Are Changes in Police Behavior Possible?

Are Changes in Police Behavior Possible?
Members of Fresno Stolen Lives held its 26th annual vigil and protest at Eaton Plaza in Fresno on Oct. 22 to remember the victims of police violence. Photo by Leni Villagomez Reeves

On Oct. 22, Fresno Stolen Lives held its 26th annual vigil and protest. Again, people in the community gathered at Eaton Plaza to remember the victims of police violence, to support the families of the stolen lives and to get an update on what is happening in Fresno regarding police violence against people.

Organizer and activist Gloria Hernandez passed out a list of 100 lives lost to police violence between 1997 and the present. She began asking for this information in 1997 with official public records requests, but it was not until 2010, when the ACLU sued, that it was provided. By keeping track of police killings—and killers—repeat shooters can be identified.

The damage to individuals and families is lifelong, and settlement money, while a nod toward justice, does not pay for the lost lives. However, Fresno has paid out millions in settlements of police liability claims and court-ordered payments after lawsuits for civil rights violations, excessive force and wrongful death, but individual officers have not faced any consequences. 

Between July 1, 2007, and October 2, 2019, the total police liability claims settled totaled $23,111,734. In addition, in April 2021, Fresno paid a $4.9 million tentative settlement to the family of 16-year-old Isiah Murrietta-Golding, who was killed when Sgt. Ray Villalvazo shot him in the back of the head as he ran away from the police. A body-worn camera captured what seems to be another officer saying “good shot,” as the boy lay dying on April 16, 2017. 

The City also dropped its appeal and agreed to settle a separate case and pay the family of Casimero “Shane” Casillas $4.4 million. Casillas was killed by police in 2015.

Still waiting for justice, or at least some accountability, is the family of Freddy Centeno, who was shot by the Fresno police on Sept. 3, 2015, dying three weeks later. His brother, Rogelio, points out that it’s not a crime to be mentally ill, that the killing of his unarmed brother was unjustifiable and that the City of Fresno has lost four appeals, and yet continues to appeal in this case, which will go to court next in June of 2022.

Camera footage released by the Centeno family lawyers shows the officers identifying themselves and then opening fire when Centeno does not immediately lie down. The officers shot nine bullets, seven of which hit him. Only a few seconds elapsed between the officers telling Centeno to lie down and the officers opening fire.

Centeno was the first of three people to be shot by Fresno police in the same week. One of the police, Zebulon Price, involved in that shooting also shot and killed another person, Raymond Angel Gonzalez, within a six-month period.

Then Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer’s explanation? He told the Fresno Bee at the time, “What we have seen this week is an increased level of aggressiveness toward officers.”

Really? A schizophrenic man with no shirt carrying a garden hose nozzle?

In 2021, there have been fewer shootings, possible evidence that the work that has been done over the years has produced some results, but much more remains to be done.

Hernandez was a member of the Fresno Commission on Police Reform, created in 2020. The commission, after months of work, developed 73 recommendations, which were unanimously accepted by the Fresno City Council. Only about one-third of these have been adopted by the Fresno Police Department, now headed by Chief Paco Balderrama.

“I’m proud of the work our team did on writing these up and hearing that some of them are being implemented,” says Hernandez. “However, having said that, I wish we were still overseeing and making sure that the ones that are being rejected have reason to be rejected.

“Yes, it is harder to sit at a table and negotiate change than protest. But sometimes, those two plus litigation is needed to make a change.”

She also said that changes come about gradually. Community pressure has made a difference. Court watching is also effective, showing that the family is not alone, and this helps to educate the judicial system, including jurors. Officer-involved shootings need to be properly and promptly investigated, and protocols should not involve police response for mental breakdowns of known mentally ill persons.

Changes in California state law might help with some aspects of police reform, with the passage of AB 1506 and implementation by the California Attorney General on July 1, 2021. Now the California Department of Justice will be required by law to investigate all incidents where an officer-involved shooting results in the death of an unarmed civilian. In the past, such incidents were primarily handled by local law enforcement.

Reading the recommendations of the Fresno Commission on Police Reform also reveals existing practices, and it seems that the police have not been held to the standards required of people in any other work.

For example, it was startling to see that one of the adopted recommendations was “All corrective action should be documented in an employee’s personnel file.” The department’s previous policy states that corrective action could be documented and placed in an officer’s personnel file at the discretion of their supervisor. 

There are some simple common-sense proposals to professionalize policing and make officers accountable. These include licensing—with decertification or revocation of license for proven serious misconduct or incompetence—and requiring a bond. This would prevent officers from moving from department to department as their misconduct becomes apparent, and make them financially responsible for their own errors and misdeeds, rather than being able to pass that burden to the taxpayers.

Police malpractice insurance, which is what a bond would amount to, would do a great deal to curb police misconduct as uninsurable officers would become unemployable.

Some level of judgment and professionalism is required when people’s lives are at stake.

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