by Carol Harvey
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]fter an iPhone video shot by a passerby appeared on You Tube, San Francisco Police Department officers retracted a report that they fired on a standing man armed with a buck knife.
The six-minute-plus video taken on Jan. 4, 2011, revealed four San Francisco plainclothes officers and one uniformed officer surrounding and pointing guns at wheelchair-bound Randal Phillip Dunklin, 55.
A startled voice on a San Francisco Examiner-embedded video that the Police Department released, said, “This motherfucker’s got a gun! Four undercovers all gunned out. Ain’t got no witness. Let’s send this shit to Channel Seven.”
The white-haired Dunklin turned his wheelchair around in an attempt to flee. Danielle Harris, Dunklin’s attorney, insisted, “You asked me why he was so upset, and at the point that you’re looking at, he’s got multiple police officers pointing guns at him, having already pepper-sprayed him in the face.
“The purpose of pepper-spraying someone in the face,” she emphasized, “is to make it so that they’re disabled. They achieved that … temporarily putting him in a situation where he couldn’t really see, and he was in a lot of pain.”
Seconds later, as shots rang out striking Dunklin in the groin, his arms flew up, releasing an object into the air. Three more armed, uniformed officers sprinted toward the group as a police siren shrilled to a stop. Dunklin appeared to lie out of sight screaming on the sidewalk behind a seated, dark-haired man receiving first aid.
Sources say Randy Dunklin wheeled from Potrero Avenue to the Behavioral Health Services Center at 1380 Howard and 10th, waiting in his wheelchair in the early morning cold, then entering the building. Harris told me in an interview, “He was there seeking treatment. He was told to return the following day.”
Prosecutor Sanaz Nikaein cited police reports alleging that Dunklin refused to stop smoking, threw concrete blocks at the building and an employee, attacked parking meters and slashed tires. In police reports, officers profiled him for dispatch as “goofy,” requesting non-lethal pepper spray and beanbag guns.
Neither contained him. His blinded eyes stinging from pepper spray, he apparently achieved a Rambo-style lunge toward the unnamed officer, slicing a wound requiring 21 stitches. Yet, the video shows he did not rise from his wheelchair. His attorney attested, “He is in a wheelchair by necessity.” His friend, “Cowboy,” verified that Dunklin cannot stand on his one good leg or scoop and throw concrete blocks. He uses his small, folding pocketknife to slice fruit and meat.
In a San Francisco Superior Court hearing, Dunklin pled not guilty to two counts of assault with a deadly weapon, resisting police, and vandalism. The first charge appears to be the SFPD shoulder stab; the second represents the prosecutor’s claim that he threw the knife at the officer. His defense states he threw it away.
On January 25, I spoke with Dunklin’s longtime Potrero camping buddy, “Cowboy,” who said he was worried about his friend. He suspected incorrect newspaper “facts.” Cowboy was adamant that Dunklin isn’t the kind of guy to lash out at anyone with a knife. He’s a nice, quiet person, Cowboy said, social with a few friends, intelligent, reads a lot.
Lately, Dunklin seemed frustrated by the discomfort of being on the street with two disabilities, one keeping him wheelchair-bound. Though the SFPD requires that Cowboy and Dunklin shift belongings from place to place, neither of the men will stay in SRO hotels infested with roaches and bugs. Dunklin has repeatedly sought, and been turned away from, treatment at San Francisco General Hospital. Cowboy said he never noticed him hearing voices or disassociating.
Repeated incidents of SFPD officers using excessive force on unarmed or mentally disabled people betray a cowboy mentality.
On Dec. 29, 2010, police shot and killed Vinh Bui, 46, a San Francisco Bayview man with a history of mental illness who approached an officer brandishing a knife-like object. Startled by noisy teenagers, Bui apparently “very lightly injured” a 14-year-old girl with a scalpel-like blade.
Only three weeks later, on Jan. 22, 2011, a woman driver chased by police smashed into a Daly City home. As she backed her vehicle up, striking an officer, police shot and critically injured her.
Shocked by these shootings, organizers Jeremy Miller and Mesha Monge-Irizarry, longtime friends and co-leaders of “Education Not Incarceration” and the Idriss Stelley Foundation, galvanized a community of outraged activists on Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday, Jan. 17, 2011, to protest the SFPD’s excessive use of force. Miller told me that, consistent with the rally’s purpose, Dr. King, in his “I have a Dream” speech, condemned “the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”
A decade earlier, on June 13, 2001, Mesha Monge-Irizarry’s mentally ill, honor student son, Idriss Stelley, was shot 48 times by nine police officers inside San Francisco’s Metreon Theater. Mesha converted her crippling post-traumatic stress into tireless advocacy for shooting victims’ families and a campaign promoting police reform and mandatory mental health training programs for the SFPD. (In an act of incomprehensible insensitivity, the SFPD recently released a tutorial video featuring the Idriss Stelley murder.)
On Jan. 17, 2011, Dr. King’s birthday, about 150 marchers led by Miller, Monge-Irizarry, and poet Dee Allen, chanted the names of human targets harmed or killed by the police — Amadou Diallo, Rodney King, and Camryn Boyd.
The march proceeded north from the corner where the Dunklin shooting occurred outside the Department of Public Health Behavioral Health Services Building, then went down 10th Street to San Francisco City Hall.
Monge-Irizarry, Miller and Lydia Heather Blumberg shared the M.C. role and introduced the rally speakers. Advocates for the victims of police violence, many of whom had personally experienced police assault and false imprisonment, spoke, cheered, and performed poetry.
For Miller and Monge-Irizarry, this rally builds toward a meeting on February 1 focusing on the creation of a task force pushing for innovative methods to create block-by-block, grass-roots community justice and “healthy” civilian-monitored police accountability.
“We’re looking at a vote of no confidence in the current composition of the Police Commission and the Office of Citizen Complaints,” said Miller.
Bureaucratic blockage at every level of the criminal justice system offers scant redress for police assaults upon mentally disabled persons and innocents on streets and in jails.
At the rally, a collective intake of breath accompanied Sala Haqueeyah’s description of her torture at the S.F. Hall of Justice — her face was bashed into a wall, her tooth was chipped, and she was left to sleep on a floor with half a blanket, worried about her infant child at home. For her and another victim who testified that she was humiliated by a cavity search, false arrest resulted in no charges.
Supervisors John Avalos and Ross Mirkarimi’s speeches expressed outrage at the shooting of a disabled man. On February 3, at 10:00 a.m., they will co-sponsor a Public Safety Committee hearing to look into the matter.
The rally represented “the launching of a citywide task force,” said Monge-Irizarry. She is advocating that a coalition be formed to address police misconduct and mental health issues, involving the San Francisco Mental Health Association, possibly the Public Defender’s Office, and other grassroots organizations.
Michael Gause, associate director of the Mental Health Association (MHA), said the MHA has “formed a partnership with the Public Defender’s Office, the Coalition on Homelessness, Caduceus Justice, and the Mental Health Board, and other stakeholders.”
Gause called for “concrete solutions to aggression against mental heath consumers by the Police Department.” He said that mental illness and health issues affect almost 25 percent of Americans. Excessive force by SFPD officers could be perpetrated on anyone.
Gause called for “a real dialogue about crisis intervention,” insisting that all officers should undergo training. “Until July of 2010,” he added, “SFPD had 40-hour police crisis-intervention training. Only four people … were shot in the ten years that that was in place. Since July, three mental health consumers have already been shot.” The program should be immediately refunded, he said.
Calling for “real cultural change within the police department,” he said the task force asks for three things at minimum:
- New, comprehensive, crisis-intervention training for all officers provided by mental health consumers.
- Independent investigations into the recent shootings.
- Increased funding for first responders to crises. Gause said, “When you call Mobile Crisis, which has been cut to the bone, they say, ‘Call the police.’” Mobile Crisis, not police, should respond first to mental health situations.
Mental Health Association Executive Director Eduardo Vega, hosting the task force meeting February 1, offered several proposed solutions in absentia.
At their National Policy Summit in June 2010, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) offered protocols for police departments nationwide. In their analysis, people with psychotic symptoms want to be left alone. They yell because they are frightened of people persecuting them. Intervention by force is the worst-case scenario. Crisis intervention officers or teams lift the burden of messy, unpredictable interventions that steal time from a cop’s busy day.
The best progressive programs employ full-time, ride-along, first-responders — dedicated mental health professionals trained in nonviolent crisis intervention with mentally ill people. Two back-up police officers accompany them. Guns are left in the vehicle.
Helyanna Brooke, executive director of the San Francisco Mental Health Board, echoed Gause, in recalling that ten years ago, “MaryKate Connor, Jennifer Friedenbach, and others” started a crisis-intervention training for police, as a collaboration between the mental health department and the police force. Veteran SFPD officers said it was the most valuable training they ever had. It kept down shootings of mentally ill persons until the program’s defunding in 2010 sparked a resurgence. Miller and others feel the money exists in the SFPD, the City’s most heavily funded government entity.
Whatever is lacking, money or will, “we must provide this training for our officers,” Brooke urged.
Brooke outlined effective techniques for dealing with people in psychiatric crises. Keep a good distance. Notice cues: Are they looking left or right, unaware of the officer? Ask if they’re hearing voices and what the voices are saying. Lower your tone to trigger the human reaction to speak quietly, stop body movement, and pay attention. Such information prepares officers for unexpected situations.
The uphill battle to redress what Miller calls a “diseased police bureaucracy” is aggravated by the outgoing mayor’s appointment of SFPD Chief George Gascon to the position of district attorney after he gave thumbs up to his officers’ shooting of Randal Dunklin. Of the absurdity of Gascon’s office both investigating and prosecuting the Dunklin case, Bob Offer-Westort, organizer with the Coalition on Homelessness, noted dryly, “Gascon investigating himself.”
Danielle Harris told me, “I am researching a motion for the District Attorney’s Office to recuse itself. If that motion is filed, it will be filed in court.”