Rogue authority: California cases highlight out-of-control U.S. police forces

Oakland police form a line during a confrontation with Occupy demonstrators on January 28, 2012. (Stephen Lam / Reuters)

Several California cases are revealing disturbing levels of police brutality and incompetence that appear to be pervasive in the state. While in some cases police officers are facing disciplinary actions for their behavior – including criminal prosecution – the seemingly endemic nature of the transgressions are a cause for international concern and could indicate a seriously deteriorating human rights situation in the United States.

Most recently, an Orange County judge ruled that two Fullerton police officers will stand trial on homicide and other charges for their roles in the vicious murder of a schizophrenic homeless man during an encounter that was captured on surveillance video on July 5, 2011.

The full video, which was made public for the first time following the court hearing on Wednesday, indicates that the encounter between the police and 37-year-old Kelly Thomas began as routine harassment of a homeless person, with questioning about where he sleeps at night and requests to search his belongings.

Police officer Manuel Anthony Ramos then began making contradictory demands of Thomas, instructing him to sit down, to extend his legs and simultaneously put his hands on his knees. When Thomas failed to immediately comply with the confusing instructions, Ramos held out his fists and warned Thomas that “they’re getting ready to fuck you up.”

Ramos then proceeded to savagely beat and Taser Thomas for about ten minutes, assisted by several other officers who subsequently joined the assault. Thomas repeatedly cried out “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” and “Daddy, help me!” as the officers continued to torture him. He died several days later in a hospital.

It turned out that Thomas’ father, Ron Thomas, is a retired police officer who, following his son’s death, made it his mission to get the story out. He used social media to share graphic photos that he took at the side of Kelly Thomas’ hospital bed to show the world what happened to his son.

Fullerton city officials offered Ron Thomas nearly a million dollars to settle the case, but he turned the money down and instead pushed for a criminal trial.

After nearly a year of legal wrangling, Superior Court Judge Walter Schwarm said on Wednesday that sufficient evidence existed to compel a jury trial for Ramos, charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter, and to try Cpl. Jay Patrick Cicinelli on charges of involuntary manslaughter. Ramos faces 15 years to life in prison, while Cicinelli could serve a maximum of four years.

Following Wednesday’s hearing, however, Ramos’ attorney expressed confidence that the case would not proceed any further. He announced he would seek a review of Judge Schwarm’s ruling, saying, “We don’t expect to go to trial.”

The Chong case

The ruling in the Thomas case comes just a week after another scandalous incident in California, in which a university student was detained by the Drug Enforcement Agency and left in a jail cell without food or water for five days, without being charged with a crime.

Daniel Chong, a UC San Diego student, was detained during a series of DEA drug raids late last month. He was handcuffed and held in a small room for five days at the Drug Enforcement Administration office in San Diego while calling out for help.

“They never came back, ignored all my cries and I still don’t know what happened,” he said. “I’m not sure how they could forget me.”

Chong had been at a friend’s house celebrating 4/20, a day many pot smokers mark as “stoners new year,” when agents burst inside and raided the residence. Chong was then taken to the DEA office in Kearny Mesa. No criminal charges were filed against him, but he was nevertheless left in a cell for five days without any human contact and was not given food or drink. In desperation, he drank his own urine to survive.

As NBC News reported,

After days of being ignored, Chong said he tried to take his own life by breaking the glass from his spectacles with his teeth and then attempting to carve “Sorry mom,” on his arm. He said nurses also found pieces of glass in his throat, which led him to believe he ingested the pieces purposefully.

Chong said he could hear DEA employees and people in neighboring cells. He screamed to let them know he was there, but no one replied. He kicked the door, but no one came to get him.

Chong has filed a lawsuit against the DEA seeking $20 million in damages for the distress he suffered in the incident. “The deprivation of food and water for four and one-half days while the person is handcuffed the entire time constitutes torture under both international and domestic law,” the claim says.

While it’s unclear whether Chong’s treatment was intentional, defense attorney Gretchen Von Helms pointed out that forgetting about an individual being held in police custody is virtually unheard of. “In all my years of practice I’ve never heard of the DEA or any federal government employee simply forgetting about someone that they have in their care,” she says.

Federal prosecutor John Kirby said that it was “inconceivable” that a suspect could be forgotten about for five days but that he finds it hard to believe that Chong’s mistreatment was intentional, “because somebody’s career is done over this.”

The incident has drawn attention from elected officials, who are demanding answers from the DEA. In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) called for an “immediate and thorough” Department of Justice investigation into the matter.

Occupy brutality

As calls were being made for an investigation into the Chong incident, results from another investigation into California police misconduct were making headlines, this time in relation to systematic brutality used against Occupy Wall Street protesters last October.

Oakland police used “an overwhelming military-type response” to disperse Occupy Oakland demonstrators and intentionally fired at Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen who was critically injured in the protests, according to a report issued on April 30.

Video taken of the October events shows that when fellow demonstrators went to the aid of Olsen, another cop threw a flash grenade into the crowd, further endangering the injured protester and those who were coming to his aid.

In response, Human Rights Watch issued a statement calling on police to respect the fundamental rights of Occupy Wall Street demonstrators across the country.

“The United States’ tradition of peaceful protest is protected not only in U.S. law but also under international law,” said Alison Parker, U.S. program director at Human Rights Watch. “Even when protesters’ actions warrant police intervention, force should only be used where strictly necessary and then only to the degree necessary.”

Amnesty International also weighed in, urging authorities “to ensure that police show restraint in their response to Occupy Wall Street protests, following critical injuries suffered by a man in Oakland, Ca. in clashes between police and demonstrators.”

“The increasingly heavy-handed policing tactics used to quell the Occupy Wall Street protests are deeply alarming,” said Guadalupe Marengo, deputy program director for the Americas. “The police must not resort to using excessive force, such as tear gas, unless strictly necessary.”

The April 30 report, issued by an outside monitor of the Oakland Police Department, concludes for the first time officially that police did fire at and hit Olsen that evening. An Oakland Police Department SWAT team member fired a beanbag round at Olsen, striking him in the head, the report said.

“We have viewed many official and unofficial video clips of the Occupy Oakland-related incidents,” said the report. “These recordings lead us to ask additional questions as the level of force that was used by OPD officers, and whether that use of force was in compliance with the Department’s use of force policies.”

Following the report’s release, a federal judge issued an ultimatum to the city of Oakland to either work out a way to handle the flood of complaints against police or face sanctions.

District Judge Thelton Henderson demanded that officials in the Bay Area city start determining how to deal with the abundance of accusatory statements filed with Oakland authorities, specifically citing the flood of complaints that have come in over how law enforcement conducted themselves during raids on the city’s Occupy Wall Street protests.

Pepper spray incident

In relation to yet another recent case of police brutality in California – the notorious UC Davis pepper spray incident that went viral last fall – a task force report was issued in early April which concluded that campus police and administration made “critically flawed” decisions in reaction to peaceful protests against tuition hikes at the university.

“The pepper spraying incident that took place on November 18, 2011 should and could have been prevented,” concluded the task force.

The report said Lt. John Pike’s decision to use pepper spray on seated protesters was “not authorized by policy” and that his claims of self-defense were not credible.

“There is little factual basis supporting Lt. Pike’s belief that he was trapped by the protesters or that his officers were prevented from leaving the Quad,” the report stated. “Further, there is little evidence that any protesters attempted to use violence against the police.”

Other key findings of the investigation include:

– A Failure to Investigate Whether or Not “Non-Affiliates” in the UC Davis Occupy Encampment Were Present

– The Administration Decided to Deploy Police to Remove the Tents on Nov. 18 before Considering Other Reasonable Alternatives

– The Scope of the Police Operation to Remove the Tents Was Ineffectively Communicated, Not Clearly Understood by Key Decision-Makers, and, Accordingly, Could Not Be Adequately Evaluated as to Its Costs and Consequences

– There Were No Clear Lines Delineating the Responsibility for Decision-Making between Civilian Administrators and Police

– There Was Confusion as to the Legal Basis for the Police Operation

While the UC Davis and Oakland investigations are welcome attempts to provide some level of accountability for rogue police forces in California, the pervasive nature of the problems in the state (not to mention similar cases elsewhere in the United States) seem to indicate a systemic problem of authority that may require a more comprehensive response, including, perhaps from the international community.

International norms

The recent incidents reveal a lack of appreciation within U.S. police forces for international norms of law enforcement, which are clearly laid out in the Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials. Adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979, the Code of Conduct establishes minimum international standards for police behavior, many of which California police departments are failing to meet.

The human rights protected by the Code of Conduct are identified by national and international law, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Being Subjected to Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

“In the performance of their duty,” it states, “law enforcement officials shall respect and protect human dignity and maintain and uphold the human rights of all persons.”

The Code states that “Law enforcement officials may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty.”

It further lays out specific principles of necessity and proportionality in the use of force by police:

( a ) This provision emphasizes that the use of force by law enforcement officials should be exceptional; while it implies that law enforcement officials may be authorized to use force as is reasonably necessary under the circumstances for the prevention of crime or in effecting or assisting in the lawful arrest of offenders or suspected offenders, no force going beyond that may be used.

( b ) National law ordinarily restricts the use of force by law enforcement officials in accordance with a principle of proportionality. It is to be understood that such national principles of proportionality are to be respected in the interpretation of this provision. In no case should this provision be interpreted to authorize the use of force which is disproportionate to the legitimate objective to be achieved.

Further, “Law enforcement officials shall ensure the full protection of the health of persons in their custody and, in particular, shall take immediate action to secure medical attention whenever required.”

In the cases of Kelly Thomas, Daniel Chong and Scott Olsen, as well as the UC Davis pepper spray incident, it is clear that California police departments are routinely flouting these vital international standards. If the United States hopes to retain any credibility internationally as a country that respects basic human rights, serious action should be taken to rein its rogue police forces and bring them into compliance with international law.


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About The Compliance Campaign

Campaigning for a United States in compliance with its international obligations. Follow on Twitter here: Facebook: Comments, article submissions or news leads are welcome at compliancecampaign [at]

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