Saturday, October 3, 2009

Observing and Reporting the SLPD

The Citizen
San Leandro Police Officer Dan Sellers doesn't like the media, I would guess. He is, after all, the local cop alleged to have killed Boo Boo the dog this spring for which he and the city is being sued. I mention this because I met Sellers last night on a DUI stop in the Manor. It wasn't me he pulled over. I had two Budweisers earlier in the night, but that's like drinking water. Instead, I was following friends home who may have been less lucid than I, but this story isn't about them as much as it is about what we will put up with as San Leandrans.

The encounter began when four San Leandro squad cars buzzed through the Manor around 2:30 a.m. Saturday morning. A loud exchange urging the clearly inebriated passenger to leave the driver's seat alerted a resident waking his dog to summon the cops. What this man was doing walking his pooch at the time is another story. A police car sped around me to help his colleague. I pulled my car over a safe distance and watched. When the driver emerged from the car and walked to the sidewalk, I got out and stood on the sidewalk, watching and observing. I said nothing, crossed my arms and stood no more than 20 feet away. Another officer would later approach me and asked what had transpired earlier. Initially, he thought I was the man who called dispatched. I told him the story and he left. I saw him interrupt Sellers as he performed the sobriety test on the woman.

Earlier I saw Sellers behaving tersely with the driver. "Work with me! How many drinks do you think you had? Five?" She uttered less than five and said she had a vodka mixed with an energy drink. "Ah, an alcohol speedball," Sellers said, as if the case was suddenly becoming clear. "I just wanted to go home and be with me daughter," the crying woman said. "Where is your daughter?" he said with a contemptuous tone, "She's at home with my mom."

The field sobriety test was shocking in its implementation. Sellers rattled off the instructions about as fast as the famous commercial with the FedEx speed talker in the 1980s. How a perfectly sober person could understand him would be defy the odds let alone someone with a few drinks. As I talked to the other officer, I could see the driver with arms outstretched on one occasion and standing on one foot at another, all the time with a strange uncomfortably crooked smile. The one you might make when you not sure if someone is serious or not, so you hedge your bets on both emotions.

When Sellers approached me, he told me to I was "free to go." In my case, this phrase became a euphemism for "I won't answer your question" and "Leave." I told the officer, I did not want to leave because I wanted to await the fate of my friends. "You're free to leave." This is where most of us should be concerned about our rights as citizens and the attitude law enforcement in this city has towards fairness and decency.
The four cops exhibited a concerted effort to block anybody from watching what they were doing on this mildly cold early autumn morning. What happened after I left?
"I'm a journalist in this city and I want to observe what is going on because, frankly, I believe you are badgering her," I said. In hindsight, this sentence seems a bit crazy to be addressin towards a police officer. It wasn't until afterwards that I learned Sellers was the officer spotlighted in the local media for allegedly firing his weapon at what the owners say was a canine posing no threat to the officers. I don't think he likes the media much, yet probably doesn't need any more headlines.

"People think we're below human," Sellers told me, "What looked like badgering to you was actually me trying to lighten up the mood." Lighten up the mood? Quickly barking instructions and making cute jokes at a clearly upset and frightened woman who thinks she's going to slammer does not sound helpful, in fact, it's sadistic. Kind of like holding someone hostage and firing your gun at their feet to make them dance for your amusement.

"You're free to go." This is how the officer answered my question to why a person standing in a public space, posing no interference to their work, could not merely observe what they were doing. "You can file a complaint if you want, I'm the only Sellers in the department," he said. Not appreciating the brush-off I said, "I would rather publish a story that thousands could read instead."

When I continued to press the question, Sellers cut me off and asked, "Have you been drinking tonight?" I told him yes, "two beers." He didn't believe me and thought maybe I had more than two." I laughed and rolled my eyes in amazement and asked how he knew that. "I can smell the alcohol on your breath," he said from two feet away. Wow, I thought. I must have been using a string of words featuring the explosive sounding letter "p" as in "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers." This only illustrated this officers ease in using his authority as a policeman to intimidate a citizen.

"You're free to go." I thought about what this clever phrase really meant. "You're free to go" really means yes we can't stop you from observing, but we don't want you to. In fact, the resident of the home where the stop occurred had earlier came outside to see what was happening in front of his house only to be shooed back indoors.

What was apparent is these four cops exhibited a concerted effort to block anybody from watching what they were doing on this mildly cold autumn morning. What happened after I left? According to the women, Sellers offered the driver a deal. If you're mother answers the phone, she can pick you up. If she doesn't, you're going downtown. At nearly 3 a.m., Mom didn't pick up and she was arrested. The passenger told me later that one of the officers told her, "You're journalist friend isn't going to help your friend tonight."

Turns out he was right, but maybe we can help the rest of you. The Citizen has recently began to focus on the San Leandro Police Department with help from some new writers. With numerous lawsuits filled recently against the city and department, we cannot wait for the local mainstream media to act when they have been obscenely absent with the hospital and crossing guard issues.

Officers are allegedly shooting animals, female cops are being sexually harassed and questions about the fairness of hiring practices are slowly becoming public knowledge. In the short term, City Hall chose to ignore these problems and hired a new police chief from within than enlist a set of fresh eyes.

The behavior of Officer Sellers is hopefully not a symbol of what is eroding the public perception of the police department, but it needs a far more sharper focus than the media or our local politicians have attempted.

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