Coastal Post Online

 

DONATE TO US

SUBSCRIBE TO US

ADVERTISE WITH US

 

**** COASTALPOST'S LOGO ****

 

DONATE TO US

SUBSCRIBE TO US

ADVERTISE WITH US

 

MARIN COUNTY'S NEWS MONTHLY - FREE PRESS
(415)868-1600 - (415)868-0502(fax) - P.O. Box 31, Bolinas, CA, 94924

September, 2004

To Serve And Protect, Or To Frighten And Coerce?
What's Wrong With Complaining About Cops?
 By Carol Sterritt

 

  Few people like to deal with the police. On the one hand, you might have to call on them when you are facing danger because you need their help. On the other hand, the police might be dealing with you in a less than desired fashion because they feel that you are a danger, a menace, a lawbreaker or all three.
   These should be clearly defined categories, but they aren't always. In the early 1990's, I was the victim of a stalker. He was a deranged male adult, who happened to have the same landlord that I had. Between three and four in the morning, he would walk down the hallway to my humble abode, pound his fists practically through my door, and bellow,  "Come out of there so I can break your F*$^#ing neck." I would summon the police, whose San Rafael police station was only four hundred feet from my dwelling. About two hours later they would arrive. By then I was histrionic and overwrought. They would buddy up with my stalker, make fun of me, and then leave. Over the course of six months, as this man made my life hell, I was not able to deal with things rationally. I knew the police were not protecting me. Sleep deprived, frightened and alone, I just could not figure out what to do about it.
   Certainly I was at a disadvantage because I was a woman. Cops then were predominantly men. They were not necessarily trained to understand the issue of woman endangerment, be it date rape, harassment, stalking etc. (In 1994, Nicole Simpson's murder would improve things slightly, as communities across the country demanded that the police learn how to be more responsive to the plight of women.) Police in Marin also acted as though poorly equipped to deal with the mentally ill. In the late 1990's, an Asian man who lived in Novato suffered a psychotic break. He stood on top of a car out and brandished a broomstick. A neighbor called the police. They arrived, and shot the man dead. "If I'd wanted to kill him, I own a gun, I could have shot and killed him myself," commented the neighbor mournfully. "That would have saved them the trouble of coming out here."
   You try to keep in mind that being a police officer is not an easy job.  They are dealing with society's underbelly. The police deal with people who are revved up on drugs, downed out on booze, folks who are fighting with each other, who are standing behind a bush and waiting for the pretty girl to go by. The perp may be scheming on a robbery, or plotting a murder. The police might be risking their lives in minor and major ways any day of the week. Except in Marin, crime is much less a factor than in other places. What do the police do when they cannot find enough to do?
   Let's examine a Saturday night in late May 2004. An after-prom party is taking place in San Anselmo. Someone in the neighborhood calls the police to the house. Only for some reason it is the Fairfax, not the San Anselmo, Men in Blue who show up. They feel that their mission is to quickly break the party up, to disband the young people who have been kicking up their heels, playing loud music and drinking too much, among other things.
   One party attendee is taken aback by the policemen's actions. Her name is Sarah Rose Janko. She is an honor student at the Parsons School of Design. She has returned to Marin from New York City in order to attend her good friend, Lua's, memorial service on Sunday May 30th. Her friend had been killed in a car accident, and liquor had been involved.
   So when the police start trying to herd the young people off the premises and into their cars, she speaks out loudly, protesting their actions. "Wait a minute. Why are you doing this? What are you thinking? How can you possibly want these kids, who have all been drinking, to get into their cars and pull out into the roadways?"
   The police did not hear the jist of her message. They focused only on how hard she was dissenting from their stated purpose. They must serve and protect the good people of Marin by ending a raucous party and returning peace and quiet to a neighborhood that has been invaded by too many partying types. It's not the police's fault that these young people have had something to drink. Surely they can drive it off!
   But Janko is adamant in her protests. The police attempt to give her a couple of chances to shut up. She refuses, they turn angry. At one point, as she heads away from the party, she picks up a stick and hits a police car. She is then arrested, handcuffed and taken to the pokey. Once at the County Jail, she is charged with a felony.
   Sarah's mother, Nancy Janko, is awoken at 3 a.m. by the phone call. The event has a surreal quality to it. In just a few short hours, this family should be attending the memorial service for the daughter of Jose Neto and his wife, Maria Kraft Neto, the owners of the Fairfax Bakery. (An excellent musician, Neto was called away from his summer tour with Steve Winwood when his daughter, Lua, was killed.) But Janko's focus is now turned away from Lua to her own daughter's plight. She has to deal with cleaning up this mess. The County is demanding a clearly exorbitant $ 35,000 bail. This means that she must seek out a bail bondsmen and offer $3,500 immediately. If she does not come up with the funds, Sarah will miss the memorial service that afternoon.
   Naturally she questions why the bail amount was so excessive. She is told that since her daughter damaged city property, the bail has to be that high. She asks to view the police car so that she can inspect the damage. She is told that that is not possible. Once young Sarah is free from jail, Nancy questions her. Did she really do a lot of damage to the car? The police tell the story that the entire windshield had to be replaced. Sarah claims that she never even hit the windshield, but rather the headlight and light casing.
   Later on, Sarah has her day in court. She pleads guilty to a reduced charge, a mere misdemeanor. She does community service and then heads back to school in New York. But her mother is still out the bail money. So far, the Fairfax police have not shown her any pictures of the damaged car, nor have they offered her the repair bill from the body shop that supposedly made the repairs. She has their word against her daughter's. And she is not willing to take them at their word.
   What has been helpful to Janko is her finding out about the Marin Empowerment Council. This is a commission recently formed by public interest and legal groups. They assist any and all citizens who feel that the police have overstepped their bounds. People who work for the Council help residents obtain and prepare the type of official complaint forms that are used in the issue of police misconduct. The Council will also can keep track of the types and numbers of complaints, assess which police jurisdictions seem to be most problematic, and in addition, help ensure that retaliation against a citizen for filing a complaint does not occur.
   Among the participating groups are the Grassroots Leadership Network, ISOJI, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, Lawyers for One America, Legal Aid of Marin, Marin County Human Rights Commission, Marin Peace and Justice Coalition, ACLU and San Francisco Lawyers' Guild.
   Jessamyn Sabbag, who works for the Grassroots Leadership Network, explained to me that people in Marin were feeling a good deal of resistance when they attempted to make their complaints. Tevia Barnes, who is the President of Lawyers for One America, seconded this notion. "When people go to the Police Department, they feel intimidated. They often are kept waiting. Then they are told by the police that if their complaint does not check out, that they can be prosecuted."
   According to a section of California Law, "It is against the law to make a complaint against a police officer that you know to be false. Should you make a complaint, and it not be proven to be true, you can É" face misdemeanor charges. As it is written, this Law is merely an attempt to keep the citizen's right to file a charge in balance with a police officer's need to be safe from complaint except when they have indeed acted improperly. But the police know how to make this law sound downright scary, as they emphasis the prosecution end of it, and they tend to do this as they are handing out the complaint forms to the offended citizen. Thus, it does seem sensible to have a separate organization to provide for those citizens who have grievances.
    Among the reports that have been filed with the Marin Empowerment Council are those concerning police officers in Marin City and the Canal area. There police are repeatedly harassing residents by way of asking for identification, and demonstrating police tactics on low income residents so that rookie officers can observe police methods. (This in itself suggests misinformation and mis-instruction - how does picking on the poor demonstrate to the newest of police officers anything resembling proper police attitude?) There also are reports concerning the plight of two women who were strip searched at the County Jail. And about two weeks prior to the party that Sarah Janko attended, other Fairfax youths at a party were pepper sprayed, again by Fairfax police. The young woman most severely sprayed was an intimidating five feet in stature.
   Serving as its co-chairs, The Marin Empowerment Council has Michael Harris at 415 543 9444, and Karen Moore at 415 883 3474. Both Karen and Michael are happy to explain the complete listing of locations and services. Don't feel that your particular story of poor treatment by police cannot be resolved. Now the Council offers anyone seeking relief from police misconduct a will and a way.

 

Coastal Post Home Page