Two weeks ago, the story and video of a San Francisco public defender arrested for protecting her client’s Fifth Amendment rights went viral.
After deputy public defender Jami Tillotson blocked police from talking to her client and demanding he pose for photos, San Francisco Police Sergeant Brian Stansbury told Tillotson, “If you continue with this, I will arrest you for resisting arrest.”
Tillotson said, “Please do,” and Stansbury proceeded to wrongfully arrest a deputy public defender.
Now Tillotson has filed a complaint against the six SFPD officers that arrested her. An excerpt of her statement is below.
Jami Tillotson’s complaint
Following Tillotson’s “unreasonably rough” arrest, she was led to a “secure zone” inside the Hall of Justice, as a newly released video shows an officer telling a man recording Tillotson’s arrest that he must turn off his camera because they’re in a “secure zone.” That video is below.
The video of Tillotson’s arrest was seen 1.4 million times on YouTube and the charge against her has been dropped. Police Chief Greg Suhn gave a half-hearted public apology during a meeting of San Francisco’s Police Commission as he attempted to defend Sgt. Brian Stansbury’s behavior.
“While I appreciate Chief Suhr’s apology, I am concerned that he continues to support Sgt. Brian Stansbury’s actions,” Tillotson said in a statement. “My client, a young African American man, was left without the benefit of advice of counsel. The right to counsel is not a formality. It is a shield that protects ordinary people against intimidation, bullying, and overreach by law enforcement.” Tillotson has not commented on whether she would file suit against the SFPD.
The parents of 28-year old Alex Nieto are tired of police refusing to release information explaining why their son was killed by San Francisco police on March 21, 2014. “The police have been stonewalling us by withholding basic information. It can only be considered a cover up,” family attorney Adante Pointer told me.
It’s true. The police have not released a witness list, not released a pertinent 911 call, not released the police reports and not released the names of officers involved.
This makes an independent investigation impossible. As a result, Pointer filed a federal wrongful death civil lawsuit in August that would require police to stop withholding pertinent information.
“Alex’s community deserves to know who killed him. Officers are public servants, not a secret force in a neighborhood,” community activist Adriana Camarena emphasized to me.
Nobody is interested in where they live or other private personal information “but we do want to know their record of interaction with the community and their role in the homicide of Alex Nieto.”
Police accountability begins with transparency, she added.
Naming the officers involved is truly extremely relevant. For example, the named chokehold murderer of Eric Garner had two recent civil rights lawsuits filed against him – according to a CNN legal analyst, one was settled by the city for $30,000 in 2013 and the other is still pending.
Fortunately, a Dec. 3 “Justice for Alex” community picket line at San Francisco’s Federal Courthouse received their first good news when a judge agreed with the family by denying a request from the City for an unusually restrictive protective order that would further conceal from the public the names of all officers at the homicide scene.
Attorney Pointer expects the police to resort to delaying legal procedures but the family will not stop, he says, until the relevant information is made public.
Nieto was surrounded by a small army of police officers and met with a hail of bullets while walking down a hill after treating himself to an early evening sunset dinner while leisurely sitting on a neighborhood park bench.
Supporters insist there is absolutely no evidence Alex posed any threat. He was dressed for his security guard shift and just about to leave for his job when his body was riddled by 15 bullet wounds in two separate volleys.
Police Chief Greg Suhr explained at a Town Hall meeting in late March that Alex was first shot down to the ground but still alive. Only then did officers release the fatal second volley of shots.
The Medical Examiner’s autopsy report also states that eleven out of the fifteen bullet wounds are downward trajectory shots.
Supporter’s believe, therefore, that the four upward trajectory wounds were the first to be delivered by officer’s facing uphill where Alex was located, whereas the second round of shots are all fired in a downward trajectory when Alex would have been on the ground, wounded and defenseless.
Clearly, the family deserves an explanation.
Does Alex Fit the Police Profile of an Aggressor?
Nieto was a well-regarded Latino community organizer who very publicly urged peaceful resolution of conflicts to troubled neighborhood youth consistent with his Buddhist beliefs and practices.
“Alex was humble and peaceful and wanted to be one with everyone. He sure helped me when I was going through my teenage troublemaking episodes,” his good friend and fellow Buddhist Ely Flores recalled.
Given Alex’s character, police claims that he was the aggressor has shocked the Latino community who “are also up in arms over police mistreatment of the family,” as attorney Pointer describes.
For example, Alex’s parents were not informed of his death until the next day and only after being interrogated by police who also wanted to search their home without a warrant. The parents refused to allow the search but were peppered by numerous personal questions about Alex until they were rather summarily informed at the last moment that their son was dead.
Ignoring the family once again, police officers on the following day used the keys taken from Alex’s body to drive away with his car, without notifying the family and without a warrant. They stripped searched the vehicle and took Alex’s iPad, returning the damaged property only after community uproar at the Town Hall meeting in March.
Such callous disregard for the family has not gone down well and, along with the stonewalling of vital information, explains widespread community suspicions.
Class, Race & Excessive Force
There is an alternative to the police scenario painting Nieto as the aggressor. It is a storyline where, once again, the toxic triad of race, class and excessive force seems to have colluded.
For example, Alex’s Bernal Heights’ neighborhood is changing rapidly and considerably. Redfin, a national real estate brokerage firm, just voted it the number one sought-after neighborhood in the entire country.
Formerly part of the working-class Latino district of San Francisco, millionaires are rapidly buying up properties.
Did a young, large, working class Latino man eating his dinner on the hills of Bernal Heights, with one of the most “sought-after” city views in the nation, stand out as a troubling figure for the so-far anonymous 911 caller?
This is not so far-fetched.
Episcopal priest, Father Richard Smith, Ph.D., serves the neighborhood Latino community and has seen these forces at work. What I am seeing is eerily similar to what I saw during my recent visit to Ferguson, he told me.
And, he added, just as with Michael Brown, San Francisco police released misleading information on Alex’s character even as they refused to disclose information on the officers involved.
But there are also some factors distinct to San Francisco where “displacement and gentrification is a big deal,” he said. “For example, I have seen police ramp up their presence and hassle and shoo away impoverished residents from public spaces that are currently being considered for big condominium developments.”
Bernal Heights is at the center of these changes. It is ground zero for displacement and gentrification. Perhaps traditional Latino residents of Bernal Heights like Alex now stand out as suspicious troublemakers to be shooed away.
Police Version Doesn’t Add Up
Did the police also rush to judgment when they came upon Alex who was dressed for work as a security guard with his holstered and licensed Taser? Why didn’t the police see the Taser’s distinctive black and yellow coloring?
Police dispatch informed officers to look for a man with a holstered weapon “at his hip” who is “eating sunflower seeds or chips.” The Taser is never described as drawn, nor Alex as threatening.
Police claim they never saw the Taser’s labeled coloring. Well, the bright coloring on the Taser would certainly have been more difficult for the police to see from their reported 75 feet distance, if the Taser was indeed holstered.
This is precisely the witness testimony in the family lawsuit – Alex at no time posed a threat according to this witness. He at no time took the Taser from his holster, at no time pointed it at police and at no time made any move to grab it.
Of course, pointing a Taser at dozens of police aiming guns at you would have not only been truly irrational but also out of character for Alex. In addition, a Taser is only effective within 15 feet and the police claim to have fired their first rounds at 75 feet.
It doesn’t make any sense.
Civil Rights’ attorney Pointer doesn’t expect police misconduct to change anytime soon. This makes more sense.
There are ingrained and deeply entrenched race and class prejudices that permeate our whole society. More than personal change is required such behavioral training of individual cops and cameras on their chest.
One such institutional transformation that hopefully makes it into the very important national conversation would be Black and Latino community control of police in their communities. Local democratically elected boards would replace downtown control by the 1% establishment.
It’s a revival of a still very relevant idea from the Black Panther Party platform of the 1960s.
In the meantime, Pointer tells me, “I don’t want anyone to be above the law, police included.”
Carl Finamore is a delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Bring us your nerve gases, your blister agents, your horrible weapons of warfare, your wretched refuse of World War II… This about sums up the decision of leaders in Washington after World War II when it came time for the American military to dispose of its arsenal of chemical weapons and those belonging to both the countries it fought against and alongside.
After the war’s conclusion, the U.S. government buried thousands of munitions loaded with chemical agents all across the country. These weapons of mass destruction were part of the U.S. arsenal as well as those belonging to ally Britain and enemies Germany and Japan.
The bombs and containers were simply dumped in the ground and buried, without concern for long-term environmental and health consequences.
Alabama is home to the largest of 249 such sites that are located in 40 states. Redstone Arsenal, a longtime U.S. Army base, sits atop miles of hidden trenches containing blister agents, choking agents, blood agents and more.
The 38,000-acre base is surrounded by homes, schools, churches and shopping centers—a city of 200,000 people. It was reported that few residents are aware of the toxic danger lurking nearby.
A disposal team has been working at Redstone since the 1970s trying to locate all of the chemical weaponry that is buried beneath 17 six-mile-long trenches. Once those trenches have all been located, the next step—scheduled to begin in 2019—is to remove the bombs and containers with great care, due to the uncertainty of the weapons’ condition after being held deep underground for decades. No more than six munitions can be safely removed each day.
“Even if we tried to do this as fast as anybody could ever get it done, we’re talking decades and decades,” James Watson, a disposal team member, told the Los Angeles Times. “This stuff is very dangerous to dig up. It’ll hurt you. It will blister you up. If you get that nerve agent on you, it will kill you.”
Redstone’s cleanup is expected to take until at least 2042. The quantity of weapons: 388,000. Between 20,000 and 25,000 of these are intact and, once disturbed, may be volatile.
Alabama has a second site, at former Camp Sibert (pdf) near Huntsville, with at least 13 stockpiles of mustard and phosgene gas.
Another of these sites is located in Spring Valley, Virginia, not far from the White House. Its arsenal features even older chemical munitions—possibly including mustard and arsenic—manufactured during World War I.
Several years ago, a vast supply of munitions from World War II was discovered beneath the grounds of Odyssey Middle School in Orlando, Florida. One of the weapons ignited into flames, but didn’t explode, injuring an Army Corps of Engineers contractor attempting to remove it. More than 200 potentially volatile explosives were found, most under the school and some near homes in the surrounding neighborhood. Home values, which were originally in the $600,000 range, plunged by at least 30%, while banks told homeowners their residences were worthless to lend against.
The U.S. military also dumped a huge volume of chemical weapons off both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. There are no plans to clean up those sites, although Congress has authorized studies to look into it.
In 1958, about a hundred miles offshore of California, the SS William Ralston—loaded with more than 300,000 mustard gas bombs and 1,500 one-ton containers of Lewisite, a blistering agent—was scuttled by the U.S military. To this day it sits beneath nearly 14,000 feet of water just outside of San Francisco.
Ralston believes the U.S. task of removing 1,300 tons of secured chemical weapons from Syria for destruction at sea will be something of a breeze compared to the job here at home. “In Syria, you know where the weapons are and what they are, and they can move them with a forklift,” Watson told the Times. “Here, we don’t know. We have to go out there and dig them out of the ground … The sheer mass of this stuff is overwhelming.”
To Learn More:
Deadly Chemical Weapons, Buried and Lost, Lurk Under U.S. Soil (by David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times)
Redstone Arsenal: Yesterday and Today (by Michael Baker, U.S. Army Missile Command)
A Generation of Indiscriminate Dumping (Daily Press) (pdf)
More documents have been uncovered (via FOI requests) that show local law enforcement agencies in California have been operating cell phone tower spoofers (stingray devices) in complete secrecy and wholly unregulated.
Sacramento News10 has obtained documents from agencies in San Jose, Oakland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento and Alameda County — all of which point to stingray deployment. As has been the case in the past, the devices are acquired with DHS grants and put into use without oversight or guidelines to ensure privacy protections. The stingrays in use are mainly limited to collecting data, but as the ACLU points out, many manufacturers offer devices that also capture content.
Some of these agencies have had these devices for several years now. Documents obtained from the Oakland Police Dept. show the agency has had stingrays in use since at least 2007, citing 21 “stingray arrests” during that year. This is hardly a surprising development as the city has been pushing for a total surveillance network for years now, something that (until very recently) seemed to be more slowed by contractor ineptitude than growing public outrage.
The device manufacturer’s (Harris) troubling non-disclosure agreement (which has been used to keep evidence of stingray usage out of court cases as well as has been deployed as an excuse for not securing warrants) rears its misshapen head again, mentioned both in one obtained document as well as by a spokesperson reached for comment. One document states:
“The Harris (REDACTED) equipment is proprietary and used for surveillance missions,” the agreement reads. “Its capabilities can only be discussed with sworn law enforcement officers, the military or federal government. This equipment’s capabilities are not for public knowledge and are protected under non-disclosure agreements as well as Title 18 USC 2512.”
The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Dept. had this to (not) say when asked about its stingray usage:
“While I am not familiar with what San Jose has said, my understanding is that the acquisition or use of this technology comes with a strict non-disclosure requirement,” said Under sheriff James Lewis in an emailed statement. “Therefore it would be inappropriate for us to comment about any agency that may be using the technology.”
Law enforcement agencies are conveniently choosing to believe a manufacturer’s non-disclosure agreement trumps public interest or even their own protection of citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights.
The devices aren’t cheap, either. Taxpayers are shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars for these cell tower spoofers, and the agencies acquiring them are doing very little to ensure the money is spent wisely. ACLU’s examination of the documents shows that many of the agencies purchased devices without soliciting bids.
It’s hard to know whether San José or any of the other agencies that have purchased stingray devices are getting good value for their money because the contract was “sole source,” in other words, not put out to competitive bidding. The justification for skirting ordinary bidding processes is that Harris Corporation is the only manufacturer of this kind of device. (We are aware of other surveillance vendors that manufacture these devices, though a separate Freedom of Information Request we submitted to the Federal Communications Commission suggests that, as of June 2013, the only company to have obtained an equipment authorization from the FCC for this kind of device is Harris.)
With Harris effectively locking the market down, buyers are pretty much ensured prices far higher than the market would bear if opened to competition. (Not that I’m advocating for a robust surveillance device marketplace, but if you’re going to spend taxpayers’ money on products to spy on them, the least you can do is try to get the best value for their money… ) Using federal grants also allows these departments to further avoid public scrutiny of the purchase and use by circumventing the normal acquisition process.
Beyond the obvious Fourth Amendment concerns looms the very real threat of mission creep. These agencies cite combating terrorism when applying for federal funds, but put the devices to use for ordinary law enforcement purposes. The documents cite stingray-related arrests, but since so little is known about the purchase, much less the deployment, there’s really no way to tell how much data and content totally unrelated to criminal investigations has been collected (and held) by these agencies.
Cities across America are equipping their public transport systems with audio recording devices, potentially storing every word spoken by passengers onboard. Rights activists say the surveillance plan by far exceeds what is necessary for security.
The multimillion dollar upgrade is underway in several US cities, including San Francisco, Eugene, Traverse City, Columbus, Baltimore, Hartford and Athens, reports The Daily, which obtained documents detailing the purchases.
The money partially comes from the federal government. San Francisco, for example, has approved a $5.9 million contract to install the eavesdropping systems on 357 modern buses and historic trolley cars over the next four years, with the Department Homeland Security footing the entire bill. The interception of audio communication will apparently be conducted without search warrants or court supervision, the report says.
The systems would be able to record audio and video from several locations in a bus for simultaneous playback. In Eugene transit officials explicitly demanded microphones capable of distilling clear conversation from the background noise. The recordings would generally be retained for 30 days. One of the systems produced for transport monitoring supports up to 12 high definition cameras, each with a dedicated microphone.
The system may potentially have additional capabilities added like timing the recording with GPS data from an onboard navigator, using facial recognition technology to identify people recorded or connecting wirelessly to a central post for real-time monitoring.
“This technology is sadly indicative of a trend in increased surveillance by commercial and law enforcement entities, under the guise of improved safety,” Ashkan Soltani, an independent security consultant whom the online newspaper asked to review specifications of equipment marketed for transit agencies, told The Daily.
Transport authorities gave various explanations for beefing up surveillance. A San Francisco contractor says the system will “increase passenger safety and improve reliability and maintainability of the system”. An Arkansas transit agency official said it is needed to deflect false complaints from passengers, describing it as “a lifesaver for the drivers”. Maryland officials openly called it a tool for law enforcement.
In some cases the systems are being installed despite resistance of civil liberties activists and lawmakers. In Maryland a legislative committee rejected a bill that would allow the local transport agency to proceed with its plan over concerns that it would violate wiretapping laws. The state’s attorney general advised the transportation agency to use signs warning passengers of the surveillance to help the system withstand a court challenge.
Privacy law experts say audio surveillance systems on buses pushes the boundaries of what is necessary to protect the law.
“It’s one thing to post cops, it’s quite another to say we will have police officers in every seat next to you, listening to everything you say,” said Neil Richards, a professor at Washington University School of Law.
With the microphones, he said, “you have a policeman in every seat with a photographic memory who can spit back everything that was said.”
Public transport is not the only place where citizens are worried about being constantly monitored by keen-eared recording devices. Similar systems combining audio and video recording with wireless connectivity are being installed in lampposts across the US.
- Big Brother’s Listening (thedaily.com)
- Baltimore bus passengers now subject to secretive eavesdropping (rt.com)
On June 6th, 2010, peace activists including members of Bay Area Women in Black and Jewish Voice for Peace held a silent vigil outside the main entrance to the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation’s annual “Israel in the Gardens” celebration. The peace activists called for an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian Territories and an end to the siege on Gaza. Their silent, dignified march was greeted by members of StandWithUs/SF Voice for Israel and other affiliates who called them “kapos” (concentration camp prisoners who carried out Nazi orders on other prisoners) and suggested that Israel should “sink the next flotilla with you on it.” One man made repeated explicit threats against the peace activists and their families and used a camera to take pictures. No one from StandWithUs/SF Voice for Israel intervened. Rather, they kept up their vicious and abusive chants which included, according to multiple witnesses:
“Nazi, Nazi, Nazi!” – this done as a group chant
“You’re all being identified, every last one of you…we will find out where you live. We’re going to make your lives difficult..we will disrupt your families…”, all on above video.
“Sink the flotilla—and you on it!”
“Terrorists, terrorists, terrorists.”
One man yelled (to someone who may have looked heat exhausted) “I hope you stroke out, old man!”
“Ugly bitches” said to older women.
“You’re not a Jew! you gave up your Jewishness!”
“Witches in black! Bitches in black!” (hard to tell which one it was, or whether they alternated the chant)
“Bin Laden loves you! you support terrorism!”
“Is there a coroner in the house? Women in Black are dead!”
“Is there a doctor in the house? Women in Black are sick!”
“End the occupation of our sidewalk.”
“Remember 9/11, they were dancing in the streets.”
“Sharmuta!” this was chanted for a while (means “slut” or “whore” in Arabic and which was particularly shocking for Arabic speakers to hear)
“Anti-women, anti-gay, why support Hamas today!”
They were also lesbian-baiting, even though they were chanting “Anti-women, anti-gay, why support Hamas today?” One guy yelled “lesbian” at me and my friend (correctly assessing our sexual identity) and maybe the same guy yelled at someone else, “When’s the last time you dated a man?”
One guy kept saying “you’re looking at real people now (meaning Stand with Israel folks); you are not people.”
Signs said: “JVP, Proud to be ashamed to be Jewish.”
and “Don’t fuck with the Jews”.
An 88-year-old woman reported being told, “You’re halfway in your grave already’.
“Jihad!” chanted repeatedly at Muslim peace activists.
They also had signs that read, “JVP cons the world”, etc.
One woman waved the end of the large stick of her Israeli flag in a very threatening manner, as if to hit one of us (it happened to me several times as i walked by her), directed especially to those of us who carried signs identifying ourselves as Jews.
At an earlier demonstration last week at the consulate, there was a huge sign on the Stand with Us side (which Stand with Us later condemned). On one side it said “Until Gaza is destroyed, the job is not complete.” On the other, it said “God is great. It’s Islam that sucks.”
Over the years, members of Bay Area Women in Black chapters (a group started in Israel to protest the occupation), many of them older women including physically tiny Jewish grandmothers, have reported equally terrible encounters with StandWithUs/SF Voices with Israel- they’ve been called 4-letter words, had cameras violently thrust in their faces. At least one person had her home chalked.
That’s why threats on people’s families that you can hear in the video are being taken seriously. A few weeks ago, liberal rabbi Michael Lerner, a resident of Berkeley across the bay from San Francisco, awoke to discover he was the target of a hate crime: his house had been surrounded with threatening posters permanently affixed with glue.
StandWithUs/SF Voices with Israel hosted a booth at Israel in the Gardens and is an approved charity at the San Francisco Federation’s Jewish Community Endowment Fund, unlike Jewish Voice for Peace and other peace groups which were banned from the Federation’s acceptable charity list.
Are StandWithUs/SF Voices with Israel values the values the Federation promotes?