Posted on September 10, 2017
In the months since Officer Keith Boyer was killed the City of Whittier has grieved. During this time, partnering with our Mayor Joe Vinatieri and Assemblyman Ian Calderon, a Whittier local, sponsored AB 1408. Neither Vinatieri nor Calderon has offered substantive evidence to defend this bill beyond naked assertions and emotive force. Still, Vinatieri and Calderon have so far successfully been able to appeal to what they call systemic problems within the justice system, and their bill, they claim, will help fix those problems.
But late last October a young Black man, a Whittier College student suffering from a mental health crisis, punched out his own window while home alone harming no one. Still, a neighbor called the police and he was arrested by eight Whittier police officers who, while apprehending him, tasered him and shot him with rubber bullets.
Police released him without charging him, which means that even though they used violence against him he’d done nothing wrong.
The young man then dropped out of college and hasn’t returned to Whittier since.
About two weeks later José Alvarez, who had a history of mental health issues, was seen early in the morning near the corner of Painter Avenue and Penn Street carrying a machete. Police were called. They say Alvarez charged them after they confronted him. But given that police are unqualified to act as first responders to a mental health crisis they again failed to recognize the situation for what it was so they couldn’t have responded as they should have. Instead they shot and killed him.
Then in May Jonathon Salcido, a young man whose mental health issues Whittier police knew of and had responded to in the past, was apparently killed by Whittier police while he also suffered a mental health crisis. Pictures of the incident seem to show what the family claim: Whittier police smothered him to death.
Here we have a definite pattern of Whittier police acting as first responders to mental health crises — and in all three cases over the past year they failed to perform their duty: they brutalized or killed the ones they should have protected.
There is a contrast, then, between the way Whittier’s leaders responded to Officer Boyer’s death and the way they responded to the injuries and deaths of our own citizens who were brutalized by Whittier police officers responding to their mental health crises.
Today Jonathon Salcido’s family are suing the City of Whittier for $15 million because they witnessed Whittier police kill their brother, their son, rather than respond as though it actually were a mental health crisis. The family are receiving vitriol in response, abusive and hateful language from their own neighbors and community. This lawsuit has turned into an act of courage and resolve on their part, one that strikes a chord in today’s political climate.
So I invite us to think critically together:
What conditions would we need for us to agree there might be a systemic problem within our local police department?
How many citizens suffering from mental health crises need to be injured or killed before we reconsider whether Whittier police officers are qualified as first responders?
What further kinds of evidence would we need before we acted in favor of new training, of an oversight committee, of transparency, or even of defunding and reinvesting?
It took the death of one officer for Mayor Vinatieri and Assemblyman Calderon to call for systemic change. How many citizens’ deaths will it take for our leaders to seek further systemic change, to protect the people of Whittier who may have mental health issues?
Yes, many of us are at odds when we discuss police, racism, abuse of power, law and order, systemic injustices, and so on, especially in today’s political climate. We are a charged people.
Which is to say, even within our Whittier community we risk not hearing each other.
So I ask us to pause, to consider how we reason about these issues. Together, let’s ask questions about how we arrive at the positions we hold to.
Can we grieve the loss of Officer Boyer while also seeking justice for those who have suffered because of Whittier police?
If not, what would it take for us to consider changing our mind?
Carlos Antonio Delgado