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San Jose Police Beating Stirs Distrust and Resentment
The Phuong Ho video has elicited such outrage in San Jose, Ca., because it comes on the heels of a sequence of various public revelations of police abuse, and a matching series of failures by city leadership to respond to the demands for transparency and accountability that have spanned ethnic communities.
On Oct. 24, the San Jose Mercury News released the video of a San Jose State math major getting beaten and tased by the San Jose Police Department in his home on Sept. 3, 2009. Police were called to the scene after 20-year-old Phuong Ho allegedly wielded a knife during an altercation with his roommate. All the viewer can hear, in between groaning cries of pain and calls for mercy, are the cracking sounds of the batons as they meet 20-year-old Phuong Ho’s head and body, and the torturous zapping of a Taser gun. It is, in a word, disturbing.
Ho, who through his attorney has filed a civil rights complaint with the FBI, is also facing misdemeanor charges of exhibiting a weapon and resisting arrest. He was not armed when police arrived, and became the recipient of the beat down when he bent down to get the glasses that fell off of his head. The video has circulated across the globe through major news outlets and social media sites.
The police officers involved have been put on administrative leave, and an internal investigation conducted by the San Jose Police Department has been initiated as to whether or not the officers’ actions were criminal offenses. The District Attorney’s office is monitoring the investigation, and will decide once the investigation is concluded whether or not to file criminal charges.
As a member of a local community group that has been calling on police accountability in San Jose for years now, I have been receiving multiple emails with the subject line, “San Jose’s Rodney King.” They don’t mean the person. They mean the moment.
The comparison is natural since both incidents contain the same basic patterns: unarmed men of color excessively beaten without cause by numerous police officers -- and it is all caught on video.
But it is not just that Phuong Ho was victimized with the same inexcusable violence as was Rodney King, but that 2009 San Jose is mirroring the same combustible tensions that set off the Rodney King riots of 1991 Los Angeles.
The Phuong Ho video has elicited such outrage in San Jose because it comes on the heels of a year-long sequence of various public revelations of police abuse, and a matching series of failures by city leadership to respond to the demands for transparency and accountability that have spanned ethnic communities.
To begin with, last October, the Mercury News released data from the Department of Justice that showed that San Jose had a dramatically higher arrest rate for public intoxication that any other city in California (even those with much larger populations) and were arresting minorities at a disproportionate rate. Latinos in particular were heavily overrepresented in the arrest rates, accounting for nearly 57 percent of all arrests despite only representing 30 percent of the general population.
The news set of a firestorm in San Jose, leading to a raucous City Hall forum, where hundreds of people recounted stories of being arrested without cause, and roughed up in the process. City Council responded by creating a Public Intoxication Task Force (PITF), comprised of law enforcement officials and community stakeholders.
As a PITF member, I can attest, it was a disaster. The city facilitators would not acknowledge that the arrest rates signaled a need for deeper change, or that such issues could bleed into other charges, such as resisting arrest, which Ho was charged with. Except for a couple of representatives, the rest of community task force members walked out in an act of protest. Arrest rates have since gone down by an astonishing 50 percent after the public scrutiny, confirming the claim that many of the former arrests were invalid. Either that or San Jose as a city has made a collective citywide stance for sobriety. I’m guessing the former.
In May 2009, news broke that a newly hired Independent Police Auditor (IPA), an office that was created in the early 90s solely for the purpose of independently overseeing police issues, had a brother who was an active San Jose police officer. The mayor, who facilitated the hiring process, said he didn’t think it was a big deal. The would-be IPA was forced to resign before he even started, and the public’s distrust of the city’s leadership to respond to their concerns had another log to throw in the fire.
Then, on Mother’s Day of this year, Daniel Pham, a 28-year-old Vietnamese man with mental health issues, was shot and killed by police. Police were called after Pham cut his brother with a knife. Pham was dead shortly after they arrived. The San Jose Police Department did not release the police reports and the transcript of the 911 call, despite an overwhelming demand from the Vietnamese community for transparency. The District Attorney chose to have a closed grand jury for the officer-involved shooting – meaning no one, including Pham’s family members, would be allowed to know what happened inside the courtroom. On Oct.18, 2009, the District Attorney announced the results of the closed grand jury – no indictment. The public still has no answers as to why Pham is dead, and there is a growing sentiment being voiced in the Vietnamese community not to call the police if they need help, lest they risk the fate of being the next Daniel Pham.
And just last week, days before the Phuong Ho video was released and days after the no indictment result of the Pham case, the City Council voted down a set of reforms that would have forced the San Jose Police Department to remove the veil of secrecy surrounding their department, and open up public access to police records. Mind you, these recommendations came from a Sunshine Reform Task Force assembled by the mayor himself, who had now become the most vocal proponent for not disclosing police files.
A number of community groups across ethnic lines – the Asian Law Alliance, NAACP, Vietnamese Association of Northern California, La Raza Lawyers Association, and others – have filed a demand for the immediate release of police reports associated with the Ho case. The city has yet to respond.
San Jose’s Rodney King moment may not lead to riots, but the divides between certain segments of the community and the political class of our highly diverse city are growing into a gulf. Distrust and resentment are building, and the Phuong Ho case may be defining what is broken about our city, as Rodney King defined Los Angeles.
Last night, standing at a rally spearheaded by the Vietnamese community, Pete Carrillo, a leader in the Latino community, turned to me and said, “This was the same exact place we were last year, except [it was] with the Latino community.”
He was right. I was standing in the same place, the same cement block, and we even had the same exact signs from last year – demands for accountability, transparency, an end to racial profiling. A Filipina woman commented on how impressed she was about how quickly the Vietnamese community organizes. “Look at those banners, in just two days!” she said. I didn’t tell her that those banners were originally made for the Daniel Pham rally from two weeks ago, not the Phuong Ho case, and probably didn’t even get folded and put away before it was needed again. I didn’t tell her that I now know how to chant for police accountability in English, Spanish, Tagalog, and Vietnamese – all from this past year. And it is a sad way to learn a language.
Raj Jayadev is director of Silicon Valley Debug.