Watching the power struggle between “The Suits” and “The Brutes” in the trial of two Palo Alto police charged with savagely beating a man without cause reminds me of the wisdom of the African proverb, “When elephants fight, the grass gets crushed. When elephants make love, the grass gets crushed.”
Neither side disputes these facts: on July 13, 2003, around 10:30 p.m., 60-year-old African-American Albert Hopkins sat in his parked car on a Palo Alto street about a mile from his home as Palo Alto Police Department Officer Craig Lee rolled up and asked for identification. After Mr. Hopkins refused, PAPD Officer Michael Kan arrived and ordered Mr. Hopkins out of the car.
The encounter turned violent, with Kan and Lee repeatedly hitting Mr. Hopkins with their batons before covering him with pepper spray until he was temporarily blinded and handcuffed. Mr. Hopkins was brought to Stanford Hospital, where he was treated for body injuries and a swelling near his eye.
But when Kan and Lee took Mr. Hopkins to the station and filed their reports, they discovered that other police viewed the incident differently. Mr. Hopkins was not charged with any crime. Instead Kan and Lee found themselves facing a criminal investigation, led by PAPD Sgt. Mike Denson, that concluded they were not entitled to use any force against Mr. Hopkins.
Assistant District Attorney Peter Waite argued, “A person who is minding their own business, sitting in a car on a public street, doesn’t have to identify themselves to police, and the police are not entitled to arrest them or beat them.” Consequently, he said, the force used was excessive because there was no lawful authority for it.
The officers were charged with felony assault under color of authority and misdemeanor battery. If convicted, they would be barred from serving as police in California – and may be sentenced to up to three years in prison.
Just as Mr. Hopkins found his life suddenly transformed by a pair of rookies, those same rookies now find themselves thrust into Santa Clara County’s debate on managing the public’s perception of the police: Suits vs. Brutes.
One side, mainly in elected offices, senses the public’s profound distrust of police and the system supporting them and is struggling to contain the rising discontent by tweaking the rules of engagement between the public and the criminal justice system. So, for example, as fatal shootings by police in San Jose rose to near record levels – in an area with a low crime rate – the DA opened the normally secret grand jury hearings for the last two killings in 2003, though only the second returned an indictment.
On the other side, resisting any change in police methods, are the police advocacy organizations – the unions and their legal representatives – along with police chiefs. The San Jose union strongly rejected public meddling in police killings, so none of the five cases of fatal shootings by San Jose police in 2004 went to an open grand jury.
San Jose Police Chief Rob Davis, speaking in the forked-tongue style that is his specialty, said he sympathized with those on both sides, but his department should remain neutral. Then he said, “My position is that in general I think it’s a good idea that they (grand jury hearings) are closed. However, I recognize that there are times when a community may see a need to keep it open.” Strip that statement of its token posturing to the community, and you’re left with Davis confirming the union position.
Kan and Lee come to their trial backed by the same unholy trinity. Their defense is crafted by a union attorney who is very experienced, though lacking in acquittals. Craig Brown represented the:
- Oakland Rider who fled to avoid prosecution.
- PAPD vice officer sentenced to a year in jail for five sexual attacks committed on duty.
- San Jose police officer convicted of drunken driving and hit-and-run after an off-duty car crash that the officer originally blamed on “two Black males” who he claimed carjacked him.
- Los Gatos detective who pleaded no contest to charges that he and a judge fixed traffic tickets for San Jose Sharks and Earthquakes team members.
Dropping Davis’ pretense of neutrality, PAPD Chief Lynne Johnson has boldly rejected both the criminal investigation by members of her own department and the decision of the judge to go to trial – while maintaining Kan and Lee at full pay.
Last week, during jury selection for the trial, the elephants evidently had lovingly agreed to limit the scope of the debate to “blue vs. black,” with Prosecutor Waite channeling Mr. Hopkins’ claim of racial bias, while the defense claims the police are color-blind. But the grass proved to be extraordinarily tough – most potential jurors implicitly rejected the restriction, and instead saw the proceedings as a forum on police practices.
Strong criticism of police cut across demographic lines:
- A White mother of a 54-year-old: “I wondered if, with two officers there, it was necessary to beat and spray him.”
- A young white professional alluded to the San Jose police shooting of a young Vietnamese mother – that occurred just hours before the Hopkins beating: “If I kill a burglar in my home, I go to jail. Yet a policeman shoots someone holding a paring knife in her own kitchen and he gets a review at most.”
- A Taiwanese man’s experience with San Jose police: “I mistakenly turned into the wrong driveway. Police came with guns drawn and twisted my arm.”
With the potential jurors sharply divided between police loyalists and those fed up with excessive force, it took four days to find 12 jurors – from 160 candidates – that satisfied all sides, though only one day was scheduled for jury selection. The grass is growing beyond control and threatening to ensnare the elephants – whether they fight or make love.
The trial resumes this week in Superior Court at the Hall of Justice, 190-200 Hedding St., San Jose. Albert Hopkins is looking for the Black community to turn out in support. The trial is expected to continue for at least two more weeks.
Email Junya at firstname.lastname@example.org.