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By Royal Calkins
I wrote a column a lot like this several years ago after the police fatally shot a boy who was brandishing a gun in a low-rent neighborhood. It was long enough ago that I can’t remember the boy’s name and I can’t find the piece in the digital archive. I apologize for that and hope you’ll bear with me.
This is about the way police respond to things differently in different neighborhoods. About how a distress call in an upscale neighborhood is likely to set off a more measured response than the same type of call in a less prosperous part of town.
I’m revisiting the topic because of yet another case of a cop fatally shooting a young man who was brandishing a gun in a low-rent neighborhood.This time it was 19-year-old Gerardo Martinez, who was killed Friday night after Salinas police were dispatched to his home on Smith Street between Highway 101 and East Alisal Street.
This is about how in some parts of town, police respond quickly and reflexively, surrounding the potential perpetrator and opening fire when their commands don’t produce the desired outcome right away. And about how in another part of town, a nicer part, the same officers might take a more measured response, a more patient approach less likely to end with a body in the doorway. Can I prove my theory? No, but I suspect that’s because we don’t hear much about the calls that don’t end in gunfire.
Police officers I know and respect dismiss my theory, but not entirely. They say a situation is a situation no matter where it starts and that officers handle it the way they are trained without letting preconceptions write the script. But when pressed, those same officers will admit that maybe there is too much one-size-fits-all thinking in police academy classrooms and that officer safety is not their only mission.
I’ll elaborate in a bit.
On Friday, a neighbor reported that Martinez had pointed a gun at her and was acting odd. Salinas police arrived quickly and surrounded the little house. They launched a camera-equipped drone to get a good look at things. They called Martinez on the phone, trying in Spanish to coax him into dropping the gun and coming outside, hands up.
Unfortunately, Martinez spoke an indigenous dialect and didn’t speak Spanish. Even more unfortunately, according to Salinas police, he did eventually come outside and point the gun at the cops, out of confusion or malice, no one knows. A rifle shot fired by an officer crouched behind a squad car ended the young man’s life.
It turned out that Martinez’s weapon was a BB gun, but that won’t matter. It looked like a real gun and that’s what counts when it comes to sorting things out for official purposes.
So the investigations have begun. Internal affairs. The District Attorney’s Office. They’ll look at whether the officer should be charged with a crime, which is about as likely as Martinez rising from the dead. They’ll look at whether any officers violated procedures, which is almost as unlikely.
(Maybe I’m too cynical, but I was struck by the authorities quickly disclosing the name of the officer who shot Martinez. Usually they sit on the identity for days or weeks, explaining they want to spare the officer any unnecessary pain. Did they announce it quickly this time because of the officer’s Spanish surname, figuring that would erase any talk of a racial element?)
What the pro forma investigations very likely will not look at is what might have been done to avoid gunfire, to have avoided a deadly confrontation in a dark, crowded neighborhood, to have approached the situation in a way without such a predictable outcome.
Even as the United States has entered into a period of reassessing how police respond to a wide range of situations, shootings like this remain too common. The scenario seems to play out regularly in just about every wrong-side-of-town community. A call for help. Cops responding quickly and bravely. Drama. Confusion. Gunfire. A dead boy or young man. A traumatized cop exonerated months later.
I must admit I never thought all that deeply about any of that until I covered a similar shooting while working as a police reporter for a Fresno newspaper. That was more than two decades ago, but the lessons are timely.
Cops might well have acted completely differently if the rifle shots had been fired in a relatively swanky neighborhood.
Eighteen-year-old Raul Rangel was home alone in a barrio neighborhood. Neighbors called police because it sounded like he had fired rifle shots from the front porch. The house was a small one on a large lot with no landscaping. There was no fence, nothing to stop Fresno police officers from surrounding the house, crouching by the doors and windows, while the highest ranking fellow in uniform picked up a bullhorn and instructed Rangel to come outside.
The boy stayed inside quite a while but eventually opened the front door. Unfortunately, he held the rifle in his hands and it was pointed outward, toward the police. They say he was dead before he hit the floorboards of the porch.
There was never any question that the officers would be found blameless, that the responsibility would fall on Rangel’s slight shoulders. That’s partly because no one could ever determine what was going on in his mind. Toxicology tests determined he was high but they didn’t shed any light on what he was thinking.
The investigations determined that the responding officers had done everything by the book. Maybe the book was wrong or simply outdated.
My theory started to develop after I went to the Rangel house days later to check things out, and how intrusive I was because of the shabbiness of the neighborhood and my own frame of mind. When there was no response to my knock on the door, I walked around the house and peeked in the kitchen window. An old stove. A tiny refrigerator and faded linoleum. Nothing of particular interest. No fence to stop me from snooping.
It occurred to me then that the Fresno cops might well have acted completely differently if the rifle shots had been fired in a relatively swanky neighborhood. Rather than surrounding the landscaped house and crouching behind the fancy fence, I suspect the cops might have gone next door and talked to the neighbors. Who lives there, they would have asked. Is there anyone else home? Do you know where his parents are?
There’s a decent chance the neighbors might have said the parents are out to dinner or they’re at the country club or maybe working late. Someone might have been able to find a relative of the boy with a gun, someone who could have talked him into putting it down.
Rangel’s family and the Latino community overall were outraged by what happened, and the police seemed absolutely baffled by the reaction.
Years later, I covered a series of shootings by a disturbed San Joaquin Valley man. He killed a couple of people before heading to the hills with his young son.
It wasn’t long before a SWAT team found him holed up in a cabin with his rifle and the boy. A cop I know well was the squad sniper that day. The instruction was that if he had a clear shot, he should take it.
After an hour or so, the gunman stepped out the front door. My friend the sniper had a clear shot and was about to take it when he realized the boy, 4 or 5 years old, was standing next to the father. My friend realized that if he took the shot, the boy’s last image of his father would be his head exploding.
He didn’t take the shot. The gunman went back inside and was captured shortly afterward when the SWAT team swarmed the cabin.
My friend was terribly disappointed in himself. He was glad it all ended peacefully, but he felt as though he had failed his fellow officers. What if the gunman had gone on to shoot an officer? What if the decision to spare the boy’s psyche had led to further violence later? I believe my friend came close to resigning.
These things aren’t simple. The officer who took the shot at Martinez isn’t evil. The police don’t always have hours or even minutes to sort things out. But these situations turn into tragedies, for everyone involved, too damned often, and isn’t it time, for the sake of all the Gerardo Martinezes out there, that we learn from our mistakes?
Before Martinez was shot, it is possible that Salinas police did more probing into the circumstances than they have let on. My efforts to find that out have been frustrated by the way an official cone of silence gets dropped on these cases as soon as the formal investigations begin. Once the police agency says the DA’s office will head up the investigation, no one is authorized to tell the media anything other than go away.
So how about this? When everything is wrapped up and more is said publicly about what happened on Smith Street, I’ll revisit this topic again. If I’m right about how it could have worked out differently, I’ll write another reminder. And if I’m wrong, I’ll write about that too.
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