By Mike Rhodes
Carrie Gonzales wants to know why her husband Victor, who she says was on the ground with his hands over his head, was viciously attacked by a police dog this summer. She is angry that police officers were later heard laughing and said, “Yeah, did you see how bad the dog got him.” Victor Gonzales, who was badly mauled, did not die, but he did have serious head and body injuries caused by the incident.
Carrie called the Community Alliance because of an article in the July issue about Angelo Fernandez, who was shot in the back by a Fresno police officer. Fernandez was unarmed.
Carrie said her husband was in a house when police officers came to the door. “They came into the front of the house and, of course, he was afraid of being arrested due to things that happened to him when he had been arrested before. He ran out the back, but the police already had the whole house surrounded. This was on the evening of July 20. He jumped the fence, and officers ordered him to get down on the ground or they would release the dogs.”
According to Carrie, her husband complied with the officers, laying on the ground and putting his arms over his head and spreading his legs. The police report that the Community Alliance obtained through a California Public Records Act request says that the officers “observed suspect Victor Gonzales jump over the north fence of the backyard of the primary location.” The police say they ordered him to stop but that he continued moving and that is when they released the dog.
“The dog mangled his head, dragged him several feet by his neck, which created a hematoma. If that clot gets loose and goes to his heart or brain he will die,” Carrie said. “He was trying to protect himself, he was holding his head and the dog mangled both of his thumbs. One of his thumbs was almost severed. The dog also got his chest/arm area where he has stitches and his torso where he has stitches.
“I believe there was no reason for them to sic the dog on him. If he was resisting arrest, if he was running, the dog would not have been able to attack his head and his neck. He would have sustained injuries to his legs from them taking him down.”
The police report refers to a document written by the dog handler about this incident, but that report was not made available to the Community Alliance, even after multiple requests. Carrie said she found out about the incident the next day when she was told that Victor was in Community Hospital and was not expected to survive.
Following two recent front-page stories in the Community Alliance—one about Angelo Fernandez and the other about the police department’s towing of cars—we have been deluged with reports of police misconduct, excessive force and unnecessary fatalities.
The case of David Buchenberger raises serious questions about the Fresno Police Department’s practice of who is arrested for driving under the influence (DUI) and which cars get towed. Buchenberger was at home and in bed when the police entered his house and arrested him for DUI. Buchenberger’s car, which he says was legally parked on the street, was towed.
Buchenberger explains how this happened. “I got arrested for drunk driving on October 2 . I was taking a medication to quit smoking. I woke up in jail and got out and my car had been impounded. I had been arrested in my bedroom; I got pulled out of bed to get arrested.”
Buchenberger said the officer entered his home without a warrant. The police report did not mention a warrant but says that a man identified as Buchenberger’s father answered the door when the police arrived and called for his son to come downstairs to talk to the officer. Buchenberger says that his father did not give the officer permission to enter their home. “My dad said they just walked around him, went up the stairs and pulled me out of bed.”
The police report makes no mention of an officer seeing Buchenberger driving while under the influence of alcohol. Both Buchenberger and the police agree that someone saw him driving, made a complaint and an officer was sent to investigate. Sometime after Buchenberger arrived home and went to bed, the officer arrived and arrested him. The amount of time Buchenberger was sleeping is in dispute, but nobody is saying that the officer was in “hot pursuit” of the suspect.
Buchenberger thinks that all charges against him should be dropped, and he does not understand why his car was towed. He asked the police, “Why did you tow my car? It was parked legally and properly in front of my home.” After reading the Community Alliance, he said, “I found out that there is a $40 fee given to the cops for referring the business (to the tow truck company), plus the impound fees. It cost me $500 to get my car out.”
Adrian Perez also contacted the Community Alliance newspaper, saying that he had been beaten up and abused by the police. It is always difficult to reconcile accounts of what the police say happened with what is reported to us, but in this case the incident might have happened on two different planets. One thing that would have helped shed some light on what happened is to have a video of the incident. Perez said he asked his girlfriend to film the incident as it took place but that she was threatened with arrest if she turned the camera on.
What Perez wanted her video to show was how a traffic stop for an alleged unsafe lane change ended up with him being slammed head first to the asphalt. According to Perez, after the officers prevented his girlfriend from filming the incident an officer “put handcuffs on me, he picked me up off the ground and immediately after that he slammed me with all of his force back onto the asphalt. He tried to slam me on my face, but I was able to catch the fall with my left shoulder, which was seriously injured.”
Perez says what led up to this violent assault happened after he had been pulled over on East Tulare Avenue near 6th Street and officers asked if he was high on drugs. He thinks racial profiling had something to do with the stop, but the police report said officers saw his eyelid twitch, which they believed was a sign of drug use. Perez admits that he was angered by being accused of being on drugs but can’t understand how the incident escalated so quickly.
After he was arrested and his car towed, Perez was processed into the Fresno County Jail. When his handcuffs were removed he became aware of how seriously his left arm was injured and asked to be taken to the hospital.
Perez said that “the officer tried to convince me that it would be a lot faster to go to jail and that I could get medical treatment after I was released. He was trying to get me to go to the jail because he didn’t want them [the hospital] to know what they had done to me. As soon as I told them no, that I really wanted to go to the doctor, he wrote me a citation and told me to get the f**k out of there before they arrest me for trespassing on police property.”
As disturbing as these reports are, we have received even more troubling stories, like the one about how Raul Rosas was killed after being arrested by Sheriff’s deputies. Rosas was involved in a domestic dispute in early June. When the deputies arrived, he jumped over the back fence and ran into a neighbor’s house. The deputies went into the house, there was an altercation and Rosas was brought out in handcuffs.
Witnesses said Rosas asked for water, but the deputies stopped a neighbor from handing him a glass. Rosas went into cardiac arrest and was taken to Community Hospital, where he was on life support until he died. Family and friends believe he was Tasered numerous times inside the house. The Sheriff’s Department would not release a report, as requested by the Community Alliance under the California Public Records Act.
Ellie Bluestein, who is a past chairperson of the Central California Criminal Justice Committee, says that incidents like these “have been going on for the 10 years we have been organizing.” She says that “there has never been a place where a person can call and say ‘look this happened to me, I need help.’”
Adrian Perez did go to the District Attorney’s Office and tried to file a complaint about the assault he suffered but was told to go away. Bluestein, expressing some frustration, said that “the only place they can go is to file a written complaint and it is taken up by the police Internal Affairs. They monitor themselves.” She says “very few people have ever had a complaint sustained.”
Bluestein said that Eddie Aubrey, the former director of the Office of Independent Review (OIR), had made improving the complaint procedure one of his major goals. She believes that his recommendations for an improved complaint process were in a report he submitted shortly before he was fired. That report has never been released, and there are no plans to hire a new director for the OIR.
Bluestein said that “a year ago in February the District Attorney[’s Office] announced that they would no longer investigate police shootings. Now we have no police oversight, no outside complaint procedure where somebody can call up and get an independent assessment of what had happened, no investigation of police shootings, and we don’t even have a Human Relations Commission, which we had at one time. There is nothing, nothing. Fresno is really a city with no recourse for its citizens. It must be the only city in California that exists like this, because everywhere else, at least the DA’s office investigates police shootings.”
Human rights activists like Bluestein point out that while there is no independent office to investigate allegations of police misconduct and officer-involved shootings, many people use the court system in their search for justice. But Bluestein wants to see a new, more powerful, OIR established.
“This time, if we get an Office of Independent Review we need to get someone who can also do the investigation, subpoena witnesses and do the things that really need to be done,” Bluestein said. The original OIR “was just a compromise, we agreed to it, but we need more than that.”
To find out more about the Central California Criminal Justice Committee and what it is doing to ensure civilian control over the police department, visit http://cccjc.org.
Mike Rhodes is the editor of the Community Alliance newspaper. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.