf of his brother, James, 25, who suffered a psychotic episode last June. James died when the police subdued him with electric shocks from a remote-control taser gun and repeatedly doused him with pepper-spray.

"If they treated animals they way they treated my brother, these cops would be facing charges on felony animal abuse," Parkinson complained.

Fairfield authorities staunchly defend the actions of the town's police. "I'm not aware of any complaints of excessive force that have been sustained," said Fairfield police chief Doug Milender.

But citizen complaints in Fairfield have an echo across the country, as police operate with greater aggressiveness against perceived dangers, especially from youth-related crime. The complaints seem loudest in cities and towns where citizen oversight of the police has given way to public fears about maintaining public order at nearly any cost. Minority communities may be the hardest hit, but the prevalence of police stationed inside schools and the heightened fire-power from special weapons squads sometimes escalate simple discipline cases into violent confrontations. McCormick and Parkinson contend that the police in quiet Fairfield, California, are a case in point.

McCormick filed her first formal a complaint against the Fairfield police on Aug. 28, 1996. "I just had to do something to stop them from hurting our children," she said. The complaint alleged that one of her sons and three friends, all African-American, were roughed up and then pinned down at gun point by Fairfield police in broad daylight, for no reason as the boys were heading to a local park to play baseball.

"They taunted us and called us niggers, and said we couldn't read," said Richard McCormick Jr., 17.

At first, Richard McCormick Sr., an electronic technician, didn't believe his sons when they complained of police harassment. He had raised them to be law abiding and respect police authority. "Maybe it's because of the way you wear your clothes," the father told the boys. "Why don't you pull your pants up a little more."

But when his sons had police guns drawn on them and when Richard Jr. later was beaten by police, Mr. McCormick felt betrayed. "My police department let me down as a father," he said,

Pizza Clash

In February, at a raucous Fairfield city council meeting, a dozen young people testified that the police attacked them at Round Table pizza where they had gone to celebrate after a football game. The young people said the police beat them, set dogs on them and called them various racial epithets.

"We can't even go to have pizza after a football game without being chased by police dogs," fumed 15-year-old Shanandra Rhone. "We are human beings being treated in an inhumane way."

During the pizza incident, Richard McCormick Jr. said police slammed him on the hood of a squad car and handcuffed him so tightly blood was running down his arm. He was arrested along with his younger brother Robert, 15, and a 16-year-old cousin. Once arrested, they were told that if they talked to each other they would be maced.

"One of the officers told me I wasn't worth reading my rights to," said Richard, "and he (the officer) told us he'd fucking kill us. That's a direct quote."

At the station, Richard said the same officer choked him and rammed his head into a wall while other officers laughed. At one point during the interrogation, he said the officer grabbed him and threw him up against the wall. "Listen, boy, you don't know how we run this town," Richard quoted the officer as saying. "In this town a whole lot of accidents happen in these cells." Richard was ultimately charged with loitering.

Fairfield Mayor Chuck Hammond, the one African -American member on the city council, said he stands by his "excellent" police department and police chief. "I have no evidence that any of this is true," declared Hammond. "I I've been here 20 years and on the city council for 12 of them, and I've never heard any of these type of charges before about a month ago [January]. "

But Tina McCormick disputed the mayor's claim. "I told everybody in town including him, and the city attorney, Betsy Strauss, when I filed my complaint against the police" on Aug. 28. "You could ride up and down the street ... and stop people at random [and they would have stories of police abuse]. That's how bad it is."

Parkinson said there have been at least three deaths of mentally disturbed people while in police custody in the past 24 months, and two were white. Parkinson noted, too, that his brother's death while in police custody dated back to the middle of last year. "I'm not going to call him [the mayor] a liar," said Parkinson. "But my brother was killed last June in a very high profile incident."

Mayor Hammond conceded that he did know about the Parkinson case, but said he could not comment because it was in litigation. The mayor added that he had ordered the police chief to investigate that case, but will "stand by the department ... until there's any reason not to."

Deadly Force

Christina Roberts's 25-year-old brother, Harry Kretsch was shot by police on Nov. 4, 1995, when the family called for help when Kretsch was suffering a schizophrenic episode. "The officers just swarmed the yard," Roberts said, recalling the 10 or 11 squad cars that responded. "They came from everywhere."

The police called Kretsch to the door, and when he refused to drop the knife he was holding, three officers shot him nine times. "It just happened so fast, there was not anything I could do," Roberts said. "I was in disbelief the whole time."

Ten minutes after the family had called the police for help, Kretsch lay dead. Roberts said there was no attempt to talk Kretsch down or call for specialized crisis intervention. The district attorney deemed the death a justifiable homicide. The family, however, has filed suit against the police department alleging that Kretsch posed a danger to no one but himself until the police arrived.

In response to the police actions, McCormick and Parkinson formed Citizens for a Police Review Board (CPRB). They also are petitioning the city council to pass a resolution calling for a formal civilian oversight board to hold police accountable for violent acts.

Parkinson said the support for a civilian review board is growing and that between 40 and 80 people, "black and white and of all denominations," now gather on a regular basis, as a part of the drive for a civilian review board.

"It's not a black thing, it's a human rights issue," said Tina McCormick. "It has affected every member of our community." She also has helped organize the Parent Patrol, to "protect and defend the children" from the police.

But McCormick said the mayor was hostile to her, after she hosted the first meeting of Citizens for a Police Review Board: "Who do you think you are moving into my town and stirring up all this shit?" In an interview, Hammond said only that he does not "at this time" support a civilian police review board.

Alleged Retaliation

Tension over the proposed civilian review board also might have damaged the career of a popular Fairfield school principal, James Day. He contended that his recent demotion might have been in retaliation for his outspoken stand in favor of the review board at a city council meeting. Day is Parkinson's brother-in-law.

"I spoke out a televised city council meeting in support of the establishment of a police review board to remedy abusive practices by members of the Fairfield police department," Day wrote in a letter to his lawyer. "I am concerned that I have been the victim of a First Amendment violation and that powerful interests in the community are attempting to silence and punish me for my outspoken views."

After the demotion, the local paper in Fairfield, The Daily Republic, was deluged with a flurry of support for Day. "I am heart-broken," one parent told the paper. "I feel like crying. I just love him. Every parent I've talked to loves him."

"You see the police chief and the mayor playing an antagonistic role, intimidating the community instead of guaranteeing their rights," said Van Jones, Executive Director of the San Francisco based Police Watch, which speaks on behalf of victims of police brutality.

"We're talking about the unnecessary killing of people with mental disabilities and the systematic beatings of children," Jones said. "Any police beating is unlawful, but these young people are A students. They're on the football and basketball teams, they play in the band. They want go to college."

"They [the police] try to degrade you and put you down because they've got a badge, they think they're a higher power," claimed Robert Bernard, 15, a freshman at Fairfield High School. Bernard, a shy, soft-spoken boy who wears a 49ers sweatshirt, said several run-ins with police have resulted in a year's probation that he worries could keep him from going to college. "It brings down your self esteem," said the High School football tailback.

"Ain't nothing perfect in this world," observed 17-year -old Richard McCormick Jr., "and everybody has somebody looking over them. If you're an employee you got a manager looking over you. We've got our parents looking over us. But who's looking over the police. They can do what ever they want."

Richard's younger sister, Nickie, 12, says she worries when her brothers go out. "I'm scared that the police might beat them to death, somebody might shoot them. I'm just scared."

"The police still want to run a dictatorship," concluded Tina McCormick

(c) Copyright 1997

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