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Police Injury of Homeless Man Still Unresolved
Nearly two years ago, a Santa Cruz police officer injured a homeless man who was already in handcuffs, slamming him face-first into the ground. Caught on video by a bystander, the incident got a lot of attention and the SCPD promised to do a formal investigation. However the results of that investigation have been kept secret, and meanwhile the offending officer is still on the job with no apparent consequences.
As the issue of police accountability continues to spark protest and discussion around the country, Santa Cruz has its own unresolved incident of police violence: the aggressive take-down of Richard Hardy by Santa Cruz Police Officer Nathan Vasquez in 2013. Although the incident was captured on video and widely circulated, after well over a year the SCPD’s internal investigation has not been made public, no apology has been issued to the victim, and Vazquez remains on the job without any apparent consequences.
The incident in question occurred just after midnight the morning of April 22, 2013 on Pacific Ave, where Richard Hardy and a friend, both homeless, were sitting on a bench. Although the men were intoxicated, neither was causing any harm or disruption when Officer Vazquez approached. Brent Adams, a homeless advocate and videographer, witnessed the exchange and began filming. His footage, later viewed widely on Youtube, shows Officer Vasquez declining backup from other officers, and later detaining and cuffing Hardy, who did not resist. When Vasquez tried to push Hardy into the police car, however, Hardy became agitated and started kicking the vehicle. Although Hardy was already cuffed and his kicks directed towards the car, Vasquez responded by wrapping an arm around his neck and performing an aggressive take-down, slamming him face-first into the ground. The blow opened a large gash across the side of Hardy’s face, requiring eight stitches.
Although the police did call for medical assistance, they declined to explain how the injury occurred. The video shows an exchange in which an EMT treating the apparently-unconscious Hardy asks what caused the injury, with Officer Vasquez responding vaguely, “I don’t know, I just kind of spun him,” and then walking away. Although the video was edited for length, witnesses including the videographer confirmed that neither Vasquez nor any other officer shared further information about the incident. This is a departure from standard practice, in which law enforcement share relevant information about an injury to help medical personnel best treat the victim.
Within days of the incident, the SCPD stated that they would perform a formal investigation into the use of force against Hardy. The investigation is said to have been completed several months later, but was neither made public at the time, nor was it released in response to a California Public Records Act request. The author made multiple calls and emails to the SCPD received no reply. Richard Hardy did agree to an interview, saying that he never received an apology nor restitution from the police, and that he would like to sue the City for injuring him, but has yet to find a lawyer. Hardy also stated emphatically that he was not doing anything wrong in the first place, but that, “we were just sitting there” when Officer Vasquez approached, and that, “it’s not fair for police to harass homeless people for things other people do at home.”
Some observers in Santa Cruz have noted similarities between this incident and the police takedown of Eric Garner in Staten Island, which led to Garner’s death and widespread protest, and which was also caught on video. Irene O'Connell, a youth organizer with the Resource Center for Nonviolence, highlights the fact that Garner was approached for selling loose cigarettes, while Hardy was simply sitting on a bench. “This is not about protecting public safety,” she says; “it's about policing ‘quality of life’ crimes that are disproportionately used against people of color and the homeless.” Courtney Hanson, a member of Sin Barras, points out that neither man attacked a police officer, nor posed any immediate threat, yet both were themselves assaulted and injured by officers. “The whole world can see what these officers did,” she says, “so how is it that they continue to operate with zero accountability?”
Part of the answer to that question lies in the close relationship between police and prosecutors. Because police are responsible for gathering and presenting evidence against alleged criminals, they work very closely with prosecutors—including the very officials responsible for deciding whether or not to bring charges against an officer. Due to the potential bias inherent in that situation, many are calling for independent prosecutors to be used in cases involving police violence, an idea that is overwhelmingly supported by the American public.
Here in Santa Cruz, while there has never been an independent prosecutor, there was for many years a Citizen Police Review Board charged with investigating complaints against police officers. This board, which was already fairly limited in its power to respond to such complaints, was disbanded by the City Council in 2003, leaving the role of police review to the City’s Independent Police Auditor. Currently filled by Palo Alto attorney Bob Aronson, the Auditor reviews internal police investigations like that of the Hardy incident to ensure that they are done adequately, but his reports are internal City documents. The public is left in the dark, unable to see any information to demonstrate that police are being held accountable for their actions. With the only available evidence in the Hardy case being the shocking video of his injury, it’s easy for citizens to conclude that police in Santa Cruz are not held to the same standards as everyone else.
FYI I wrote this story originally as a freelance writer for the Good Times, but after I spent over 25 hours on this and another story--both of which I was invited to write, and had kept in contact with the news editor about as I worked on them--they suddenly and rudely pulled the offer.