A Personal Story of Police Misconduct in Richmond, California, May 2002
by Andres Soto
On the weekend of Cinco de Mayo, Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, the Richmond Police Department (RPD) and other police agencies (San Pablo PD, Contra Costa County Sheriffs Department and California Highway Patrol, with backup from Berkeley and Oakland PDs) executed a premeditated closure of 23rd St. in Richmond, and 13th and Rumrill Streets in San Pablo.
What happened to me and my family, and our friends and neighbors, including women and children, is just the latest outrage in a history of abuse by the Richmond Police Department against its people. During the course of the evening, the Richmond jail filled with nothing but Latino males, about twenty of us, with only one exception. None of the other men jailed that night have spoken out, which is understandable, since except for myself and my sons, all were Spanish speaking Mexicanos who are rightfully fearful of the consequences. There are more stories out there to be told, and as a community we need to record them. Similarly, we don't know what happened in San Pablo, but we need to learn if there were similar cases of abuse there.
Our story, in short, is as follows:
Around 6:45 p.m. I returned home after performing in a Latin-Jazz group at the alcohol-free Berkeley Cinco De Mayo. On the way home, I had gone shopping for groceries in preparation of making dinner. When I pulled into my driveway I could see there was police activity down on 23rd St. and Lowell. My two sons, Ché, 24, and Alejandro, 23, and I went down to see what was happening and along the way we ran into Annette Lerma, her sister Gina, and four children, Carlos, 16, Junior, 10, my nephew, Felipe, 8, and Gina's daughter, Alexis, 5. They all wanted to get some explanation about was occurring, since they had already been forced away from 23rd St., suffering terrible verbal abuse from the RPD.
When we arrived at the corner of 23rd and Lowell we could see there was nothing occurring on our corner except that an RPD patrol unit was blocking the intersection and not permitting west bound traffic on Lowell to proceed. We could also see that 23rd was blocked across Rheem and there was other police activity further south on 23rd. We attempted to walk down the sidewalk on the east side of 23rd St. to get a closer look at what was occurring.
An RPD officer, who was part of a group of four or five officers, yelled at us from the middle of the street to tell us that we could not walk down the street, but had to turn around and return to our homes. When I asked why, he responded that the street was closed. I told him we didn't want to walk down the street, but down the sidewalk. He said the sidewalk was closed too. I asked why the street was closed. He said they had orders to close it down. Again I asked why was it being closed down and he again said it was orders. I asked who had given the order and specifically asked if Chief Samuels had given the order. The officer responded "No, it was Lt. Zanotelli."
During the course of this conversation another group of about five RPD, including a canine officer, Peixoto, approached us from across the street. One tall, white, RPD officer with a shaved head came directly over to me, put his chest directly up against mine and shoved me back. At the same time another white officer shoved my son Alejandro in the chest with his hand. Alejandro raised his hands and said "You can't touch me." An African-American officer then pulled out his black steel flashlight and appeared to be ready to strike Alejandro with it. My other son, Ché, and I both raised our hands and yelled at the African-American officer, "No Violence, No Violence."
With that, the next thing I know is I am being pepper sprayed directly in my face. I turned to run home and away from the police. As I attempted to run, the tall officer grabbed my shirts and and ripped them completely off. I got about 20 steps when I heard from behind, "Stop or I'll dog ya', I'll dog ya'." I stopped and raised my hands above my head to surrender. I was grabbed from behind and thrown face down to the ground. Then I felt a heavy deep blow to my back, which I thought was a knee in my back, however, our witnesses said it was the African-American officer striking me in the back with a steel flashlight. He fractured my left ribs and left a distinctive contusion on my back. They put handcuffs on me, refused to give me my glasses which had fallen off in the attack, pulled me up by the arms and lined me up, bare-chested, against the wall with my two sons.
While I was suffering this abuse, some of the remaining officers shoved my son Alejandro to the ground on top of Gina and her five-year-old daughter, Alexis. Alejandro picked the little girl up and returned her to her mother, and then was hit in the face with the pepper spray. They then threw him down on the pavement, causing numerous abrasions, cuffed him and then picked him up and threw him against the wall with me.
When Ché saw me being chased by the canine officer; he chased after the dog. When I stopped, he stopped. The RPD then pummeled him, threw him to the ground, and cuffed him. When he lifted his face to see what was going on, they pepper sprayed him at point blank range. Then they rubbed his face into the ground, picked him up, and threw him against the wall with me and Alejandro.
The two young boys in our group, Carlos and Junior, were so scared that during the confusion, they ran down 23rd for a block and into Annette's house and went into hiding from fear of being arrested. Eight-year-old Felipe and five-year-old Alexis were standing in the street crying, confused and terrified at what they had just witnessed. The RPD then ordered the witnesses to leave the area under threat of being pepper sprayed if they did not leave, which they refused to do. They wanted to serve as witnesses to what had just occurred to me and my sons. The RPD then chased the women, children and other witnesses, threatening them with pepper spray, for several blocks.
My sons and I were taken to the RPD headquarters, to jail. The first question we were asked was, "What do you claim 13, or 14?" which is a reference to a gang affiliation. My son, Alejandro, exclaimed, "UC Berkeley!" where he is a full time student.
They gave us a plastic cup, one at a time, to get water out of a faucet to rinse the pepper spray off, which did little good. Eventually they told us we were being booked for "public drunkeness." We demanded to see a doctor for our injuries and were told we would have to be transported by an RPD patrol unit so we would have to wait until one was free, probably 1:00 or 2:00 a.m. We said we would wait. At about 11:00 p.m., after receiving a call from reporter Tom Lochner of the West County Times, Sgt. Bob Flores, peeked into our cell and confirmed the "Soto Family" was in the cell and offered us a deal. If we rescinded our request for medical attention they would release us early. Of course we refused and demanded to make a phone call, which was consistently refused.
During the course of the evening the jail filled with Mexicanos, many of them having been arrested off the sidewalk. At 1:00 a.m. we were told we were being released and given a "Notice to Appear" for an arraignment on June 27, 2002. We were now being charged with "disturbing the peace" and "resisting arrest." I asked about our medical exam. They repeated that we were being released. We subsequently went on our own to the Doctor's Hospital Emergency Room in San Pablo for treatment. We were all given tetanus shots for the broken skin from the cuffs and the pavement, and I was prescribed ibuprofen for the ribs.
If you know of anyone else who suffered from arrest or police abuse have them contact Investigative Officer, Joan Kubota. We must mobilize the public! That means YOU! We must get many members of the public to attend the Police Commission meeting at City Hall on Wednesday June 5, 2002, at 7:00 p.m. to express our outrage at this continuing behavior from "cowboys" like officers Zanotelli, Johnson and Peixoto. We want to know who planned and authorized this concerted attack against our community. Was it Samuels, Bennett, and Zanotelli? What were the protocols for engagement with the public? Did they just expect everybody go along with the wholesale abridgment of our right to peaceably assemble as a community?
Please contact Richmond city officials and express your outrage at the police violence on Cinco De Mayo weekend as a wholesale attack on the Latino community. Even those of you from outside Richmond should call these numbers and register your opinion. We want greater civilian oversight of the Richmond Police Department. We should amend the city ordinance to enhance the powers of the Police Commission, giving them a broader purview to make policy and order discipline. If we don't speak up they will just let it go away. They can break our bones, but they can't break our spirit for "Justice on 23rd St." "Justicia pa' La 23." This time, if enough of us put our voices together, they will have to be heard.
Who to Contact:
Mayor Irma Anderson 510.620.6503
Vice Mayor Tom Butt 510.236.7435
Nat Bates 510.222.1101
Rev. Charles Belcher 510.215.8039
Gary Bell 510.305.7160
Richard Griffin 510.529.1645
Jim Rogers 510.867.5725
Mindell Penn 510.287.9422
Maria Theresa Viramontes 510.236.5977
Police Chief Joe Samuels 510.620.6655
City Attorney Malcolm Hunter 510.620.6509
Police Commission Investigator Joan Kubota 510.307.8032
Police Commission Chair, Bob Sutcliffe 510.307.8032
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