Here is the point that always gets lost in discussions about police brutality: The system is rigged in favor of the police every time it is alleged.
The law gives cops wide latitude to use force in the line of duty. And that breadth often can seem shocking, especially when the actions of officers are caught on video and look preposterously excessive. That happened this past April when Sacramento Police Officer Anthony Figueroa slammed Nandi Cain Jr., an African American man, to the ground in north Sacramento and punched him at least 18 times after stopping him for allegedly jaywalking.
Cain had been walking home from his job as an electronic parts salesman when he crossed the intersection of Cypress Street and Grand Avenue. Figueroa, who was following him in his patrol car, got out and verbally told Cain to stop, but Cain kept going without looking back. Cain later said he didn’t know it was a police officer speaking to him at first. Cain continued to move away from Figueroa and crossed into the middle of Cypress Street, where the altercation escalated verbally. Cain took off his jacket in what he described as an attempt to show he had no weapons; the department later described that action as a preparation to fight.
In the days following the incident, which was recorded by a local resident and police in-car cameras, a pedestrian group questioned the legality of the stop. A subsequent investigation by The Bee found that Sacramento police in 2016 disproportionately had given jaywalking tickets to black people, with a concentration of these tickets handed out in north Sacramento, bringing up questions of racial profiling.
This past week, Figueroa was reinstated seven months after pummeling Cain, but state law prevents you or me from finding out what happens when cops “investigate” other cops for alleged brutality. Did Figueroa break any policies during the encounter with Cain? We don’t know. Was Figueroa disciplined? We don’t know. How exhaustive was the investigation of Figueroa by his own colleagues in internal affairs? We don’t know. Did the young officer even acknowledge that maybe – just maybe? – the beatdown was not the best use of his authority despite Cain’s aggressively talking back to him? We don’t know.
Why don’t we know?
It’s because of the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act, which was approved by lawmakers in 1976. It sets rules on department managers’ interrogations of police officers, bans lie detector tests and allows officers to review their personnel files. Two years later, lawmakers approved another set of protections for officers. The 1978 law prohibited agencies from releasing officers’ personnel records.
These shields of secrecy are considered to be the most stringent in the nation, despite California’s progressive reputation.
But the conspiracy of silence runs even deeper: District attorneys, like the one in Sacramento, are virtual cheerleaders for cops and routinely conclude “investigations” of officers with reports so glowing you would think they were written by police union lawyers.
The otherwise liberal state legislature checks its “progressive” street cred at the state Capitol door and, save for a few legislators such as Sacramento Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, does nothing to amend or mitigate the effects of the Police Officer’s Bill of Rights or other laws that protect cops from public scrutiny.
As exceptional as he is in many respects, state Attorney General Xavier Becerra wants nothing to do with the idea of using state investigators to oversee cases of alleged brutality levied against police officers and sheriff deputies in cities and counties across the state.
When I interviewed Becerra for an article I wrote in September about the Sacramento-born AG, he was strong and forthright on every point except when it came to investigating cops. Then it was a lot of double talk. The same goes for Sacramento DA Anne Marie Schubert, who is laudable in so many ways except when it comes to cases where cops are accused of excessive force.
Schubert’s office had been asked, in part, to investigate if Figueroa should be prosecuted for any criminal wrongdoing in his conduct with Cain. In a review letter dated July 31 and released to The Bee this past week, the DA concluded that a jury likely would not find that any criminal conduct occurred.
Schubert will go out of her way to state that her office can only review use of force cases through the narrow prism of state law. She makes it clear that her office doesn’t review police tactics. But reports produced by her office often seem to go beyond those stated intentions and make value judgments.
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“We recognize police officers do not have the luxury of walking away from a subject who refused an order during an investigation,” wrote one of Schubert’s investigators in the review of the Cain case. “However, regardless of the lawfulness of the initial attempt to detain, the facts of this case highlight the existing tension between some community members and law enforcement.”
The more surprising statement came from Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn this past week when discussing Figueroa’s return to duty. “The end result of this contact (between Figueroa and Cain) is not what we want to see,” he said.
To most people, a statement such as “this is not what we want to see” sounds passive, but it actually could be described as edgy in the closed society of law enforcement where people with badges investigate other people with badges and often fail to see the conflicts of interest in this.
It is to Hahn’s credit that he at least acknowledges that state law and other factors contribute to an erosion of public trust when the findings of police brutality investigations are kept private.
Hahn is still backing his officer. The police chief met personally with community leaders in Del Paso Heights to sell them on the idea that Figueroa needs to be reintegrated into the community, where he likely will start policing again.
Hahn then did what he does best: Instead of staging an awkward news conference, like some of his predecessors, he met individually with members of the media. These meetings play to Hahn’s strengths. He’s articulate. He’s charming. He’s persuasive.
With the north Sacramento community, he was able to trade upon the years of goodwill he banked while working his way up through the ranks of Sac PD before becoming the top cop in Roseville and then returning triumphantly this year as the first African American police chief in city history.
Hahn’s strategy can be successful in the short term because he is loved in neighborhoods such as Del Paso Heights, even though Sac PD is not. But he acknowledged that his personal bank account of goodwill is not the magic formula for creating trust in Sacramento communities where the police are not trusted.
Hahn will drain that bank account if incidents like the one with Cain keep occurring.
Reasonable people can agree that Cain should not have gotten so aggressive with Figueroa despite the young officer’s overzealousness. But will Hahn’s rank-and-file be reasonable? Or will they, within their closed ranks, be angry at Hahn for trying to level with the community as much as the law allows?
This is where the protections afforded by restrictive state law and the complicity of the state AG and local district attorneys work against police officers. What too many cops fail to acknowledge is when there is no transparency in an incident such as the one involving Cain, that indicts all the good officers doing the right thing every day. Despite having the laws and the system fully behind them, too many Sacramento cops – and cops in general – are hypersensitive to any questioning of their almost unchecked authority.
Does Figueroa deserve a second chance? Of course he does. But the public also deserves to know what the police department decided in his case and others.
Before Hahn took over in August, a corrosive “us-against-them” attitude was pervasive in Sac PD. Hahn is trying to set a different tone, but he is walking a fine line. He will lose public support if he leans too far toward the old way of doing police business. And he will lose support in his own building if he is too honest and transparent.
But this is bigger than Hahn. Police work is dangerous, and we expect those who hurt or kill officers will be brought to justice. But why shouldn’t we expect the same kind of justice when police officers wrongly inflict pain and death in the line of duty?
Until or unless that changes, Gov. Jerry Brown, the state legislature, Becerra, Schubert and all the other co-conspirators can only look in the mirror when asked why some communities don’t trust the police.
Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton talks with Daniel Hahn, Sacramento's next police chief, about growing up in Oak Park, being a cop in the town where he grew up and the strong influence of his mother.