A recent police brutality case involving a Santa Rosa Junior College student sparked a heated discussion, prompting Sonoma County residents to question who’s at fault: the civilian or the officer.
The short answer? Both.
On her graduation night June 13, 18-year-old Gabbi Lemos stepped out of her Petaluma home to find flashing lights and Deputy Marcus Holton investigating a possible disturbance involving Lemos’ sister.
After a chaotic yelling match, mainly on the part of Lemos’ mother and sister, Lemos started to walk away. Holton then shoved her by the neck and forced her facedown in the gravel driveway, leading to facial swelling, bruising and multiple lacerations. And many people believe she deserved it because the family was loud, uncooperative and demanded rights they didn’t have.
Yes, the women were disorderly and unrelenting. Yes, they were yelling and possibly escalating the situation. No, that doesn’t give the officer the right to force a young woman’s face in gravel and get her sent to the hospital just because the family annoyed him.
A police officer has the obligation to be more morally upright than the average citizen. They are supposed to protect and serve; that includes behaving justly to unruly people.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, out of nearly 44 million U.S. citizens ages 16 and over who’ve had face-to-face contact with police from 2002 to 2011, 715,500 experienced threat or use of nonfatal force. The Arrest-Related Deaths program and the Supplementary Homicide Reports estimate an average of 928 law enforcement homicides per year.
These statistics hit close to home for many Americans who’ve seen police brutality and homicide cases become viral in the past few years. Sonoma County is still reeling over a deputy’s shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez in 2013.
Sheriff’s Deputy Erick Gelhaus, the officer who shot Lopez and escaped criminal charges, has a history of using excessive force. In one incident in 1996 he was accused of pulling his gun on a woman and her child in a neighborhood dispute.
Gelhaus isn’t the only officer with a record of unnecessary force. Holton was also cleared of all criminal offenses after he shot a man during an encounter on Todd Road in 2011. The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office currently has six pending civil rights lawsuits against it, Lemos’ included.
An officer should be trained to act in a professional manner and behave with patience and civility. In February, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and Police Chief Greg Suhr announced reforms to train police officers on emphasizing time and distance to de-escalate tense confrontations. The reform calls for officers to use proper verbal skills to engage the suspect and create a buffer zone to reduce the need for the use of force.
While Lemos’ family exacerbated the altercation, Holton should have known how to proficiently handle the ordeal without using excessive force against an 18-year-old girl who was simply walking away from an out-of-control situation.
Excessive acts of police brutality resulted in officers having to wear body cameras. What good do these cameras do if footage is held from the public? In Lemos’ case, the video wasn’t released until the case gained media attention and made citizens question who was at fault.
In response to gray-area cases where both parties involved could be liable, U.S. citizens started Cop Watch. The program is focused on letting members of the community know their rights and encourages people to hold police officers accountable for their actions.
If Americans are going to fully trust law enforcement again, the militarization of police officers needs to stop. Reforms such as the one in San Francisco to train officers to de-escalate situations should be enacted nationwide and here in Sonoma County.