Unnecessary trauma Officer-involved shootings reopen old wounds in already distressed communities

Photo | Alma Cervantes holds her daughter Annavi at a memorial for Brenda Rodriguez Mendoza. 

OPINION | 

By Claudia Meléndez Salinas
Photos by David Royal

On Feb. 11, former Salinas City Councilwoman Kimbley Craig posted on her Facebook page the final tally of the Salinas City Elementary school district’s vote on whether to accept or deny bringing in school resource officers.The vote was the third attempt by Salinas Police Chief Adele Frese since 2017 to place school officers in a major school district — Santa Rita Union, student population 2,000, already said yes and the program is getting accolades from parents and community members alike.

But the vote at Salinas City was 4-0 against, with one board member abstaining. Craig’s Facebook followers mostly expressed dismay on her Facebook post, with many calling the move a “disservice to the kids,” “putting politics over children” and a “cultural problem” since certain parents “teach” their kids that police “should not be trusted.”

When I posted in her thread, and tried to explain that perhaps it was time people listened to what the community is saying, I was accused of being one of these “parents” who teach children that cops are “bad people” and should not be trusted. While Craig was gracious and open, there was no interest from her Facebook followers in listening to me (and Craig in a subsequent phone call clarified many of those who chimed in were not Salinas residents). But at the time, people seemed more interested in labeling me and dismissing my argument without further ado.

Oh, how I wished these people could have seen the Salinas Police Department’s war zone tank parked in the middle of one of our poorest neighborhoods to contain a 20-year-old woman. In my wild imagination, the Facebook commenters would understand that the last thing their neighbors need — after worrying about lack of adequate housing, hunger, mental health issues and a myriad of issues that go hand-in-hand with poverty — is to worry about having police officers where school counselors should be placed. Maybe these neighbors would see that having a swarm of officers in an already traumatized community to deal with a very distressed community member only creates more trauma, resentment and fear.

I hope they saw the footage. I hope they read a story in the Monterey County Weekly that describes Brenda Berenice Rodríguez Mendoza, 20, as suffering from postpartum depression and as having run out of her meds. I hope they saw she was living in a car and was desperate because she wanted to recover her baby, but because she was homeless and had a history of drug abuse, she knew she was facing a mountain of hurdles. Seen through the lens of postpartum depression, the hurdles must have looked to Brenda the size of Mount Everest.

As has been customary since 2014, the Monterey County District Attorney’s office took over investigation of the incident. It’s unlikely the officers will be found to have done anything wrong,  a belief that was evident Friday at a gathering to honor the young mother. During Friday’s event, which took place in the same spot where the Salinas Police Department was scheduled to announce receiving a “community policing” award, several speakers said they feared there would be no consequences for the police officers who shot her. All the officers have to do is say they believed their lives were in danger, the speakers said. For the record, I did not attend but watched a YouTube recording made by the ubiquitous Wes White.

It’s not that the community does not want to trust the police, several of the speakers said. “We expect the cops to help us, we expect them to keep us safe,” said Debbie Ramos of the Brown Berets. “We should not have to live with  an anti-police mindset. They are public safety. They’re supposed to be there for our safety,” Seaside activist Rosalyn Charles said.

Maybe the community would also like to know how officers are trained to respond when a gun, a real gun, is pointed at them. What goes through their minds? And in the heat of the moment, can they tell the difference?

But when you see officer-involved shootings where all the blame is placed on the victim — s/he was on drugs, s/he was acting erratically — and seldom, if ever, any acknowledgment that perhaps, maybe, the police did kill some innocent person in error, well, the community will act with distrust. And for trust to be re-established, there needs to be an acknowledgment that a wrong has occurred. That a certain death should have never happened. That the Salinas police are sorry for having caused the unnecessary death of a resident. An unnecessary trauma.

At Friday’s event, where about 60 people gathered to express their condolences to Brenda’s mother, community members asked the Salinas Police Department to express regret.

“Say you’re sorry, PD. If they say they’re sorry, if they know what they did was wrong … maybe that would be on the record to show they’re human. Say you’re sorry, PD,” community activist Xago Juarez said, leading the crowd in a chant. “Say you’re sorry, PD.”

Brenda’s mother was so overcome with grief she declined to speak during Friday’s rally. And the pain will never go away, Joe Frank Alvarado, father of a man killed by Salinas Police officers in July 2014, told her. She will always remember how her baby died, he said.

A few months from now, there may be only a handful of people who will remember Brenda — her boyfriend and friends and family, those who knew what made her smile and the comfort she brought to people’s lives. But in this community full of grief and challenges, the trauma of seeing yet another young person killed at the hands of the police — at the hands of those we expect to protect us — the trauma will last. Expect to see it on display in the next few weeks at the next City Council meeting, where activists promised to go next to express their grievance. And at a presentation by Alex Vitale, author of “The End of Policing,” at Hartnell College on Thursday.

Expect to see it for sure the next time the Salinas Police Department wants to place police officers in the schools. It may confound you to see how passionate activists are, it may surprise you to see how many in the community feel this way. It may even make you feel the community is being manipulated into this or other attitudes or beliefs. But you see, the pain is real. It’s the cherry on top of the grievance cake.

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Claudia Meléndez Salinas

About Claudia Meléndez Salinas

Claudia Meléndez Salinas is an author, journalist, open water swimmer, and cat lover. | Claudia Meléndez Salinas es autora, periodista, nadadora de aguas abiertas, y aficionada a los gatos.