Latino man’s death in Tucson fuels debate over police brutality on Hispanics

Hispanic leaders are amplifying their calls for police reform following the revelation that a Latino man died while in police custody in Tucson nearly two months ago.

Carlos Ingram López died on April 21, but his death was not made public until video of his death was released by police Tuesday. The officers involved in the incident resigned last week and Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus offered to resign as well, as Mayor Regina Romero expressed indignation over the incident.

“You could have a progressive city council and the most progressive police chief but with decades of bad policing and bad police culture you’re not going to turn it around easily,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.).

Gallego also warned against those within police departments who are resisting reform at the state and local level.

“[Opponents of reform] are wrong and more importantly, they have no choice,” said Gallego.

“Civilian-led city councils and cities decide new methods,” he added. “They can get with it or go police somewhere else that fits their needs.”

The House is set Thursday to pass a comprehensive police reform package that bans certain arrest methods like chokeholds and makes it easier to identify police misconduct.

However, the bill is not expected to be taken up by the Senate as Republicans in the chamber have issued their own reform legislation that is less comprehensive than the one proposed by House Democrats.

Gallego himself called the Democratic proposal just “a first step in looking at all the issues between law enforcement and minority communities.” 

In Arizona, local police oversight is controlled at the state level through the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, known as AZPost, a law enforcement training and regulation system.

“A bigger problem is the police system in Arizona was set up under the AZPost system that allows them to police themselves,” said Gallego.

Across the country, the debate over who trains and certifies police officers is creating friction not only between the left and right of the political spectrum, but also between local politicians, police administrators and police officers.

“We want to protect our own when it may be borderline. We want to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt and I think that’s natural to any organization,” said Jeffry Queen, a security consultant who’s a former Tuscaloosa, Ala., sheriff’s deputy.

Queen said that when a police violence incident becomes public, the officers on the ground often feel abandoned by their administrators.

“The question becomes, what is the law, what is the policy and are administrators reacting in a knee-jerk way to get ahead of the media circus that is inevitably going to be created, or are they standing by their officers and waiting for an investigation?” said Queen.

“There is a very divided line between law enforcement administration and actual street cops,” he added. “If you don’t have a clear standard and you’re not clearly communicating that standard to your people and not continuously reviewing and training and upgrading that, your people are not going to do what you want them to do 100 percent of the time.”

But training, both at the academy level and for active duty officers, has met resistance from politicians, administrators and officers alike.

“Spending more money on training is not sexy, buying the best and coolest equipment is sexy. Officers getting a good and deserved pension is sexy, getting big pay raises is sexy,” said Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.), who focused on juvenile justice programs while in the California Assembly and the Los Angeles City Council.

“Every single one of those items competes against each other in the budget process,” added Cárdenas.

And concern has grown, primarily on the left, that police officers are often sent to do work that either medical professionals or social workers should be doing.

“One half of it is, our society — and voters have been OK with it — has asked to just keep feeding more responsibilities into the police and sheriff’s departments,” said Cárdenas.

“Police chiefs and sheriffs will tell you they did not sign up to be councilors, psychiatrists — with all due respect, nor have they been properly trained for this,” he added.

But there are core differences of opinion on whether social workers or other nonlaw-enforcement government workers are capable of responding to potentially dangerous situations.

“You can’t teach sensitivity training to police the way you do with other people, because you’ll see more officers get killed, because the number one reason officers get killed is they don’t use enough force soon enough,” said Queen.

“You cannot effectively manage non-violent calls — you don’t know it’s a non-violent call until that suspect is secured and taken to jail or a medical facility,” he added.

Still, police forces have continued to grow even as violent crime in the United States has remained relatively low for the past decade.

According to the Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, there are more than 800,000 sworn law enforcement agents in the country, the highest number in history.

“Police departments are a big part of public safety,” said Cárdenas, who remarked that the Los Angeles Police Department budget had grown by almost $500 million since he left City Council for Congress in 2013.

“When I hear people say ‘defund the police department,’ what will work is if you look at public safety as the Police Department, mental health programs, community based programs, after school programs,” said Cárdenas.

“When you look at all of that as helping our streets be safer, you should spend $1.75 billion in L.A. on public safety as a whole, but you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket called the Police Department,” he added.

Still, the current debate is not driven by budget and policy considerations, but by the disproportionate exercise of police violence against communities of color.

“We certainly do not have it as bad as the African American community but you can’t deny there is a certain level of racism targeted at Latinos by police,” said Gallego.

Gallego and Cárdenas had little problem recalling instances where they’d been targeted by police, presumably because they are Hispanic.

“I’m a pretty light skinned Latino and when they looked at my license I’m the one who was pulled out and questioned,” said Gallego of his experience interacting with police officers in his youth.

“I wish I were like my white male friends who can count on one hand the times they’ve been pulled over,” said Cárdenas.

Both Cárdenas and Gallego said the Democratic police reform proposal is a first step toward better policing and less danger for people of color, but warned that the underlying causes that create that danger will require constant attention.

“Whether we like it or not we have been consciously and subconsciously fed our entire lives that men of color are people you should more fear than respect,” said Cárdenas.

“Millions more Americans are willing to admit there’s a problem in America that people are not being treated equal. However, not everybody’s in agreement on what should take place and what solutions we should perpetuate and invest in,” he added.

Tags Ruben Gallego

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