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In a nation defined by the concepts of justice, due process, and the rule of law, police must obey the law while they enforce the law. So who polices the police?
We depend on the local district attorney’s office to investigate the conduct of police officers. Now the Orange County District Attorney’s office has been called upon to investigate misconduct against Kelly Thomas, the Fullerton man who was beaten to death by six police officers last month.
Can we rely on Tony Rackauckas to police the police? His record speaks for itself.
The OC Weekly reported that as of 2004, “[d]uring Rackauckas's 10-year reign, the DA's office has only once pursued charges in an officer-involved shooting case (against Douglas Bates, a customs officer, in 2005)”.
There have been many more shootings—and many more officers cleared. Indeed, between January 2006 and September 2010, there were 73 officer-involved shootings in Orange County, more than half of them fatal. The DA's office was responsible for conducting investigations into nearly all of them.
In 2007, the DA's office cleared two Huntington Beach police officers involved in the shooting death of Ashley MacDonald, who was shot 15 times when she charged at the officers with a knife. In that case, the DA's office upheld the Sheriff's Department policy that if an armed suspect is less than 21 feet away, an officer who fears for his or her life is allowed to shoot to kill.
In 2009, Rackauckas’ office cleared an Anaheim officer who shot 20 year old Julian Alexander. Alexander had walked into his yard carrying a stick to investigate a commotion while his pregnant wife and in-laws slept inside. An officer shot him twice in the chest and then handcuffed him. Julian Alexander later died at a local hospital.
At that time, I was the Director of the ACLU of Southern California’s Orange County office, and I called for Rackauckas to conduct a complete and rigorous investigation of the officer’s conduct. The officer was back on duty two months later.
So we continue to question whether the DA can be relied on for an impartial investigation of Kelly Thomas’ death. The DA’s response to these concerns -- that in 2008 his office filed charges against Christopher Hibbs, an Orange County sheriff's deputy accused of tasering an armed-robbery suspect who was handcuffed in the back of his patrol car – sounds like the proverbial exception that proves the rule.
It’s time to make a change. Whether it’s having the state attorney general or the federal department of justice investigate or creating a civilian review board to investigate, we need to ensure police accountability -- to make sure police officers know that they will be held responsible for their actions when they use excessive force.
Hector Villagra is the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.